I woke up on my first day of teaching university, tumbled out of the white mosquito net canopy that engulfs my bed, padded into the bathroom, and stepped on a cockroach. A live one. Wiggling it’s many, many legs on the green tile of my bathroom floor. I certainly did not imagine beginning this first big day screaming, but that’s what happened, and as I shuddered in my shower, I tried not to take it as an omen.
Having curd and treacle (Sri Lanka’s version of greek yogurt with a little maple syrup) as a power breakfast helped smooth things over. And then I was on my way.
It’s a one-hour door-to-door commute to university, but it’s a straight shot on the public bus and a perfect time for me to practice learning all the Sri Lankan coins (yes, I can tell you my favorite food, color, and pastime in Sinhala, but I haven’t figured out the basic form of Sri Lanka’s currency yet). Not long after leaving my house, I’m on a bustling street next to Town Hall, walking past not one, not two, but seven florist shops. Not a bad sight or smell to begin my morning! After circling the entire Town Hall roundabout (I think there are three lanes, but in Sri Lanka, lanes are optional), I’m at the bus stop, on my way, and fishing around my change purse for some silver and copper to hand the bus attendant. Riding the public buses in Sri Lanka is not for the weak stomached, but my breakfast is worth possibly losing when it’s costing a mere 23 rupees (15 cents) for a 45-minute ride to work. Thank youuuu, public transportation.
For those of you who don’t already know, for the next eight months I’ll be teaching a course called “Academic Reading & Writing” to first and second year students at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura, which is on the outskirts of Colombo. Because universities are so hard to get into here, I can expect my students to be exceptionally bright, and I’m really looking forward to learning from them through their writing and in-class contributions. Case in point: The day before I started teaching, a third-year Honors English student knocked on my door. (I have my own lovely office, which has a desktop computer with Internet, bookshelves, and an overhead fan.) He had a seriously thick bundle of papers in his hand, which turned out to be the manuscript of his first completed novel, which he very nicely asked if I would read, critique, edit, and return to him so he could continue submitting it to publishers in the U.K. and the U.S. I was flabbergasted, then amused, then honored, and now I have a 200-page novel sitting on my desk that Shan would be very happy to have back next week. I expected many things for this first week, but I certainly did not expect that!
Here are some things about where I teach. The main drive of the university is lined with palm trees, and on the short walk from the bus stop to campus every morning, I pass shops, food stands, stray dogs, and groups of cows sitting and munching what little grass is on the side of the road. There is a woman who actually has her “office” underneath a staircase in the building I teach in (I think she’s a janitor) and every time I see her I think of Harry Potter. I eat lunch in lovely little cafeteria downstairs (strictly “Faculty Only”) where I serve myself from a buffet of rice, curries, lentils, and vegetables — a yummy, traditional Sri Lankan meal that costs me under $1 a day. (And to think I could at one point picture myself living in a metropolitan U.S. city after this.) The English department has an office assistant, Nimal, who I have so far only asked to photocopy things for me, but who will apparently bring me a cup of milk tea whenever I’d like. And near my office is a small music room that reminds me of the sound proof music box I used to frequent in one of the halls of my high school in Germany, where I’d rehearse for West Side Story and practice pieces before I.B. music exams. This room down the hall in Sri Jayawardenapura is not sound proof, but I really enjoy the sounds of violins and drums and all kinds of other instruments that come wafting my way every afternoon. My own essay-grading soundtrack :)
On my first day this past week, I taught two 1.5 hour classes of about 20 students each. (My weekly schedule is such that I’ll be teaching a total of ninety students, nine classes, Tuesday to Friday.) We went over the syllabus — a five-page, very detailed document I have been slaving away at over the past few weeks — and I emphasized that because I am here as a “foreign lecturer,” I aim to give them a somewhat different classroom experience than they’re used to. And that means my students will be speaking up and participating much more than they do in their other classes, because the style of teaching at almost all levels of education in Sri Lanka is that the teacher lectures and the students listen. That’s it. And while I respect the culture of education here, I’m also looking forward to being able to share some of what makes the American educational system unique. And let’s be honest — I’d be a terrible student if I had never been encouraged to talk and ask questions in class, and I think it’s so important to learn how to express oneself thoughtfully and confidently in an academic setting, so I’ll be encouraging that throughout my course. The first-year students didn’t quite know what to do when I told them all that, but I’m confident they’ll catch on quickly! (And if all else fails, I brought a hacky-sack to toss at unsuspecting students if hands are never raised.)
When I told students in my first class that I went to university in North Carolina, they all said they knew where that was, and I almost asked them if they knew where Elon was before coming to my senses. It’s so funny how excited we get when strangers, especially foreigners, “know” of our places back home! In my second class, I had to tell a student to stop texting on her Blackberry. Later on in the week, a student told me she would be late next class because she would be taking her baby to the doctor. And in my last class of the day on Friday, a student asked me if by “to understand plagiarism” (one of the course objectives I had outlined on my syllabus, and something many Sri Lankan students do not typically learn about) I meant that I permitted it. (!!!)
Clearly, lots to digest this first week, but I am learning – Sri Lanka is gently forcing this down my throat, actually – that there is nothing to do but take things one day at a time here. When challenges present themselves, I’m armed with a smile, a head bobble, and a lot of learned patience (thank you Ghana, thank you Sri Lanka, thank you meditation). I am here to teach in an educational system quite different from the kind I am used to, but that’s what this is about – integrating some of what I know works with what works here; encouraging students to step out of their comfort zones but not to push them into an academic setting that looks nothing like what they’re used to; and being a culturally aware American who sheds light on how it’s sometimes — successfully — done differently.
As the students silently read one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, before writing an in-class essay on a prompt I gave them on that first day, I stared out the paneless window and into the palm trees. The fan was whirring overhead, my students seemed engrossed in the text (point one for “Madame Natalie”), and the room was filled with the silence of learning, of reading, of a good story on a hot day. I looked around and thought, It is so neat to watch people — students — think, to actually see the wheels turning. So basic, but a really profound moment for me. I was asking these bright young adults to read, think, write, create — and they were doing it, and seemingly enjoying doing so. (All my old teachers/professors, if you’re reading this, I know you’re probably smiling!) This was my first real moment as a teacher, I think, or at least as a teacher of older, very dedicated students who love the same subject I love, who are studying what I hope to be a student of my entire life. “Neat,” I think, doesn’t even come close.