The First Visit

I’ve got some feedback for our debriefing session.

I mean, I always have feedback. Most of us do. This is a new program and things are bumpy. But there’s bumpy and then there’s insane. And packing us off to visit our newly assigned sites for four days, more or less without warning anybody that we were coming, is flat-out insane.

It was going to be nerve-wracking even without the insanity. Last weekend they told us where we were going to live for two years. They painted a big map of Jordan on the playground and had each of us go stand approximately near our villages, so we could see where we were in relation to each other. Then they gave us a cake and pretended they didn’t see the consternation and the several people who were clearly going to make An Issue about their assignments.

I’m not sure how I feel about mine. I really wanted to be in Namus, my training village, but had been told it was too low on the “needs” list. So I’m extra-devastated to discover that a volunteer actually has been assigned to Namus and it just isn’t me. And I’ve heard that the wet, damp winters up nearer the Syrian border, where I’m going, are miserable. But in general I’d rather be cold than hot, and the area is known for its olive groves and slightly wealthier farmers, so it could be worse on a physical level.


So three days ago I packed up my bag. I hadn’t yet tried putting more than two days’ worth of clothes and sundries in the wheely backpack and I quickly ran out of room. I was standing by the bed, glaring down at the suitcase in frustration, when Um Shakur came in. She asked what was taking me so long, and when I explained she butted me aside and pulled everything out for examination. This ended with a lengthy, heated conversation about how many pairs of underwear one needs for a six-day trip. I maintained that the correct answer is “seven” (six plus one because you never know) and she was aiming more for “two.” I am trying not to dwell on this cultural discrepancy, although it does shed some light on why she says I have a ridiculous amount of laundry each week…

Eventually I managed to pack and off I went to Dir Edis. I traveled as far as Irbid with another volunteer. Then we each showed a taxi driver the slip of paper we’d been given specifying the regional bus station to which we needed to go. When I got there, I asked a passing woman for the Dir Edis bus and got on it. In retrospect, this is really a lot to accomplish with only five weeks’ worth of Arabic under my belt. I even managed to explain to the bus driver that yes, I really wanted to go Dir Edis, and could he please take me to the girls’ school. Of course he waited to do that as the absolute last stop on his route, so he could jump out and have the schoolteachers explain my existence, but his circuitous drive meant that I got to see more of Dir Edis, and I guess that’s good.

So this is the place where I’ll be living. It’s a largish village bleeding out from one central road, leading south from the main road to the Valley. The road bolts straight across two hills, up-down-up, and then just stops with a vista of more hills, scrubby brush, and olive trees as far as the eye can see. The older part of the city is the southernmost part, and it’s here that we found the girls’ school and I wandered in and nervously asked for the principal.

Another piece of feedback: maybe the third day of school isn’t the best day to send your volunteers off to find the principals of their new schools. Especially in this country, where the pre-year registration, class assignment, and organization process appears to happen on the fly after school starts. The woman who will be my boss looked as if she were going to cry and told me I’d be staying with her assistant principal who is actually from Dir Edis. This woman was procured and shyly introduced herself as Miss Amira. Later, her driver came and picked us up to drive us the six blocks or so to Amira’s house, which is at the very eastern edge of town, overlooking another wadi and more olive trees.

On my second day Amira introduced me to the school’s English teachers and explained to them that I’m going to be their teaching assistant. That’s something else we’re going to have to straighten out. That isn’t the assignment and these ladies weren’t enthused by the idea of a fluent assistant. They each took me with them to one class and then ignored me completely. One friendly-looking teacher asked if I’d like to come with her to a couple of classes and let her fifth-graders stare at me while they should have been learning whatever subject it was she was teaching, but it wasn’t English. My other big excitement has included a faculty meeting in which I barely managed to stay awake.

So here I am, my second full day at this school. Amira has disappeared, presumably to do her actual job, and I’ve been sitting miserably in the teachers’ lounge under what feels like fairly unfriendly evaluation. Occasionally a teacher will turn to me and ask me a question in a manner that is either totally random or indicative of the fact that the larger conversation is about me and they’re seeking a point of clarification. But it isn’t very clarifying, and I can tell that even with my bad Arabic. I am almost certain that I just had a conversation about my ethnic background, but now everybody seems to think my father is from Germany and my mother is from Ireland and they’re very eager to learn about how these two globetrotters met. One teacher has asked me a question, twice, in what I am absolutely certain is Hebrew. I’m not falling for it. Even if I knew what she was saying, which I don’t, I wouldn’t answer.

So now I have feedback for myself, too, one piece of which is: learn Arabic faster! Another piece is that two books aren’t enough for a six-day trip in which I’m going to be doing absolutely, literally nothing. I finished the second book half an hour ago and am considering starting it over entirely. It wasn’t a very good book. I’m not enthusiastic. But God what else is there to do. What a terrible, horrible idea this trip was, both on my part because of the stress and boredom, but also because I can’t imagine I’m leaving a very favorable impression. When I come back in nearly two more months I will have that much more Arabic and pedagogy under my belt. This is just scary and sad.

Classes seem to be wrapping up as a few teachers start straggling in, putting their feet up on desks with heaving sighs and gesturing to the teachers who haven’t just taught to hand them tea. Amira comes in and sits down and I realize this is one of the longer breaks, a twenty-minute interval in the morning. Suddenly the doors of every classroom pop open and hundreds of girls flood out of their dismal classrooms. The school is built like an American motel, with four buildings facing into a square courtyard and two of the buildings having two floors. Girls in green tunics or jelbaabs stream down the stairs; girls in blue tunics flood up the hill from the lower school. There is cacophony as the girls pace back and forth across the courtyard, arm in arm, or giggle over notes while sitting on one of the stone walls.

Eventually everybody heads back to their rooms and their teachers reluctantly follow them. None of these teachers is ever enthused. I wonder for the millionth time how this compares to teachers’ lounges at home. Are all teachers miserable, bored, and bitter? And if not, is this a local affectation or a real problem?

Speaking of real problems, it appears that nobody has shown up to teach the tawjihi girls this period. They are the equivalent of American seniors, sixteen or seventeen years old, and have been winnowed down to the few who have a reasonable chance of getting in to college. At the end of the year they will all take a single, life-changing exam, after which they will be assigned to a university and a major by the government — or told they didn’t pass muster. It is an incredibly stressful year and they wear its significance like a badge of honor. Now two of them have been sent as emissaries to the teachers’ lounge to point out that they are unsupervised and to ask for help.

Amira looks hassled and flips quickly through a book she holds, then says something to the two girls. One of them is wearing the green tunic and dark, flared jeans above her platform sandals. The other is wearing a cranberry-colored jelbaab that trails over her feet. Older girls are given the choice between the uniform or the more modest religious dress, but they all cover their hair. In my home in Namus, all the girls have chosen the jeans-and-tunic look; here in Dir Edis the duster-like coverall seems preferred. So it’s good to know some of the girls make the more liberal choice.

I’m lost in profound consideration of religion and fashion when I notice that the two girls are clearly talking to Amira about me. She shakes her head “no” with increasing emphasis and tries to shoo the girls away, but the one in jeans takes a half-step towards me and says, in English, “Please, miss! Please come!” So I turn to Amira and ask what’s going on.

“They want you to come teach them this hour, because their teacher is sick.”

I’ll admit right now that I didn’t know how I’d like teaching, and the more I’m forced to practice it, the more I realize I have a terrible stage fright. Even small, happy children make my hands shake and my stomach clench. A roomful of tawjihi girls sounds like a nightmare. And my horror must have shown on my face, because Amira quickly says, “Don’t worry, I told them no. I think they would bother you.”

Another teacher says something sharp to Amira and Amira shakes her head again, no, no. A heated conversation breaks out in which my glaring companions of the last two hours are clearly throwing me to the wolves, and Amira is holding fast. In the chaos, the two tawjihi girls scoot further into the room and up to me. They stroke their chins in the way that means “hmm” in my country and here means begging as they say “Ya sitt, ya sitt.” I’ve spent enough time in schools by this point to know this is the standard schoolgirl wheedling. It isn’t very effective, but the disdain of my colleagues is.

I stand up and say “I’ll go with them, it’s okay.”

The room gets quiet. Amira says “I think they will bother you.” Amira’s English is solid but limited, and I am reading this to mean “They will eat you alive.”

Nonetheless, I raise my chin a little and say “No, it’s fine. They probably speak pretty good English, right? I’ll go with them.”

To be continued!

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