Two weeks in Leh


I’m sitting in the common room at our guest house in Leh, listening to a program on National Geographic in the background about HIV/AIDS in India.  The announcer has an American accent.  One scene just showed an American woman asking a group of Indian truckers, “Now, who can tell me what safe sex means?”  After it’s translated into Hindi, a few say, “Having sex with condoms.”  The woman beams like a school teacher.  “Very good!”  I feel a little weird about this–until the next scene, where the American interviews a trucker who says that ever since he has been using condoms ever since he found out about HIV.  “Even at home!” he says.  “You can ask!”  Cultural imperialism?  White man’s burden?  Humanitarian service?  The lines between these things are blurring for me rather severely.


Today starts week three in Leh.  Our first week was largely acclimatization, both literally and culturally.  The first day we  spent lying around, reading and sleeping and getting used to being at 11,000 feet altitude.  On our third day, we went to the school to meet Nagasena, the head monk of Mahabodhi, which is the school/meditation complex where we’re now working.  On the fourth, we headed to school to “observe classes.”  Standing baffled in the courtyard as morning announcements–in English, Hindi, and Ladhki–finished, a teacher directed us to the 10A (10th grade advanced) class on the second floor.  We sat awkwardly at the front of the room for 10 minutes before asking, “Where’s your teacher?”  “Teacher hasn’t been here for a week, m’am,” says one student.  I get it: we’re the teachers.  I scrabble through the teacher’s desk and find a torn-up, tattered copy of the literature reader.  A student shows me where they’ve left off, and I set them to taking turns reading a South African story called “The Ultimate Safari” aloud.   Good thing I have a routine down, because it turns out I have two more classes to teach that day.   Next period is rinse, repeat, as it’s 10B, but third period I have a 9th grade class, which has a different reader, which all of them have left at home.  I throw up my hands, have them make namecards, and give them a few minutes to write a few sentences about their plans for the weekend.

At first, I’m impressed by their English, comparing it to my own French capabilities in ninth grade.  Then I get ahold of all the English textbooks and sample copies of the tests all 9th and 10th grade Indian students take at the end of the year.  These look like the English New York Regents test I took myself in 10th grade.  There are questions about the author’s choice of perspective and essay questions on shades of meaning between lines of poetry.  The literature readers include “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and poems by Shakespeare and Robert Frost.  I’m not sure how we’ll get there, since none of my students, from 9B to 10A, can use the possessive, the past tense, or correctly conjugate “to be” in the present.  I go from despair to frustration to feeling overwhelmed to deciding, what the hey.   Things can only go up from here.

My first full week of teaching  is a constant struggle to get my students to 1) pay attention and 2) understand me.  It takes a few days for me to realize that they’ve been smiling and nodding at half of what I’ve said and actually didn’t understand at all.  On Wednesday, I can’t decide if I should punish my 9B class when all the students blink balefully and claim, “Didn’t understand, m’am!” when I ask for the homework.  On my third day, I find the previous teacher’s locker and unearth an attendance book that I can use to keep track of grades.  I now have seating charts and roll call lists and a grade book: the students take notice and the number who start doing their homework skyrockets.  We have our first quiz on Friday, on both the reading material and grammar (I’ve been trying to drive home “is” vs. “are” and “my mother’s name” instead of “my mother name”).  The 10A and 9A classes do very well, with an average score of somewhere around 75 or 80 percent.  Most students in the 10B and 9B classes fail.  I feel badly, like I’ve let them down by failing to understand how little they’ve understood.  But okay–we’ll work on it.  Them and me both.

In the meantime, on Tuesday we start yoga classes, which quickly become the highlight of our day.  They’re early–we have to be at the center by 7 am–and there’s no heating, so it’s colder inside than out and I find myself doing sun salutations in a scarf and sweater.  But they’re a wonderful relief after a week of doing very little while adjusting to the low oxygen levels, and we haven’t missed a class yet.  Our instructor, Adib, is a springy, rail-thin Rajasthani Indian with a flexibility I’ve only seen in pictures until now.  He contorts his body like an Asian gumby, crawling his feet up walls into headstands and flexing his legs behind him in and out of plow posture with complete nonchalance.  Yet while his instructions are demanding, he softens when he sees us wince and groan and pads over to help us readjust, to stretch without completely snapping.

Meditation lessons are less successful, so far.  We start on Thursday, missing our first on Wednesday due to a very interesting chat with Lobzang, our volunteer liasion, about Buddhism.  We hear a half-hour talk about how lucky–and yet spiritually deprived–we are as Westerners, then try a variety of meditation methods for about a half hour.  I semi-doze in the middle, which is the opposite of meditation as I have no control over my mind and weird dream images keep flashing past.  We drowze out around 6:45 pm.  The next day we skip to watch back to back football matches: Germany vs. Serbia, then U.S. vs. Slovenia.  Maybe we’ll focus better this week.  …though the next U.S. game is on Wednesday…


2 responses to “Two weeks in Leh

  1. Sounds like you will be up for Elena’s yoga classes by the time you get back home! 🙂 Don’t let the students discourage you – show ’em you mean business – they’ll come around. Learning experience all around, for sure!

  2. A couple of thoughts about the state of your students’ English: You could encounter similar (or at least similarly frustrating) problems if you were teaching Ninth Grade in 1) A multi-state region of Western PA, Northern Ohio, and the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia where, for some constructions, the verb “to be” has been eliminated: Your car doesn’t need to be washed; it “needs washed,” etc.; 2) most areas of the United States with predominately blue collar economies where the was/were distinction is all but lost (or better put, nobody uses “were” where it belongs, e.g., “we was goin'”), an area that includes places where NASCAR and hip-hop are the dominant art forms, or virtually any suburb, where ignorance (and devotion to either or both NASCAR and hip-hop) may or may not be an affectation, but it’s still pretty ig’nant…

    There is a book I wish I’d bought years ago that describes the different forms English has taken when the British planted it in their colonial realm and Americans spread it through cultural hegemony. The review talked about language developing its own logic (and vocabulary) depending on where it was being used. In other words, although there are similarities and speakers of one can usually make themselves understood to speakers of the other, Indian English does not equal in all facets British English, which does not equal in all facets American English, which does not equal in all facets South African English, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Not sure if if would help you teach your student, or just help you understand them better. Or neither, but I think you still might find it interesting. If only I’d bought it, and well, there was some way to get it to you…

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