The first week of teaching does not go smoothly. Most of the students don’t bring their books on the first day, as they’ve gotten used to having English class be a free period. Some of the students have some of the books on the second, third, fourth, twelfth day. In theory, there are three English books total: a literature reader, a grammar book, and a course book. Most only have the literature reader. The ninth grade classes seem to have the grammar workbook, but when I ask the tenth grade class about this, they shrug and most respond, “Hostel students, m’am.” This means they are boarding students. I’m confused about why this means they don’t have all the books they need.
I claw and holler my way through our first story, first grammar lesson, first test. The students are an odd mixture of 19th-century British formality and 21st-century spoiled brat. They leap to their feet when I walk into the classroom shouting, “Good morning, m’am!” and won’t sit until I gesture them down; one uncomfortable day at lunch, when eating with the school’s Buddhism teacher, we are actually served by two of the students, who hover waiting as we finish. Yet classroom discipline has sorely been lacking from their educations–they talk amongst themselves while I’m trying to teach, while their classmates are trying to read, while I’m trying to explain the homework. After I shout, they blink for a few seconds, then go back to passing notes and chatting freely in Ladakhi. Sometimes they respond snarkily to my reprimands and I can tell they’re insulting me but can only scowl. I learn that most of the teachers hit the students who misbehave and while I’m never tempted to actually do it, I begin to slightly understand why.
By the end of the first week, though, it seems that some of them were paying attention some of the time. My 10A and 9A classes do fairly well on the first quiz, which is a mixture of grammar, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Their critical thinking skills are a little weak, as many of them copy sentences directly from the reading to answer the comp questions, as in: “Does the narrator think her family will go back to Mozambique? Why?” “Yes, she does, because my mother will be there, and my father, and there will be no more war, and I’ll remember them, and I’ll be happy.” 10B and 9B don’t quite get so far. Most can’t answer “What genre was this story?” A handful write “adventure, mystery, fiction, non-fiction,” repeating the full list I wrote on the board to illustrate examples of genres. I vow to talk more slowly and write more clearly.
The second week gets off to a great start. I type up a personal lesson, wanting to teach them something fun about the U.S., and we have a one-day lesson on Christmas, complete with color pictures of my family dressed in red and green, beaming and holding stockings. They all grimace, being good Buddhists, at the explanation of “scallops” and grin at the pictures of chocolate pie and wine. They clambor for the reading when I hand it out and are reluctant to return it at the end of the class. I feel revived, refreshed, useful. I feel like I have made some sort of connection with them and feel confident they’ll respect me more.
On Friday, I collect their notebooks to grade the various homework and classwork assignments I haven’t yet checked from the past two weeks. I open the first notebook, belonging to a student in my 10A class who has struck me as particularly bright. Indeed, her answers are outstanding, her diction very good, and the vocabulary words extremely impressive. The grammar is sloppy in places, but the errors are largely forgiveable. I make a few corrections and jot in her notebook that it’s clear she has an excellent grasp of the English language and that I look forward to seeing more of her work.
I open the second notebook.
Every answer is exactly the same.
Right down to the spelling errors, grammar mistakes, misformed sentences and vocabulary words that, I am now realizing, they can’t possibly understand. In class, when I asked why a group of refugees in The Ultimate Safari were given a special powder at the refugee camp, I got blank stares and we talked about medicine and vitamins. In their notebooks, they’ve written that the powder is “probably ORT, oral rehydration therapy, because they are malnourished. They need a high-protein source of food.” I read about five or six more and stop. Every single answer in every single notebook: the same. The same. The same. I skim the 10B notebooks: also the same. One of them, or all of them, has an answer book. If they’ve done well on the test, I have no idea if it has anything to do with me. I try not to take it personally: flipping back through their notebooks, it’s clear they’ve been keeping up this routine all year. Their old teacher somehow took the time to grade each of these carbon copies, jotting a happy “A*!” at the end of each. No wonder they can’t conjugate “to be.”
I scrawl, “If you won’t take the time to do the work, then I won’t take the time to correct it” in the sixth notebook and walk out of the staff room, leaving a stack of ungraded notebooks on the table. I drop my plan to grade through lunch and start walking down the road, walking, walking. I feel sick and sad and depressed and useless and angry and frustrated. I realize suddenly that what bothers me the most about India, about Ladakh, about Leh, about this school, is no longer the physical pain and discomfort that come from being here. I realize I actually don’t care that much, any more, about flopping between diarrhea and constipation, peeing in a hole, spraying deet on my neck at night to ward off bedbugs, stepping over cow turds, the power outages, the lightbulb in our room so dim you can hardly use it to find your flashlight. What bothers me the most is that I have entirely lost the power to make sense of the world, that everything around me doesn’t really make sense and no one even seems to care.