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Surpris (Friday, 2011 September 23)

September 24th, 2011

The English word "surprise" comes from the French past participle, surpris, of surprendre, which etymologically means "to overtake". You can even see the -pris past participle of the root -prendre, "to take", which also occurs in entreprendre (translated by my dictionary as "to undertake"). Saying you were surpris can therefore be seen as being overtaken by an emotion or sensation.

Cameroon is occasionally quite surprising. I remarked (remarquer, "to notice") on this as I carried my two bidons full of water up the hill from the market, one balancing precariously on my knee as I rode a moto home. There’s a telephone charging on my desk because one of my students hadn’t had power since a few days. It’s a telephone I recognized from America, a brand that would likely be familiar to many of you: an Apple iPhone. For reals. This is the sort of thing that makes me hesitate to qualify Africa or at least my area of Cameroon as "poor". (Things are different in the Grand North, where "food security" is a real issue. Not so much in the Grand West.) Former Volunteer Wendy wrote about similar sensations — things are definitely different here, but poverty is nebulous and hard to capture exactly.

A New Yorker might walk around Virginia and notice an appalling lack of how few houses are two-story. "The poor souls," he may say to himself. "They don’t even have the money to build a second story on their house." Is he right? Of course not — cultural tradition favor ranch-style houses, and there are no economic pressures to "build up" as there are in New York. If you walk on the road to the chefferie here, you’ll see houses with dirt floors, made apparently with bricks of mud. Windows that don’t close? That can seem like poverty — but then, we never earthquake-proof houses in New York either.

One thing that’s made this year better than last year is that I’m enough better in French that I can let my personality show a lot better. I don’t try to always be patient and calm-sounding. Now I modulate my voice so that listeners know I’m pissed because I asked them to read me something from the board and they’re clicking things or staring at the screen. I wouldn’t have done this last year, just done a slow burn as my students failed to heed the answers I was giving them, tried to put a polite face on their burgeoning failure. An angry voice means Listen to what I am telling you, which apparently they need to hear. In English I’m a bit of a crass person and my language isn’t pure by any means, so I’ve started incorporating some authentic-sounding French swears/rudeness to be compatible. One I like is Je m’en fou [de …] (sp?) which I can’t find in a dictionary but apparently is equivalent to "I don’t give a fuck [about …]" — as in: "Monsieur! The accents on this computer don’t donne!" "Leave it, I don’t give a fuck about the accents."

This year I can make fun of my students for being unable to read things, or because my other classes two or three years younger have already figured all this stuff out. I just made fun of a student for asking me to buy her an orange. "Go work," I said, using tu form without thinking about it, "ramasses some money, come with it, and you can buy one!" What surprised me was the mama from whom I was buying the orange was as pleased as I was. "C’est ça, papa. C’est ça." Of course, an orange vendor already knows the value of working and that nothing comes for free, so isn’t afraid to lose the sale. (Maybe she’ll sell it to someone else later.)

In fact, this isn’t the first time when people have encouraged me to be harder on kids. It’s not like in America where the first response is, "You can’t talk to my kid/that kid that way!" Here the idea seems to be that if you come down hard on them, they’ll shape up, and if you don’t, it may be too late by the time you do. Lindsay tells a story of a girl at her school who got ferociously beaten for stealing money from her own mother. But remember that the punishment for a thief later in life can be a fatal beating, and you start to wonder if the school isn’t showing more compassion than you thought.

A student from my shitshow class Première last year came to school with a "letter of engagement", saying basically "I’m sorry for being such a shit last year, this year I will make an effort to do better." She had been given the assignment to get each of her teachers to sign it. I did, because she had been a smart though disruptive student, but first I lectured her about how she needed to be more serieuse this year, and that if I caught her cheating even the slightest bit, I would march her right up to the proviseur and demand that she be excluded. M. Anatole applauded this, as he applauded M. Kwamo refusing to sign the letter (on the grounds that he didn’t believe she had really understood what she had done wrong, and hadn’t really owned it yet, so wasn’t really interested in reforming). M. Anatole: "My daughter got excluded from lycée, and I applauded!" — for the same principle that he values someone being as strict with his children as he could be himself. It’s true that Mlle. Makegne probably isn’t really interested in getting any better, maybe doesn’t see it as a problem that she doesn’t care about class, but until she has the same epiphany that a lot of smart people do, that you don’t get a free pass on work just because you’re a little sharper, that no one is going to save you from yourself, she’s not going to reform. And none of us can give her that epiphany either.

My premières aren’t much better this year. Actually, they’re still the shittiest part of this job. One of them continued to ask me to give him credit even after I had gone into my next class. I was halfway through erasing the blackboard, so I took the eraser and rubbed it on his scalp and forehead, leaving him chalk-y and (by Cameroon standards) deplorably filthy. He’d followed me into my 4e class so they all burst out laughing at him, which also helped. It’s a line I never would have crossed last year, almost physical discipline, a sign of fury so great that I could feel myself shaking. Although, I guess it could also be mercury poisoning. Ha ha.

Anyhow, I went to their class later and told them I was annulling ALL of the credit for that hour because I’d been so fucking infuriated by their piss-poor conduct. Every time I get into a rant like this, I suddenly feel everyone paying attention and realize that I don’t have a really solid-sounding rant to recite for them. Should have prepped better. How do you say piss-poor in French? I’ll have to ask Claude.

In the cahier de texte, the log where I write what I cover in each lesson, I wrote "BARRÉ avec CHOLÈRE", "CROSSED OUT with ANGER". I also bitched at some of the administration about what a shit class it was and one of the surveillants apparently went in there and told them that if they pissed me off again, and I so much as indicated the student who was being a brat, they’d exclude him directly. Nice to have reinforcements. I don’t know why it’s the literary series première that’s such a pain in the ass, but the séconde of the same subject is also shaping up to be delinquent. M. Teukeu exhorts me to really gronde them (my dictionary says "to scold" but I think gronder sounds a bit harsher than that) when they get out of line. Pick one who’s being a pain and turn him over to a surveillant, tell them that he needs to have a good punishment. If there’s no surveillant, think of something severe for him to do and WATCH him, oversee him doing it. You know how students are with a new teacher, he said. They’re testing you, he said, and until you come down on them they are going to think they have free rein. Well, it’s true that the salle d’informatique could use to be cleaned more often..

Figured something out today that I’d been seeing for a while. A monitor was turning on but not displaying anything from the computer. Unplugging the VGA showed a normal "No signal — check connection" message, but plugging it in showed nothing. Turns out some kid had turned the contrast all the way down to zero using the front-panel buttons, rendering the image utter blackness. Something to be aware of when you’re like "Why did this monitor suddenly stop receiving video?" I need to dump this sort of thing in the Volunteer Wiki..

46 weeks left to my service. Not that I’m counting or anything.

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