Jeux (Thursday, 2012 January 12th)

January 12, 2012

The school administration had been hoping that teachers would have given all their exams before the Christmas Break, so that grades could be put onto papers and report cards filled out as soon as the school year started. Of course, due to my little jaunt to Morocco, that wasn’t a real possibility for me — in fact, I haven’t technically taught anything during the 3rd sequence, so the last couple weeks have been a fire drill of make-up lessons, hastily-written tests, and generic anguish. I haven’t even started grading the tests that I have given, except of course for the practical exams — because like last year, they’re the last, best, hope for last-minute student evaluation. Except..

I gave a quick lesson or two on file management to my 2e classes last week and this week we tried to put it into practice. I didn’t think there was really all that much complexity here — you have paths, they have separators, you explore the folders and you’re basically done, right? But as usual my students surprised me by utterly failing to put into practice the concepts we had briefly discussed. The assignment is pretty straightforward — open this file, write down what it says inside, create this directory, copy this file to that directory, rename this file, delete that file. But 2C (the "scientific" 2e class) managed to pretty much bomb the whole thing. Maybe it’s because I didn’t give them enough time, or assumed they’d understood better than they did, or didn’t give the directions clearly enough. I told them yesterday that their performance was shameful (une performance honteuse) and that I was going to give them another lesson today so that they could do better on the make-up exam Monday, and then today when we finished the lesson in 20-30 minutes I wondered aloud how they could have taken something so simple and fucked it up (niquer, which I learned from Timothy). Some students asked me what niquer meant so I told them it was a technical word meaning to fail. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m getting more comfortable using French to express my feelings about my students, which helps me keep my spirits up. I’m flipping through Merde! et Merde Encore! that my parents sent me (thanks guys!), but haven’t quite settled on a way to ask Kamgang Basile of 2A4 (the "arts" 2e class) why he’s being a douchebag.

Of course, I’m no stranger to the surprising complexity that computer stuff represents to my students. Did you know you have to do four different things to copy-and-paste? And that only the last one provides anything like feedback for what you’ve done? But we mastered that and I don’t see any hidden complexity as regards the directory tree. My only hypotheses are that 1. they didn’t think through the implications of what I talked about in class, which actually goes without saying, and 2. that the instructions, which amounted to some stuff written on a chalkboard in class and incomplete directory names that I wrote on slips of paper, were confusing to them. Yeah, well, blame the administration for putting me under such time pressure. I’ve printed out written directions that are as complete as I can make them without giving anything away. The make-up test is Monday and we’ll see how that goes.

My self-medicine lately (instead of alcohol) has been food and video games, hence today’s title, jeux. Food is easy to explain: it’s lettuce season, and also avocados are starting to show up, and I think mushrooms maybe around the corner? I made fried rice the other day and I’ve been using the sesame oil that I squirreled away from when I came back from the states. It is delicious. As for the video games, I’ve lately been playing through the games that I downloaded from the official Ubuntu archives, figuring that when I finish playing them I can uninstall them and free up a little disk space. I have played: Freedroid, Dink Smallwood, Lincity-ng, Micropolis (long enough to discover that yes, it is exactly SimCity), and FreedroidRPG. Dink Smallwood was smirk-worthy in a couple of places, but basically forgettable. Lincity-ng is actually kind of cool, especially since as a Volunteer "sustainability" is a concern for me. FreedroidRPG was also surprising — a compelling little game, kinda like Diablo, but free-software-nerd themed. Chiz has been muttering darkly about Spacechem lately, so I’m liable to try that next, even knowing that it’s bound to consume me entirely.

Also on the subject of jeux, we have the lab. Students put games on computers, like tomcats marking their territory, and it’s as inevitable as the tide so there’s really no use trying to control it. Lately I have seen GTA: Vice City, which they find so compelling as to even play during classroom hours. To the extent that they even care about the storyline, they certainly don’t care enough to save their progress. Instead the current fad seems to be commandeering a tank and rambling around the city, blowing up whatever crosses your path. I’ve also seen something called Super Mario Worlds (N.B. not Super Mario World, the classic for the SNES), which appears to be a small knockoff of various Mario games. The first level is a fairly-faithful copy of the first level of the original Super Mario Bros., but the second level graphics portray rain, and they took the carry-objects mechanic from Mario 3 and the charge-jump from Mario 2. I have learned, from the comments students make while playing Super Mario Worlds, that Mario’s fireballs are actually sauce tomate, tomato sauce, which I guess means that what we always thought were fire flowers are actually tomato plants.

Curiosity got the better of me and when I got the chance I sat down and decided to see how far I could get. To my dismay, there are only three levels, after which you return to the first level. Of course, most of the students haven’t found that out yet because they can’t get past the third level.

The students are terrible at Super Mario Worlds. They prefer to do charge-jumps instead of running jumps, which is just setting them up for failure when they attempt other platform games later on. In fact, they hardly run at all. They rebind the keys so that to jump you press Up, about which words fail me. Most of them are convinced that the third level is impossible if you don’t have the fire flower, so after they inevitably die for the first time, they just quit and restart. For some unknowable reason, all of this makes me incredibly angry. It’s not even real Mario! Why are you so bad at this?? You’re crap at crap Mario!

So last Sunday, when I was getting all my files in order for the aforementioned 2e practical exam, and also formatting a couple of the GTA’d computers, I decided to discreetly sprinkle a SNES emulator and some ROMs here and there. (Allison asked what the right stance is regarding teaching Cameroonians how to pirate stuff well, as opposed to letting them pirate it poorly. The stance I take in my lab is quite inconsistent.) Nobody is going to discover a SNES emulator by themselves, of course, so when I had a little free time, I started it up and loaded Super Mario World. It was only a matter of time before one or two students saw me and marveled at the fascinating capabilities of this new Mario game, where Mario can even fly! (And by the way, Yoshi’s not a dinosaur, he’s a horse. A green horse.) When I got called away from the computer, I shut everything down quickly without leaving any indication of what I’d done or how, and then relished the puzzlement of the students as they tried to figure out how to "put" the game I’d just been playing.

But you know what? There’s a lot of stuff going on, even in the first level, and SMW is English-only, never translated to French. So, e.g. the fact that there is both regular jump and spin-jump is kind of mysterious, and the idea that you pretty much always need to be running is kind of taken for granted (because everyone who was going to play SMW had already played Mario 1-3). So the next time, I started up Super Mario All-Stars (which, by the way, Super Mario Worlds took the opening screen from). This game showcased polished, SNES-ified versions of the original NES games. The first level is recognizably the first level from their crap Super Mario Worlds, but it all looks a ton better. But you know what? The first Super Mario is hard! I can get pretty far now that I’m way experienced with platform games, but even I die a lot and without the "continue" that All-Stars offers, I’d get nowhere. And when I think back to how hard it was when I was just a kid, I realize that when I was first starting to play video games, I didn’t know to run either, and the idea of ever beating Super Mario seemed like an impossible fantasy, and people that could were wizards, heroes without limit.

Anyhow they’ve started to figure out how to use ZSNES, even though it’s been less than a week. I think they’ve picked it up so quickly because for a while there was a MAME emulator floating around some of the computers, so they already understand in some vague unarticulated way the idea of emulators vs. ROMs. They aren’t terribly interested, actually, in any of the Super Mario games, probably because they’re so bad at them. One of my students started up the French version of Secret of Mana (one of my favorite games ever), but then gave it up as "too hard" before he even got the first sword. I’m trying not to be disappointed. Maybe he’ll come back to it later. Maybe not.

Since a week and a half ago, today’s the first day that I’ve had "off" (after I taught two hours and printed some exams for tomorrow). Every day I come home totally exhausted, but then a few hours later I start to feel energized, cognizant of just how awesome I am being and how cool I am for doing what I’m doing, and then I figure out how I can do it even better. Is this the effect of being a 2nd year volunteer? The fact that I’m drinking less, or playing video games more? The simple pleasure of knowing that I only have seven months, five days left in this country, or contrariwise the pressure of knowing that the time I have left to effect a difference here is slipping away like sand through an hourglass? Maybe that’s why I don’t blog so much, but I’m thinking of you all the same.

P.S. Thanks to Lee for posting a link to this scallion pancake recipe. Turns out the only thing you need that you can’t get here is sesame oil, and you can fake it with some of the sesame seeds you see being sold on the street. Now, onward..

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