Cholère (Monday, 2012 May 14)

May 17, 2012

I think every volunteer has a moment — maybe I shouldn’t say every Volunteer, but many do — where the stress and frustration of their service are too overpowering and they just snap. I know Ben D. had a moment like that towards the end of his service — he described utterly losing his shit when a car splashed mud on him during rainy season, jumping onto the hood of the car, and shouting obscenities in English about the owner and the rest of the country. As he summarized curtly afterwards, "I think he got the point."

I got to have that moment today too. Side note — although I learned en cholère before coming here, in-country I almost always hear faché, irritated/annoyed.

So some background — not by way of justification but just so you know. At this particular moment I’m writing this in one of those school notebooks that you see everywhere here, because the power is out. I had just finished grading 3m3-4, hands-down my worst class. I also got to proctor this exam for them, which was a bit of good luck because I was able to indicate, as I hadn’t on the exams, that this was a no-calculator exam. The kids, of course, did not like that, and spent about a half of their hour complaining that they weren’t machines, and one student went as far as to leave the class to "go to the bathroom", and then coming back to announce that it was unfair since the other classes were taking the test with calculators and it was supposed to be a "harmonized exam" — the same for everyone. My response, in English because I am sick of these kids, was simply "Life sucks".

[Just to keep myself honest, I also took the test myself without a calculator. Took me 11 minutes, 17 seconds. And all the questions came from other tests, so it’s hard to see it their way.]

So I hate that fucking class. And it was the last class of tests I had to grade for a long time, maybe ever. I could also write a blog post about grading, but suffice it to say that some errors are revealing indeed. If the answer is 70, but the student writes 17, you might wonder if he misheard the answer from someone else. You develop mechanisms to deal pre-emptively with cheating. Example, you cross out white space, or otherwise indicate that no answer was given, so that the student doesn’t come later after adding the answer to say you forgot to give him the point.

So I graded the tests and I went to school to hand them back and "do corrections", explain that most of their class is stupid and why I took off their points. Sure enough, one of the students came up to me with his paper, one of the more memorable ones which had originally said 15 but now "originally" said 16.

"What’s the answer to this one, monsieur?" the kid asked. He wasn’t one of the worst kids in his class, but I take cheating seriously.

"It’s 16," I said.

"But I put 16 and you marked it wrong."

"No," I said, "you put 15 and just now you added this part to make it look like 16."

"Added what?" he responded.

I guess by rights I could have already taken his paper and marked it as cheating but I like to give them a little more time to realize what they’re doing. "Last warning," I said. Maybe I should have said, "Be careful," mefie-toi, like I’ve heard from other teachers.

"Last warning?" he said. "Look, I clearly wrote 15 here, crossed it out, and then wrote 16, which you marked wrong."

"Last warning," I repeated. "Say it again."

"But, voila 16, no monsieur," he said. Without talking, I gave his paper a small, sharp tug, and it came away in my hand.

So far this is all very standard, way ordinary. Next steps would be to go to another teacher, present the case, and if they didn’t say otherwise, I’d take some points off, maybe go so far as to give him a zero. His grade was currently 05/20, so it wouldn’t be a big loss. But I guess he knew me well enough because his hand was on my wrist, holding me from pulling away.

I’ve always felt an undercurrent of hostility from that class — we’ve gotten by now to outright antagonizing each other — and I guess I just had a flash of being mobbed by the students I’d just failed — and when I tugged again and my wrist didn’t come away, I reacted.

There’s a blur. I have a memory of wanting to punch him hard enough to put him on the floor, but I don’t think I punched him because my palm was in his cheekbone, with my thumb curling around his jawbone and towards his jugular. Still without thinking, I said in English, "If you touch me again, I will kill you."

We held that pose for a second while I waited for him to do anything or for anyone else to come towards me. Instead, "Ça va, monsieur!" — it’s OK, I’m backing down — and I walked out with his paper. I heard someone calling my name and turned — a different student was chasing me, carrying some papers I’d left in class. I guess I’d been in a hurry. The rest of the class was laughing and having a great old time, shouting, "Killa! Killa!", I guess having understood enough of that last sentence. But I’m good at putting my feelings on a level where they don’t show, and I looked calm as I walked around the lycée.

My original plan had been to hand back all my stupid tests and then go to the market and get breakfast, and as I was leaving the school the kid chased me down. He apologized. He said last sequence he hadn’t worked hard enough and to please forgive him. He rubbed his cheekbone like it maybe stung. Normally the students just say "Pardon, pardon!", or in Anglophone "Forgive, forgive!" so I guess I welcomed the creativity. I told him I was willing to forgive that he grabbed my wrist — which he denied. Maybe I’m really crazy, or maybe it was as much of a blur for him too? Anyhow, I showed him how I knew that he’d changed the answer and how he ought to have known that I’d be angry about cheating, and finally I gave him the test back. He manned up enough to admit he’d made a mistake, or at least to pretend, and isn’t that what American culture is all about?

So please file this whole goddamned experience under how I’m changing in Africa. This place makes me an animal. I will not die in here. The good news is that my teacher duties are slowly fading away, leaving me with slightly more free time and slightly less stress. 81 more days..

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