Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Playing Teacher in Al-Am'ari

As I mentioned before, my lower output as of late can be attributed partly to my decision to spend two weeks teaching English to boys living in the Al-Am'ari refugee camp in southeast Ramallah. I'm nearing the end of week one, so I'll give you my impressions and nuggets of insight that I've gained thus far.

A refugee camp in Palestine is the equivalent of what is called the "ghetto" in American cities. The camps are often regarded as the "bad" areas of town by the more affluent, middle-class Palestinians. Case in point: when my ex-roommate was stuck at an impromptu Israeli road blockade, he called me and asked me to teach his English class—which was to start in 20 minutes. Since I was obviously unprepared for the day's lesson, I mostly improvised with the Palestinian teens in the class. One of my time-killers was to ask them for directions—in English!—to the Al Am'ari camp, as I was to start teaching there soon. Many of the kids shook their heads and told me I did not want to go there. "They are bad people, not like us, not like people from Ramallah," one of the boys said.

Class identity often supersedes religious, ethnic, and even family identity. One only has to listen to the middle-class white man, insistent about his racial tolerance, talking about the difference between "good" and "bad" black people. When you dig a little deeper, invariably the "good" ones are the ones have clawed into the ranks of the middle class, the ones who learned to pay their mortgage and shun welfare checks like responsible adults.

The refugee camps, with their politically-tinged squalor, are the perfect breeding ground for ideas of violent struggle against Israel and "martyrdom.” Of course there is a huge amount of resentment towards Israel from all Palestinians, but it is especially pronounced among those living in the camps, quixotically hoping to return to the homes that the Israelis kicked them out of in the momentous wars of 1948 and 1967. Another more detailed, probing post on this matter is forthcoming, so I'll leave it at that for now. I mention this because some of the favorite activities of these little ones (fourth and fifth graders) is to construct surprisingly sophisticated pistols out of notebook paper, contorting rubber bands into the shape of the Palestinian flag, or to doodle renditions of the ubiquitous “Hanthala.”

This is the only job I've ever had in which my lack of a skill has been integral to my hiring. My bosses liked that I couldn't speak any Arabic. With no Arabic skills, I could give the children the total “immersion” which is often cited as the key to really learning a language. Meanwhile, my co-instructor (technically, she's a volunteer) is an amazing 17 year-old Palestinian girl who speaks five languages, including Urdu and Russian. She also keeps the class in line—I'm a terrible disciplinarian.

Yet I'm getting paid, and she's not!

One of the best things about this job is the location: the commute is on a slight downhill that remains virtually constant from the Minarah at the center of the city. So I hop on my skateboard and coast and weave through traffic—which is a pretty huge rush, even at 7:15am—then break off to a lesser road and ride the rest of the way to the camp. I'm guessing the skateboard gives me an extra twenty minutes of sleep in the morning, which is crucial considering my average bedtime as of late hovers somewhere around 1:30am. When the school day is over I usually hitch a ride with my co-workers back to the city center.

I don't think I'm fit to teach kids this young. I lack that goofball affability and giant heart that works so well with these kids. And to be honest, I don't get excited about teaching basic concepts – “What is this?” [pointing to a crude illustration of an apple]—which is all these kids really understand at this point. Their English vocabulary probably consists of over a hundred words, but they are generally incapable of forming sentences with them. Whenever I work with kids, I deal with this giant, crippling guilt complex that bludgeons me mercilessly for not being the teacher that these kids deserve. Teaching truly is one of the most difficult jobs on earth and I can say without hesitation that the vast majority of them are not paid nearly enough.

Despite my perceived inferiority, I definitely scored some massive cool points with the kids due to my skateboard and my donation of the beloved basketball that I had become so familiar with over the last month. I yielded to the swarm of hands when I got out the skateboard, and the kids played with it for a couple days until one of the little ones skinned his wrist absolutely raw and I knew that it should stay in the teacher's room. The basketball games have been ridiculous free-for-alls in which the "big kids" consisting of me and a few male volunteers beat back a horde of twenty or more boys all screaming the name of whoever has the ball. Fitting to the location, only one of the hoops on the court is functional and has no trace of a net.

The kids—like pretty much all Palestinian youth—have an unquenchable curious thirst for the details of my life and barrage me with questions about everything from my marital status to if I like wrestling to if I love Palestine. I can tell that they want to teach me Arabic, seeing as they continue to speak it to me knowing full well that I cannot speak it. Just today a group of them was trying to get me to recite a Muslim prayer which, if completed, essentially amounts to a conversion to Islam.

Speaking of Islam, I'd guess that about 60% of the kids in class have a name that is—or is derived from—that of the prophet Mohammed. I have four Mohammeds, four Ahmeds, one Ahmad, one Hammed, one Mahmoud, one Allah, etc. etc. If I've forgotten their name, I'll just spit out "Mohammed" and usually the child in question turns his eyes in my direction. Could you imagine if similar naming customs revolving around Jesus existed in America?

Last but definitely not least, the classes are separated by sex: there are three girls classes and two boys classes. This is a necessary concession to the conservative social culture predominant in the poorer areas of Palestine.

Tomorrow is our field trip to the swimming pool in Bir Zeit. I wonder if the boys and girls will be separated there too. To be honest, I'm secretly hoping for that: not to toot my own horn, but I'm not in the mood to deal with the adoring shrieks of dozens of middle school girls.

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