School of Peace

Sekolah Demai is a school for stateless Rohingya refugee children on Penang Island, in Malaysia.  About 60 children, ages five to fifteen, attend the school Monday through Friday, 8am to 1pm.

I’m exhausted and it’s only 3pm on a Monday.  I spent the day teaching ten ‘intermediate’ students in a small room at the Sekolah Demai – with nothing more than a white board and a dry-erase marker.  Last year at this time, I was working for a Silicon Valley semiconductor company, marketing software tools used to develop ARM processor sub-systems embedded in FPGAs.  Today, I taught a group of non-English speakers how to sing “I’d like to buy the world a coke…”

So how’d I get here?  After leaving my job in the summer, I frittered about, luxuriating in my newfound freedom.  Then, after a few months, ennui set in.  No schedule and no responsibilities became tiresome.  While riding my bike or hanging up laundry, I found myself obsessing on world problems – especially those to do with refugee crises.  Not enough was being done for Syrian refugees, Italians were overwhelmed with Libyians fleeing a war-zone, and Thai officials outright exploited stateless Rohingya as they escaped Myanmar.  Yes, with all of this extra time I read a lot – I’d become a bit of a news junkie.

In time, I found myself daydreaming about what I could do.  I ruminated on a recurring idea – what if we adopted a Syrian refugee family and let them stay with us to get out of the horrid conditions in the border camps?  I thought through how’d we’d set up the room downstairs for them and considered how big a family we could put up.  I imagined taking them to the local mosque and connecting them to the community, etc. I mean – seriously – I dreamed up whole conversations with the Imas, dealing with the government to get the visas in order, etc.   I told my husband about it.  He looked at me as if I’d applied for the upcoming Mars mission.

“Why don’t you, er, uh, just volunteer somewhere locally?”  He suggested. 

Great idea!  So, I applied on the UNHCR site.  Last week UNHCR contacted me with an English-teaching gig and I submitted all the forms.

On Thursday I met with the school administrator, Mr. Anwar.  I told him I have practically no experience teaching children, speak zero Rohingya and speak very little Bahasa Malay.  He asked if I could start Monday, five days a week 8am to 1pm.   Uh, I guess they’re desperate? Even so, I said, “Monday, yes, but I can work two days a week maximum, and I was thinking more like three hours a day – but okay, I’ll give 8-1pm a try.”

“Great – see you Monday.” he said.  As I stood up to leave, he added, “I’d rather they learn English than anything else.”

So today was my first day.  I showed up at 7:50am.  About twenty kids puttered about the yard and classroom, but no adults were present.  8:10.  I let the kids know I was to teach today, and asked a few of them to write their names in my notebook.  Dear lord, everyone has four names!  One fifteen year old boy spoke some English and agreed to be my translator.  He had everyone underline the name I should call them.  Thankfully the kids underlined just one name each.

8:20.  Still only me but now with thirty kids.  “Okay, kids, I guess we’ll start English class!” I announced.

Pointing to the clock, I asked, “what’s this?”

“Jam” one kid said.  (Jam is Bahasa Malay for hour and for clock). 

“Yes, this is ‘jam’ in Bahasa Malay, and in English, it is a ‘clock’.  Then I said ‘clock’, motioned to them, and they all said clock.  I pointed to my watch, and repeated the drill.  Pen, book, etc.

At 8:30 another teacher appeared.  Zu directed me upstairs to teach ten intermediate students, ages 9-14. Thank God!  Forty kids were too much!  It was small room with open windows and two rows of foot-high desks.   The boys sat on the floor in the front row and the girls in the back.  Too many girls squeezed behind too few desks, so I invited two to come up to the free spaces in the front.  They looked at me as if I’d asked them to apply for the Mars mission.  One girl scrambled out of the room and brought in another desk. Gender divisions are clear here.

Zu brought me their workbooks.  Thumbing through I discovered they had a solid running start in English – yeah!  So I taught them ‘beautiful’ and ‘clock’ and ‘watch’ and other nouns mostly. We passed around the clock and everyone said, “I have a clock.”  It seemed they knew quite a lot.

We moved onto math.  Their books revealed multi-digit addition and fractions of shapes.  I wrote this on the board:

100+99+98+97+ … + 50 + … + 3+2+1 = _______. 

A 14 year old boy rose up after about a minute and wrote 450. 

“YES!” I answered, “But… these dots mean all of the numbers in between.”  I pointed toward the the number chart on the wall that listed one through one hundred and said, ‘add all of these numbers’. 

A few kids started adding by brute force – one number at a time.  I hoped someone would take a step back and figure out the quick way to solve this by grouping into combinations of a hundred.   The kids spent about twenty minutes on the problem before I nudged them toward the answer.  At last, a 13 year old boy got up and wrote ‘5050’.  Yes!  I said, then showed the entire class how the grouping trick works. 

Maybe that was kind of an ass-hole move on my part, posing this math question, but I wanted to see where they were and see how they think.  We moved onto shapes and fractions of shapes and then it was break time.

My God I don’t know how I’m going to do this.  I’m just making shit up – well – loosely following some guidelines I read about over the weekend.  Mostly, I’m trying to see where they are – what they know and then build incrementally from there – both for math and English.  At the break I learned that, despite writing everything in her book perfectly, one girl knows almost no English.  She looked down when I asked her a question, then she said, “no English.”  Doh.  And there I’d been chattering away for a few hours and she had no clue what I’d said.  So there’s a range of proficiency here.

Over the next hour she and I spent extra time on our own doing repeat-after-me exercises.  She lit up.  That was sweet.

Then I got stuck – what next?  Music!  “Let’s learn a song!” I said.   I wrote the Coca-cola song on the board.  They copied it in their books, as I sang it to them.   

The coca-cola song:
I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves

I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company

By this time I discovered they’re motivated by getting check marks in their booklets.  So as each kid finished writing out the lyrics, I walked around and check-marked each line.  For very clearly written work, I wrote ‘beautiful’ at the top.  The kids who received ‘beautiful’ preened and showed off their pages to the others.

Then I became aware of an underlying agitation, and realized the cause:  they hit each other a lot!  They raise hands to each other as if it’s a form of communication.  Over time it really grated on me.  It built up – the way constant traffic honking might get to me after living in an area where honking is rare and socially unacceptable.  I asked them to use words rather than hands.   They nodded, but I don’t think they understood what I was saying – but I’ll work on ’em.   

Some of the girls set about drawing pictures and gave them to me.  One boy wrote “I love Teacher” in a heart in my notebook when I wasn’t looking.  (IDK if that was sincere or a joke – me-thinks a joke).

They are bright-eyed lovely children.   When I’d grown weary of teaching, and felt like I was losing them, we took a break. I taught one boy a hand clap pattycake activity.  Everyone wanted in on it.  For twenty minutes we did freaking patty-cake!  I even taught some the advanced version where you snap and slap your butt.  They didn’t like the butt slap so we did a thigh slap.  That was acceptable.  With twenty minutes left, we reviewed the previous lessons from the day and that was it.  1pm.  I nearly collapsed from exhaustion.

Downstairs, a 14 year old student shook my hand, held it for about thirty seconds and said ‘thank you’.  I urged him to work the math problem again at home.  He can do it.

Mr. Anwar treated me to nasi kandar after school.  Over lunch I asked about the school’s funding.  Rent is RM2000 a month and is paid by a local university professor.  There is no budget for supplies or uniforms.   I asked how many teachers they have.  He said, “three.”

“So with, me, you have four?”

“No, with you we have three.”

Oh no.