Friday, December 21, 2012

One day, this will end

Back when I was running a lot of races, I usually approached the long ones by breaking them into thirds. The first third was the warm-up, during the second I thought, “OK, let’s really get this thing going now,” and the last third was when I had to go to my bag of tricks and reach in to see what I was really made of. 

Upon discussing the length of Peace Corps service with people before I left, I shared this approach to the time I’d be away to give people perspective that 27 months really wasn’t very long at all. 
Speaking of babies - here is my host's sister new baby, Kania! 

The thirds. Or three nine-month stints of service. 

Three back-to-back Peace Corps babies, if you will.

And, here I am – suddenly finding myself in the second to last trimester of my third PC baby. 

I try to avoid the countdown trap as it implies I can’t wait to leave, and that is not at all the case. But having the end in sight certainly does prompt me to savor my remaining time more.

Carpe Diem
One of the first journal entries I had my eleventh grade write last year was on the theme of “Carpe Diem”, as it was loosely related to the theme of a narrative we read in class. I introduced the phrase thinking it’d be news to them, but I saw the ears of all eleventh grade boys jerk to attention from their plastered positions on their desks. Turns out, “Seize the Day” is the title of an Avenged Sevenfold song.*

After trying to convince 16-year-olds that it was Horace and not some American metal band who coined the phrase, I wrote an example of a journal entry on what I would do if I knew there was no tomorrow and today was our last day. 
“If there was no tomorrow, I would call all my family and friends to remind them I love them and that I am thankful for them. I would give all of my money to help other people enjoy their last day. I would eat a lot of candy and cake, and I would ride a motorcycle.** What would you do?” 
I braced myself for journal entries revealing the hidden character and deepest dreams of a cell phone, FB, and punk hair-do generation of East Javanese teens. Across two classes, I got about seventy-five of the following entries:
  • I will ask forgiveness to my parents and friends
  • I will pray in mosque 
  • I will ask forgiveness to God

What a bust.***

The End
Anyway, with my last third in full swing and the end of the world slated for today, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect a bit on the end of things. In addition, I will be making an “End of the World” banner and having a sleepover at a friend’s desa. Nothing says end of the world like Crayola markers and jammies.

In reflecting on the short six months I have left here, I can’t help but selfishly prioritize my time to check things off my own personal Peace Corps Bucket List (PCBL). Sure, I want to get some serious volunteer and leadership-type projects done, but things like scheduling an opportunity to finally see my counterpart without her jilbab (PCBL  #1) or getting my hands on an Indomaret**** worker T-shirt (PCBL #5) are definitely occupying more of my thoughts now than they probably should.  

I have also started taking mental snapshots of memories I want to thumb through when I'm back home just thinking things over while eating a meatball parm sandwich…
  • Hanging on the porch with Ila and Ayuk after school, rapping about our day or making some crafts and laughing over the latest dumb thing I did
  • Getting trapped in the mushola with a few of my students during a heavy rainstorm, sitting around playing the guitar and singing songs together
  • Asking a class I visited if they had any questions for me. After silence for a minute, one 8th grader raised her hand, looked me dead in the eye and said, "You are very beautiful." Obviously, she doesn't get out much.
  • Skyping with my American family on Thanksgiving at school as Mbak Nur and Mbak Ira come on-screen behind me trying on their new I Love NY T-shirts
  • Waiting to share the special moment of viewing the last Twilight installment in stadium seating with PC pals who appreciate how great bad things can be
I left Taylor and Bri's red eyes b/c it makes 
them look more like vampires.
  • While in another city, escaping a mob of junior high kids who took an excessive amount of photos and wanted me to sign their school ties. And then that feeling of coming home to my friends in my desa who know me and no longer treat me like a piece of white bule meat that’s up for grabs. 
  • Eating lunch beside a dirty canal after a Jalan Santai and singing One Direction songs with some random elementary kids across the way
My students
  • Listening to the 36th English speech of the day, where a contestant quoted a local commercial to support her argument that madrasahs provide the best education. “Madrasahs are 'my sun, my moon, my guiding star'”, she said. 
I enjoyed two things about this: 1) that this 9th grader in a jilbab had no idea she was indirectly quoting a Barry White song and 2) the fact that amazing things like this happen so often here.
I thought of Barry and how he might enjoy this also, and I got unreasonably verklempt.
    Sometimes, I feel like I need all the remaining days of this last third just to emotionally prep myself for those final moments of saying good-bye to this life I've made here and the people I love. I've alluded to this before, but leaving here will most certainly be one hot mess - the likes of which I’ve never seen, really. 

    It will be a true test of what I’m really made of.

    Good news is I’ll have these guys below to come home to, which will certainly cushion the blow.

    Carpe Diem, and Merry Christmas!



    *Avenged Sevenfold is one of the few American bands that has gained a devoted following here in my village. Prior to setting foot on Indonesian soil, I had never heard of them. I also much prefer David Moscow's rendition of a "Seize the Day" tune:  
    Why Christian Bale conveniently omits this from his acting credits, I'll never know. On the other hand, I'd guess Max Casella enjoys touting this fact.

    ** The strict Peace Corps rule of volunteers not being allowed to ride motorcycles being moot at the end of the world. Right, Ken? Right?!

    ***Except for this one gem: “If there is no tomorrow I want to round the world. I want to go to the space to look the moon and earth from space and I want to hold star in my hand”. Way to be, Panggih!

    **** Indomaret is the local convenient store here, similar to a 7-Eleven but without the slushies. For Wappingers Falls folk, think your neighborhood E-Z. I certainly do. 

    NOTE: I hope one day I can avoid these notes referencing tragic world events as related to my crummy blog, but this entry was started and planned long before last week. I, in no way, wanted to be insensitive to all that has happened recently in Newtown. 

    There is nothing I can add here except that even living as far away as one can possibly be, it is still overwhelmingly upsetting and spirit-crushing. Saya ikut berduka.

    Thursday, November 29, 2012

    Season 2: The New Class*, or Ode to ID6

    Required Vocabulary:
    Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

    ID4 = Peace Corps Indonesia Group 4, consisting of 18 volunteers serving from 2010-2012. They were the first Peace Corps group to enter Indonesia since the 1960s when groups ID1, ID2, and ID3 served.
    They also met the President of the United States. I'm only slightly bitter.

    ID5 = Peace Corps Indonesia Group 5, currently consisting of 20 volunteers serving from 2011-2013. This is my group. We are super cool, as can be seen to the right.
    Perhaps, there's a reason we were not deemed to be presidential photo material.

    ID6 = Peace Corps Indonesia Group 6, currently consisting of 43 volunteers serving from 2012-2014.
    The following blog is for them. 

    The ID6ers are coming! The ID6ers are coming!

    About this time last year, the third group of Peace Corps volunteers started receiving their invitations to serve in Indonesia. While our group was just settling in, we were already getting questions on how new volunteers could prepare to come here. I recall emailing one new recruit, “Yeah, truthfully, I still don’t really know what the heck I’m doing.”

    I’m sure this was exactly the sound advice this ID6er was looking for. I’m a real mentoring whiz. 

    The Simulator
    Anyway, I began to wonder what would have prepared me as I was reading ID4 blogs until 3am in my NYC apartment, scraping for any semblance of what my life in Indonesia would be like. Surely, some sort of Space Camp-like** simulator could be constructed for new PCVs to get a glimpse of what PC Indonesia life would bring.

    Yes, we could cram all the new volunteers on a hot, crowded bus, packed with ibus, babies and live poultry as karaoke dangdut music is blasted into their ears. We’d then send in a stream of ukele musicians singing off-key at competing volumes. 4D technology would be used to simulate the rough roads and speeding, swerving maneuvers employed by local bus drivers. New volunteers would then repeatedly field the same personal questions from low-talking individuals as cigarette smoke is blown directly into their faces. This simulation would have to last at least 5-8 hours for them to get a real, good feel for what it’s like to have sweat pour into every crevice and then have to sit like that for a few hours more.

    It's the marathon of public travel.

    “Coloring the Experience”
    But I realized I wouldn’t have wanted all that. It would have scared me off. It was better to come into this and find out myself. And to find out how quickly the above scenario became "biasa" for me. Now, it’s no big deal. No one can really explain exactly how that happens. We all just have to go through it.

    In fact, even with all of that travel craziness, it turns out that riding the bus is one of my favorite things here – if only because I can get my head together. I can get out of my desa, see things, chat with people, reflect. What might have scared me, if described outside of this context, has become one of my saving graces.

    Current PCVs are always worried about "coloring the experience" of new PCVs. Like most anywhere else, experiences can differ so greatly from one village to the next, one school to the next, and one house to the next. Even if I gave my mediocre advice to new PCVs, there was a good chance their life would be completely different from mine. In some ways, it was almost best for them to have no idea and be ready to roll with it. 

    Why We Are Weird
    It's safe to say relations between ID5 (my group) and ID4 (the group prior) were pretty awkward at the get-go. I was starving for information, and I felt like I had to wrestle it from them. Why would they not just tell me what my life would be like? Why were they not showering me with their wisdom and advice? And sometimes, they were just plain weird (sorry guys, it’s true. But you know I still love you). 

    Now, I completely understand. 

    In addition to the fear of “coloring the experience” of new PCVs, I found there are a few other reasons why some second year PCVs (namely, myself) sort of become weirdos when it comes to interacting with the newer group: 
    • I can't speak English. And I'm not cool. I don’t make a lot of small talk in English anymore. For a year and a half, I have been fielding personal questions in other languages that would be considered rude in America (How old are you? Are you married? Do you have your period?). Any sort of social skills I might have had in an American context, have seriously atrophied.
    I’ve become weird to talk to. Example: my go-to ice breaker topics lately usually involve top breakfast cereals or to what extent people think Jay-Z is a spokesman for our generation.    
    • My focus has shifted. For me, year two is less about the pains of integrating or venting about the daily ills or supporting each other as PCVs. It's more about figuring out what the heck I can actually do for my desa, with so little time left. There are still pains, and there are still slumps - but they are my life now. For the most part, I've accepted them. I don't need to dwell on them as much or escape them as much as maybe I once did. Sure, I still seek plenty of support from fellow PCVs, though maybe it's in different ways now. I'm more caught up these days in figuring out how to get my students to want to talk to me - in any language really.
    • It's not all about the PCVs. As our wise PC Staff cautioned, it can be pretty easy to make Peace Corps service all about the other PCVs, whether in serving on committees that offer leadership or support, or just in spending time in communicating with one another. 
    PCVs sure are swell people. It is fun to spend time together and get to know each other. Sometimes, their support is still the only thing that can really get you through a bad day. 

    For me, I was worried about maintaining a balance and getting too caught up in this one aspect of our experience. I love being a part of shaping a new Peace Corps program, traveling to represent volunteers or offering feedback. I love spending my day making agendas, planning with PCVs and staff, organizing parties and making welcome signs. 

    I really, really love it. If given the opportunity, I'd probably spend all my time cozying up with ID6, indulging myself in learning all about their pasts and dreams. Which is why I felt it might be good for me to pull out a little bit. I wanted to check myself and make sure I was keeping focus on supporting my Indonesian relationships and community during my last run here.

    • Also, ID6, you’re just too awesome. Anytime I have a conversation or read an ID6 blog, I think,”Dah! You’re awesome, too!? How annoying.” 
    I have six months left here. I have already completely fallen in love with my PCV group (ID5) and ID4s, and logistically, it’s tough to allow space for myself to fall in love with 43 other people right now.
    It’s not you. It’s me.
    •  Here’s the biggie. ID6, you don't need me.
    ID6 is smart. Well-read. Funny. They are leaders. They know who they are. They already seem to know how to navigate life here so much better than we did. These observations are from getting to know a few of these beautiful ID6ers first-hand and observing others from afar. From when I first shouted at them and threw hand-made signs in their faces at the airport, it was clear these people didn't need me.
    They'd figure it out. We all do. It's one of the wonders of the human spirit. We learn. We adjust. We adapt. 

    And ID6 would do it, whether or not I was imparting my wisdom on the best way to pop a straw through an Aqua water cup (for the record, always carry a pen to jab a hole in case the point gets bent in the first attempt).

    And they'd probably do it better than I ever could. 
    Mbak Nicole mengantar-ing ID6ers fresh from the airport

    You're doing it!
    So, congrats, ID6! You're doing it! Of course, I am here should you need anything, but it seems like you're doing a bang-up job already. Should you require advice on where to find good cake or how to manage getting whiteboard marker all over your face and uniform - certainly, I'm your gal.

    I want you to know, though, that I am proud to be that weird uncle in your extended Peace Corps family. That one who only occasionally comes out of his room into the world-at-large for periodic bathing and when good desserts are served. We'll always be family, nonetheless. 

    Happy 8 months in Indonesia, ID6! PC Love.

    Site Visits
    Here are some pics from June site visits. I had the privilege of hosting the lovely Sierra and Halah from ID6. 


    Outings along with ID6ers

    Note: I have many more pictures from consolidation and IST that are currently being edited. Check back later.

     Bojo-Lamong-Tuban (BLT) Cluster Meetup and English Camp

    ID6ers Martine, Mary, and Alex along with MEBs (ID6), Bu Olif, and some of my students at Mary's English Camp. BLT Love!

    *The greater question here is: have I become a Mr. Belding, or a Screech in this New Class scenario? Jury's still out. And, hey, did anyone know Saved By the Bell: The New Class ran for 7 seasons!? That just seems like a few too many, doesn't it?

    **For those not yet privy to the wonder that is Space Camp, the quality 80s movie starring Lea Thompson and a young Joaquin Phoenix, please enjoy this retro, low-quality clip of their simulation. The inspiration for this post.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

    Tests and Time

    "You cannot blink.”

    This is what my teaching counterpart, Ms. Olif, said to me a year ago when I first asked what it is like to proctor an exam here. In the past year, I have proctored a wide-variety of tests, from simple vocab quizzes to regional-wide exams. This experience of administering tests, time and time again, has me slipping into those old, comfortable feelings of futility and failure that come along with being a Peace Corps volunteer.

    In the first 15 minutes I think,”Whew, these kids are good. Look at them reading that test. They can do this!” I then retreat into recreating TV episodes and movies in my mind as I gaze across the jilbabed room. Similar to Hurley re-writing "The Empire Strikes Back" with all that extra time LOST on the island, I’ve already mentally re-written a good portion of "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off".

    Unfortunately, after a few more minutes, the first pair of eyes go. And the next. And the thing is, they never had to learn to get creative, so tactics stagnate at the obvious. I find myself getting disappointed not only with the fact that students are cheating, but that they lack panache when doing so. I wonder if my efforts would be more efficiently spent in tutoring students on more intricate information retrieval methods. For instance, it might do them good to sit them down and watch that Growing Pains episode where Mike Seaver writes his history test info on the bottom of his sneakers.

    I’ve never experienced actual war, but I find that proctoring is an intense battle. It is a battle between the students’ desire to seek out or offer an answer (not necessarily the correct one) to their friends, and my incredible ability to sit or stand for hours staring at them, thinking about anything and nothing. It is no contest really. I win every time. The kids hate it. 

    In this battle, I take pointers for my proctoring strategy from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”:
    • Laying Plans/Calculations. I make the stakes clear. Prior to each test, I describe specific examples of cheating: looking at a book, looking at another paper, asking or giving a friend an answer. Three times spoken to results in the test being taken. I also give them the old motivational speech, “PD – percaya diri (believe in yourself)!” Occasionally, I make them all chant together,"I can DO it!” before handing out the test.
    • Tactical Dispositions/Positioning. Get to high ground. I either stand for the whole exam or position myself on the stage-like podium we have in most classes. A student’s first move is to try to get out of my line of sight, but I make it impossible for them. We also usually split the class and occasionally make various versions of tests.
    • Weak Points & Strong. Remain vigilant. Current Indonesian teachers lose the battle here because they get easily fatigued from watching for sudden moves or simply give up. Turns out, I am really excellent at vigilance, so long as I can think about the icing cookie cup from Mrs. Fields while doing so (stock tip: investment in a Mrs. Fields branch in Indonesia is a sound business decision, at least as long as I'm here). 
    • The Use of Spies. Make eye contact with the surrounding suppliers and give them the head shake that they can’t give anything away. They will be taken down if they comply, so it's best if they just turn to your side now.  As old Sun Tzu states, “All wars are, at their heart, information wars.”
    I straddle between disappointment in my students and in myself in these battles. The irony is not lost on me that I am here to promote peace, and all I can think about is shutting down anyone who tries to cross my proctoring path. There is something unsettling for me in that. Being an American presiding over, policing, and passing judgment is not the image I was hoping to reinforce during my tenure here.
    Why do I care so much? Why do I become a monster who is seemingly out to make life more difficult for a class full of 17-year-olds? 

    The Why?
    Like most things that happen here that may not initially sit well with me, I remember I have to come at it from a place of respect and understanding. I have to remember where these kids (whom I adore, by the way) are coming from.

    • In the course of their educational career, it is a very real possibility they may never have been told not to cheat, and it might have been encouraged. Here are some excerpts from a local teacher meeting on the subject where it was plain that attitudes on proctoring vary widely:
      • “Cheating is solidarity.”
      • “Every day I teach my students that [cheating] is OK.”
      • “Cheating is a wave that we cannot control.”
      • "Cheating is a virus to the learning process, and it must stop.” 
    • My students are studying 18 subjects in one semester. 18! Last year, seniors sat for regional-wide exams for each subject. They took two tests every day for almost two weeks straight. There is no way they could possibly study for all those tests.
    This is only some of the books for one student for first semester.
    • While my teachers and I attempt to “test what we teach”, most other tests I’ve proctored don’t follow this model. My 8-yr old niece and I studied together for her English test, and she got a 54% because the test was on topics the class had not studied yet. How exactly was she supposed to succeed there? 
    Tests sometimes are riddled with errors themselves or are unclear. Some of the questions from the regional English exam, were impossible for me to answer because they just didn’t make any sense.
    Here is a question for the upcoming Grade XI final exam. The test was made by another school, and we are mandated to use it.

    • For regular tests, there is really no motivation to study since failing just means taking another remedial test, and then maybe some sort of exercise until the teacher caves in and just gives the minimum grade to pass. There really is no failing. No penalty.
    I was befuddled by one of my poorest English students always finishing tests so quickly until I realized he was just throwing any answer down so he could get the hell outta there and hit the futsal court.  Once I understood what he was doing, I had a new-found respect for him since I realized it’s probably exactly what I’d do in his position.    
    This is probably where I'd rather be during my English test also.
    So - there I am, standing there giving my evil eye, when secretly, I am wondering what I would do if the black converse and Sponge Bob bobby socks were on the other foot. Perhaps things get ugly so quickly for me because I sort of know I’d be doing the same thing, and I don’t like facing that. Or maybe I seek the validation of them passing on their own to feel like I actually taught them something. But I like to think the main reason I get so riled up about this is because I want better for them. I want them to know they can be better. I want them to feel what it is to succeed, even if it’s just on one measly test.


    The good news…it can change
    These things may seem silly to Americans reading this, but here are some revolutionary ideas volunteers try to employ in classrooms here that have yielded remarkable results:

    • Giving teachers confidence to make their own tests and not to use ones out of a book or ones made by other schools covering information the students never learned is a good start.
    • Being clear about what constitutes cheating was a conversation I didn’t realize had to happen. After having one class tell me that politely asking a friend for an answer during a test didn’t count as cheating, we had to have a little chat. 
    • Actually preparing students for tests is another significant gain:
      • Telling them when there will be a test
      • Telling them what will be on the test and making it a small amount of information that you have reviewed together A LOT
      • Reviewing answers they got wrong in exercises or exams taken so they can learn not to make those mistakes again
      • Giving frequent, small tests that shows students they can succeed if they do, in fact, study
    I am still not at 100% on all items above, and it does require some iota of effort from students.

    Exhibit A: This past week, I had a student get a 5% on a test. The kicker is we reviewed all the answers to the test in the class prior. Not great for a teacher’s soul. I went directly for the Snickers bars and episodes of “New Girl”, and I did not pass GO.
    After starting to write this entry almost a year ago, I am now at peace with what happens during tests. After all, I can only control what happens in my little classroom.

    I am at peace with the National Exam that takes up so much time and misspent energy (as long as it is eradicated within the next five to ten years due to an organized uprising of teachers). It’s one of those things I have to accept for the time being simply because otherwise, I would go crazy. This whole thing is way bigger than me.

    Before I leave, though, I can at least try to give each of my students a chance to have a small taste of success as a result of trying on his/her own. Because if there is one thing all those hours and hours staring at these kids during exams while recreating 80s movies in my mind has made clear - these high school students armed with their erasers, rulers, whiteout, and Kero Kero Keroppi jilbab pins -  I just love them.

    As long as I keep that in perspective, the rest seems to work itself out.

     “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”  
       - Sun Tzu


    Below are pics of seniors finding out if they passed the National Exams from last May. There was a lot of drama, tears, emotional calls to parents, and a proud display of results.

    And here are some random pics from a class meeting from last year where classes competed against each other in different sports events. Lots of cheering. 


    Girls from class X rocking it on the futsal court.