It’s amazing what you can do with just a few key resources. My classroom is a testament to that. We don’t have a proper training space yet, so we’re renting a large room at the village’s Union Council. Judicial hearings were supposedly held there back in the colonial days, so I’m guessing it’s pretty old. It’s definitely basic … and a far cry from the wired classrooms I enjoyed in Korea.
Cement floors, windows covered only by metal bars, a solid layer of dirt, big wood tables instead of desks, surprisingly heavy wood chairs, one (working) fluorescent light tube, five ceiling fans, a not-so-clean squatter toilet around the corner (to which I must bring my own TP), and frequent power outages. To transform the space into a classroom, we purchased a whiteboard. We also have a projector (life saver!) so I can show PowerPoint presentations against the dusty white wall. All of my school supplies, minus the white board, are transported to and from the classroom each day using Bangladeshi picnic baskets. (Picture a handheld grocery basket, except larger and pink, with a lid.) We also have a generator (life saver #2) so I can use the projector when the power goes out, which happens at least once a day. Unfortunately, the generator doesn’t power the ceiling fans, so the classroom gets H-O-T.
I could open the big front doors for air, but English class tends to draw a distracting audience, so the students and I agree to suffer the heat for a little privacy. The local children, however, are not deterred by closed doors. They congregate under the window, or sit on the wall outside, or go on the roof to peer through the windows up there.
The irony is that, before each class, my actual students stop at the front door and ask, “May I come in,” before entering the class that has been created especially for them. Yet everyone else in the village just walks in, uninvited. Every day, at least one regular visitor seems to know my teaching schedule and arrives just as I’ve finished my last class. One young woman brings her baby and intently watches me as I pack my picnic baskets, then sits staring at me until I leave.
Last week, a group of at least 10 women came into the room, formed a triangular shape and proceeded to stare — and I mean stare — at me for what felt like an eternity. It’s really hard to concentrate with 10 sets of eyes watching you, so I finally ushered them out the door so I could get some work done … but not without taking some photos first.
Occasionally, a group of adults will descend upon my classroom in the morning or during my lunch break. They examine me as they make comments and pose questions in Bangla. I shake my head, make a sad face and say, “English teacher. No Bangla.” They continue their examination, making gestures and speaking softly to each other, until eventually, they leave. Despite my desire to be friendly with the community, I have decided to lock the door. Even then, it doesn’t always work, and I end up feeling like a caged animal on display. The local boys pound on my cage and yell to get my attention. When I ignore them, they run from window to window hoping to catch a glimpse of something entertaining.
They’re relentless, so I give in a little, and I enjoy the interaction for awhile. They’re so dang cute and funny and entertaining themselves. The problem is, they’re never satisfied. They always want more. So I become docile, hoping they’ll get bored and leave so I can have some privacy. I find myself relating to zoo animals. You know, the lions and tigers that always choose to recline with their backs to the crowd. The gorilla that just sits against a tree. The panda that sleeps in the corner. The countless animals that have defiantly avoided my camera lens as I persistently maneuver for the perfect spot to take their photos.
So now, each day, I prepare not only my lesson plans and my interactions with my students, but my mind and my heart as well, so I can gracefully deal with all the unwanted attention I receive. At first, I was terrible at it and frustrated all the time, but I’m getting better at embracing the experience and not only tolerating it, but appreciating it.
I can’t help but wonder if, once I’m no longer a novelty and the relentless onlookers stop looking, will I miss it?
Whenever I find myself getting annoyed or uncomfortable, I remind myself that most of these people have never seen anyone like me in person, and while I am certainly not a wealthy person, my possessions and opportunities far exceed anything they could imagine having for themselves. I feel guilty for my annoyance and my need for boundaries in their world. I wish I could help them. Yes, empowering my students to improve their circumstances will provide some benefit to the community, but it’s not helping these kids right now. Of course, letting them take over my classroom won’t help either of us. So I will continue to strive to keep an open mind and heart and pray for balance and acceptance.
To the rest of you travelers out there, have you ever experienced harmless, yet overwhelming attention, and how have you dealt with it?