Classroom or Cage?


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.

First day of English class. Katherine Li, one of the interns, snapped this photo while I was teaching.

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.

These two visit me daily, but the mother doesn’t usually smile like this. The baby smiles at me a lot. One day, the grandmother joined them and motioned for me to take the baby home in my backpack. I’m not sure if she was kidding or not.

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.

Three weeks in and I still draw an audience.

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?

The other day, I was trying to eat my lunch, but it was kinda hard with this going on.

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?

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10 thoughts on “Classroom or Cage?

  1. I guess you’ve gotten a taste of what it must be like to be a star. Maybe you will look at them differently after this experience. A bit of anonymity and normality isn’t all bad.

    • Yes, I have gotten a taste of celebrity. I always knew I didn’t want to be overtly famous (although I wouldn’t mind creating something that becomes famous), and this experience confirms it. And thanks for the kind words about the photos! =)

  2. Great post… Incredible photos, and wonderful literary expression for your day-to-day experiences over there. Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed reading every word of this and thinking through it with you.

  3. Wow! I use to be a teacher and I thought I had a hard life back then. I think you win the prize for challenges. Keep at it. They need you.

  4. It certainly sounds a tough situation you are in but not one unknown to anyone working in Bangladesh who comes from abroad.

    I would recommend you find boundaries for yourself and find a way to keep the unwanted strangers at bay. They will not give up and will take more and more chances with you every time you yield. You are not just strange and unusual to them but beautiful and rich. Women will give you their babies because they cost money to keep and, if they are a girl, have no value at all. You can offer them a better life and free up the mother too. That’s the thinking and it won’t easily stop. You really do want to get help from those you work with to set up boundaries so you can get the space you need to teach properly and to cope with the pressures around you. Otherwise you will be in danger of your adventure turning into a nightmare.

    I’ve been involved in this amazing country for six years and lived here for four and it is STILL and adventure for me. But I have taken the steps I needed to so that I get the space I need and the chance for a little privacy. Please try to find the same!

    Best wishes

    Ken

    • Thank you so much for you perspective and input! My first instinct when I arrived was to set up strict boundaries with my classroom (thus the caged animal experience) and I think it’s finally starting to work. I had two days this week with a quiet lunch! Ahhhh. Bliss. And thanks for the offer (on your blog) to PM you for advice, etc. I will take you up on that offer!

      • Good to hear! Good luck with the rest of the teaching. It is wonderfully rewarding to do here and I love it myself. But those boundaries (and the chance for that quiet lunch!) are essential. 🙂

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