Week Eight Reflections
When I first stepped into my class eight weeks ago, I was one amongst a room full of strangers. Everyone, including myself, my translator, the volunteers, and the children had some kind of guard up around them. We were all new to each other and naturally hesitant to reveal our true selves. Our interactions were marked by timidity, and one could sense the tension just by the silence that permeated the classroom. Two short months later, and it seems like the world has been turned upside down.
There is no silence anymore in my classroom, but rather an energetic clamor that resonates through the halls of TYO. The children are loud, boisterous and eager to learn and play. We are strangers no more, and instead of the bashful greetings of the past, they welcome me and the volunteers with a heartfelt openness. We are met with kisses and hugs, and told “I love you” and “we missed you,” even if only two days have passed since our last union. Likewise, I experience the same kind of affection with my translator and volunteers. They are not unfamiliar faces, but friends who I have come to know and truly love.
Aside from the changes I’ve seen in our group dynamic, there are also those on the individual level. Young boys and girls who were at first too shy to even say their name aloud now dash through the classroom, screaming and laughing joyfully. Ghalia, a volunteer who initially told me that she doesn’t even like children, looks forward to seeing the kids each day, missing them when they are absent. Mohammed, my translator, no longer stands quietly beside me as a co-worker, but converses and jokes with me as a friend. I have even noticed some changes in myself.
No longer do I worry anxiously about my lesson plans or how I will be received by my students. Instead, I just look forward each day to the few hours that I get to spend with them. The only feeling that dampers the joy I feel in my classroom is the fear of my impending departure. With just two weeks left in the session, I feel like there is so much left undone. These children need more than ten weeks of attention, and I am sad that I will be unable to give it to them. Fortunately, the TYO center will be standing long after I am gone, and others will take over where I left off, experiencing the same pleasures and happiness that I must leave behind.
Writing a short blog post reflecting on my time here in Nablus is no easy task. From my arrival at the airport, to this past week having my volunteers lead my sports class, Nablus has become a city dear to my heart. I remember the warnings before I arrived, that Nablus is a difficult place to live and that there are so many things that are part of our daily lives in the US that would no longer be part of our lives here. I thought I would be spending my after-work hours in my room reading, waiting for the next day to start.
One of the things I was most worried about was living in an apartment with nine other women. I'd been living alone for six years, and the thought being surrounded by roommates 24/7 was daunting. What I found instead, was a group of strong, intelligent, like-minded women who came to Palestine for many of the same reasons as me. Those who had been here for months were eager to help us with any cultural, geographical, or occupation-related questions we might have, but also appreciated the benefits of time alone to decompress.
Another major uncertainty in my mind was being able to communicate with my students and volunteers. I had no idea what to expect from working with a translator, and frankly, I wasn't excited about being entirely dependent on someone else for my voice. I thought – for some silly reason – that I would be able to use Modern Standard Arabic to communicate. Though this is sometimes possible with adults, our students just laugh when I attempt with them. Furthermore, I couldn't have been more mistaken about working with a translator. Jamila is clever, observant, sensitive, and open-hearted. The attentiveness required to be a successful translator is overwhelming. When I stand, she stands; when I raise my voice, she must also, when I bend down to talk to a child, she's right at my shoulder. As far as Jamila is concerned, I can't compliment her enough. And while I had to begin from scratch with Arabic, I am now communicating with my students in colloquial Arabic every day.
Overall, I think my biggest concern was that I would come to Nablus and be unable to be my true self. Although there are parts of my life in Chicago that I've had to leave behind, I've been able to fulfill a dream beyond my hopes. The opportunities to explore Palestine and to connect with Palestinians on a personal level is invaluable. Many of my misgivings about this experience have turned out to be unfounded, but other realities, especially related to the occupation, have proved difficult. Despite this, I've learned something like the Palestinians I know - that even though circumstances can be tough, life can be beautiful no matter where you find yourself.
Mais was in a tizzy: someone had taken her gluestick without asking, and she grabbed it back, and all of a sudden we had a situation on our hands. Words and gestures somersaulted one on top of the other, tumbling out of her flapping mouth and through her flying hands, as she laid out the details of her case with a determined stare and full confidence that justice would be delivered. But amidst her dramatic monologue, Afnan, sitting across the table, said, “Slow down, wait for a minute, it has to get translated!”
I couldn’t help but laugh at her savvy – because the truth is that the kids and I sometimes forget that we don’t fully understand each other’s languages. Sara greeted me in the hallway one day in rapid-fire Arabic, and I apologized to her and told her I couldn’t understand – a story she thought was funny enough to raise her hand to share with the whole class the next day. And sometimes I’m surprised when I tell the kids to do something and they don’t do it immediately – because, of course, my messages are conveyed only through the tone of my voice and not through my words. For the words, I rely on my translator, Ruba, who you met in my second week of teaching and blogging. She is the fulcrum of my classroom - the connection between me and the kids.
So much of teaching, and especially the psychosocial work that we try to incorporate in our classes at TYO, centers on communication. We need to make the kids comfortable, to establish a bond with them, to understand their joys and frustrations. When I first started teaching here, I was daunted by the prospect of doing all that across a language barrier – one that, after four years of Arabic instruction, should be easier to surmount than it is.
Working through a translator undoubtedly has its challenges, especially when trying to resolve conflicts between between kids: what are already he-said, she-said scenarios now become Ruba-said-that-he-said, Ruba-said-that-she-said ones. I miss having the colorful range of English vocabulary to praise the kids if we were all working in the same language, the subtle differences between “cool,” “awesome,” “beautiful,” and “cute” could be conveyed exactly as I intended.
But increasingly, reaching across the language barrier has become second nature. Ruba does an awesome job of sticking to my side and, on the rare occasion we get separated, I know she will leap to my rescue just when I need her. I have come to appreciate how closely Ruba matches what I’m saying. And, sometimes, when I word-vomit or flub a sentence, it’s like I get a second chance to say it more eloquently. And beyond the words, she matches my energy. When I whisper in (sometimes vain) hopes of arousing the kids curiosity and getting them to listen, she whispers with me. She even sometimes amplifies my energy: when I tell my class that I am so happy I am to see them on this beaaaauuutiful day, Ruba adds even more enthusiasm: she makes it so so SO happy.
As the session has progressed, I have learned to speak the children’s language, and they have learned to speak mine. The students have learned to mimic me when I clap in a pattern to get their attention. And more than one child has asked Ruba what it means when I say “so…”; I never would have expected that my students would be able to detect a verbal tic in another language! For my part, I’ve become better immersed in the rhythms of the Arabic language. Each evening, my ears ring with echoes of “Khaltu Anna,” a term of respect for older women that basically translates to “Aunt Anna,” which the kids call me all day long. I’ve also become initiated into the convention of naming people “Abu [Fill in Characteristic Here]”, when my children drew aliens and gave them names like Father of the Many Eyes and Father of Scariness.
More than that, I’m learning their emotional languages, too – the kinds of situations that will delight or upset them. what makes them laugh and what makes them want to storm out of the classroom. Just as the children were thrilled by the simple act dropping their toy parachutes off the balcony, a small tear in the plastic bag parachute, which seems negligible to me, is upsetting to a child who doesn’t want to feel second-best.
Oftentimes, our communication transcends words. It’s the language of oohs and ahhs I heard when I showed the children pictures of elaborate treehouses and houses shaped like tea kettles and strawberries, or when they saw that they would get to use glitter to decorate their family trees. Sometimes, it’s the language of a quick pat on the arm when comforting a child, or the game that I played with myself during the first week of classes, when I smiled at a child to see how long it would take to get them to smile back. Working at TYO, I’ve come to appreciate how much can be expressed non-verbally. We may write in different scripts and different directions, but, even as I stumble my way through the Arabic language, concern, excitement, disappointment, humor, and love can all be conveyed through my presence.
Two weeks before the end of the session and dramatic changes are still taking place in my classroom. This week my classes welcomed a new translator, Hanin. Our resilient veteran Ahmad has left TYO for greener pastures and the possibility of becoming an English teacher and having complete command of his very own classroom. Our translator transition made me realize how unique our classrooms’ teaching environment really is. Teaching with the aid of a translator is a venture I’ve never encountered. When you add class volunteers to the mix, it becomes evident that managerial skills are a must. You are not only responsible for the well being of the students and their improvement over the course of ten weeks, but also need to take into consideration volunteer empowerment and all of this must be communicated in a language that is not your own. A translator is crucial, for the obvious reasons of linguistic communication but also in regards to capturing the unspoken: the hand gestures, the facial expressions, the silent disapprovals.
My students have a knack for stroking their chins whenever they want something. It’s the equivalent to the American “pretty please with a cherry on top” expression, except that some of my students look like they are impersonating sheikhs and stroking their beards. For weeks I had no idea what this gesture meant and I dismissed it as a childish game, until finally my translator saw my perplexed expression and explained the connotation of the gesture. This is something I would have never stopped to question and would have let pass by.
There are times that not knowing the language is a handicap and having a translator is not sufficient. This week, my students are working on their final plays for the session and when they rehearse or share ideas there is only so much that can be translated. My translators provide me with the basic gist, an elucidation of what is happening before my eyes, and although I’m watching it happen and having the dialogue translated, I know I’m only really grasping a small portion of what is taking place. These are moments in which I rely on their expressions for clues, for some sort of indication that the wheels are turning or that they are enjoying themselves. As much as I love seeing a look of satisfaction on their faces, I wish I could understand what caused that contentment and fully be a part of their interactions. Although I’m not always in on the joke, I’m always still a part of the merriment.