I have spent the better part of the last three months trying to figure out how to accurately describe local schools culture to people back home—trying to think of some metaphor that will singlehandedly account for every class missed, ear twisted, uniform tucked, speech delivered, and empty hour wiled away in a breathless classroom at midday. It is hard to sum up. The school I work at is not like a poor, rural high school in America, transmigrated to the tropics. Nor is it like a big-city high school in China or Korea, minus the rigor and facilities. It is not college prep by default, or a pipeline to anything or anyplace else in particular. National exams and the threat of accountability loom large in administrators’ rhetoric, but academics do not seem to be a top priority for many. Here in West Timor, school means as much or as little as one cares for it to mean. It fills the rest of the social, emotional, and intellectual space in a young person’s life between the stalwarts of family, church, and work. On some days, our school has more in common with a day care than with an educational institution. But each day also always reminds me that there is a wide range of possibility between a job well done and a job not done at all and that most of life is necessarily spent floundering somewhere in the middle.
Technically, my job is to teach English to students and to train local English teachers to be better at their jobs. Between doing it well on any given day and not doing it all, I tend to lean closer to not doing it at all, especially if you factor in class cancellations due to testing, holidays, official business (mine or somebody else’s), or totally random, unforeseen interruptions. When I do get to spend time with my students and colleagues, I find general study skills so lacking and the classroom dynamic so unfocused as to make sustained, meaningful language acquisition nearly impossible. A few of my more driven students are going to learn how to read, write, and speak English some day. But the bulk of their learning will take place after they have graduated from high school and in spite of a scarcity of opportunities to practice consistently.
All of this begs the question: what am I really doing here? Realistically, what can come of my presence in this community? I just got back from my first Peace Corps-sponsored conference in Surabaya, which seemed to be a way of saying “Maybe a plushy week of hot showers and hotel food will help you figure it out.” The food and showers did help a little with morale at the same time that they managed to make me feel guilty. The pedagogical sessions themselves were a mixed bag. One of them, about the use of games in the classroom, stood out to me though. There was nothing theoretical about it at all. The fellow volunteer who facilitated it simply walked us through a sampling of games that he’d found to be particularly effective in his own classroom. One of them, called “Marble Race,” literally amounted to us screaming encouragement at a four-minute long video of some colorful marbles rolling down a channel in the sand. Of course, all the cheering had to be done in the target language, so before the game started, we reviewed a few basic words and phrases in Bahasa Indonesia: colors (corresponding to the marbles) and equivalents for “C’mon!”, Faster!”, and “This sucks!” or “This crap is rigged!” I imagined my own students playing this game in English and the thought of them yelling “This crap is rigged!” at my laptop screen made me laugh involuntarily.
This session stood out at least in part because of how much more fun it was than all the other sessions—how much less canned and stuffy it felt in comparison. Indeed, by purporting to have no point besides fun, it actually managed to drive home the most important point of all: that our students remember not what we tell them but rather how we make them feel in our classrooms. I had definitely heard that before. But I had never had a chance to yell myself hoarse at a bunch of marbles rolling around on screen, or to feel sheepish about it afterwards. The other obvious takeaway is this: humor and enjoyment can make anything worth doing. If you want somebody to expend effort learning or working on something—especially if he or she isn’t personally invested yet—then fun is as good a source of motivation as any other. I did not always find this idea to be so self-evident. In fact, it has always been a difficult one to swallow for somebody like me—for somebody who grew up believing that learning and fun had little, if anything to do with each other.
My parents were immigrants, which meant that most of what they did in between arriving in the US and my early childhood years was driven more by a sense of responsibility and paranoia than by the promise of reward and fulfillment. Growing up, I managed to turn this frank reality into a personal value system. I came to believe that work isn’t supposed to be fun—that work is what you do because you have to and fun is the break you earn for having worked hard and long enough. If I went to school, or took piano lessons, or volunteered at the hospital, or did anything else remotely “productive,” then I did it because it was the right thing to do or because self-betterment demanded that I do it. If I happened to have fun in the process, then I was either extraordinarily lucky or, more likely, not working hard enough. And if I felt like I needed fun in order to get through something, then I was a bum. To this day, I feel a wave of disgust pass through me when students tell me that they find the material “uninteresting” or “unrelatable” or when they act as if their learning depends on their enjoyment. “You don’t have to enjoy everything in life.” I want to sneer. “You can do it just because you have to.”
That’s just the thing, though. The idea of “having” to do something is completely relative. I never had to do anything in the same way that my parents had to. Which is to say, I never had to do anything just to make ends meet. The truth is that I’ve been more or less free to *choose* what I want to do with my time and energy. And the fact that I was able to pretend otherwise—to pretend that my studies and extracurriculars were do-or-die responsibilities—says more about the culture and privilege I grew up in than it does about any innate capacity of mine to work hard. My current students don’t have the luxury of being able to pretend like that. They can’t pretend that their ability to lead happy, productive lives in their own society depends on their ability to learn English (it so, patently doesn’t). They can’t pretend that achieving and sustaining a basic level of conversational English is anything more than an aspiration. And they certainly can’t pretend that it’s their “duty” to come to my class everyday and study English like their lives depend on it.
What I’ve come to accept is that under such circumstances, a bit of fun can actually be the more realistic, grounding, and accessible source of motivation than so-called “productivity”—the difference between doing any part of a job and doing none of it at all. It’s just odd though: not having a better—or at least, a more pressing—reason for showing up at work than the fun that might come of it. I’m sure my students won’t have a problem with that though. On Monday, it will have been three weeks since I’ve seen my them. I will come to class and explain to them the meaning of “This crap is rigged!” And then we will cheer for marbles rolling through the sand. If I know them at all, they will laugh and scream and turn over a couple of chairs. We’ll see if we can’t get any further than that.