Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One-Month Reflection

From two weeks ago...I wrote this as a thank-you note for the donors who paid my travel stipend to get to Al Aqaba. I just realized I don't talk about Al Aqaba that much...

I can’t express how grateful I am for the opportunity to be in Al Aqaba right now. One month ago, I was in my family’s home in Seattle, trying to fit my life into two suitcases and trust that everything would be alright. I was looking forward to the flight, to Amman, to the adventure that is traveling in the West Bank, but I was most looking forward to rolling my suitcases into my new home, the Al Aqaba Guest House.

It’s been a great month. I’m settled into the apartment, and finally settled into a routine. As soon as I kicked the jetlag, which afforded me several gorgeous sunsets and national anthems from the secondary school downstairs, I started to get up around 8:30. At 9, I lead two lessons in the kindergarten. We’re working on our ABC’s and recognizing letter sounds. The kids are also having fun with Total Physical Response-sit down! stand up! turn around! Next, I want to work on sounding out three-letter words, with some props and visuals. I need a stuffed cat. I’ve never taught little kids before, but it involves a lot of theatricality and enthusiasm, and you really get what you give. They pound on their little tables and shout loudly and try to respond to the in-between English instructions they don’t understand. I’ve gained a lot of respect for kindergarten teachers. I can’t speak yet with most of these women, but I see how close they are with the kids and I want to express my admiration. I think they can tell I’m new at this.

At 10 I teach the 9th and 10th grade boys. Past 4th grade, the girls of Al Aqaba attend school in Tayasir, so there’s a lot of boy energy in this secondary school. My students are, well, 14 and 15-year-old boys. They’re too cool for school, and my class falls in the middle of their morning break, which can be hectic. At least it’s an improvement from the original 7am arrangement. These guys are goofy and charming, much like my students in New Orleans, and they have a lot of enthusiasm that I can play off of, but it’s directed more at me as their portal to the outside world than it is for conversing in English. I want to say, “Conversing in English is your portal to the outside world!” Some of them just don’t want to speak at all, but even those who do have few opportunities to practice. But they want to see my pictures, videos, music, and be my Facebook friend. I think it’s great that I get to show them all these things, but the challenge is harnessing it into something they can use. Setting up the new English program to reach students earlier and coming up with creative, non-class opportunities to practice English is going to be key.

I teach an adult class at 5, and I have ten regular students. They’re students, lawyers, teachers, parents from Tubas and Tayasir and they’re all eager to improve their conversational skills. I make up a new lesson every day, based on language patterns I read or hear, or common mistakes I notice. Then at the end, I play a song that demonstrates that pattern. The atmosphere is getting more relaxed, and more of my students are comfortable holding casual conversations. They catch me up on the news, invite me places, and I know it’s in those conversations where they get the best practice. That, and it’s nice to have friends in the city.

As my routine becomes more solid, so do my relationships. The people who work for Al Aqaba have become my teachers and helpers. Othman and Amira and Tahrir who work in the office, Abu Saleh, the groundskeeper, Hisham, the driver, Mohammad and Hekmat, who run the sewing co-op, Mustafa, Haj Sami’s nephew, and of course, Haj Sami. I’ve learned so much from everyone, and the positive energy here is infectious. Everyone is working for the village because it’s their home, but there’s a care and awareness that can only come from the threat of destruction, and that’s a common story in Palestine.

I felt the same feeling in New Orleans. I had a friend once ask me, “isn’t New Orleans a really sad place?” and I replied, “No, New Orleans is the happiest place I’ve ever seen.” But a people have to go through hell and back to know what they’ve got, and there’s a fierceness about the way they celebrate it.

Likewise, there’s a love that can only be borne from the loss, separation, and the unpredictability of life under military occupation. I wonder what Tahrir was thinking when she tried to get to work on the morning of September 15th. Did someone come to tell her the news, or was she already in the Service taxi, trying to get into Al Aqaba? She would’ve seen Israeli jeeps surrounding the village, and bulldozers coming down the hill, bringing the pavement with them. This smiling, gentle young woman who helps me with the copy machine. I love her all the more for the fact that she’s smiling in spite of it all.