Today marks the end of my first week working and teaching in Quang Tri. While in Saigon, I spent a lot of time wondering what both would be like. I feel like a piece of the puzzle to my DukeEngage experience has finally been revealed to me, a piece so much larger than the one from my time in Saigon. Nevertheless, much is still hidden, and in the same way that the light of a candle in a dark room makes the surrounding darkness that much more indiscernible, so too might be my remaining six weeks in Vietnam.
As many of my friends know or as you may be able to guess by the odd manner in which I write, I love English. It was my favorite subject in high school, and I consider it to be one of the most formulate elements of my adolescence. As cliché as it sounds, these classes changed the way I think about the world. The sun rises differently because I learned from Morgan Mead and Abby Laber.
It perhaps sounds delusional, but in the same way that Morgan and Abby changed my life, I hoped to do the same for my students. I wanted to be that spark, the match that made learning English not just an interest but a necessity. I didn’t apply to the DukeEngage Vietnam program to do the infrastructure project; in all honesty, I couldn’t care less about it when I applied. I applied to the Vietnam program to teach students, and to teach English.
My Vietnamese roommate Khang and I teach 11th and 12th graders, the oldest and brightest students in the youth center’s ESL program. Obviously, English literature and ESL classes are not the same thing, but nevertheless couldn’t wait to use my passion for English as a teaching mechanism. While teaching them about the language, I would also tell them about Shakespeare, Hemingway, Tolstoy, and Fitzgerald, the very same authors that I fell in love with. I wouldn’t have time to have them read plays or novels, nor would they likely have the ability to, but I would nevertheless give them enough awareness and curiosity for them to discover these worlds for themselves.
This dream was quickly shattered as I began my first class. I only got in a sentence or two before Khang whispered in my ear, “Please speak slower.” I tried; in three minutes I was again told the same thing. Speak slower. I spoke slower and slower and slower, a lush and melodious language reduced to a lethargic speed. I received blank stares in response. Did they understand me? Or, was I just boring them?
Speak slower. Blank stares. I’ve begun to extract a lot of negative meaning from these two things, thoughts that have begun to handicap me. Speak slower: a demonstration of my cavalier attitude, thinking that I could teach just with only my love for English. That teaching was easy, that anyone could do it, and that I didn’t have to change a single thing when teaching in a different country. Blank stares: a startling reality that I did not expect nor would ever want. My dream was to be the best English teacher they’ve ever had. Their stares remind me that I may not even be average, or even barely competent. I’m just bad.
My time spent with my students has been less than ideal, if I were to be honest. The other DukeEngagers around me frequently comment about how bright their students are, how loud, how full of personality, how youthful. My class seems to be the antithesis. My students are shy. My students hate being heard. Borrowed lessons plans that were sure fire hits in other classes were duds in ours. I don’t think I’ve seen so many disinterested faces when playing Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved.” Trying to rally my class in a sing along was one of the most painful and awkward experiences in recent memory.
Of course, my class is not to blame in any capacity. The blame rests fully and completely on me and my ineptitude to bring out the best in my students. It sucks to think this way, but it’s okay. You have to fall sometimes, have your expectations shattered to bits, to be able to build it back together stronger than it was the first time.
The struggle now is, the reason why the surrounding darkness is darker with the candlelight, is how to actually build it back up again. How to turn this undesirable situation on its head. I’ll be honest, I don’t have a single clue how to make this happen. I hope that the friendships and relationships that I’ve attempted to build in the classroom and over Facebook will see it’s fruition as trust in me, but I can’t bank on that. I need to build from the ground up, rethink lesson plans and classroom activities. Do the little things– make them smile. Make them laugh. Make them discover for themselves. Make them do all of the things that Abby Laber did to me as we read “The Great Gatsby,” the book that made me love English. That would be a start.
In hindsight, this blog post is a lot more melancholy than I would have liked. Please don’t let the last 900 words define my DukeEngage experience so far– the good far outweighs the bad, the bad already being minimal. This post, instead, is about tempering expectations, keeping my eyes looking forward, and the now famous Kendrick Lamar lyric. Being humble.