Searching for the semangat

He took off his wire-rimmed glasses, drew his hand across his face, and breathed out the Bahasa Indonesia equivalent of “This is horse hockey.” He had left his class in a funk, not so much frustrated as deflated, whoopee cushion-style. As he walked among cracked concrete and posters for field trips long past, he recognized an increasingly familiar something in his chest.

"In his classroom, the one place that should be a temple of passion, that volleyball-guitar spirit left their eyes." (Kelsey Figone/Indonesiaful)

“In his classroom, the one place that should be a temple of passion, that volleyball-guitar spirit left their eyes.” (Kelsey Figone/Indonesiaful)

He’d been teaching English at SMA Negeri Whatever for three years now, and with each passing month he felt this grayish ache in his ribcage, growing like a durian tree on his heart. It wasn’t that his students were unenthusiastic about learning. On the contrary, he plainly observed their zeal each time they strummed their guitars outside of class or batted their volleyballs around semangat-ly in the courtyeard. What made this feeling grow, he realized (not without horror), was that in his classroom, the one place that should be a temple of passion, that volleyball-guitar spirit left their eyes.

He had to do something, and that something manifested itself — as it often does with the frustrated — as that desperate pointer finger we call blame. It really wasn’t all his fault! Each week, he was given only an hour and a half with his students. 90 minutes. 5,400 seconds a week to help them construct an entirely foreign system of expression, a new map of reality.

Then there was the government’s new curriculum to worry about, which focused on solving social problems and building moral character. As a result, the new workbooks were a literary mess of landslides and slums and global warming, and English grammar seemed to be lost somewhere between “soil erosion” and “The empirically dubious G8 Summit.” Social problems were important, sure, but trying to have a meaningful discussion about foreign aid and the urban poor seemed pretty silly if his students could barely string a sentence together in English, and admittedly, when it came to phrases like “empirically dubious,” he was just as clueless as they were. The government wanted his students to cook lingual rendang. Meanwhile, their English skills were busy trying to figure out how to boil water (“Do these correctly!” the book insists). And as for moral character, he was convinced that was something that could not be learned from a book or taught by another person. That was one of the many lessons that only life could teach.

He walked into the school’s small kitchen and sat down on a wooden bench with some of the other male teachers. They were a pleasant bunch. They joked and laughed. They poured their tea from a big metal kettle. They looked at their watches absent-mindedly. They smoked their cigarettes. And as they did, he observed an ease of movement about them that had long ago packed up and hitched a ride from his body. He silently regarded the knowledge that he could no longer conduct his rokok as they did, instead strangling each smoke between his fingers until flame met filter. Aware as he was that he was trying to suck something out of them other than tar and rat poison, he still did not know what that something was. At the same time, though, he was pretty yakin it had to do with the fact that so many of his co-gurus seemed content to sit in class and watch students write in their books, and then go home and sit with their families. He couldn’t decide if that was somehow wrong, or if nothing was wrong, or if everything was.

Restless again and feeling the durian tree sprouting new branches, he said his “pulang dulu“s and exited. The search continued. He glanced into classrooms full of students’ heads, many of which were white-hijabed like those tissue lollipop ghosts you get on Halloween, which he had never seen because he did not celebrate Halloween and therefore only thought of the students’ heads as students’ heads, which is how they should be thought of, if one is inclined to think about such things. But he, in fact, was not thinking about his students’ heads. He was thinking about their hearts.

His students did not use their hearts. They strove for perfection of grammar without bothering to learn what their writing was revealing. They were afraid of saying anything incorrectly, so they copied sentences from each others’ notebooks word for word without so much as an “apa artinya?” — “What does it mean?” English for them meant studying a code of rules which, if written in the correct sequence, could get them a good score on a test. It did not seem to occur to them that it was possible to use this strange tongue to give life to feelings within them that lay undiscovered by Bahasa Indonesia, to open doors with invisible knobs.

And the Americans were even worse. They used their hearts too much. They did not listen to the new language, did not let themselves become absorbed by it or surrender their important thoughts to make space for it. Rather, they sought to exert their own will upon it. Hungry for knowledge, they wrestled with Indonesian words and tried to bend them into American thoughts. They still said things like, “lihat Anda nanti” (see…you…later) as if translating individual words could convey a perfect one-to-one meaning, and they still could not understand how Indonesians could “get by” without verb tenses. They were so used to dividing all their time into digestible verbal nuggets like “had gone” and “has gone” and “went” and “has been going” and “will go” and “will have gone” and “would have been going,” that they were left helpless with only sudah, sedang, and akan at their disposal. Pas, present, and future. They could not clear their overactive minds long enough to unlearn what they thought they knew. They were so busy trying to understand this new world, to take it in their fists and capture it, that they did not even notice it right at their feed, ready to be understood if they would only sit still and let it capture them.

It could be worse, though. He found the American teacher’s attempts to recruit students for projects and write proposals in Bahasa Indonesia both endearing and ridiculous, for though it was clear he cared about his students “getting things done,” it was also quite clear that he didn’t understand the first thing about them.

And then it hit him, “it” being a volleyball which hit him square in the face, and him being the American trying to recruit students. He had been thinking about what learning looked like, if it had a recognizable face that one could point to, but now he looked up to find another English teacher laughing at him from across the courtyard, a glint in his eye showing through wire-rimmed glasses. This made the American angry. Couldn’t they see that he was trying to do serious work? For the past few months he had been busting his butt to spark something in the classrooms, working to rid himself of the same strange crabapple tree that felt like it was growing roots on his heart. But he knew (it’s always foolish people who seem to know things) that the other Enlgish teachers at his school couldn’t understand. He saw the way his co-teacher did not enter class, instead seemingly content enough to watch the students bop volleyballs to and fro and sing songs around a guitar. He wanted to yell to the laughing man, “Don’t you CARE?! Don’t you want your students to know how magical learning can be?!” But instead the American kept silent. If only there were others who longed for passion in their school, and were willing to voice it.

Meanwhile, the students sat on their benches and listened to lungs respond to guitar strings, waiting for a teacher to enter their class who could help them understand what their songs really mean.

About the author: Tommy McAree is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Tanjung Pandan, Belitung Island. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2013 and has a big-hearted family. He also has great friends, who he hopes will solve this whole “global poverty” thing.  

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