School begins

Monday. The first day of school. All the students sit in the assembly hall singing hymns in perfect harmony, boys on the left taking accompanying parts and the girls on the right doubled in number singing melody. Visa, the head tutor, stands outside the entrance chain smoking, ignoring the law of no smoking on campuses and extinguishing his cigarette against the clearly marked “No Smoking” sign. A minister files to the front and speaks a hymn, which the student body dutifully repeats in song, and then they collectively utter the Lord’s Prayer, competing to be heard. The first day of school is ready to commence. Classes? No. Clean-up day, where students re-paint walls, sweep and mop the classrooms, wipe down windowpanes and otherwise do very little. Tuesday is also clean up day, followed by the first large assembly on Wednesday, the end of registration on Thursday, and a feast to mark the beginning of school on Friday. Classes will start during the second week.

I arrived for the Friday assembly and feast early, not knowing it started at 10 instead of 8:30, and so I joined in the Kava circle that had taken over the faculty room. Two female students from Form 5 were the toas, the people who serve the kava, and the two youngest teachers flirted shamelessly with them. I was seated where it turns out talking chiefs are placed. Whenever someone new arrives at the kava circle, he says a speech thanking the group for allowing him to join and a bunch of other stuff I can never understand, and then the talking chief responds, thanking him for joining the group and making him feel invited. I was told to take this roll, a great honor, although they were by no means making me a talking chief, but it was an honor I of course immediately relinquished when the kava circle was done and the assembly was ready to commence. My feet were so asleep from sitting cross-legged in the Kava circle for over an hour that I fell over when I tried to stand. And almost fell the second time. It took what seemed like forever for me to effectively rise and walk and I’m sure everyone thought I was drunk on Kava, and by the time I had effectively risen, everyone was already in the assembly hall waiting for me to begin the ceremony.

My dog also followed me to school for the first time that day and created havoc during the feast, running around to everyone—jumping up on laps, being pushed away, and jumping on the next person. Most dogs aren’t allowed inside buildings, so know not to go through a sheltered overhang to enter the school grounds, but my dog feels no such limitations. I felt like a parent ignoring a screaming kid in a supermarket—“He’s not mine, I swear”—but Uli of course ruined my attempt to disassociate by lying at my feet after getting his fill from teachers feeding him under the table and followed me religiously from then on. I don’t know why people who love beating dogs, sometimes even with a machete, are so obsessed with sneaking them food? Maybe something to do with their love of eating dogs, so it becomes habitual to fatten them up. It might sound ridiculous that people eat dogs here, but it’s not. Another Peace Corps Volunteer’s dog was recently eaten by the police stationed directly behind her house. You can’t go to the police if the police are the ones who ate the dog.

I’ve started tying my dog up before I go to school as he entered every one of my classes on the first day of actual classes. This shouldn’t be a big deal, as about a third of the female faculty have infants they drag to school, who wail during assemblies and teacher’s meetings and often classes as well. It is funny to see a biology teacher with baby in one hand, pouring some viscous liquid into a Petri dish with the other hand. I don’t know what else would be expected with no day care in Tonga, but it certainly results in a lot of infants running around. But somehow dogs are not viewed in the same way. Even though Uli will just lie at my feet, his presence is not welcome where vociferous babies are accepted with open arms. Tying him at my house is probably the safest way to keep him from the dinner plate, as people at least know him as my dog now, although no one likes the name because they thing I’m saying “Ule” instead of “Uli”, which might sound similar, but Ule means balls and not the kind used in sports.

Teaching is going OK, but it is difficult. I’m teaching form 5 and 6 English, the equivalent of 11th and 12th grade, and more than half the kids do not know how to write a complete sentence. Form 5 computers is also difficult, because I am supposed to teach complex things like binary code, ASCII code and all this other useless technical jargon when only one of the kids has ever even turned a computer on. I did rewrite the syllabus to be far more practical. For example, everyone getting an email is now one of our projects, but I still have to skim over the useless stuff as they are being tested on it.

That is teaching life in Tonga—teaching for the test. It is a difficult duty, especially when the ministry of education does not even have syllabuses ready for half the subjects, and say they won’t until over half way through first term. “That’s why we are getting a new government,” Ungatea, my supervisor, said angrily. The people can’t enforce much when all appointees are completely political—friends and brothers and cousins—instead of elected bodies that can be held accountable by the electorate (theoretically). It’s also hard when the teachers seem not to care about the classes. One fellow English teacher said he would not start teaching until next week, because there was sports week this week, and he said the students don’t want to learn until after sports week. Another teacher who usually teaches scripture was made into a history teacher because there weren’t enough, and he asked my if I knew anything about World War I, because he didn’t so skipped on to World War II. The nice thing is, that even if I left today, I would have made a difference just by tweaking both computer and English syllabuses to more practical and level appropriate material. The bad thing is, there is no changing the school or teacher habits unless the government tackles a compete overhaul of Tongan education. But I guess these aren’t just problems in Tonga.


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