a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent

I’ve been looking back through my posts and feel disappointed by how little I write about daily happenings and day-to-day realities. I must commend Diana again for her diligence and fortitude in capturing so many small details and giving her friends and family back home a clear sense of what life is like in Indonesia. She’s great! A supreme being of power and heart! A blessing for all!

I bet I could give you a description of my daily life, to start. There’s so much that’s complex about life here; I’ll start with what’s easiest and hopefully progress to something more nuanced and worth knowing.

Lately I’ve been rising at 4:30 am to take a walk up toward the mountain, among the rice paddies and trees. There’s a quiet road that leads away from the village, and it takes me about half an hour to go up to the next village and back to my house. My walk is always lovely, sublime—peaceful, quiet, pre-dawn, full of sounds of the earth waking. Sometimes the frogs in the rice paddies are so loud I have to turn my head so their voices aren’t hitting my ears directly. Sometimes it’s densely foggy, and sometimes the sunrise is more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen. This walk in an abundant source of joy.

Once I get back, I have a cup of coffee on the porch and read before taking a mandi, eating breakfast, and changing into my school clothes. Each day I wear a different uniform, usually batik and black pants.

Bu Heri picks me up at 6:30am and we walk the 500 meters to school together, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet. We talk about her family, our teaching plan, our cultures and countries, language, the schedule for the day. If it’s clear, I always say something about how beautiful the mountain is (it’s hard to imagine being less than incredibly aware of and sensitive to the beauty of a place just because you live there and have lived there; I hope I never stop feeling mesmerized by that mountain).

Every other day it’s pasar or market day a the “big” intersection in the village, and old ladies wearing traditional sarongs greet us and give us their toothy—toothless—smiles, red-lipped and -gummed from chewing betel, knit caps covering their silver hair. They sit on the ground with tarps on which their goods are displayed—green vegetables, red chilis, tempeh wrapped in banana leaves, krupuk, bananas, coconuts, garlic, shallots. Ladies in pajamas and housedresses buy their groceries for the day as kids zoom by on their motorcycles, heading to school. I can always tell which of the students go to my school based on their uniforms; the seragam sekolah are all different and range from coral pink to red or green plaid to blue and white patterned batik to scout uniforms. The girls who go to madrasahs wear jilbabs and floor-length skirts and many of the boys wear kopyah, small black felt hats, colorfully lettered and embroidered.

The walk gets interesting once we hit the school street, which is always hectic with motorcycles, angkots, and bodies. The elementary, middle, and high schools are all right next to each other, so the kids that say hello and shout “Good morning!” as Bu Heri and I walk by range from kindergarten to high school. There’s usually a throng of little ones buying sweets and popsicles from motorcycle vendors in front of the elementary school, and the boys love to say my name as the girls peek meekly from beneath their cotton jilbabs—you can’t imagine how sweet these little girls are. The ones who know me aren’t afraid of saying hello, usually including Lia and Putri (my darlings!).

Once we hit the school, it’s a greeting extravaganza. Kids saleem and say good morning and teachers salam everybody individually—shaking hands and not infrequently having a “Good morning, how are you?” exchange in English (great!) Everybody shakes everybody’s hand, no matter what the other person is doing. If someone is busy or doesn’t notice that a greeter has extended their hand and is expecting a handshake, the greeter will poke them on the shoulder or arm until their hand is noticed and clasped. It’s an interesting exchange, one that frequently makes me pause and remind myself of metta, loving-kindness: don’t get impatient if someone appears not to care that you’re in the middle of doing something important that involves both hands! It’s culture! They just want to say hello! I like that everyone greets each other individually and takes the time to acknowledge everyone’s presence in a substantial way. It probably doesn’t sound like anything drastic, but shaking thirty or forty individuals’ hands each morning can be… taxing? Repetitive? Annoying? Refreshing? I have such mixed emotions about it, still—it drives me nuts but sometimes I feel so grateful for it (it’s a nice little human connection that feels different than the exclusively verbal greetings we practice in the States, and I need human connection). Regardless, it’s a part of the morning ritual.

Kids and teachers start the day by sweeping the floors in the classroom and teachers rooms. The canteen is open and folks grab breakfast: another aspect of Indonesian culture is that everyone pays very close attention to who has eaten and who hasn’t—people remind each other incessantly to eat, ask each other if they’ve eaten, and talk about what was eaten and by whom. I think it’s a phatic language thing, or people just trying to be nice or considerate of the health of others, but as an American, this is extremely annoying. Sometimes I’ve already eaten and have told everyone I’ve already eaten but am still commanded, multiple times, “Samantha, EAT!” Luckily, this is getting easier to deal with—I just remember that nobody can physically force me to eat and if I ruffle feathers by eating by my own schedule, so be it. Ha!

So, once the school is swept and the bell has rung—it rings at a different time everyday because it has to be activated when the main computers are booted up—classes (or whatever semblance of daily activity there is that day) finally begin.

This is my morning routine six days a week out of seven—events after this point in the day are usually delightfully unpredictable and frequently fun and exciting.


Last week, our daily schedule was disturbed by mid-semester tests. I feel so bad for the students, especially the seniors: seniors spent the better part of three weeks doing nothing but tests all day. While the underclassmen were having their last week of classes, seniors studied during the day for their “practice exams” in preparation for the national exams, coming in May/June. They were privileged to stay after school an extra two hours each day to do their practice tests, and I was privileged to proctor.

Once semester exams started for everyone, classes stopped; students took an average of three two-hour test each day for eight days (with one day off, on a Sunday). The tests had been dropped off from Madiun in a pick-up truck and were sorted and prepared by the teachers: since the students are mixed by level and grade during exams so as to deter cheating, each classroom’s tests had to be arranged and counted based on topic of study and grade and class (track). Unfortunately, the poor kids are tested on the twenty or so school subjects they study each semester; unfortunately, the poor kids study twenty or so school subjects each semester.

I proctored three exams each day; only fifteen teachers proctored each testing session, and the rotation was supposedly designed so that people didn’t have to proctor all day long for the entire testing period, but I wasn’t so lucky. But that’s ok, at least I had something to do and felt like I was serving a purpose—I’d rather proctor and have my eyeballs melt from boredom than not, given that there is a fairly serious cheating problem at my school (and from what I can tell, at all of my friends’ schools, too).

I only ended up confiscating five or six tests over the course of the twenty or so exams I proctored. The kids didn’t fool around too much. I had them rearrange their desks—which are two-seaters—so that they were seated on the far ends, back to back with the next fellows over, instead of right next to one another. This put about four feet in between each kid and gave me an easy time seeing if a kid was craning her or his neck to see someone else’s paper. I told them that if I saw them cheating once I’d confiscate their paper, which I did, once I felt absolutely confident that a kid was cheating.

I have a lot to say about this cheating issue, which is a big one for us as PCVs since we are at schools where cheating is frequently seen as a big problem but is not ever stopped by teachers or principals. Teachers don’t want kids to cheat, but do little to prevent or discourage it. In fact, as far as I can see, cheating is encouraged since it’s viewed as “working together”: kids work together on virtually all of their class assignments and homework and have very little individual accountability though the assignments are supposed to be completely independently. Teachers don’t encourage kids to do things on their own, nor do they discourage students when papers are handed in with the exact same answers. This does not foster learning or retention of material, critical thinking or efficiency, competence or independence (though it reflects students’ ability to achieve a common goal—everybody completes the assignment—and to do so collaboratively, which is good; I don’t see the same level of competitiveness in Indonesian students as I do in American students).

So, the kids are thrown a big curve ball when exams come and they’re supposed to do the work alone. I feel doubly bad for those kids who had me as a proctor because I was not the norm. I disturbed the system, but I don’t feel bad enough for them to regret it.

The system itself is highly Westernized, if it’s fair to say that standardized testing at the end of semesters of instruction based on a national curriculum was a practice developed by the West (I could be wrong on that one). The teachers and principals of these village schools are out of synch with national education goals, which is why we’re here as PCVs. That’s not a judgment, just a fact; city kids and teachers have a lot easier go of it. I’m willing to bet that the cheating rate is lower in more affluent city schools because the educational system has already started shifting from teacher-centered to learner-centered: kids are learning, which means they are also developing independence and critical thinking skills.

There is not supposed to be cheating on the semester exams, in the cities or the villages. Even though working together is part of the school culture at my school and Indonesian culture itself is essentially cooperative and community-based to a high degree, the national exam must be an exception to this trend, maybe for an even more radical reason than just that cheating is inherently wrong (based on the Western system after which this one is presumably modeled): the kids cheat and their scores are inflated, so the departments of education and religious affairs in the cities see the village schools as performing higher than reality. This may have a negative impact on allocation of resources for schools, teachers, and principals of these village schools.*

Plus, the kids know they aren’t supposed to cheat. They wouldn’t be so sneaky about it otherwise. Sending kids mixed messages is the worst thing a teacher can do: allowing cheating—rather, not enforcing the no-cheating rules—is dangerous since it doesn’t help students learn how to do things independently. I’ve talked to teachers about it and have heard the same thing: we know it’s wrong, but we feel bad about taking their papers. This is understandable, I guess? But we can’t reward behavior we want to eliminate. Allowing cheating might as well be praising it. Most of the kids I proctored were seniors: they know what’s expected of them. They’ve been raised in a strict religious environment dedicated to teaching them right from wrong, and I know that they know cheating is wrong.

To make a long story short, in comparison to folks like Diana, I didn’t have too many kids cheating. I teach all of the seniors and juniors and visit the first class kids frequently, so they respect me. Plus, I had the advantage of being a teacher before coming here, so projecting the teacher persona and getting kids to take me seriously is easier since I’ve had practice (anyways, just sending of Mom-vibes works, too. My mom’s tough). And they’re good kids, really. They cheat because they aren’t given the opportunity to become proficient on their own.

Mostly I wrestled with the principal of being strict on my no-teaching policy when other teachers are more laissez-faire… especially because this means other kids in the same grade and same school had more of an advantage than the kids I proctored. If anything, I’m hoping the kids see their scores and realize they’re actually an honest representation of their skills, for once. I bet the kids felt better, too—kids want and need structure and clear boundaries. Isn’t that a basic tenet of child psychology?** I’m always thankful when someone stops me from doing something I’ll regret later and I’m trusting that that’s a human feeling.

*Though if it’s anything like our American system, failing schools will just have their resources slowly stripped away. Thanks, NCLB.

**But psychology may be hogwash, so.


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