influence, influence

something new: i’m tutoring a college sophomore in English, at my house. he’s an amazing kid from the next town over from my village. he wants to become a veterinarian in korea or the states, so his tefl scores need to be high. luckily i can help him out… for free.* to protect the the innocent, i’ll call him the kid.

when i first arrived here, lots of students came by asking for private English lessons. they’d hear a rumor that a foreigner was here and assume that i’d be offering or selling lessons. at that time i was very averse to the idea; i was so busy adjusting and working on lesson planning for school that i couldn’t afford to spend time that way. i couldn’t see the efficiency of working with one or two students for even a few short hours a week—i was focused on giving group lessons or starting English clubs so that i could reach more kids.  plus, i needed evenings to myself, for downtime.

but now, things are different. this kid, my student, showed up one evening at my front door. he requested lessons for the months of his summer vacation from college. he didn’t use any Indonesian during the conversation—something the others didn’t do—even when he had to struggle a little bit for Norm to find the file. he had a specific idea of what he wanted to study as well as a clear idea of why he needed to improve his English. he came to my house three times before he caught me at home.

this was back in June. since i knew Ramadan was coming and the lessons would be temporary, and because the kid seemed very with it and motivated,
i agreed to teaching the private lessons. i had been looking for a way to fill my extra hours since extra-curriculars hadn’t yet started at school (still haven’t). i had also come to realize that working one-on-one with somebody isn’t any less valuable than working with a group, though it may not fit the ideal model of sustainable development in the pc sense. i agreed to help, acceding that a few hours a week of extra English practice could open some very big doors for this kid.**

the kid rides his motorcycle over to my house a few days a week, in the afternoons, and we work on conversation, grammar, and vocabulary. we use the grammar bible—azar—and I share magazines, science articles, and books. it’s been lovely getting to know him. his English is already great; besides the English teachers at my school, his language is the best in town. we’re learning lots and i’m getting the chance to teach some higher level grammar stuff (noun clause? let me look that up real quick).

it’s so strange to think of myself as occupying a big place in a young person’s life, which i’m sure i do being for many of them the first foreigner they’ve ever met. even stranger is to think of how i’m (potentially, negatively, positively) influencing these kids. of course, as teachers, we do indeed make impressions on our students, but teachers with whom we have very close one-on-one relationships are all the more influential. my two flute instructors, Stephanie and Carmen, were a couple of the most influential people during my adolescence; they taught my private lessons. i can confidently say that if i hadn’t known Stephanie, i would not have moved toIndiana. that’s a huge amount of life-changing influence. those two ladies had an enormous impact on me in other ways, too,, more so than most if not all of my high school teachers (and my teachers’ influence was considerable).

it’s hubristic to think that i’m influencing this kid in the same way as Stephanie did me, though nice to think that there’s a possibility of it, or a possibility of having a small fraction of that type of positive influence. i know the value of having in your life an older person who’s a young adult, not too much older than you, who’s a good role model, a source of inspiration, someone different than you to help expand your mind. someone still relatively young and hip.*** given the range of our topics of conversation—colonialism, pop culture, plastic surgery, American and Indonesian history, love and marriage, genealogy, religion—i’m sure he’s learning more than just English.

peace corps volunteers can have huge influence. that’s undeniable. one of the pcvs in my group, luke, met a pcv in his small village inPolandwhen he was a child. luke moved to the states when he was fifteen and always remembered that pcv. now, he’s a volunteer himself. of course, that’s a horribly abridged version of the story, but you see.

so, i wouldn’t have moved toIndianaif it weren’t for Stephanie. back to me and the kid. what if this kid gets a motivation boost from me, studies English until he’s nutty, passes the tefl test with flying colors (because he’s only got a short way to go before his ability is high enough for this to happen), goes to korea to study and work, and then says he wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for me? even the possibility of that happening—however slim or great—is a huge motivation for me. i know how amazing it is to achieve the dream of working and living abroad. if i could help one kid do this, or be the final push he needs towards ensuring that he makes it happen for himself, i’d consider this pc service a job well done.

of course, that would be a very concrete piece of evidence that i have influenced my students. thinking about the tiny ways in which i influence them, especially
the very young ones, is strange. like, realizing fifteen years after the fact the ways that babysitters or older cousins positively or negatively influenced me, or remembering the sense of loss when one of them faded out of my life. and what do i remember about them? i told lauren once about how i remembered a lady named sandee, a college-aged supervisor at my elementary day care. i remember she had short blonde hair and wore grey sweatshirts a lot, and could make neat sound effects. weird, huh? but i remember her being very positive and loving, a good force, a cool role model. did i aspire to be a blonde, sweatshirt-clad voice actor? obviously no. there was something more subtle, something less easy to pinpoint.

what will the kids i teach here remember about me, after i disappear from their daily lives? will any of them end up doing something great and saying—like i do
about Stephanie—if it weren’t for sam, i wouldn’t be where i am today? or will they remember me as influencing them in more subtle ways? either way, that’s sustainability, creating positive change that lasts long after i’ve gone. this is why the relationships i have with these kids are the most important part of my life here. of course, it makes me feel like i’m working all the time and pressuring myself to perform, to go outside and interact when i want (and sometimes need) to stay in and relax, but… in the end, what’s better than hanging out with kids all day? it’s good for the kids and good for the soul, and it’s the real path to sustainable change.^

xo.

sam.

*i did take the new harry potter off of his computer, though. and requested that he help me teach les to the little kids. promoting volunteerism! excellent!

**some of the kids who came to my door back when i first arrived could barely speak any English. i wonder what the ethical debate would look like about refusing to spend large amounts of one-on-one time with students who have studied for years but have no grasp of basic English versus jumping at the chance to spend large amounts of time with someone who has advanced skills in the language. of course, very big doors could be opened for any Indonesian kid who becomes proficient in English, and i’d like to help them all. but based on the pc framework, i don’t have to give private lessons, and anyways, can tutoring one student be considered sustainable development work (it is direct skills transfer)? does this fit into the project goal of working with youth to help improve their employability? does it count if it’s one kid? i can probably get the kid closer toward his absolutely achievable goal in the short amount of time i’m here than if i was starting with someone else from square one, someone who may be less motivated or capable to continue studying on their own once i’m gone, someone who may want to work abroad but would need to put more work into their English than a couple extra hours a week. is it justifiable for me to have turned the others away but to have accepted the kid as my student? if the others had shown up again now that i’ve adjusted and have extra time, would i teach them? maybe. bottom line: tutoring him is better than not tutoring him, and my time is available.

***i wear chucks now.

^coming soon: what is change, who’s changing what under whose terms, what are the positive and negative changes i’m making and experiencing, and who says what i’m doing is right at all? i’m still not convinced that this peace corps thing isn’t some weird sort of neo-colonialism or feel-good political insurance policy. stand by!

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4 thoughts on “influence, influence”

  1. second what bart said…this is great stuff!

    and i definitely believe that it is ethically justifiable to turn down low-level students in favor of a relatively high-level kid. for one, taking your own preferences into account (i.e. seeking out/accepting work you enjoy more) is 100% within your rights, especially in your free time. you (we) are here to help, but it doesn’t mean you are obligated to help everyone who asks (cut an apple into a few parts, everyone has a snack. cut it into a hundred parts and nobody is satisfied).

    second, for a student who shows ability and intrinsic motivation, the investment of extra time and effort is likely to have a greater net impact than it would on, say, a student who’s only looking to pass the national exam. that boy is far more likely to be “successful” because he has already shown aptitude, motivation, and courage. and in turn, his success well may inspire his friends, future neighbors, future children, etc., to work harder at improving english. you can talk to Indonesians about the positive potential of english acquisition, but he can can prove it to them.

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    1. i agree with you for the most part, tim… but it’s difficult for me to accept that what i’m basing my decision on (to lesson or not to lesson?) is only ability. that’s the sole factor that differentiates this kid from the others. the others who wanted lessons before certainly were motivated enough to find my house and seek me out, and courageous enough to do so. as an educator i have a hard time turning the others away, especially knowing the way education works in rural indonesia. many of the kids with lots of talent are slighted by the system, doomed to failure by poor materials, ineffective methods, and unqualified teachers. i want to give these students an opportunity to make up some of what they’ve missed out on, but it’s true, and unfortunate, that i cannot help everyone who asks.

      i must resign myself to helping those that i’m capable of helping (cutting the apple into a few parts, to feed the few– by no means everyone) and put my faith in the potential of the peace corps program, my counterparts, and corrupt government officials to begin to mend the broken system. (hmm…putting faith in corrupt government officials to fix a broken education system… sounds familiar.) thanks for giving me more to think about, tim. i hope your semester is off to a brilliant start!!

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  2. Oh man, I remember Sandee too! What was it about her? I remember she smelled really nice and was always willing to play Guess Who with me, haha. I think you’re right though, she was always so positive, compassionate and fun. And the fact that she was in her early twenties did make her more relatable and a more direct role model than the other women in the daycare.

    Funny the people, experiences, etc. that stick with you, huh? Sounds like you’re playing a positive role in this kid’s life, Sam. Love love, B

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