"Miss, why do you look sad?"
Apologies for how long it has been since my last blog post. I made an agreement with myself that I would try to do one blog post a week. However, since it’s been nearly a month since my last post we can all see how well that’s going for me. It’s not that I don’t have enough to write about, my document list of topics seems to grow just about every day. The hard part is finding the time. Between the 27 periods a week of classes, four nights a week (or that’s the goal) of sports, the start of my speaking workshops, English camps, and the various trips around Malaysia and abroad thrown in there, I’m kind of tired to be honest. We’ve past the four month mark and I think some of the daily wear and tear of life here is beginning to catch up with us. Personally, my health hasn’t been A+ lately (currently struggling through a double ear infection that makes my hearing about as good as a 90 year old) and I’m feeling a little worn down. This isn’t meant to sound like I’m down on Malaysia. I’m definitely still loving my time here, but it is meant to convey that at the end of the day when I finally get some downtime, curling up in bed and reading the most recent Atlantic articles or making my way through Anna Karenina is a bit more appealing than tackling a blog post. However, I will try to do better.
Anyways, on to the actual blog post . . . .
As I wrote about a few blog posts ago, I really feel like I’m beginning to belong with at my school and forming some worthwhile relationships with my kids. Students have begun to get bolder and let their curiosity outweigh their shyness. They’re asking me questions about myself (beyond things like what’s your favorite color, what is your ambition, and why so tall) and my life back in America. It’s been cool to see these questions lead to some really insightful conversations. For instance, during a lesson comparing US and Malaysian high schools, my 5 Science students asked a question about why we have a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr Day (this question was proceeded by the question who even is Martin Luther King). When I was explaining Martin Luther King to them, they were fascinated by the fact that the US had slavery at one point in its history, the idea of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement in general. As a result, the focus of my classes with them has turned to the various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement and it has become a cool way to teach things like writing, speaking, listening etc. while also teaching more impactful things that they can take with them for life. Some of my Orang Asli (indigenous people of Malaysia) have also asked me some very pointed questions about how the US treats its indigenous populations and how their treatment has changed throughout the centuries. I’ve loved getting to share deeper aspects of American culture (even if they’re far from the happiest of ones) with my students and get to tailor discussions to what actually interests them instead of asking for the 100th time, “how was your weekend?” or “what did you learn in class today?”
In addition to my students learning much more about me, my background, and the US in general, I’m also getting to learn more and more about them. Some of it is pretty much universal high school stuff. Things like who is dating who (my Form 4 girls enjoy giving me a weekly quiz to make sure I still remember – which has actually been really helpful in improving my memory of all their names), who did the best on the most recent exam, which boy scored the most goals in the last hockey match or what new movie they’re all raving about (Fast and Furious 7 got rave reviews). These things make me laugh and smile and remind me that teenagers, what stresses them out and what they think is so crucial to their lives is pretty much the same whether you’re attending a private catholic school in South Dakota or a conservative public school in the middle of Malaysia. Overall, it’s just been fun beginning to see students as not students but friends.
But with these deeper relationships and understandings have also come some much less fun insights into the lives of my kids.
For instance, learning that one of my students lost both of his parents. He spent a while living with his uncle, but his aunt has decided that they don’t want him anymore and kicked him out, leaving a 17 year old with no place to live, no family to turn to, and no way of supporting himself.
Or that another one of my students has to spend school holidays at the hostel rather than returning home because his parents are divorced and if he goes home with his mom, his father will harangue him and if he goes home with his father, his mother will refuse to acknowledge him. What 16 year is capable of dealing with a family dynamic like that?
Or that yet another student comes from such an underprivileged background that when they get to go home from the hostel they’re returning to a house, but to a tent/shack that the entire family shares. Before she goes outside each morning she has to check if there are tigers drinking at the river or if it’s safe to leave. Can you imagine having to check for tigers and every morning being terrified of if you’ll get attacked going to get buckets of water for your family?
I could go on and on with stories of my kids (and don't get even get me started on the ones that are in and out of trouble with the police) and the difficulties many of them face, but I think you get the point.
I could not feel more humbled that my students trust me enough to share stories like these with someone who just four months ago was a total stranger. And I realize that the challenges of poverty, broken homes, and challenging family dynamics is not unique to my students nor to Malaysia. I’m sure if I was teaching in the equivalent of an underperforming school in America or really any school for that matter, I would have students facing similar hardships. Nevertheless, acknowledging that these struggles are universal gets me no closer to forming responses to these stories when my students share them and I feel my heart breaking for them.
All I want to do is give them a hug and tell them everything is going to work out. But I can’t. Culturally, I can’t offer my male students any kind of physical support (even though part of me feels that a hug would mean the world to them) and I most certainly can’t promise them that everything is going to be alright and will get better.
So right now I’m stuck and I’m struggling with that. Every time I hear a new story of the challenges my students face my heart breaks more and more for them. What can I offer these students who are going through far harder things than I have experienced in my life? For now, all I can do is continue to be there for them, to listen, to show that someone cares, and to give them an outlet. But, I’m not going to lie, that doesn’t feel like nearly enough right now.