Thursday, October 11, 2007

Itika (photo unavailable) is by far my best student. Though native to Tanganyika, she spent a large chunk of her life living in South Africa, so she’s got the inside track on all her born and bred Tanzanian classmates in speaking the English language. Perhaps because it deludes me into thinking that I’m having a significant impact on at least one of these kids, grading Itika’s “homework” (explanation of quotations to come) always refreshes me.

But it’s her mastery of the second person plural that has made Itika my unabashed teacher’s pet.

Fikiria Kwanza Academy, the school where Managing Director Flint and I have been teaching since the beginning of September, doesn’t even have real grades, so Itika’s prize is going to have to be make-believe. I say they’re not “real” because there is absolutely no minimum score that you’ve got to meet if you want to pass onto the next grade, basically eliminating the most basic incentive to study and learn the material, aside from fear of a beating at home: the fear of flunking out, or of having to repeat a grade. I jumped all over this ridiculous policy for a solid hour at the first teachers’ meeting last Friday, attacking its logic like the chickens behind our house attack our daily offerings of compost, but it is such a common policy of private schools in this country that not a single teacher shared my out outrage.

So with no real reason to get make-believe extra credit, Itika went ahead and did what “that kid” we all remember from our days as 7th graders would do: she got it anyway, padding her lead like Steve Spurrier in the 4th quarter of a 70-3 drubbing of Florida International during his days in Gainesville.

“Excuse me Teecha, but isn’t the plural form of “you” supposed to be ‘y’all’?”

A third generation Texan on both sides of the family tree, my heart skipped a beat. My immediate first thought was obviously, “Itika,” but it just hadn’t sounded like her. I had to root out the culprit.

“Who said’ y’all’?” I snapped, abruptly, but not in a way that was rude to the teacher who I had just interrupted, Bwana Oola. There was no response. “Who said y’all?” I repeated, a little more eagerly this time around, eyes scanning the room.

Itika, tucked away in the corner, outside my line of sight, raised her hand.

I can’t say I was surprised.

“You’re right about that,” I said, initially looking her right in the eyes. “‘Y’all’ is what you say in real conversation, but it’s not proper English. It’s more like …” – What was that thing my neighbor Biti had taught me to say for "street Swahili?" I looked down at my shoelaces as I searched for the phrase, – “…Kingereza cha mtaa.”

Every single student started laughing. My periodic Kiswahili cha mtaa phrase-dropping gives me big time street cred as a Mzungu teacher with machizi waaaangu (the euphemism Nako 2 Nako, an Arusha-based Kiswahili hip hop group, has turned into the hippest alternative to “my friends” out there).

I was using this opportunity to address the entire class; Itika had brought up an extremely important distinction between ‘textbook English’ and ‘the way English is meant to be spoken.’ Or in case you don't habla ingl├ęs, she’d highlighted one example in the difference between textbook English and Kingereza cha mtaa.

“I didn’t want to confuse y’all with it earlier,” I said to the 20-something pairs of temporarily-inquisitive eyes, enunciating you know which word, “but Itika is correct.” As I went to the board to write down my point, I prayed: “Please, Mungu, let one of the kids staring at me actually be absorbing this right now.”

While I still had the floor, I looked back at Itika, and told her we’d talk later. Written on the chalkboard behind me were the words:


When I finally did get a chance to have a one-on-one moment with Itika, it was after Bwana Oola had written on the board his daily list of 10-15 fill-in-the-blank sentences, which students are required to complete during the remaining few minutes of class time (see? Not homework). Knowing Itika doesn’t need all that much time on these linguistic lay up drills, I sat in the empty desk next to her to clear up some “y’all”-related confusion she’d had later on during the lesson on possessives.

“You do say that,” I told her, overriding Bwana Oola’s pronouncement that it was wrong to tell a group of people, “Y’all’s car is red.” “It’s just that it's too confusing to explain this to the rest of the class,” I said, keeping my voice as mouse-like as possible. “But just know, you do say that in real English. You just never write it on a test or a formal letter or something. ‘Y’alls car is red.’ It sounds way better. Sawa?” I ended with a little Swahili.

Itika said, smiling.

So it’s a little bit of a load off now that I’ve got that covered. I've also already taught them, on just my second day as a matter of fact, the most basic English tidbit ever: to answer, “What’s up?” with one word, “Nothing.” I guess the next pressing item on the agenda is the importance of using, “It’s the same thing,” rather than, “Same difference.”

If there’s no difference, after all, it can’t be the same. It’s the students like Itika who I’m trying to reach, and she’s going to have to know these things if she’s ever going to master Kingereza cha mtaa.

No comments: