Smoke and Mirrors

Today was the first day of class and oh what a wonderful time it was.

Our van of teachers pulled into the school’s outer wall area about 20 minutes before students were set to arrive, and after walking into the building, I was greeted by a woman who spoke neither English nor Arabic, and was supposedly the substitute from the day before. I mulled around with my roommate, who happens to teach 5th grade, and a few minutes before students started making their way into the building I was shown my classroom. It had 12 student desks, a smartboard in a box leaning against the wall, an unpacked but still wrapped in styrofoam computer sitting on my desk, and a stack of textbooks for another classroom piled near the trash can by the door. That's it. That was the entire contents of my classroom. There was no whiteboard or markers, no posters on the walls, no shelving units of any kind, nor were there any materials to put on them. I eventually found enough textbooks for 10 of my 12 students, but I lacked teacher manuals for all of them except health, students didn’t have any school supplies, and the only paper that was eventually made available for my class was one yellow legal pad with misshapen margins and uneven multicolor lines. I was told that “Today, we teach math” and left to my own business.

My students are all Saudis boys, most of whom have attended at least one other English speaking school in the past few years, and they are all relatively well behaved (not that that’s saying much considering my past experiences). The common strength in my class is their uncanny ability to memorize passages and recite them without mistake. It seemed like things were really going smoothly until I realized that none of them comprehend what they were reciting. They have spent the majority of their education learning to memorize passages of the Koran through recitation, and they have developed otherworldly abilities to apply that to a number of different circumstances. In math it was time tables, in language arts it was everything. They can memorize anything without understanding and they have never been taught to learn any other way.  

I should mention at this point that I’m working in a magnificently lavish building with ornate facades, marble floors, solid wood paneled bathrooms, glass doors and walls in every classroom, and extremely efficient air conditioning. As the fourth grade teacher, an older, rather overwhelmed and frustrated South African who's worked in the Kingdom for a decade said “They must have spent thousands and thousands of riyals making every detail look exactly perfect, but it’s all fucking smoke and mirrors, man. Everything here is that way.”