Makal Monday: A horse that says ‘I won’t walk’

“Makal” in the Kyrgyz language means “proverb.” Kyrgyz is full of wonderful and puzzling little proverbs – some that match common proverbs often heard in English and some that are real head scratchers. Most Mondays I’ll post one of the more fun ones for you. Let’s see if we can’t make some of these commonplace in America by the time I get back!

At baspaim degen jerin ming basat

Ат басрайм деген жерин миң басат

“A horse that says, ‘I won’t walk,’ will walk that route a thousand times”

Two months after graduating college I found myself alone in a small, tatami mat room sleeping on the floor. I had travelled 6,000 kilometers to teach English in Japan, and wondered as I drenched my sleeping pad with the sweat of a Shizuoka summer what teaching would be like.

I had been a camp counselor on occasion and loved it. I had worked with youth in a number of capacities and had even taken a TEFL class to gain a few skills for potentially teaching abroad. But I had no formal classroom experience and wasn’t sure how teaching English to classrooms full of kids who didn’t really need it would go. It turned out to be similar to teaching math to kids in America; most were there only because it was a required course, weren’t going to be using the subject at any point in their life, and frankly didn’t like it.

There were a few students who made some of the days worth it and of course life outside of school certainly made up for the time with its share of excitement and so I stayed two years. After returning home I knew I wanted to live abroad again. I just wasn’t going to be doing any more of that teaching English business.

Here I am, four years of teaching English under my belt and another on its way. This horse is being spurred on over ground it said it would never travel.

Never say never.


Continuing in the vein of full disclosure, I was disappointed when I received my Peace Corps assignment as a TEFL trainer. Why couldn’t I have gotten something more exciting, like digging wells or something? Ah—because other than teaching, I have no skills.

(If you’re a future potential job employer reading these words, please go back and forget that last sentence. Also, please stop reading.)

I really don’t. I’ve never dug a well, I barely eat any green plant life grown from the ground much less know how to grow it, my only quasi-entrepreneurial experience ended in a sad summer climbing ladders for CollegePro Painters and the sight of blood outside of someone’s body or any medical abnormality for that matter makes me pass out. So teaching English it was.

There really couldn’t be a more tame profession. But add Peace Corps to the mix and the seemingly benign is suddenly pushed smack against the threshold of survival. Every day poses fascinating challenges to overcome: schedule changes, freezing temperatures in classrooms, teachers eating the chalk and kids out harvesting potatoes. Even the Peace Corps Volunteer teachers find themselves in incredibly exciting, albeit harrowing, situations.

And there are kids here who want to learn, even if it’s a smallish handful. Not every single person is going to appreciate having you around, but even so, you’ll reach celebrity status with at least a few of them. And how could you not love the groupies? The ones who, for a single club lesson will chatter at their parents for a week, so excited to have learned a phrase of English from a real live American! (Ok, so maybe it is just the celebrity that keeps me going.)

After saying I’d never do it again, in the end I come back because I love it. I really can’t think of anything easier to do and I suppose that should be a sign that I’m meant to do it. Being in front of a classroom of kids is fun and simple. Or maybe I shouldn’t say simple—I’ve had to learn a lot, read a bunch, practice a ton and train others to figure out what I’m doing. But in the midst of it all, there’s a relaxing ease which makes it enjoyable, interesting and rewarding.

That’s the great thing about teaching English in the Peace Corps. TEFLers do get to see more immediate results and benefits of their work: kids winning spots in international exchange programs, going on to compete in national competitions, getting into good programs at universities and simply progressing on to conversational fluency. And the skills kids gain from having a mentor and teacher who invests his or her life are immeasurable and beyond the scope of quantifying. Being an English Education volunteer is a lucky post.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing in the future. I’m not sure I will go into education once I’m back in the states. Based on experience though, this horse of course, better not say never.

Failure must be an option

I jingled the keys in my pocket. It was 8 minutes past the bell and I was still waiting for the first student to show up. A minute later one of my girls shuffled in. She was the only one in her class who had showed up to school that day, and wondered if she could just go home. I thought about the possibility of an early lunch, and sent her on her way.

Unfortunately this is an all too common experience in village schools. Attendance is abysmal in the fall because many students are helping with harvests, terrible in winter because the school is freezing and many catch colds, and bad in spring due to various tests, holidays, and sending animals off to the summer pasture. But the biggest reason why kids aren’t in class is because nothing is really expected of them.

If students come to class or not, they will get a diploma. No questions asked. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to realize that under these circumstances most junior and seniors simply aren’t going to show up. Senioritis hits hard anywhere; if I had known 12 years ago that I could have skipped the entire month of May and still gotten my same GPA and diploma, I would have been a much better golfer that summer.

There are schools in Kyrgyzstan where administrative leadership and control is working well. One of my friends described her school days as orderly and quite strict with real consequences for not coming to school or not doing homework. If you were late, you had to run 3 laps around the school yard. If you didn’t do your homework, your parents were contacted. If you didn’t show up, you had to go around to every teacher the next day and explain why you weren’t there, take whatever verbal punishment was coming to you, and then do the homework anyway. Students were responsible for their actions.

 Epic signage fail…Tho you do have to give them credit for trying.

Sometimes letting someone fail is the best thing you can do for them. Always allowing people to pass right through life with the belief that what they do has no bearing on their outcome leads to disastrous results.

Additionally, you need to make sure the relationship between a student’s action and his or her failure is made clear. It can’t be arbitrary and it can’t be outside of their direct control. As an example, one of our seventh grade students was having some participation issues and so we assigned him a low grade for the day. When he complained about it I made the effort to explain to him: “Choose to screw around and you will get a D for this class. But also, you can still turn it around. If you consistently show up, with your homework done and work until the bell rings, you can still get an A for the quarter. It is your own choice. You will choose what grade you receive.”

The next time we had class he worked diligently, without disrupting other students, and even presented his written work in front of his classmates at the end of the activity. I was really proud of him and made the point of praising his efforts and announcing to the class his “A” for the day. (A culturally appropriate move.) The relationship between action and consequence—both positive and negative—must be clearly seen by the student and strictly followed through by the teacher.

Without the possibility of failure, it’s difficult to define success. When we take away the possibility of failure, nobody learns to appreciate what incredible heights of success they can reach. This teaches students to be satisfied with the mediocre and chalk their lack of achievement up to dumb luck or blind fate. If Kyrgyzstan is to see real improvements in development, this is the kind of “option” we truly need to eliminate.

Oh, and some assertiveness, I guess, maybe

I could give you 3 or 4 names of volunteers I serve with who are exceedingly good at being assertive. I could, but I won’t. I won’t because everyone in Kyrgyzstan who reads this already knows who they are, and for everyone else the names wouldn’t mean anything. Let’s just leave it at, they exist, and they make it well known that they do.

This is a good thing. We’ve been invited to work with our counterparts and in our communities in order to effect some kind of change in them for the better, and nothing grows without some considerable change in momentum, namely a swift kick in the rear.

I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Or rear. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to figure out some of this leadership stuff. Leaders are hated for decisions they make. But they’re also loved for those same decisions. Leaders nudge, push and stretch the status quo and that is going to make some people uncomfortable.

But it’s never been about being comfortable. It’s about what’s best for the most people. We don’t know what can come of a little painful change until we’ve tried it. The seed cannot produce more fruit unless it first dies.

image My counterpart, Nazgul, kicking butt and taking names at a teacher training

I care less now what people think about me and more what they think about accomplishing a task. There is always culturally relevant tact to be considered, but at the end of the day, taking charge, being responsible and doing the right thing will never go out of style.

Things don’t always move forward (yet I digress)

There’s a joke by the late Mitch Hedberg that goes something like this: “You ever heard someone say, ‘Hey, wanna see a picture of me when I was younger?’ Every picture of you is when you were younger. I’d like to see a picture of you when you were older. ‘Hey wait a minute—lemme see that camera.’…heh heh, yeah…”

Have you ever looked back on one of those photos—one where you’re younger—and noticed what’s in the background? Most of those things have probably improved since the sepia toned days of your youth. Consider the finned monster of a car you dad was driving, or the crib you’re standing in—you know, the one with the side that opened and closed like a guillotine—or the polyester pants you’re wearing at the July 4th parade, melting onto your thighs.

Yes, we’ve come a long way since those bare-leg-on-vinyl days, when cars guzzled a gallon every 6 miles and kids sat unbuckled in the backseat clutching throat-sized toys doused in lead-based paint. We’re so used to things changing and improving that somehow those words have become synonyms. But in reality, not everywhere experiences forward progress.


 Welcome (back) Home

There are many people in Kyrgyzstan who pine for the old Soviet days. While most of life was dictated by a bureaucracy on high, that life held a calming order and sense of security. No one had to wonder where they would find a job or how they were going to feed their family. Teachers were respected and schools were given priority in government budgets. Students flourished in an education system that put the first human in space. People enjoyed leisure time taking effective public transportation through cities and towns dotted with green parks and running water.

Three-and-a-half bouncing hours south from the capital lies my own little Peace Corps village. Its school, constructed just before the breakup of the USSR, was built with every modern convenience. The school boasted multiple networked computer labs for the sciences linked to a central station in each room where the teacher could listen by headphones to individual work or display work on a raised monitor. There was a coal-burning heating plant pumping hot water through a system of radiators to three floors. Each floor had its own bathrooms with flush toilets and running water. The cafeteria served hot lunch for all attending students.

But, shortly after independence, things began to quickly fall apart. The director cut many of the radiator system’s pipes out of the school, installing some in his own home and selling the rest for a personal profit. Along with the heat, the running water went too, when pipes from the nearby spring broke due to lack of maintenance and were dug up to be sold.

The school’s lunch program degenerated into cookies and tea, now served only to grades 1-4 in a 10 minute passing period. Today I trip on old metal tubes in my classroom that ran the wires for the networks, their stubs jutting out, betraying where computers once stood.

A school that once graduated significant contributors to science and math in the USSR is now part of a national education system incapable of producing enough engineers and skilled workers to take their own gold out of their own land, instead relying on foreign companies who reap the majority of the profit. The breakup of the USSR is a macrocosm of all the little systems that soon broke apart as a result.

What infuriates me about all of this is not the fact that things got worse or that there was no longer money to keep things going. This is understandable. What brings my righteous rage to a full boil are the personal choices made by individuals to hurt their own country. Here we are huddled together in school, all winter long, trying to form English words between chattering teeth because the previous director decided he wanted to steal the pipes for his own personal gain. It’s maddening.

But I also need to check my judgment before walking through that door. (Which is really, really difficult to do.) Who is to say I wouldn’t react in the exact same way if all of a sudden the U.S. was to split up into 50 different countries and in the chaos the paychecks stopped, shops closed down and it was every man for himself? If something can be taken advantage of in the face of no oversight and without any chance of falling fate to some ill consequence, many are going to go ahead and do what makes sense for their own personal survival.

Sure independence had been declared, but it wasn’t after a long battle for freedom. Independence was sort of thrust upon Kyrgyzstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union and all of a sudden people needed to figure things out for themselves.

I asked Nazgul, my counterpart, what it was like back when the Motherland collapsed and Kyrgyzstan found itself stepping out on toddler’s legs, blinking into the dawn of independence. “There was no bread,” she said without pause, offering no lofty ideals of freedom or independence nor mention of a nation-state bearing the name of her people. She was only 9 years old at the time; those aren’t the things one notices at that age, but rather a father conspicuously home from work, a hungry belly and the crumbs that line the bottom of the bread basket. “Kyrgyzstanis may be more free,” one man told me, “but you can’t eat freedom.”


 Teachers enjoying flatbread with great Kyrgyz poets and thinkers

The task before us is huge. There is so much work to be done. There is a definite need for Peace Corps Volunteers in education, health and business to work with locals to establish right practices and effective methodology. There’s an even bigger need for Kyrgyzstanis to work for their own fellow citizens. We need people willing to invest their time, energy and strengths to build a nation, not place more obstacles in its path.

It’s not that most people are totally complacent. People want more and demonstrate so, but they turn to old desires for authoritative control and to central government for finding solutions to pressing issues. We do need a public system of checks on citizens’ free reign decision making, but corruption continues to eat away at growth. Many people still haven’t worked up the full committal of courage to take these challenges head on and are just beginning to feel their way gingerly out over untested and fragile ground. People must be willing to change, to sidestep culture to a certain degree, to invest money, to make unpopular yet necessary decisions, to put in the hours and to know they have a chance at seeing results commensurate to their level of work. Bit by bit, people are coming around, and more than any other demographic, it’s Kyrgyzstan’s youth leading the charge.

This new generation is at an unprecedented point in history—they are the first to have been born into an independent Kyrgyzstan, a country now responsible for its own future—and are more removed from its soviet past. I’ve worked with groups of youth who dream big but more importantly, have a track record of applying their learning and have logged hours upon hours working for the betterment of their communities.

One such youth attending a goal-setting session stated she would study English three hours every day until she won a spot in a study abroad program to America. I told her I thought maybe that was a bit ambitious and how was she going to balance that with school and other demands at home? She answered that she already studies English three hours a day—after finishing washing the evening meal’s dishes—and this was sort of just a recommitment. Far be it from me to discourage her. She exemplifies the future hope of this nation. This is the way forward.

Kyrgyzstan—may your future be as bright as the sun that blazes upon your flag, high and free.


Change is complicated

There are many things in Kyrgyzstan that need to change. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We are invited to be here by the government because of what we can offer in making the country a little better place. Where I’m stuck, however, is in what that definition of “little” means.

Along my search, let me share an anecdote as example:

Take the English teacher who is inflating grades or changing scores on his students’ tests to make him look better. It would seem at first glance that this is a very morally corrupt man and he has issues that need to be righted. Cut and dry. After all, he’s hurting his students’ motivation to study. When they know it doesn’t matter what scores they get on the test because they will pass regardless, most students lose interest in exerting any kind of effort.

So you approach the teacher and tell him what he’s doing is wrong and that he is detrimentally affecting his students’ futures. You’re going to make your mark: he’s going to change. But you’re not ready for his answer. He tells you he would love to grade fairly, and it makes him angry to inflate the grades, but if he doesn’t he will 1. Get yelled at by the parents of his students and he has to live next door to some of them 2. The parents will complain to the director that he is a bad teacher and the director will take the parents’ side and 3. The director will himself give him a hard time and possibly even fire him if he doesn’t report good grades.

So you feel sorry for him and your incensed rage and moral compass guide you to the next level. You approach the director and tell him what he’s doing is wrong and that he needs to support his teachers in a united front against all that opposes the forward progress of knowledge. But you’re floored by his response when he tells you that he can’t let anyone in the school fail because if he does the superintendent will yell at him and he could possibly get fired and then how would he feed his family? Not to mention all the teachers who are older than him who would call the superintendent themselves to make up lies about him if he tried to tell them how to run their classrooms.

So you realize the problem lies with the school district. You march right up to the superintendent’s office and you demand a meeting. You tell him directly that he can’t force all schools to allow every student to pass because this is hurting the quality of education and is greatly affecting attendance at your school, especially among upperclassmen. He needs to do the right thing. But once again your righteous indignation is turned on its head—he tells you that if there are any failures in his district he will look really bad compared to all the other districts who are just passing kids through and then someone from the ministry of education will come down, chew him out and put someone else in charge who will take orders.

At this point you’re wondering how far up the ladder you need to go. There are so many obstacles at every level that getting a teacher to grade fairly might require an official decree from the president of the country and enforcement by the executive branch.

Other countries have succeeded in doing this, including the former Soviet Republic, Georgia. The Rose Revolution in 2003 saw massive sweeping changes executed by strong leadership that led to a significant rise in quality of life for everyday Georgians. Corruption wasn’t tolerated on any level and within a matter of a couple years, citizens were enjoying higher salaries, a competent and helpful police force, and fair chances for more people to get a higher education. It took strong, unified leaders with an unwavering sight on their vision to turn things around.

But this is really, really hard to do. It requires a perfect storm of people with the same vision all falling into place at once. Unfortunately for our hapless English teacher, if he tries to stand up and do the right thing on his own he will be quickly swallowed up in a system outside of his—and any other individual’s—control.

I wish I as an individual could change the whole country—stand up and give that rising speech—and suddenly everything would turn on its corrupted heels and march towards fairness and justice. I care about this country and the direction it’s headed because I live here—Kyrgyzstan is my home—and what happens affects my students and my host families and my friends. They’re the victims of these broken systems. Yet a strange fact remains: the same people who are the victims are the ones who are responsible; they’re all so interconnected it’s like a knotted ball where if you pull on just one loose end, the whole thing only becomes more tightly tangled.

Where do we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, fit with trying to help untangle the knot? If we stand up and say something it could be our job as well that’s pulled out from under us to be replaced with a plane ticket back home. Or we could just be noise that’s dissipated by local winds less sympathetic to a foreign voice. Or we could offend our friends with harsh words when our only intent was to help.

So do we just try and do the “little” things? Keep our heads down, teach our classes, give our trainings, lead our camps and hope that something somewhere rubs off on the right people who will stand up and be that change? Are those little things actually the big things that will someday tip the scales?

It’s something I don’t have an answer to. I wish I could be more directly involved. Maybe it’s my job to inspire the voices rather than be the voice. Yet that is complicated too.

imageKyrgyzstan – a country of vast potential