Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Miss Katie in the Classroom

I really thought my first day of school in Indonesia would be like one of the earlier scenes from The Sound of Music. You know the one: Maria, fresh from the abbey, skips down the sidewalk, nervous but optimistic on her way to meet the Von Trapps. She sings “Yes, I’ve got confidence!” as she swings her guitar case to the beat. That was supposed to be me. (Minus the nun part.)

My first day at SMA LTI IGM—an awful lot of letters, right?—didn’t go quite the way I’d planned. There was no learning to sing on top of a mountain, that’s for sure, although the thick yellow curtains in my house would probably make a nice children’s fabric.

SMA LTI IGM stands for SMA (indicating it’s a private school) Life Skill Teknologi Informatika Indo Global Mandiri. Everyone in Palembang refers to it simply as “IGM.”

Yana had arranged for a motorcycle taxi (known hereafter as an “ojek”) to pick me up at my house at 6:45am. School starts at 7:00. For some reason, the driver got here at six on the dot. I ran outside and tried to explain charades-style that I wanted him to either come back or wait. Not an easy thing to show. At any rate, he sat there in my driveway smoking a cigarette and smiling cheerfully for nearly an hour.

The school is very large, and it actually holds an elementary, junior high, and high school. Regardless, I will still be teaching grades 10 and 11. None of the ETAs are allowed to teach the 12th graders, because they spend literally all year preparing to take a standardized exam in April. Compared to what other Fulbrights are telling me, I think I got lucky when it comes to my school. The teachers are mostly young and the classrooms are air-conditioned.

Of course, the air conditioners weren’t turned on my first week, because it was everyone’s first week back from a month-long vacation, and they hadn’t gotten everything back to working order yet. It would be the equivalent of me arriving at an American school in January after winter break, except these students weren’t beginning a new semester.

Every Monday morning, they have a junior and high school-wide flag ceremony on a huge concrete area behind the school. This is where Yana brought me first, and I shook hands with all the teachers and met Agustina, who was the counterpart for last year’s ETA Andrea. She introduced me to the students over the microphone.

I couldn’t understand anything she was saying, but Yana whispered that she was telling the students that they weren’t just welcoming a new teacher, they were welcoming a sister. I tried to smile my best friendly, welcome, yet professional smile.

She then handed me the microphone, and I gave a short, simple speech (in English) about how I looked forward to meeting each of them and learning more about their school, city, and country. I said they didn’t need to be afraid to speak English to me, because I’m making many mistakes while I learn Indonesian, and I understand how challenging it is to learn a new language.

They stared blankly back at me but cheered enthusiastically when they realized I was done saying whatever it was I had said.

After the flag was raised (Indonesia’s flag is very simple: red on the top half, white on the bottom half), the teachers got in a line and shook every single student’s hand. I use that term loosely; really, each student took my right hand in both of theirs and raised it to their forehead or cheek, bowing slightly. Because there are 500 students, this took a while.

Unfortunately, the line worked itself out so that I was standing behind a large rock that was imbedded in the concrete. The students were so excited to be seeing an American that they didn’t notice it at all, and at least 40% of them tripped and fell the moment they reached me.

The English teachers in the school seem to be the most well-liked, which is wonderful news for me. It’s both helpful and frustrating to follow in another ETA’s footsteps: on one hand, the teachers have worked with an American before; on the other hand, everyone remembers Andrea as she was when she left. For example: much, much better at Indonesian than I am right now.

I have to observe the classroom for the first two weeks, and then I get to actually teach my own lessons starting next Monday. So far, I’ve spent every class introducing myself and taking questions. The students are separated into five class levels based on their language abilities. There’s a huge difference between level 1 students (who are fluent in terms of basic conversation) and level 5 students (who don’t know the English word for cat). I tried to make my introduction as simple as possible for the level five students, and I wrote a lot of the important words on a dry erase board.

In the first class, when I started to speak, the students gasped. I asked the teacher what was wrong, and she said I sounded exactly like the voice they hear on the tape recorder reading them English. I liked that. J

The students seem much more interested in how I see their country than in learning more about me, which is typical, I guess. I got a few, “What’s your favorite color?” questions, but mostly it was the same thing over and over again with slightly different wording:
“What do you think about Indonesia?”
“What do you think about people from Palembang?”
“What do you think about our school?”
“What do you think about the things to do in Indonesia?”
“What do you think about the students in our school?”
And always, always always, “Miss, do you like pempek?”

I found myself saying, “Everyone is very friendly and helpful!” repeatedly. It sounds like most of the other ETAs are getting the same thing.

Raj’s counterpart actually asked him not to teach the girls how to perform abortions. Wow, ok.

At the end of class, each student has to write about me in their English diary, and I had to read through all of them and comment. I cannot legally “grade” their papers, but I can write little notes. They were hilarious. Here are some of them (from the highest-level students), typed exactly as they were turned in:

“She came in igm to teach all the students. She has funny cat. His name Harly. (What?!) She is love it. Today I’m very happy can meet Ms Katie.”

“She born 7 November 1986. She have pointed nose, sexy lips, short straight hair and then she wear glasses. She is pretty woman. This morning Miss Katie said: She like eat pindang and mie ayam. Mike Katie like to try something new. I hope I can learn English with her.”

“She like cat, she has white skin, slim body, and blonde hair.”

“It’s nice day because our school have a new family. She is a woman, who come from Ohio, America. Her name is Katie Bostdorff. She is a nice, and kind teacher. She likes cat, she has a white skin, pointed nose, orange and long hair, she ware glasses.”

For the most part, the students seem a lot younger than American high school students. Though almost all of them have boyfriends or girlfriends, they act more like American middle school or elementary students. Everyone asks me if I have a boyfriend, and when I say no, they all laugh and shriek and poke each other. The boys scream “I love you, Miss Katie” out of windows when I’m walking into the school. They honestly seem to have a lot of trouble sitting still.

One of the teachers asked me what Ohio was famous for. Well, aren’t these students in luck—I know a thing or two about Buckeye State trivia. I explained that we grow a lot of corn and soybeans, which are crops surprisingly popular here, too. Then I said, “You know the first people to fly a plane, the Wright brothers? They were from Ohio.” Someone threw a paper airplane. I’d try again. “The first man to walk on the moon was from Ohio.” Well that got them. They started whooping and cheering. Just when I started to think that these were really some scientifically-minded young adults, one of them got up and started singing Thriller. Oooh. “No,” I said, “not the first man to moonwalk, not Michael Jackson. The first person to walk on the moon, an astronaut by the name of Neil Armstrong.” Disappointment all around. Crap.

My schedule is pretty terrific. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday are long days; I’m there from 6:45am until 5:30pm. But I’m off on Wednesdays and Fridays! The students still have school, but no English classes. My specific class schedule is confusing as heck… I have no idea when I’m supposed to be anywhere. It looks like something out of a Dan Brown novel. Supposedly, someone is making me one I’ll be able to comprehend.

When I’m not in a class, I’m in the teachers’ lounge. It’s not air conditioned, but they let me sit closest to the fan. It’s arranged like a classroom for teachers with large desks all lined up. It’s also the only place I can access the internet.

The teachers have all been very welcoming to me. They like teaching me Indonesian words and asking about pronounciation and phrases. Most of them speak a little English. One teacher asked if I would help him learn English (through a translator) and I said I’d loved to, if he would help me with Indonesian. The next day he gave me a wrapped package. Inside was a big English-Indonesians dictionary and a phrase book! It was so sweet.

One of the gym teachers who also doesn’t speak English tried having a basic conversation with me through a translator. She told me I look like a princess [puteri]. I like the sound of that in any language, and I like the kind of person who says it. I then wowed her with my vast knowledge of the days of the week in Indonesian.

She said something to the translator and then watched for my reaction shyly. “She said she has met other Americans,” the translating teacher relayed, “but you are different. The others made her scared to speak in English. You do not make her afraid to try.”

I think that is the nicest thing anyone has said to me since I’ve been here.


  1. "You do not make her afraid to try" is the highest compliment any teacher can receive. Congratulations!! You are continuing to make this world a better place by simply being yourself.

  2. Katie--the educator in your bloodline is definitely coming out. Congrats on your first days as being a teacher. It is really a rewarding experience. Dad

  3. I can't wait to see videos of the school, kids, house... everything :)

  4. This is my favorite entry so far... You are doing great... and the kids seem to "love Ms. Katie!!!" If you get a new kitty...its name must be Harley! And the one was right on about the sexy lips!!! :-)

    Oh my... after this experience, you might have a change in plans about careers??? Possibly... be the next Bremen? I think so. :P

    You are amazing, don't you forget it, and we here are all behind you.

    If you need anything, let me know.

  5. i like this part.
    when the first time you came to our school.