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It’s fall 2012, my first trimester of teaching English to high schoolers in Abu Dhabi. I’m at an ADEC boys school in Al Ain. There are a dozen English teachers from the US, New Zealand, and England here, and they’re a supportive bunch of seasoned professionals. That’s good, because several of us are new to teaching in the Emirates this year. This school was once a Model School, which means that it had very high standards for admission and academics. Now the standards have been relaxed, but the school still has a quality reputation. I would have to guess that it is in jeopardy, however.
Here’s how I first make this deduction. On the very first school day of the term, I am strolling from one side of the school to the other during instructional hours. The two story building has a big courtyard in the middle, and the second floor has a hallway facing it. People upstairs can be seen over the railing until they venture down a corridor. There’s a teenager on that second floor. He’s wearing the school uniform: a crisp white kandora (basically a lightweight dress, if we’re honest) and a red-checkered ghutra (that’s the Arabian head covering you’ve probably seen before). It happens that the Principal is near me. He notices the kid up there, and shouts at him in Arabic, gesturing for him to come down. Well, this kid, he hikes up his skirts (more like a dress, but you get the picture) and dashes away. The Principal bellows after him, and then…does nothing. I’m mentally sticking my lower lip out and going, “Hm. Well, then.”
As the term progresses, it becomes ever more obvious these students are an unruly bunch. They are pushing the boundaries, which, as it turns out, are really easy to push, and keep on pushing, and basically relocate entirely. How does this manifest? Read on.
One of my colleagues is a massive guy American named Heywood. He’s 6’4″ and 265 pounds. Today he has to go run an errand during school hours, so, since ADEC doesn’t hire substitute teachers, I get stuck subbing for him. I’m in his tenth grade classroom and I’ve brought along the handouts Heywood left for the class to work on. I’ve done this before; I know that if I’m pretty chill, things will go more smoothly.
“Good morning everyone, I’m Mr. Shon. I’m here instead of Mr. Heywood today. Mr. Heywood wants you to complete these.” I wave the stack of papers. “I honestly don’t care if you finish them or not, but I’m supposed to make sure you’re working on them. Please put your name and class on the top of the paper and keep it on the desk in front of you in case the Principal walks by. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them for you. You can use your phone or talk to your friends, but please stay in your seats.”
Happily, this is going according to plan. Students are more or less on task. I’m sitting at the front of the room, pretending to grade a paper, when this kid seated a couple rows back and in full view of me pulls his kandora up, along with the Indonesian-style sarong worn underneath as underwear, and squeezes a stream of water from his bottle onto his exposed genitals. My eyebrows shoot up. He looks up, makes eye contact, and turns bright read, hurriedly jerks his clothes down to cover himself, and stammers out, “Teacher, I wash!”
Other students guffaw at him and await my reaction. I shake my head and take a note of his name. He apologizes, and I decide not to report his behavior, seeing as it didn’t seem malicious or perverse, just stupid as all get out. Hereafter, whenever I see him in the hallway, he’ll say, “Teacher, I wash!” Anyway, the kids all get something scratched onto their worksheets after that, so that’s positive.
Now, Heywood has a good rapport with these kids. One day one of his students shows up with his leg in a cast and Heywood enthusiastically asks if he can be the first to sign it, which is a custom these kids aren’t really familiar with. The kid thinks its groovy, though, and now he’s sporting Heywood’s name and a few others on his cast.
“What happened to him?” I ask.
“He jumped out a window,” Heywood says. All of our English classes are held on the second (I mean first) floor, and this kid was in a classroom where the students (they’re unruly, if you remember) had busted out the bars and mesh grill from the window frame. Evidently, those things are in place to keep youth contained.
“Yeah. I know. Happened a couple days ago. He was between classes. Guess he wanted to leave pretty badly.”
“Holy crap! So he just fell right onto the ground?”
“Yeah. I don’t know what he was thinking. Broke his leg good.”
A few days go by and then Heywood gets summoned to the Principal’s office. He’s going to be sacked for letting that kid jump out the window during class. He’s stunned, as you can imagine, being blamed for something he’s got nothing to do with.
This takes intervention on the part of the English department chair, plus the American vice-principal, to prevent and to straighten out.
A bit later on I’m stuck with another subbing gig. This time I’m in Charles’s room. Charles is an eloquent Brit with American citizenship. He teaches seniors, and they’re situated in the ground floor classrooms. I take attendance, which is kind of light–12 of 30 kids are present–and I go through more or less the same spiel I used with Heywood’s kids.
Just when they’re settled and underway on their worksheets, an entire class–a different group of 30 or so kids–comes pouring in the window. This window has no bars on it–which isn’t normal–evidently the students tore them out at some point. I’ve never seen this before. It’s a river of white, flowing toward me through the middle of the room.
“Hi teacher,” they say, then go right on by me, open the door, and exit into the hallway. “I’ve got to take a picture,” I think to myself, so I aim my new iPhone at the flow. Seeing this, a couple of kids hastily cover their faces with their ghutras so they can’t be identified. A split second later one swipes the phone from my hand and makes off with it, so grab him bodily before he can get quite through door–who knows whether I’ll ever see my $650 phone again if I don’t–and he turns around with fire in his eyes. He’s a hair’s breadth from striking me, but I calmly say, “Just give me my phone back, and I’ll let you go.”
His classmates step in and say soothing things, and the fire goes out, he hands me the phone, and says, “Sorry, teacher.” Then he and his buddies continue their human river act and swoosh down the corridor and out of sight.
When I turn around, there are actually a few more students seated than before, some having come in the window, but there isn’t a single soul interested in working on the handouts that Charles left for them.
“Just put your names on the top corner,” I tell them. “Turn them in when you go.”
The ones who came through the window are happy to come to the front and tell me their names. “Not absent, teacher, not absent,” they say, pointing at the roster. They retrieve a paper they will not work on, and I spend the rest of the class period just barely managing to keep them inside the classroom.
Quite a place, this school. Quite some students. Yes, I’ve got to say, teaching in the Emirates is really something.