FRIENDS of mine drove from Brisbane. They brought up a box of stuff that I left behind before I flew to Peru, or in transit from Peru to my new home. And so what I had were memories from the times before, and exhibits of Peru.
There’s a framed cartoon the colleagues of my last job had made for me, from a cartoonist. It’s among the best work I’d seen him do, and in it I’m riding a llama with a box of beer and a bag of English books. I’ve owned it for almost two years, and for the first time, I get to hang it on my own wall.
There’s a box of letters from my students. Before I left I asked them to write what they learned from me. And I’m glad I did. And then, I’ve kept some of the drawings they did for projects; such as Tupac Amaru II, the last neo-Inca (not the rapper!), and the comics we did of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Some of the letters I’ve pinned up behind my desk, and I’ve had them there two days. Sometimes I look up and I read them during the day, and they make me smile. I’m in a good mood, and I remember the kids I care about, a world away, and I know I made a difference, in my little ways. It’s great that what I did before has found a small connection in what I’m doing now. There’s balance.
Here are some of the pictures, and letters.
“Sir, I’m gonna miss you. I think that the majority of the school, because you’re special, your accent is so interesting. I hope happiness for you and enjoy all your trips and travels…one time in a meeting you told us how was your child life and we appreciate it. Thanks to give us a second chance.”
“Australians are so different from Peruvians. Also I learned that Mr Burns is a good boxer.”
“For problems you tried a many times to help and appreciate that a lot and well it’s time to say “bye”. I guess well if someday I go to Australia and call you for give me a tour. Well, bye cowpoke.”
“Thanks Mrs for teach us about Peruvian presidents…(and) Wu Wo Tu (World War II). When you say it sounds like that. I really hate the times that you say ‘sit properly or ‘why are you talking’ but despite that you are a really good teacher. Thanks.”
“We learned so much with you as as teacher, we probably doesn’t learn with other teacher like we learned with you, with your dictation and your funny way of talk, and now we know what is happening in the world.
“You are the best teacher of History, Geography, and Economy in English.”
“I really hope that you will be OK and I liked so much your class, I learned a lot of things about politics and also I practice my English because the first day that I knew you I didn’t understand what you were talking, but then yes, and my English, it’s better thank you.”
“I learned that if you find interesting news you are going to memorise it faster.”
In this year I learn a lot of things, but I think that learn to respect others, was the most important. In my opinion the school is our second home, so I can say that you were a great parent.”
At lunchtime on the afternoon of New Years Eve, I traveled into the mountains of Ancash, on a tour to see some lake in the shadow of a snow capped mountain.
Maybe that in itself is something to be thankful for, but I will not count it. I stopped at a restaurant as part of the tour and tried out Cuy (guinea pig), and by the time I returned to my hostel, I had food poisoning that either kept me in the shared bathroom, or in my bed for 24 hours. I did not have the strength to leave the building and buy food, tablets, or water.
When I did force myself to walk to to the chemist, I realised I had forgotten to charge my phone, and I needed it to explain what I needed to the Spanish speaking chemists.
Health is something jeopardised when you travel through a foreign speaking country, and something to be delayed. Check-ups are intimidating because misunderstandings could have consequences.
For months I consistently had a reoccurring stomach bug, which would react at the worst times (just before classes). I feared something insidious was working within me, but even then I delayed the doctor’s check-up. I took strong painkillers without a prescription and after a few days I felt dizzy and basically fainted on the floor of the 20 hour bus ride to Ecuador.
I have lost weight for months, felt dizzy, and usually get sick every three or four weeks.
For the last few weeks I have been having check-ups, thanks to the support of my girlfriend, who has led to me to the clinic, translated my many appointments at reception, and with the doctor.
I received my detailed results yesterday. I am clear. Nothing, as far as we know, shows poor health. The doctor’s orders is I need to eat more starch and meat.
In other words: eat more lomo saltado.
I am thankful for my good health.
There was a girl I met in March, when I was in a lonely phase at school and at home. I had been in Peru for four months, and I decided that it was a good time to use Tinder.
Well. Use Tinder a lot.
A problem was that most of these girls spoke Spanish. So to talk to them, I would copy and paste their messages, go onto Google Translate, translate, understand what they were saying, translate my response, copy it, and send the reply.
That was okay, I figured. I was forcing myself to learn Spanish. But then when I had conversations with four or five girls, trying to decide who to meet, it was really taking up a lot of time. And then some of them offered their Whatsapp numbers, so half the conversations were on Tinder, and the other half were by app.
I had never been so popular on Tinder, especially coming from a small and remote mining town where most people knew me. It became an addiction. Between the time I wasn’t translating, or setting up dates, then I was combing through Tinder checking out other girls. “No more swiping right!” I thought. But I just couldn’t help it. Then there would be more matches.
Then, I wouldn’t bother messaging. I was that arsehole. But still, the messages from the girls came through. It appeared that I had mastered my bio, after years. “Looking for a cute girl with glasses.” Turns out there were a lot of cute latinas with glasses, but it just so happened that out of these girls, one particularly stood out. She spoke perfect English, insisted on going dutch on our dates (which was rare here), and either knew all the same nerdy or Australian things I did, or was interested in them. I think what it was, most of all, was that she always was, and still is, so fascinated with my stories. She has always listened. To every word.
She has been there in my lonely times. Invited me to her place to feed me when I wasn’t eating enough. Gone on trips with me. Tolerated my moments of doubt about our future together, considering at some point I have to return to Australia. Listened to me complain about my work and my students, over and over and over. Brought me food and tablets when I was sick, and made me breakfast of pancakes. She has seen my pile of dirty dishes and cleaned them, despite my protests.
And she bakes the best brownies.
“You’re going to meet a small Peruvian girl!” my friends and colleagues back in Australia had told me before I left. “No way!” I said. “I do not want a relationship.”
But I did meet a small Peruvian girl. I am thankful for that.
I used to have this university lecturer in my digital classes. He was nuts. Chaotic. He had this prince charming type hair which made him look young, elegant, and a little nerdy, and he was a smart-arse who stood on tables occasionally. He would interupt his lectures to give advice on how to get free drinks in bars, by making bets.
I guess if I imagined I would teach it would be like him. I would be a suave chaotic man in his thirties everyone would admire and identify with. I just never imagined I would be a high school teacher, or that I would be teaching Peruvian history and geography. But somehow, that’s what has happened.
I have spent much of my time researching into Peruvian history and I easily know more about it than I know Australian history. While gaining this knowledge and an awareness of South America is something to be appreciative of, and to see a more global insight into concerns of immigration, it’s what the students are teaching me which I am thankful for. Even though sometimes I’m not grateful in the moment.
I find that I am sometimes that cranky teacher that escalates the situation, or reacts too quickly. I am sometimes that teacher who accidentally spits when he speaks. I left Australia to try to find a way to become more humble, and I guess I am getting there. The students are more likely to listen to me if I am tolerant, and patient, and they see that I am being firm but fair.
I find that I don’t always have to follow the exact plan for the class, and that I need to read the attitude of the room. It’s about getting the most of the students, it’s about persuasion, and it’s about compromise, and letting the students beat me in a game of wits half the time. I’ve been a journalist, I’ve done stand-up comedy for a year, and this is something else. In stand-up open-mic spontaneity is often rewarded, and is encouraged, but in class it can lead to reactions that can harm.
On Monday we stopped talking about ‘decentralization of Peru’ when they asked me about Australia, and where I lived. I Googled myself (I know. In class!) and they spotted a video of me boxing a Pacific Islander in a boxing tent that was on Youtube. We watched it and they cheered and then I showed them a video of camel racing in the Australian desert. I weakly brought it back to ‘decentralization’ by saying the country’s isolation and population density had shaped its culture, but none of us, especially me, bought what I was saying.
“What did you learn in class?” I said, hoping they might refer to the 25 Peruvian regions.
“Oh no. What else?”
“We watched the camels.”
I was invited to a thanksgiving breakfast one of my classes was hosting in their room this morning. And one of my students handed me the invitation yesterday. We have a secret handshake and our own ‘gang’ called X-Force and although it sounds really silly, it helps us to understand each other. Soon she will outgrow the idea and find it dumb, but for now it helps me as much as her.
The invitation said, “From X-Force. You are invited to our breakfast for thanksgiving.” And then, in a really sweet way which teases my disciplinary system and my rules, she wrote, “knock on the door please. If you don’t knock on the door, you will get a strike!” (we have a strike/point system).
And as I sat between the students including next to my fellow X-Forcenese, I practiced speaking Spanish, and watched them play Apps on their phone. I watched one of my students who has recently discovered the love of dancing, grab his phone, set up a dancing app, and connected it to the computer screen and projector. Four students danced and the computer registered their movements simply by how they held their phone, and I watched in shock not realising that advanced technology like this was so accessible.
They have learned to live in a world like this, without question, and that’s okay. I’m thankful that I can learn from them, but only if I remain humble, and learn to bend, and adapt.
I am thankful that I have the chance to express myself, and to share my stories with you.
I almost refused to wear a Halloween costume to school today. I hadn’t saved any money from my last pay check, and I spend all my money on living, and really, in the end, shouldn’t I just focus my energy on what is important? Shouldn’t I care more about teaching my students and preparing for it?
I reconsidered and thought that even with no money I could still leave my rented room and walk to the costume store with my girlfriend and at least find out how much it would cost to get a costume. And, as it turns out, there was an entire building in this town devoted to Halloween costumes. Three stories of stores filled with rented costumes of pirates and princesses and supergirls and Mad Hatters and Freddy Kruegars.
I decided to wear my signature costume; The Joker. Everyone was as in as mad a rush to get their costume as it would be to grab the last item in a boxing day sale. The fire hazard of the windowless room in the third floor corner was crammed with clothes and people and I needed to leave, desperate for air.
I am glad I changed my mind. Because today at school I had a lot of fun. I had one successful class of teaching (against all odds) before the Halloween dance contest was held. One of my students, who I struggle to connect with despite my efforts, is obsessed with comics, and likes clowns. When he saw me he was shaking with happiness and had the biggest smile on his face. I walked away with warm tears bubbling in my heart not knowing how to express myself, but the costume was worth it for this moment alone.
I watched all my colleagues and even students’ guards drop all day, not just with me but with the other costumes. I saw a teacher I was scared of, who I assumed disliked me, laugh when I smiled because she was dressed as a bunny rabbit.
I believe Oscar Wilde said “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” I think that if you wear a mask, people treat you like a stranger. Wear a costume and people will treat you like a character they might already know, and love, or love to hate.
This week I have felt really down, and quite frankly, perhaps for the first time, I might understand the meaning of the word ‘depressed’. It wasn’t just a flat feeling, but like a physical feeling, as if a heavy steel capped boot was stomping on my chest and pressing down, and squeezing, and continuously pushing. The more my body found space to relieve itself from the pressure, the more area the pressure took up. All I could think of was this pain.
The pressure in my body is a pressure of the external circumstance as an ex-pat. As an ex-pat I have felt that I haven’t been able to express myself properly. Life and the people in Australia become distant and in many ways through language barrier, among other things, kept me distant from those around me too.
In two days it will be one year since I arrived in Peru. There has been ups and downs, challenges like you wouldn’t believe, frustration and pain and misery and so much gaining of knowledge. It’s been a life, not a holiday, and one where presumptions and assumptions and stereotypes and ego have had to break, or bend, or be questioned, or tested.
This moment today alone has almost made the year worth it. I created an expression of joy in someone by being myself (by being someone else).
In the last week I have reflected on what to write for this anniversary post. And I was going to write about the mistakes I made this year, or what I would do all over if I had the time again. It just felt so negative though, and needlessly hard on myself. But what I wish I had done is something that maybe I am still beginning to learn. Education and teaching is important, but at some point in the year I immersed myself too much in teaching. I focused all my energy into a job and relationships that doesn’t necessary give back as much as you put into it, not because these are necessarily horrible, but because we and others only have so much to give.
I caught myself ranting at students last week, who have one last term before graduation, ‘I’m sorry I take your education seriously. Too seriously at times, maybe.’
I could have refocused my energy so that I was a pleasure to be around, fun to be with, a colleague and a teacher to enjoy having. So I have to end this blog on this point, spoken by the great Heath Ledger.
The paperwork, the marking, the lesson planning, the outside-of-work requirements, the discipline restrictions, the limitations to resources. It all adds up to become a job you aren’t really paid to deal with.
Teaching English overseas seemed like the novelty I needed, a line on my bucket list I wanted to resolve instead of wondering about. I typed on Google about teaching and found a rip-off company dealing with high pressure tactics to get me to commit thousands of dollars for a TEFL course. I was interested in teaching in China but the company didn’t seem to think that was an option for me. It was basically the south east asian countries, or Peru.
I always wanted to learn Spanish.
I try to reach out to people in this culture, but all that does is give you the chance to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. I am surrounded by different cultures and I have been in the middle of all this for 10 months. It has weighed me down for a while but I only realised yesterday.
My students are among the best English speakers I know, and so, I think in a way they have become my friends. Or I really want them to like me enough. I realised that today.
I had to go to a school function yesterday where at the end we were asked to dance. And honestly, I didn’t feel like it. I was tired, and sunburned, and embarrassed by the competitive volleyball game I had tried to compete in, and I didn’t feel like dancing even though I was pushed to do so. I wasn’t in the mood to dance surrounded by latinos, my students and their parents.
Today my students asked me three questions:
Why weren’t you wearing a suit? All the other teachers were.
Why weren’t you dancing yesterday?
When were you going to upload that information about the dictator president, Luis Sanchez Cerro, who was assassinated in 1933? I need to study for my exam.
My replies to that were:
I want to be different to everyone else. I want my inner light to shine. No, actually, I didn’t know. Nobody told me we had to wear suits to work today. I was very embarrassed.
In my culture, if you don’t feel like dancing, then you don’t dance.
I’m sorry. I meant to do that this weekend. I will do that tonight. Thank you for reminding me!
My internal reaction to my replies were:
I imagine this student trying to justify why she no longer wears a school uniform or future work uniform by saying “I want my inner light to shine.” Smart one, dumb one.
Oh fuck! I have to do that.
Now I assume what you might be thinking. “Relax. Calm down. It will sort itself out.” But the more I try to let things go the worse things seem to be. The ex-pat life, especially in the professional work environment, can really burn you out.
I am lucky in that I have a girlfriend here. She’s very supportive. Today she wrote “I am only a call away…or a taxi.”
I wonder how I got to be so lucky. I didn’t come here for a girlfriend. In fact, somehow I found myself in a relationship and was even disappointed that I couldn’t explore and use Tinder and take advantage of my strangeness here.
But now that seems like doing so would have wrecked me faster. We met through Tinder underneath the statue at the Plaza de Armas. A bunch of clowns (literally, clowns) were singing me a very belated happy birthday when she arrived. We walked to a pizza restaurant and I soon felt a refreshing feeling. We connected. She was Peruvian, but we connected. We loved or would love the same TV series, music, books. I had been on dates where they understood limited English, and here was this woman who had been been made to practice it since she was four. We understood each other.
Lately, the most normal (happy) I feel is when we’re with each other. We are watching LOST on Netflix. I’ve already seen it four times and she flinches heavily when she is shocked. She doesn’t like watching physical injuries or pain. She almost always predicts correctly what’s going to happen, but now it’s in the third season she is getting confused. She always asks me what’s going to happen next. I don’t tell her, but to throw her off the correct guesses I’ve started lying.
In the room I rent, with my Netflix, and with a Papa John’s pizza we get by delivery on cheap Thursday night deals, I feel at my most normal.
My waistline was almost 34 inches at the end of my last relationship. Six months later, when going through a modelling phases, I was 32 inches. That was just before I left Mount Isa, Queensland, 10 months ago. Then at the beginning of the year I was 30 inches, and a couple of weeks ago I realised I had been 28 inches for some time. I had to buy new pants.
When I’m stressed I forget to eat.
After skipping so many meals and when my gums started bleeding too often I knew I needed to eat properly, and eat more vegetables. I bought a lunchbox and packed the fruits, and vegetables, and sandwiches, and biscuits, every day. On Sunday evenings I would cook enough spaghetti to last four days and overload it with about five or six different types of vegetables. I would try to drink more water. I would prepare my oats, yogurt and bananas, and let it soak in the fridge overnight so I could quickly eat it for breakfast.
I feel much better for it. And I was probably saving a little bit of money.
I’ve always been a writer. It is my identity. It’s literally my reason to exist. I will write a book. It used to be about fame. Now it’s about identity, but I’m not quite sure it’s of anything specific, about actually being fucking understood. When people read ‘me’, it’s like I have been adjusted; revalued; subjectified. Until then there’s a disengagement. Then there’s a respect. They’ve seen my heart. It’s not a bad one.
Lately I have wondered about the book I will write. In my mind it was going to be a work of genius and now I think I will compromise with a self-published version of something that nobody will read.
I barely have a following on social media, which means these days I don’t have the message or voice to appeal to a million readers.
Yet it didn’t matter. I always had a fundamental belief in my words. And soon others felt that too.
A strange thing has happened recently. I have felt insecure about my writing. It’s happening while surrounded by Spanish speakers, by well educated students who know English as a second language. I am conscious of how I say my words, and using conjunctions at the beginning of the sentences. And as it continues I feel my voice is slowly being choked shut, my accent slowing down just so I can be understood barely.
10 years ago I could only write in a notebook. Now I think with the computer keys. Two months ago I ran out of my Microsoft Word subscription. I can’t afford to renew it. I get paid in Soles. The American dollar is worth 3.3 times the Soles.
“That’s it,” I finally thought. “You can’t go on like this. You need your typing fix. You need to vent.” But for some reason, even though I was saying “shut up and take my money” to Microsoft by continuously offering my credit card details, the company continually rejected it. I’m not sure if it was because my new location doesn’t fit in with the company’s knowledge of me.
“Yo Vivo en Peru ahora.”
We are only interested in our surroundings. Our surroundings affect us. Your mental horizon stretches to places that directly affect you. We can ignore globalisation if we don’t know what lies on the other end. That’s why we care about Hollywood. That’s why we don’t focus on train crash deaths in India.
Latin America. I didn’t know much about it to be honest. To be honest I still don’t. I only know a portion and it’s called Peru. Within months I have learned that the greatly outnumbered Francisco Pizarro conquered the mighty Incan empire with roughly 200 men in 1532. He brought along four brothers (there was a fourth brother that didn’t carry the ‘Pizarro’ name), and with their help he abducted the Inca Atahualpa, who had just won a civil war against his brother Huascar.
I have learned of Argentine protector Jose de San Martin and Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar and their separate pushes to make South America independent from Portugal and Spain.
Chile defeated Peru in the War of the Pacific, and took the resource rich territory to the south, therefore landlocking Bolivia. Countries like Great Britain greatly benefited from this, and a few rich Peruvian families also became rich from the foreign investment. Those rich families controlled all of politics, including Manuel Candamo, who died while president in 1904. Then in order, the Peruvian presidents were Jose Pardo Y Barreda (1904-1908 and from a rich family), and Augusto Leguia (1908-1912 and also from a rich family), who became a dictator for 11 years from 1919, and extended the presidential terms to five years so he could be in legitimate power for longer. I did not check any of these names or dates, and I believe I can list the next eight presidents, or even more (except the short term acting ones) without checking.
I know more Peruvian history than I know Australian history. But every time I get asked by colleagues if I am taking Spanish lessons, or how the Spanish is going, I feel a squirm in the guts. I spend so much time being surrounded by Spanish and a world that is not my own, that I don’t have the mental energy to give any more than I already do.
People here are like that. They live in their world and all they see is a stranger who cannot speak their language. It doesn’t matter that I am learning their history. It’s a lonely feeling. I feel that I can’t talk about anything except work with colleagues, and I find it hard to connect with people without fucking it up or without it feeling awkward. My colleagues make plans to do things together, to have ice-cream or beer, and I feel continuously left out. It feels the same with home, in Australia, where I catch up with everything that is going on on Facebook, because that’s part of my world too. But the longer I go living here, the harder it is to connect with my family and old friends. And maybe they find it harder to connect too.
People are fine to like things or publicly comment on Facebook, but find it harder to message privately one on one. It feels people subconsciously require more of an audience. Does a message really exist if only one other is able to read it?
We broadcast now.
Last week in Australia it was ‘R U OK Day’ and I didn’t realise. A friend I hadn’t heard of for yonks sent me a message asking how I was, and I was stoked. I replied eagerly checking how he was too. And then about an hour later I learned it was ‘R U OK Day’ and I was deflated. It was like getting a letter as a kid and finding out it was really only an overdue library bill (remember those?).
“That’s not a real letter!” I’d think.
I’m sure I convey a message that things are great living as an ex-pat in Peru. My most popular blogs are when I visit the places that you have heard of, like Machu Picchu. When I post filtered photos exploring jungles and markets in Cusco and colonial houses in Lima and Incan ruins I seem to get a reaction. Yet there’s more to life living as an expat than seeing the exotic locations. I could have just travelled across South America for six weeks, and maybe in hindsight I should have done that. It would have been easier. The novelty always would have existed day-to-day.
I’ve reached the stage where I don’t exactly miss Australia. Sure, I would like Mum to send me some canned beetroot and Tim Tams and even Vegemite. I don’t even like Vegemite. I just want my colleagues and students to taste it. I want another sense as evidence to say “hey! This is where I’m from. This is what I connect to. This is my identity.”
But other than that I don’t miss the land down under. This place has become my home. I walked pass the statue in the Plaza De Armas in Trujillo and it was such a recognised subject in my mind that I wondered what I would do without seeing it once a week.
This place has become mi casa. It’s just I haven’t received a sense of ownership, and I probably never will. That’s fair enough. I’m a guest here, but while this is the case it means I’m second-rate. I just don’t want to lose myself being so.
I remember at a rodeo telling a PR associate that I was going to be moving to Peru to teach. And I remember how he branded it. He described how many women I would likely ‘meet’ (especially if I continued my gym and diet regime). And there was something else he said.
“The best part will be when you wake up in the morning,” he said as he held his bourbon and coke. The noises of the bronco ride, the clangs of bells and exclamations of the MC, echoed behind us down the hill on one side, while on the other the TV glared by the bar. The important Rugby League game with the Cowboys was playing. More people focused their attention on this.
“That will be the best part,” my associate said. “When it all becomes your normal life.”
And lately I wonder at that. Because I have long since been in that stage.
I am in no rush to return to Australia but there’s no denying some sort of magic from the novelty has faded. I wake at 5.30am to prepare for work, and then teach students who are mostly bored of my classes. Between classes I always have to prepare for something (whether it’s exams, or the next bimester’s structure, or some sort of paperwork).
I have fought the flu for a fortnight, my visa runs out this week, and there’s one more thing…I’m broke.
It’s funny the mood you’re in when you count the soles that you have left. The stress builds when you wonder if you have enough money to catch the bus at the end of the week, when you cut short the money you spend on food, when there’s no water in the house because its your turn to pay for it but cannot afford the phone call to ring the water delivery guy.
While I am being negative right now I feel it’s important to share these lows, as much as it is to share the heights. I have done much here that I am glad I experience. I am glad to teach, overall, and I am mostly glad to be living in a house in the one place in Peru. I am learning a lot. There’s just a strain in doing so.
I guess I am living a true life now that the novelty has faded.
My students and some of the teachers refer to me as Shakespeare. On World Literature Day I had to quote Hamlet’s Soliloquy (The ‘To Be or Not To Be’ section). I dressed in black and held a skull. But the more I think about it… the more I think I was given an actual real skull. The teeth were at risk of falling out and they had roots. Everything inside it was rather lifelike.
My students are bored but many of them do like me…or at the least, can tell that I like them. “Mr Burnzy!” I heard in the basement corridor one morning, and I looked around and saw nothing. I recognised the voice of a young student. I thought he must have walked up one of the two staircases but when I returned to the elevator I heard him call “Mr Burnzy!” again.
I surprised him by jogging around a corner to see where he was hiding. We laughed and went our different ways. But I glowed. We both had a lot of difficulty with each other six weeks before (language barrier).
I looked after a Grade 7 class while they did an exam. The youngest I normally teach is Grade 8 and for a while I have been warned about their behaviour. It took them about 15 minutes to realise I knew no Spanish and that was it, their discipline was gone. I had to write on the board that I did not understand Spanish, and I may have wrote a few things to caution them they could not muck around with me.
One of the louder boys who would not be quiet gasped. “Mr!” he said, putting up his hand. And he looked terrified. “In Australia, do they eat MEN?” (He knew little Spanish but enough to think that ‘mean’ was ‘men’ and that I was a cannibal).
“Si,” I replied, licking my lips and looking down at him. “Personas deliciosa.” And he gasped. I quickly said I was joking but he was a model student the rest of the time.
Last night I attended a parents’ information session with the other teachers. And I was interested in meeting the parents, I found, as I gazed across each classroom. I was trying to guess which parents belonged to my particular students. I think I wanted to know because any little detail could help me.
There are no bad students. There are only the students that understand me, and those that don’t. I try to assume that’s my fault, although since I only speak English and it is their second language, we could blame the circumstances. I won’t, because I think most of them understand English in some form, whether it be by listening, reading, writing or speaking, and it is my job to figure it out their strength. Some students do not want to learn English, and refuse, but at the same time they want to talk to me.
Other students say they barely speak English, but then they can talk to me about surfing, or videogames, or translate for the rest of the class. There are the students that get distracted, either because of someone else who is distracted. I assume then they are bored, so I challenge them more. It seems to be working.
Of course, if you are a teacher reading this you can dismiss me as naive. This was my first week teaching, after all. I have been stressed and made mistakes mostly because of equipment and planning. I lost my locker key with all my equipment locked up, and had to come up with a plan b lesson with 10 minutes to go. I pulled it off so well I will be keeping that teaching activity! Thank goodness for my experience in newspaper journalism where you have to pull out a plan b or c or even d minutes before the deadline.
Other experiences in life have really helped me out besides the journalism. I entered a modelling competition. I went through a stand-up comedy phase. I loved it even if I wasn’t quite good at it. Sure I made people laugh but there were more misses than hits. But I did learn to perform. It’s all about the performance. I think when I am in class when I am able to read the room that all my skills of the past have been for this moment – for this purpose. But while the other skills focused on me, me, me, this time it cannot be. It is for them. This is all about the students.
One student told me excitedly at the start of the second lesson, “I love history!” And I knew then that I was going to try my best. I cannot let my students down.
I had an Irish bloke called McGuinness as my Year 6 teacher once. He was a bit of a bastard and worked us hard. And he ranted about his opinions on life in general. “This is your last year before high school!” he would shout at least once a week. “The teachers in high school aren’t going to care about you! They will just pass or fail you, so you need to learn as much as you can!” I cried behind a tree at home after my first day with him. He gave us a lot of homework but I learned a lot. My school years were disruptive and my most beneficial years were either Year 6, or the following year in which I benefited from his study habits.
I have mentioned him in other blog sites before. But this week I have had time to think of him in a different way. What I often have forgotten when I think of him was that Mr McGuinness was a substitute teacher. My original teacher was diagnosed with cancer and had the rest of the year off. And so undoubtedly he had to suddenly follow or make up an entire year’s plan for us. And possibly he had little experience at doing so for such a long period of time, nor was familiar with what the typical expectation for Year 6 was. So he did not patronise us. He challenged us instead. And I stepped up to that challenge because I had to.
And it made all the difference to me. At school. And probably for my life.
When men and women greet here in Peru they hug and the man kisses her on the cheek. I find that weird and slightly uncomfortable. A colleague held her cheek out for me a few days ago for me to kiss, and I hesitated, but to refuse to do so would be rude.
But then again, I shouldn’t be complaining.
I find myself making a kissing sound and leaning forward as if to kiss when women hug me, but not actually making the contact with the cheek. I think some are surprised by this.
Women here also touch a lot more, and honestly, back home if I was touched on the arm and the leg and the shoulder that often I would assume they were interested in me. And so it does make me a little uncomfortable.
Once again, I shouldn’t be complaining. But there were years at one point I lived without anyone touching me aside for the occasional formal handshake. For that reason it can be unhealthy living away from family so long.
I’m treating this as a blessing, to learn to be more comfortable with physical touch, since everyone here clearly doesn’t read too much into it.
I have found myself in a room this week restructuring curriculum requirements for history, geography and economy for four grade levels. This might be easy enough if you were a long-term educator but I was a journalist a year ago, and I find myself having to translate everything from Spanish. While my colleagues, including a translator, support me in this, it takes a long time to complete anything.
I am used to knowing what I am doing and charging forward to complete the task immediately. But I can’t do that when everyone else must discuss what is going on in a language I cannot understand, and then constantly having to explain what we must be doing every time we do something new.
The translator must have heard my tone when we spent an entire day adjusting words and restructuring sentences that had been translated from Spanish by a computer program. “Do you get frustrated easily Mr Burnzy?” she asked.
Yes. When I have no idea what it is I’m supposed to be doing.
A few colleagues and my housemates have made a deal that we would complete lessons to learn English and Spanish. It’s a fair arrangement. In my first lesson I was taught directions to get to places. I was focusing on pronounciation so much that I couldn’t absorb the new words. I’m terrible at memory. At one point I was really discouraged and was doing my best not to express irritability, because I recognised the mood for what it was. Later when someone asked me how the lesson was I was honest. I was frustrated.
One of my weaknesses is getting frustrated quickly. It has caused much damage in my life especially in the childhood and teenage years when I could not control myself. I was the bad tempered freak in the school yard. You know what I mean. Every school has one. I am more controlled now, but it takes a lot of energy not to storm off sometimes. It would be much easier simply to find a way not to be so hard with myself. But so far the only alternative I have is not caring about what I’m doing at all.
And as a journalist frustration only empowered me, but at a cost of making it hard to be around me in my personal life. I suppose that’s why I left it. I guess that’s why I’m here.
I think the turning point for me, the moment I calmed down, was when I took a 10 minute smoko and walked to the community life office to find out who my work secret valentine was going to be. And there was a little girl, the daughter of one of my colleagues, and she waved, and I waved, and she told her mother in Spanish, “he is really tall.”
I lifted my hand to my height, and then to her height, and I smiled, and I said, “and you are really….”
And I laughed and congratulated her for knowing that word in English, and I left, much happier. With all these syllabus examinations and preparation for lesson plan theory, it was easy to forget that I would be working with children and teenagers, and that was the whole point really.
I wasn’t sure it was going to happen, the moment where I know moving to Peru was the right thing for me. Until today I had my doubts. I didn’t quite belong. I lost my self-esteem in a strange world away from my former position and possessions while somehow keeping the ego and pride.
Pride. So much pride.
“Pride: What I think you think about me. Self-esteem: what I think about myself. Personal relationships: the script I give others.” -Russell Brand, Recovery
I was on the bus to work this morning listening to my Ipod. Before spilling coffee on my shirt I listened to a song that’s been on my Itunes almost two years which I somehow overlooked. Goo Goo Dolls hasn’t interested me since I listened to Iris in City of Angels (Nick Cage as an angel who falls in love with a mortal.) and their 2016 Boxes album felt cheesy, artificial and empty in its commercialism filled with poignant titles such as Prayer in my Pocket. That’s how I had overlooked this song.
“For the first time I feel like someone
Breaking down the walls in my own mind
Keeping my faith for the bad times
Get up, get up, stand like a champion
Take it to the world………you can make it on a wish if you want to.”
-So Alive, by Goo Goo Dolls
And as I was listening to this song I had a moment. A moment of happiness looking out the bus and feeling the best part of myself. There was a glow within. I had the spark.
My translator at work has been teaching me basic Spanish. Today she helped me with the alphabet, which was the advice of blogger Collins, who commented on a recent post of mine.
“The basics as you of course know, and that is so boring, yet it’s so essential, is to practice the Spanish ABC/vowels and consonants each and every day as the sound/melody of a language is so crucial in learning and speaking it,” Collins said.
I never bothered learning the Spanish alphabet, which is rather deceptive in that I assumed it was the same as the English alphabet. “Thank goodness for that,” I thought. The problem is some letters are pronounced differently.
G seems to be more like the ‘he’ in hello. H seems to be silent at the start of a word. J is…what the heck is J? In my notes I’ve spelled my pronounciation as ‘Hawta’.
I suppose being in a reflective mood, and possibly still a little self-absorbed, I wondered something today. I’ll be here for at least a year. What do I need to learn in that time? What is it I need to take away from my time in Peru?’
I’VE just finished cooking spag-bog but experimenting with kidney beans. They are undercooked. I listen to Avenged Sevenfold’s Nightmare Album and The Cure, drinking coffee, hoping I’ll finish this blog and have time to read a Russell Brand book, and knowing I have to iron a shirt, clean my travel mug, and make a peanut sandwich before I sleep. It’s an early start tomorrow.
It’s been three months since I last worked. I lasted a while, but the fun times are over (no they aren’t). It’s back to having to be responsible, and I haven’t been happier (aside from the other day when I was raving about my peanut butter and peppermint ice-creams which combined well together).
Today my housemates and I traveled on the bus (in the words of Billy Madison: “back to school, back to school….”) and arrived in time for our first day of training at our new school. We signed a contract last week after six weeks of sorting out visa requirements and school based tests (with Christmas and New Year between this period).
Imagine being in a room for most of a day learning about how your new job is going to work. But 90 per cent of what is being said is in another language. You are the foreigner, but fortunately everyone around you is warm and accepting.
I tell you what. I’ve never been more motivated to learn some Spanish. I’m sick of not understanding the jokes told in that room, and the students are going to eat me alive (that’s a cliche and therefore not to be taken literally. The kids here aren’t really cannibals).
When I was in Year 7 a boy who years before had a car crash needed a support teacher to help him work and to write – but not because he was dumb. He often didn’t understand the instructions and I remember his frustration. Being in the room trying to understand the basic exercises today must have been a little like how my classmate felt. Each of my housemates and I had our own translator, and I knew by the end of the day that I would make many friends among the colleagues. But still, they were a little baffled and amused by the lack of my Spanish ability.
I went to the mall and spent a lot of money. It was mostly on food but to celebrate my first day of work/training I bought myself Adidas gym shorts, and some quirky socks.
Housemate-Amigo Amy and I caught the bus back home with our shopping, because I was shamed at the cost of the afternoon and didn’t want to pay for a taxi. So I was carrying too many shopping bags when we walked into the cramped bus. I tried handing over bags to Amy, but that was a rookie move because I dropped the mince and the bottle of pasta sauce, which fortunately didn’t break.
And what happened next was an example of Peruvian good nature at work. Several men got up to help hold my bags and as the bus moved around, and I bent forward to retrieve the mince I nearly fell forward. One of the benevolent strangers helped support me.
I felt embarrassed when I couldn’t pronounce Mucho Gracias properly because if there was ever a time I really wanted to say it properly, it was then.
I’m starting to figure out that Australia has an unfounded reputation for dangerous animals that want to kill everybody. Whether I’m talking to a Peruvian or a South African I learn that people are afraid of our snakes and spiders.
Personally I think someone in our defence ministry realised that we could avoid being invaded if we exaggerate our dangers, but it makes us sound bad-ass when we downplay the dangers too, right? Whoever first exaggerated our animals was a crafty bugger, and undoubtedly one that used it to try and get laid. Because it’s so full of tripe. I’ve never once been bitten by a snake and the spiders are actually rather pleasant (how’s my downplay game? 😉 .
Today I had to do a presentation on Australia as a demonstration to students at a school I want to teach at. I was lucky compared to my friends. I had Year 9 students and they had an advanced ability in English. All I really needed to do was keep them interested and engage them in conversation.
But here’s what I learned about my own country from my students, judging from the questions they asked.
They wanted to know about our music, but they especially wanted to know about our dancing.
Well I don’t understand what national dances we actually have, but the students didn’t understand that. So I showed them the heel and toe. I panicked, okay! It’s the bush dance I remember in Primary School. “heel and toe, heel and toe, slide slide slide slide…..left hand clap, right hand clap, both hand clap, on your knees” and then you link arms with your partner and twirl around. (In Year 4 the girls had cooties so it was a horrible exercise, and in Year 6 I asked a girl out to graduation, and she said no (she ran away actually), but we danced during the heel and toe and as we clapped our knees she said ‘see, we got to dance anyway,’ Then I never thought I’d actually be dancing this miserable bush dance at Year 12 graduation, but I did, so there you go. There’s many memories).
I showed the students’ Tash Sultana’s Jungle and they loved that. They wanted to know if we had a traditional dress and the best I could do was show them Indigenous traditional dress, and by then I felt a little sad. I wasn’t sure what culture a whitie like me had that was actually special. Does that make sense?
I showed them a video of the Crocodile Hunter (Mr Steve Irwin himself) and the teacher knew he died in an accident so I had to tell them how (sting ray barb). And I felt a little sad when I told them the story and they could see that.
I taught them that Canberra was our capital city (they thought it was Sydney) and I even taught them how to pronounce it (they thought it was Can – Berra). Then as an extra favour to my nation I taught them to pronounce Melbourne (Mel-ben, not Mel – born).
We spoke about unusual animals they might not have heard about, including the bilby and the Quokka. I showed them the Quokka selfies online and they loved that.
“What about your snakes and spiders?” they asked.
“What about them? They aren’t dangerous. Everywhere has snakes and spiders.”
“But you have giant ones.”
That’s a bit rich, coming from students that live in the same country as the Amazon.
I feel they learned a bit but then they wanted to show me Peruvian music, and I almost fell for it but the teacher said my time was up (I was supposed to only have half an hour tops and I went double that time).
I’m not sure if I really taught that much, but they remembered basic geography. And I feel there was a connection with the students. They liked me but they were beginning to test my discipline by the end.
I’m writing this from a Starbucks. I had to order a flat white (I am an Aussie after all) and they spelled my name ‘Criss’ and that’s kind of cool because I was bored of my spelling anyway.