A Softened Heart (or two)

“Are you seeing this?”

That was all I could say when a teacher, the head of discipline at my school, kicked a child in the back across the courtyard from me. Apparently the student’s uniform wasn’t tucked in. Noting my disbelief and disgust, the female teachers around me awkwardly responded that it happens; it is what it is.

I went up to that teacher privately and asked him if he knew that in Indonesia it’s illegal to hit children. He responded, bashfully, that he did. I left it at that. I assumed I had made an enemy–especially after he asked my counterpart if I ever get angry in class. I wondered if he was trying to trap me in hypocrisy; an “Aha! You hit kids, too!” moment. She told him I do get angry but that I never hit the students and I didn’t hear anything more about it.

An opportunity came from Peace Corps to attend a Student Friendly Schools workshop, focused on positive discipline in the classroom and eliminating gender-based violence and corporal punishment. I figured what better candidate than this teacher, who we’ll call Pak Simon.

Pak Simon speaks no English. He had never been outside of our province before. He agreed to come along to a strange city–with an American he later admitted he thought didn’t like him–and was one of the most engaged participants of the weekend. We spent two days discussing the problems we face in our individual schools and planning ways we could create safe spaces for students.

Pak Simon was very active given that he was the only non-English speaker in the room; I made certain that I always spoke in Indonesian and always asked for translations for his benefit. He blew me away with some of the contributions he made during our group discussions and he gave me what I think will be the absolute best moment of my Peace Corps service. We were tasked with making an action plan for our schools to apply what we had discussed at the conference. Pak Simon and I presented last; when we got up to the front of the room, he began in Indonesian: “I want to thank Bu Cait for inviting me to this conference, especially because I was the first person she ever saw hurt a child in our school.” He relayed the story of that original incident and he went on to say, “I am so grateful for all that I’ve learned in these past two days. I will never hit a student again.”

I’m not a crier, y’all. But that got me.

There have been a handful of people in my life for whom my first impression was not accurate. It’s very easy to allow bad first impressions to steel your heart against someone’s potential; I’m honored to have finally seen all that Pak Simon has to offer.

I am so grateful for the opportunity given to me by Peace Corps and USAID which made this event possible with a SPA grant. I especially want to thank the Gender Equity committee (Gavin, Jamie, Richard, and Sierra) who, on top of their regular Peace Corpsing, spent immense effort and time creating an incredibly informative and crucial conference. Without them, I would have never gotten to know Pak Simon the way I know him now and he and I would have never met with my principal to discuss our ideas for cultivating a Student Friendly School–nor would Pak Simon have presented the information we learned to the entire faculty of our middle school, just a few weeks after the event.

Peace Corps promotes sustainable development practices, and with good reason. I will only teach in this school for one year; I would guess Pak Simon will be teaching there for another thirty. For the next thirty years, long after I leave, the students of SMPN 1 Taebenu will have a trustworthy authority figure, a teacher who doesn’t scare them, an advocate. And hopefully more than one, as other teachers watch Pak Simon lead by example.

West Java Student Friendly Schools Participants

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