West side story

by zunguzungu

Since my mother declared my blog to be postmodern, a lot of the pressure is now off.  Before, I was trying to keep a nice chronological order to the posts, even though I was about two weeks behind, and so I would have had to finish my long post on arriving in Arusha before I started talking about life in Arusha.  It sure must have been tough to be a modernist writer. So, without further ado, a meditation on whether the pen is mightier than the sword:

One of the more aggravating problems I face on a day to day level is kids not bringing pens, or having pens that don’t work (and nothing brings this cauldron of chaos to a boil faster than idle hands!). At first, I thought I could just keep a half dozen pens handy to give to the kids when their pens weren’t working, and for a while, this sort of worked; it was fairly adorable the way they would come up to me at some random time (after I had long forgotten about the transaction) and shyly present me with the borrowed pen, now filthy, before running off giggling. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. You always have to remember that they are, if not smarter than you individually, much smarter than you in their mob form. Now that I’ve set the precedent, the kids pretend that they don’t have their pen, and act quite torn up about it; one of the phrases I’ve been most successful in inadvertantly teaching them is “Teacher, forget pen!” Some of them are quite the little method actors, throwing themselves into the role with a gusto that you can’t help but admire, moaning, wailing, and holding their empty hands up in despair like a Greek tragedian whose just had his eyes cut out or something. Luckily, my swahili is firm enough that when they rat each other out (and they usually do) I can turn them against each other and ferret out where they’ve hidden their pens, to general acclaim. They take defeat cheerfully; often the child being caught in a lie is the one who laughs the loudest. The trick to controlling a mob, it turns out, is keeping them divided.

Some of the students have pencils, and this is somewhat better, since you can find a sharpener and sharpen them and then they are able, for a while, to write again. The down side is that the kids carry, instead of pencil sharpeners, used razor blades. In fact, in terms of the number of students who carry knives, I’d put my kids up against the best that the New York City public school system has to offer. I’ve yet to see a fatality or even a minor injury, its true (and it seems to be such common procedure that I can hardly ban them) but it chills my Wazungu heart to see this mob of watoto slinging their shivs around like hardened gangsters in Attica.

When we leave the school, of course, everything changes. Outside the school, the mob becomes a feral mass of curious and delightful children and playing and talking with them is one of the highlights of my day; on the individual level (or in small groups) I remember why I love them. And they relax their adversarial position vis-a-vis me, sort of like Christmas in the trenches, and they’ll often accompany me as we walk towards town, holding my hand, or just walking in a sort of ongoing brushlike contact. There we’ll go, maybe three to five kids all within a three foot radius of me, sometimes fighting over who gets to hold hands with me, they in their blue and pink school uniforms and me towering above them. But when we see other little gangs of teachers and pupils walking along the street, dressed in their school uniforms, and we eye them warily, and the theme of West Side Story plays in my head, I’m glad to know that my gang is armed.