Monday, January 24, 2011

Crying Uncle

When I was a kid I often played with kids three years older than me. Every once in a while I’d cross some invisible boundary and incur the wrath of one of them. This usually resulted in me being put in a headlock or having my arm twisted behind my back. If I tried to fight back or squirm free, the pressure would be increased or the angle tweaked in such a manner to intensify the pain and remind me of my place. This would continue until the pain was unbearable, at which point I’d cry “uncle” and be set free.

Although I’ve mentioned this use of the word uncle a few times in my English classes, I hadn’t really given much thought to the expression until recently. To cry uncle is to acknowledge weakness, to surrender, to indicate a willingness to give up a fight. And that’s generally not part of my constitution. There are times, however, when there is simply no sense in fighting.

Nearly five years ago at this time I was in Savador da Bahia, Brazil. One day, I headed out for what I thought would be a leisurely Sunday afternoon at the beach. As is typical on Sunday afternoons in Brazil, the beaches were heaving with people. I first walked along the seawall from Praia do Porto down past Forte Santo Antonio. After exploring the area around Forte Santo Antonio, I walked back to Praia do Porto, enjoyed some coconut water, and headed down toward a rock wall at the base of Forte Santa Maria.

There were many children jumping off the rock wall into the water, and it seemed safe enough. But I got a bad vibe while standing on the rock wall, and, almost immediately, several locals started staring at me. Trusting my intuition, I started heading back toward the beach.

One of the locals then called out to me, "Mi amigo, que pais?"

I responded, "Estados Unidos," and started walking away.

I stopped when he said he had "no problema" with the USA.

He then asked if I wanted any "maconha," which is Portuguese for marijuana.

I politely declined.

He then tried to sell me various and other sundry things.

Each time I answered, "Não, obrigado," which is Portuguese for "No, thank you."

With each "não" answer, I could sense his frustration growing. And as his frustration grew, so did my level of discomfort, so I started walking away.

At that point he jumped in front of me, put his hand under his shirt as if he had a weapon, and started yelling at the top of his lungs. Four of his friends quickly surrounded me, two on each side, and there was nowhere for me to go. While confident that he didn’t have a weapon, I was unsure about his friends. And he had the scariest eyes I'd ever seen. It wasn't as if they were filled with anger or hatred, it was if they were empty – reflections of a person with no soul. Being outnumbered at least five to one, I saw little benefit to resisting and raised my hands above my head.

As he went through my front pockets and found nothing but sunblock, his frustration grew. At once, I had to keep from punching in him the face and from laughing at him. Muttering to himself, he eventually hit my back pocket and found 14 BRL (less than $7) and some keys. After ripping off the cheap Timex watch I was wearing, he muttered again about having no problem with the USA and started to walk away. Before leaving, he reminded me I was in Brazil.

Not concerned about the money, but not wanting to deal with the hassle of getting a locksmith to open the locks to which the keys belonged, I grabbed his wrist. Somehow, I remembered the Portuguese word for keys ("chaves") and demanded them back. He resisted and tried to pull away. I tightened my grip on his wrist and took my other hand and attempted to pry open his hand, again demanding "los chaves." With that, he opened his hand and returned the keys, again muttering that he had no problem with me or the USA. As he handed back the keys, I said, "Obrigado," and walked away.

Where am I going with this? First, there are times when it makes no sense to fight back, and to survive and prosper we must swallow our pride and surrender to that which we simply can't overcome. Second, perhaps more importantly, despite knowing it was the best decision I could have made at the time, being mugged still was still a lousy experience. It left me feeling violated, humiliated, and inadequate. To a lesser extent, teaching in Bulgaria, or trying to, often leaves me feeling the same way.

I started teaching English here in September of 2009. One of the first things I did was evaluate my students to determine their level of English. To this end, every student in the school was given a written and an oral test.  Almost all of the students had been studying English for several years. Some had studied English for as many as eight years and most no less than four.  Imagine my surprise then when, before curving, just twelve out of approximately 120 students passed the exams. Even more shocking was that the overwhelming majority of those who didn’t pass didn’t even know the alphabet or how to count to ten. It was if they were being exposed to English for the very first time.

So I started asking questions. What had they done for four years, six years, eight years? How was this possible?

The short answer seems to be that the Bulgarian education system was excellent but harsh under Communism. Since the fall of Communism, it has been undergoing slow and painful changes and reforms which many folks have been reluctant to embrace. As a result, many schools tend to be as political as they are educational, and at such schools there is an unhealthy imbalance of power among the various players. The government controls the purse strings, but, because Bulgarian schools are funded in large part based on enrollment, the kids and their parents often act as the real puppet masters.

Where do the teachers fit in? Some fight the inevitable changes, thereby slowing progress. Others dance for the kids and their parents whenever they tug on the puppet strings. And others, including most Peace Corps volunteers, try to accelerate change without offending those fighting it and without getting caught up in the strings of the puppet masters and their dancers.

Kudos to the Bulgarian government for recognizing the need for change and for choosing us to be a part of it. Further props to the schools who host us knowing that there has to be a better way. And let's face it. If things were working as they should there wouldn't be a need for us in the Bulgarian schools. But, without more support, what we are facing is a nearly impossible task. Given the political circus we're unwittingly thrown into, it's not surprising that so many of the teachers desiring to bring about change (including many volunteers) end up giving in to the system or giving up. Indeed, in a system designed for us to fail, most of us have one of two choices. We either admit to being failures, or we give in to the system, stop caring, and stop trying.

Admitting failure isn’t easy, but the simple truth is I am a failure as an English teacher.

Sure, there has been progress. Despite working without any books, the number of kids who were able to pass this year’s midterms, without a curve, increased to 59 out of 152 (that’s a nearly 500% increase from where we started). And it doesn’t stop there. The number of kids earning 6s, 5s, and 4s (the equivalent of A, B, and C) also increased significantly.

But that still leaves 93 kids who have not attained what I consider to be a basic level of competency in English. Many of these kids have improved, some significantly, but many others have not. Some kids simply don’t attend class regularly. Others attend class but don’t pay attention. Others have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, which I simply don’t know how to address.

Not reaching those kids makes me a failure. And it’s something for which I accept full responsibility.

But one person can only carry the weight of so much blame. And unless others are willing to step up and be held accountable, it probably won’t be long before I’m forced to do what so many before me have done and cry “uncle.”


  1. There is something else here at play, it is the type of school you taught/teach in, i.e. whether it is an academically-oriented school (called 'gimnazia") or a more vocational/trade-oriented school (called 'tehnikum' even thou there are differences there as well). Getting into the specialized gimnazii (the reputable/prestigious specializations include foreign languages, math, economics and biology) is tough, students write exams for those after grade seven, the competition is extremely tough. Usually students who are planning to apply for admission into specialized gimnazii go to private tutoring and courses for an entire year to prepare for the exams. This is in addition to their regular classes at school. Those of the students who do not get into the specialized gimnazii, go to more regular gimnazii and tehnikumi. In some of those more regular gimnazii and tehnikum, unfortunately, leaning a foreign language is not a focus or a priority and I'd expect most of the students are not interested in it either. That being said it does nor mean that students from vocational schools do not go to university, they do...however those of us who went to specialized gimnazii definitely had an advantage.

  2. Thanks for sharing your insight, Elena.