A nomadic teacher’s note to himself
You stayed in Saudi Arabia for two years. Give yourself a pat on the back for surviving the merciless desert sun and dust storms, the slowest weekends, the often unbearable noise created by the shebabs (Arabic for young men) in class, the yawning gap between your culture and theirs.
As you pack your bags, you look back on those 24 months. There were bleak days, but there were bright ones, too, for sure. You recall the times with the shebabs, as you had to ram the perfect tenses of verbs down their throats.
At the outset of each new class, you had to tell the shebabs you were not from China, Japan or Thailand. That it was Valenzuela not Venezuela.
You seized the opportunity to teach about geography or a little history to explain why your last name was Spanish. You taught them spelling, too.
You hoped they remembered bits and pieces of the lessons you taught them.
The shebabs, all smiling, welcomed you to “the best country in the world.” There was no taking turns when speaking. They hurled personal questions at you and eagerly waited for answers.
You would say those questions were too intrusive. But you realized as days went by they did not mean to stick their noses into your private life. They were just curious about foreign people coming to the desert to make a living. They meant no offense. They were not rude.
You peppered your lessons with sarcastic jokes to pique their interest. They would burst into laughter and retaliate sometimes.
You explained to them that being sarcastic was not necessarily mean as long as you really meant something useful and productive. They picked up your language over time. You both landed on the same page.
You were invited many times to join them for a Yemeni breakfast. A couple of times you obliged. They kept pushing food at you even after you said you were full.
In broken English, they asked what you normally ate back in the Philippines. They were all ears. You saw genuine curiosity in their eyes. You taught them something you could not inside the classroom.
You fought with the shebabs over bathroom passes. You did not back down until they were able to say, “May I go to the bathroom?” perfectly.
They would forget and resist the definite article. It did not exist in Arabic. You explained that the three-letter article mattered. Over time, through your insistence, they understood.
You sometimes got upset with them for their rowdiness and laziness. They wondered and asked, “Why you angry?” You told them “angry” was too strong a word.
Most shebabs did not harbor ill feelings toward you. They were inherently nice people. They would buy you a cup of coffee, offer you a lift, or flash a big smile when they bumped into you.
You discarded your negative first impressions and revised your thinking about who they were.
Now you say goodbye, asking yourself the same question you had asked before: What have I learned about teaching?
It took you almost two years to pin down the slippery answers to the question. You had been distracted by your daily rituals in the classrooms. You taught seven to eight periods, five days a week, for so many months.
Time was too scarce to chew things over. Now you have time to shred the “texts” into pieces.
You rediscovered the reality that teaching in Middle-Eastern classrooms was a whole new ball game, that the rules were not simple, that the gulf between your cultural understanding of learning and theirs had to be bridged, that doing so would take time and a lot of patience.
You looked at learning in the classroom through multiple theoretical lenses to grasp its complexity as a social activity. But you witnessed theories fly out the window many times.
Teaching the shebabs changed you as a teacher—your own being and your being a teacher. Your becoming.
Often, you had to forget about teaching grammar or writing; you had to listen to their personal stories and moans about their daily struggles to survive in an oil-rich country besieged with unemployment, poverty and political instability.
You had many unlearning moments. You began to question the stereotypes about these people. You listened to Hussain, your brightest student, about restoring your faith in his people. It took time to understand their peculiar ways, but eventually you saw their pristine souls.
You came to Saudi to teach English. You were not sure how much English the shebabs had learned from you. It did not really matter to them. On your last days, they took selfies with you.
In broken English one shebab told you, “Despite our rowdiness you didn’t stop teaching us. You’re a good teacher!” Possibly, that was the only thing that mattered to them.
The writer is an English teacher, long-distance walker, random backpacker and pasta lover. He is from Lipa City.