Hands down, my favorite activity every week is my informal speaking class with my (now) 12th grade students. I’ve mentioned this speaking les (les means “extra lessons”) in previous posts but it’s been awhile. We started meeting last February after one of my students, Deva, sent me a text that said, “Miss, will you help me?” I replied, “Sure, with what?” Her response: “I want to become fluent in February. Will you help me to practice speaking?” Not to discourage her from an unattainable goal, I quickly said, “Yes! And let’s invite your friends too.” So we started meeting each week and discussing a new topic or question. Over the months some students have come and gone but I have a solid group of four students who have become my favorite students and friends here. My relationships with them give meaning and purpose to my service here (plus, they’re a lot of fun) so I thought it was high time that I introduce them to you.
As I mentioned before, speaking les was Deva’s idea. She’s eager to learn more English and she’s not shy to ask me for help. In fact, Deva was the first student to ever visit me at my house. I remember it was last year during Ramadan and I was nervous! I wondered what we would talk about or do. Should I speak in bahasa Indonesia or did she want to practice English? I needn’t have worried, we played hangman, rode bikes around our village (Deva lives in my same village so I consider her my neighbor, though she lives on the other side of the main road), and I broke fast with her family at her house that evening. Ever since then we’ve been friends. Last March I went to Jogja for a few days with Bu Wiwik, one of the English teachers, and Deva asked if she could join. Since Bu Wiwik mostly wanted to spend time with her first grandchild (only a few months old!) Deva and I were free to explore the city. She hadn’t been to a big city before and it was a lot of fun to watch her discover things. I think of all of these students as adik-adik (younger siblings) more than students, but Deva most of all. We have great conversations about love and life and the problems here and potential solutions and how we can help others. Deva often helps me lead my Friday les for elementary school children and she’s good at it. She says she wants to be a volunteer or a teacher when she’s older. One of my favorite memories of Deva and Agus (see below) is from this past August. I woke up sick one morning with a run-of-the-mill stomach bug. I don’t get sick often here but when it happens I pretty much know what to do. I rested and tried to drink oral rehydration salts but I couldn’t keep anything down. I had a fever and it was getting higher and higher and I was in so much pain from dehydration. After about 17 hours of this the doctor told me I needed to go to the hospital because I was severely dehydrated and since my body was ejecting all liquids I needed to get an IV. I had never been hospitalized in my life and I’ve been rather terrified of all things medical since I was a child…but I was so sick I almost didn’t care. I ended up staying in the hospital for two nights. The morning after I was hospitalized, Agus and Deva showed up to my hospital room. It was a holiday that day and they spent the entire day with me, just sitting there (and telling me I should eat and rest). They’ve now seen me at my worst (I didn’t get to mandi for 2 days and I hadn’t washed my hair in a week! I felt absolutely disgusting and that was only amplified by the fact that I had 30 visitors over those two days and there wasn’t much to do besides look at me) and that definitely creates a bond. For my first hospitalization, I’m so grateful that two of my favorite students were willing to give up a whole day to spend with me. It made it bearable and I felt loved.
Agus is my neighbor and I think he’s also related to my family somehow. My ibu (now a retired elementary school teacher) taught him in elementary school and last year he was my student. This year he’s in 12th grade so I only see him for speaking les. Last year I recruited Agus to join English Club because we were performing a drama and Bu Chris and I were looking for a male student to be the big, green monster. Surprisingly, no one wanted the job and finally we asked Agus because he was in our class and we knew he had pretty good English. To my surprise, he said yes and jumped right in. Before the drama he didn’t know the other students who are featured in this post but now they are all close friends (and I take a little bit of credit for that). I have seen a huge improvement in Agus over the past year, especially in his self-confidence. Despite consistently being the male student with the highest grade in his class, he has always thought and said that he wasn’t very smart. I disagree and so does my ibu, who said he was at the top of his class in elementary school. When we first started speaking les, Agus was always pretty quiet. He was the last to answer the question for the day and he tended to want to speak in bahasa Indonesia. But over the months he has improved dramatically. Now he is quick to speak English and he speaks it well. Now he will volunteer to be the first to share and he will help to correct his friends’ mistakes in English. His shining moment came this two weeks ago during our school’s anniversary when we had a spelling bee competition for students from 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. Agus is not naturally the best speller; in fact, when we had our first spelling bee last year, he didn’t even join. When we practiced together, he often made mistakes by pronouncing the letters like you would in bahasa Indonesia. Other students could quickly memorize the words but Agus had to work at it. He came over to my house to practice for two days before the spelling bee. Both times he had trouble remembering the spelling and saying the letters with an English pronunciation. I was pretty sure he would be eliminated quickly but to my amazement he made it through 13 rounds, which included 3 rounds of new words that weren’t on the list he was given….and he won first place! He beat 57 other students and I was SO PROUD. Other fun facts about Agus: he loves to eat. The rest of us always tease him because if I have snacks during les he might very well eat them all. He’s also a big fan of cooking together and is always ready to try new foods. He also loves Justin Bieber more than most teenage girls I know and he has JB’s biography practically memorized. One time in speaking les I asked Agus to describe what he wants to do with his future. He answered that he wants to play professional football [soccer] (since he’s too short to play professional basketball) and be a farmer and go to university and study languages and have a business and so on. He has lots of dreams and isn’t committed to any one career (I can relate). But now that he’s a 12th grader he has to actually pick something to do for next year and it’s my personal goal to help him search for scholarships because that’s the only way college will be an option for him. Fingers crossed!
Yola was English Club President last year but now she is happily the “ex-president” as she calls it since she’s busy studying for the national exam as a 12th grader. Yola is smart and good at English and an excellent speller (my money was on her for the spelling bee but I stumped her with the word “audible” – it was an extra word that wasn’t on the original list). Yola is a great leader not because she’s the loudest personality or has the best English but instead she is approachable, responsible, and consistent. Because she is a quieter presence, I don’t have the same kind of stories about Yola that I have for some of the others but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been an essential part of the activities I’ve done here. I know I can count on Yola; she’ll join my activities, she’ll follow through, and she’ll let me know if she can’t come when she’s previously made a commitment. Those can be rare qualities in a place where flexibility and rubber time create an informal (and sometimes unproductive) atmosphere. Some of my favorite memories of Yola are from when I watched her lead English Club activities. We’ve always had trouble with attendance and Yola came up with creative solutions or “punishments” for members who usually skipped out on the meetings. Earlier this semester the English Club leaders showed the film Akeelah and the Bee, which we had watched together the previous year. She assigned the 11th graders to pause the movie and explain the events for the new 10th graders. That delegation forced those 11th graders to be present, active, and responsible. (That’s my style of leadership!) I also loved the day when she brought a worksheet for English Club to study and it was “texting lingo” from some textbook somewhere under a chapter entitled “Teenager Activities.” The worksheet was full of sentences like, “lol brb I g2g eat can I ttyl?” that students had to decode. I haven’t seen that level of abbreviated madness since my AOL Instant Messaging days (8th grade, anyone?). Naturally, the students loved it.
Joko is small but he has the biggest heart. He’s full of energy and motivation and he has always a positive attitude. Seriously, this kid is the best. The first time I met Joko was during my first English Club meeting (English Club was in existence long before I arrived). We played a game and I don’t remember much except that students who lost got a punishment of having to sing or dance. Most students were so shy but Joko was not even fazed. He put in one earbud to listen to whatever pop song was playing on his cell phone and he started belting it out. This kid can sing! Last October Joko joined an English singing competition at a nearby university. The participants had to choose a song off a list of several options and then they had to translate an Indonesian song into English and perform that as well. I had my doubts about how this would work out but Joko worked out to translate the lyrics by himself and then I helped him with some corrections. The Indonesian song is entitled “Butiran Debu” which literally translates to “Dust Particle.” We agreed that sounded ridiculous and changed it to “Only Dust” (the refrain being, “Without you, I am only dust”….definitely an improvement over “without you, I am dust particle”). To my amazement it turned out SO well. I think the English version is better than the Indonesian! And it’s that much more special because Joko translated it himself and put his spin on it. Joko worked so, so hard. He came over to my house almost every day to practice his singing and check his grammar and pronunciation. There were several other students joining different competitions at the university (speech, writing, story-telling, and so on) and Joko brought them all over to practice with me. The others were shy or quiet or unprepared but Joko was always ready to help and motivate them. There was no doubt in my mind that Joko deserved to win that competition and I truly couldn’t imagine an Indonesian high school student performing with better English. I was heartbroken to hear that he didn’t place in the top 3. He was pretty sad too because he believed he could do it. (We speculated that the judges chose the best vocalists rather than focusing on who had the best English OR who translated the lyrics without just using Google Translate….) But just last week he heard from someone at the school and they told him he got 4th place! He may not have won anything but he was still one of the best and 4th out of 25 ain’t bad. Joko wants to be a volunteer and teach in a rural area because he’s identified poor education in rural parts of Indonesia (think Papua, parts of Kalimantan, etc) as a big issue. Last week we discussed problems Indonesia is facing and my students all agreed that better education would work to decrease poverty, corruption, and a host of other issues. As an educator, I was thrilled to hear that and even more excited to see that they are motivated by wanting to “be the change they want to see,” in Gandhi’s words.
Bonus Student: Awanda
Awanda is a new addition to our speaking les group. She was my student last year, from the same class as Agus. She’s an excellent writer. In that class I gave all the students journals and Awanda wrote a short story for me (in English!) that still hasn’t been concluded. Last year in class Wanda was pretty quiet and I just got to know her through her writings. I was surprised when she applied to join iGLOW Camp last year. I didn’t expect to be impressed by her interview because we were looking for strong, self-confident female students who wanted to be leaders…but honestly, Wanda’s interview blew me away. She was articulate and passionate. She made it into the Elite Eight who got to join the camp. Through iGLOW I saw a whole different side to Wanda. She isn’t just a serious student, she also loves to have fun and be social and discuss problems and think critically. Last October she joined the same English competition that Joko joined but in the speech category. She worked almost as hard as Joko. When Bu Chris listened to her practice she told Awanda that she needed to work on her pronunciation and she should join my speaking les. Wanda did just that; she practiced with me, she joined speaking les and she won first place in the speech competition! Yesterday during speaking les we were discussing strengths and weaknesses (like a question you might receive in a job interview or on a scholarship application). Wanda said one of her strengths is trying new things. She told me that she had never done anything like iGLOW or a speech competition before but when she heard about them she decided she wanted to try them. She didn’t even practice for that interview that so impressed me a year ago. I feel lucky to know Wanda. I think when she sets her mind to something and gives it her all she is often successful. I’m excited to hear about what she does in her post-high school life.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, speaking les is my favorite weekly activity. That’s a huge change from last year. At this time a year ago I was mulling over the all the things I wanted to do but didn’t know how to do at site. I wanted some kind of informal club or group that would be my secondary project where I could pour my passion for non-English-related subjects like youth & community development and volunteerism. I wanted to talk to kids about social issues and push them to think critically. I also wanted to get to know my students on a more personal level. I was frustrated feeling like I had no way to accomplish these things. Fast forward a year and I feel like I’m finally seeing these dreams realized through speaking les and iGLOW. I’m so grateful for both of these activities and most especially for the students that I’ve highlighted in this post.