The Power of Disappointment

Let’s jump right in.

I’ll be highlighting some of the recent challenges that have forced me to taste the lovely, tangy concoction of failure, disappointment, and bewilderment with a splash of bitterness. I’m aiming to stay neutral without getting into too many specifics or placing blame. 

Because I’m generally a positive lady, I’m putting those germinating gray hairs back in their place by rightfully sprinkling throughout this post 10 things that make my time here wonderful and sweet.

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Top 10: Working for and promoting peace, tolerance, and understanding, damn it.

Top 10: Would it be inaccurate to say that this photo sums up my Peace Corps work? Working for and promoting peace, cultural awareness, tolerance, and understanding, damn it.

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Mid-October: I was going through packets of aspirin at record speeds like I was trying to qualify for an olympic event. By mid-week, I was burning out harrrrd. I could feel the occasional ‘wrinkles of disapproval’ beginning to furrow deeper into my forehead as the gray hairs aggressively began to materialize, rooting themselves in place with no exit plan…was this my idea of aging gracefully? At 24 years-old, let’s say that again, twenty-fourdefinitely not. It felt like the spunky, youthful side of me was drowning in a shallow reservoir somewhere.

I came home from school unusually angry one day. Nothing in particular had triggered the rush of fury, but certain events of daily life had taken an unsettling turn in my mind and ignited something within. I literally felt like I was on fire with restlessness. I texted my sister back in the States out of desperation for some feedback but really I wanted to think everything through before I vented to someone, so I wrote. The all too versatile “F-bomb” made several appearances throughout as I released everything unto an innocent sheet of scratch paper. After writing, I was better. I ate two big mangoes and felt less like a Mentos/Coca-Cola explosion and more like a calm cup of chamomile tea.

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Top 10: pillow talk, need I say more?

Top 10: pillow talk, need I say more?

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From Peace Corps itself, I’ve coped with a vast range of interesting experiences, both good and bad, that at this point, I can proudly say have challenged me and aided in a lot of personal growth that wouldn’t have happened any other way and isn’t as self-evident as other shifts in attitude may be. But what I’ve realized in this past month is that dealing with disappointment never gets easier and doesn’t exactly mature over time like its cousin failure does. What it’s done has caused me to think more about the social culture in acceptance of unfortunate behaviors versus what they could or should be, and what prevents positive change from happening at such a mediocre level, weighing the consequences of each.

I still don’t have many answers.

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Top 10: The endless exploration of the unknown with new and old friends alike whenever the time allows.

Top 10: The endless exploration of the unknown with new and old friends alike whenever the time allows.

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With second year comes clarity on multiple levels. And with that clarity comes a burgeoning sense of responsibility and accountability that wasn’t as obvious during first year. Everything is less foreign and therefore I feel comfortable enough to navigate through situations while connecting and sharing honest opinions with those I’ve forged intimate trust with, instead of basking in the novelty of certain moments looking helplessly like this (for those with slow internet connections, it’s my favorite confusing pug video!).

For me, second year isn’t about holding back, and with the months racing by, it’s also not about wasting time (sampai jumpa, Facebook) either.

I’ve also learned that working in a school especially at the bottom level, with all of its erratic structures and scheduling on top of the pressures to appease the local governments, is actually a very, very chaotic environment where very little can be controlled, only tamed to an extent by bureaucracy.

With that said, I’m constantly asking myself, “with so much out of my own control, and occasional awkward cultural barriers that I’m unable to surpass, in the end, why should I care? Why don’t others around me seem to be bothered by the same things?” As much as I become frustrated with disruptive students and rare rotten apple teachers, I cared because I am a human being wanting to help another human being. This may not be my real life forever, but it is someone’s real life. Immunity to empathy is impossible for me. It’s that simple. Is it okay to be that simple?  

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Top 10: My family of ID5's, there's too much love and admiration to fit into one tiny caption.

Top 10: My family of ID5’s, there’s too much love and admiration to fit into one tiny caption. (Natasha, where’d you go??!)

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Teen pregnancy. This semester alone, four 10th and 11th grade girls had been quietly removed from my school. For one semester at my school, that’s four times as many as usual. I’m not sure if I should look at that number with relief as being relatively low considering there’s essentially zero educational guidance on sexual reproduction or whether I should continue to pout and see that number as daunting because the lives of my own students have taken an unexpected turn for motherhood before they even had the opportunity to explore their potentials as young women with big ideas? Or am I being too much of an idealist when these girls were already destined to be married off after graduating from high school, their potentials already caged and locked away since the moment of birth?

While eating dinner one evening, I was reading one of Indonesia’s leading newspapers, the Jawa Pos, when a gruesome article about an illegal abortion clinic caught my attention. Struggling to follow all of the details, I asked my sister to help me understand some unrecognizable vocabulary, which led to us to talk about the students who’d been kicked out. I wasn’t stunned when she said that the girls at our school had been stupid, stupid for engaging in premarital activities, stupid for not knowing the consequences of having sex [for the first time]. I didn’t feel the same. Mostly I felt pity. I felt pity because while their behavior was risky and seemingly irresponsible, where and how were they supposed to learn about these consequences? If this dialogue isn’t happening at home or at school… whose responsibility is it to provide guidance and resources? What about the dangers that pregnancies pose on girls whose bodies have not yet fully developed? How many more teen parents are needed until we can come to terms with the bigger issue?

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Top 10: The little ones. Caring for them like they were my own little brothers and sisters.

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Being a teacher isn’t easy. I realize that this problem goes much deeper and that I will come off sounding like the naive novice teacher that I am.

I’ll risk it.

When a student fails to meet the basic competencies required of them, should they still be allowed to proceed to the next grade level where work is supposedly more challenging and builds upon previous knowledge? How about the lazy boys in classes who have doggie paddled and cheated their way throughout their educational careers? The ones who sit in the back and don’t do shit and get away with it. What about me and other teachers? What about the time we spend thinking about our lesson plans and keeping classes of forty hot, hormonal teens entertained and under control?

Who is wasting whose time?

I was in a dilemma: Continuing teaching a class primarily composed of lazy boys (with a few quiet although hardworking girls) who don’t give an absolute damn about much of what happens inside of school (I’d like to believe deep down in my heart that they are passionate about other things, and that’s fine, but come on, work with me here, only 90 minutes), continue to accept them as a challenge and exert the energy it takes to calm them down and keep them interested OR drop them and adopt another class who values my time?

I ended up choosing the latter which made me feel like an utter jerk. Was I letting them down? What about the kids who were good? Was I kicking Peace Corps’ core values in the face?

I gave them opportunities to make up for their terrible behavior, I simplified my lessons, I gave them second chances, my time and foolishly my trust and hopes that they would do better the following week, but they spoiled it.

Coming close to breaking down in front of the class, trying to instill a sense of value in learning (beyond English) and how other students their own ages in their own country would never be given the opportunities to have the same quality of education that they typically sleep through (I seemed to be making a point that was getting through), making them promise they’d try harder next time, and then returning the following week expecting changes only to see bad habits persisting, I felt disappointed in the students, but mostly in myself, for trying my hardest and still failing. I asked myself “what would heroic PCV [name here] do?” but stopped second guessing myself, realizing that only I could help myself. Ultimately my decision was to drop the class and pick up another, and I couldn’t have been happier with that decision.

The worry of personal responsibility and making hard decisions during second year weighs heavily on me this year. How can I still have students who can’t seem to draw contextual clues of when to use “good morning” and “good afternoon” when they’ve been receiving English instruction for the majority of their lives? Is that my failing as a teacher? Or is it the structure and quality of learning they’d been receiving before I stepped foot on Java? I don’t know, but I’m trying to fix what I can. Glacial pace is better than no pace at all, right?

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Top 10: Relaxing with friends, sarong picnics, being ourselves together. ID’s, each and every one of you are beyond words great.

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Thirsty for guidance. What do you do when you have a student with obvious parental negligence issues? When this student has an obviously uncomfortable skin problem all over their body that has gone untreated? When this same student is a bully and is bullied in their class?  When all teachers know about this student and their disruptive behavior problems but no one does anything about it? The signs are obvious, but what is my role?

How about the student who wears glasses, sits close enough to the board, and still must rely on his classmates to help him because he can’t see clearly enough? Who’s going to help him?

Or the student who goes around harassing his female classmates? Grabbing them inappropriately and is regularly caught peeking into the bathrooms? How about when you find out the consequences don’t apply to him specifically because of his wealth and his parents’ position on the school board? Will this behavior progress into something worse? Could he end up seriously harming someone in the future? What is my role, what is my school’s role? Aren’t we supposed to provide a safe learning environment for all students?

These are all too common anywhere and I’m not openly trying to absorb the burden but sometimes I wonder how I can live with myself when there’s resources and preventative measures to take and no one willing to take them?

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Top 10: My sassy, smart, spunky English Club girls. Sure, they may ask a fair share of silly questions and talk about certain things ad nauseam but they’re still fun. Who else can I rely on to ride 20k’s with me just for a glass of es oyen? A rainbow of jilbabs, they’re adorable.

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I’ll give you crazy. I walked into a typically rowdy class one afternoon to find that they were eerily quiet and tame. I later found out that the teacher in the previous period had given them a pretty nasty piece of her mind.

You’re nothing. You’re a social class. You’re dumb and you’ll never be anything. 

Sure, sometimes the kids can get really crazy and you feel like going Kindergarten Cop – Arnold – I – Can – Swallow – You – Whole – If – You – Provoke – Me – Schwarzenegger on their asses, but they’re teenagers bursting with epinephrine and energy. You make ’em sit still in a classroom for 7 hours, and that’s what happens. Madness.

I can’t imagine anything else worse to say to a classroom full of already insecure and confused students who are expected to study 15 subjects per semester, let’s say that again, fifTEEN (!), 6 days a week, in one overcrowded classroom in the wilting heat all day, all year-round.

As my friends in high school would say to someone who was being a real jerk, “you’re a real grade A [asshole].”

Educators should be like a second set of parents, willing to guide, support, and encourage, nothing less.

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Top 10: Getting to know teachers on a personal level. How welcoming and hospitable people can be when they haven’t known you for very long and yet treat you as family.

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Teachers who personally attack students by challenging their intelligence and self-worth.

A student at my school, who excels in less academic ways, but whose forte is in the creative arts, recently represented our school in a region-wide competition. Our principal wouldn’t allow permission for any of our teachers to accompany the student to the competition in the city, so she had to go alone. During the competition, she observed the other participants who were receiving endless showers of support and encouragement by their own schools. Where was hers? That’s a pretty crappy feeling. This student ended up taking 1st place in the competition (booyakasha!), and went on to win 1st place again at a higher tier, which has qualified her to represent our school and our regency in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, sometime next semester. Cue Journeyjust a small town girl… 

The excitement had backfired in many ways though, with teacher’s interrogating her in class…

You couldn’t have possibly written that by yourself. You must have had lots of help from someone. How could [student] have won? They aren’t good in [xyz class]. [Student] probably only won because [student xyz from xyz school] couldn’t attend the competition. 

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Top 10: The 10 + mango producing trees in my yard that has made recent breakfasts holy-moley amazing. What's in the bowl? Mangoes, dates, almonds, walnuts, honey, and dried oats. Hale yah!

Top 10: The 10 + mango producing trees in my yard that has made recent breakfasts holy-moley amazing. What’s in the bowl? Mangoes, dates, almonds, walnuts, honey, and dried oats. Hale yah!

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How can a group of people be so accepting of something they know is morally wrong, irresponsible, self-degrading or just plain inhumane, especially in the workplace where we all *supposedly* view one another as family. I’m talking the big, bad, and the ugly: physical abuse and sexual harassment.

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Top 10: Hanging out with students outside of school and learning about their other creative talents.

Top 10: Hanging out with students outside of school and learning about their other creative talents.

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I can’t say much else but that it’s hard living here sometimes. I see and feel more than I want to, but I’m learning as much as I can to build resilience to move forward and do good where I can.

4 thoughts on “The Power of Disappointment

  1. *Sigh* … You mention a number of issues that I think happen at all of our schools in some form: no sex ed, little motivation, poverty, corruption, no accountability, and teachers who just don’t give a damn. These issues are bigger than we are and I feel that weight too. I think our best option is to ask what is realistically achievable (for a volunteer/for a school), acknowledge our limits, and keep trading ideas with other positive people.

  2. Hey Elle,

    Thank you for being brave and sharing all your frustrations. You are right that it will make you so much stronger through reflection.

    Hang in there, and text any time!

    Your text today about a certain xenophile in Mojokerto got me thinking that this could be a way to start a really important conversation with him and other here: we are people, too, not your toys or objects. Add that to the list of things that make us 20s get early gray hairs and want to pukul someone…

    Love from Jombang!
    Sarah

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