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1/15/08 Snapshot: Winter classroom

Walking up the hill to the school, I see smoke pouring out a chimney pipe. I inwardly celebrate the comfort that I assume it represents.

Then I get there.

Nearly a dozen students are engaged in Preparing The Forno. Some are out gathering kindling. Others are breaking the gathered sticks into smaller bits, to more easily fit into the mailbox-sized woodstove. One girl is sweeping the floor; the coal dust and ash have created a half-inch layer of soot.

None of them have any control over the clouds of ago, the sooty, choking smoke billowing outwards from the stove’s gaping mouth. The large classroom – easily 20 feet on a side – is thick with it. (It reminds me of the 3id al-Adha, when sheep intestine shish kebabs were prepared in the living room over a charcoal brazier. The clouds of smoke first danced in the shafts of sunlight, swirling into mesmerizing patterns with every passing breath, but eventually settled into a haze so dense that huffing and puffing made no difference.)

When I enter, the students not occupied with The Forno immediately rise from their seats and chorus, “Bonjour, Madame.” I smile at them, then greet the teacher with the requisite cheek-kissing. She leads me outside, where the air is breathable, and we talk for a few minutes. I apologize for disrupting her class (although this is the time that she’d asked me to drop by), and she assures me that, given The Forno’s domination of the moment, she couldn’t teach, anyway.

“The students told me they were cold, so we lit it. It’s coal-fired, but needs kindling to light, so it’s something of a nightmare,” she explains in a mixture of Arabic (which she keeps forgetting I can’t understand), Berber, and French.

When the clouds of smoke start to dissipate, we re-enter the room. The poor kids, except for those few out gathering more kindling, have been attempting to breathe the carbony mess this whole time. I feel like we should be shooting a documentary about coal mining, and gain a whole new sympathy for the poor souls who spend their days breathing carbon dust.

The teacher gives me the seat of honor by the stove, and she begins marking the students’ work. They bring their notebooks to her one by one. She looks them over, highlights any mistakes by asking the class whatever the student got wrong, then scores them. If the student made enough mistakes, they get whacked with a rod that’s about a foot long and the width of my thumb. Two whacks per hand.

The students are used to this; when she gives them The Look, they hold out their hands, stripping off their gloves if necessary. Their body language, shoulders hunched, spine cringing, indicates that they know exactly how much it will hurt, but they don’t hold back. Their hands out, they get the four swats – left, right, left, right – and then the stick goes back on the desk. They respond to their stinging hands differently. One child balls his tiny hands up into tiny fists. Another tucks his under his armpits and squeezes down. Another lets his arms hang loosely by his side. Given the tone of the tonguelashing they get, both before and after the whacks, I find myself wondering which hurts more, the physical pain or the humiliation of having it happen in front of all their classmates. I also find myself wondering why these children keep coming back to school. There’s no enforcement of the requirement that children attend school through sixth grade. If I got hit and humiliated regularly, I’d be awfully tempted to stop showing up.

I try to see it from the teacher’s perspective. I thought back to the inner-city public school where I taught for two years. Of course, my kids were much older – mostly 14- and 15-year-olds, nearly adult sized, unlike these tiny 4th graders – but I remember how frustrating grading and disciplining kids could be. My school forbade corporal punishment – not that that stopped the teachers who wanted to use it – but plenty of others did not. Some even issued rulers to the teachers, with instructions for use.

When faced with the endless needs of students, the never-present classroom supplies, let alone the bitter cold, and the thousands of other factors that make teaching so utterly exhausting, it’s easy to see how teachers burn out. Parents here routinely hit children – not viciously, just the odd cuffing – so why shouldn’t the teachers?

And before this began, I’d been comparing the scene with the stories of Laura Ingalls teaching in North Dakota in the late 1900s, and the fictional Anne Shirley teaching in Nova Scotia around the same time. The cold rooms, the silent rows of children, the nightmarish stove…all players in their stories. And those protagonists rapped knuckles and palms, too.

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Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps