Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Portrait #60: A really cool teacher

I first encountered her when I got on the bus for the four hour drive down to the camp. She and another teacher were sitting on the right side of the front row and my mates were sitting on the left. This meant that the only seat on the bus left for me was the fold-down chair in the front, where the driver's assistant usually sits. I certainly didn't mind - it was the best view on the bus! But Sitt Lara wanted to greet the students, so once the bus started moving, she moved down, told me to get out her way, and picked up the microphone off the bus console. Did this older, proper-looking woman really want to sit in the seat usually reserved for the servant boy?

Eventually, she went back to her respectable seat, but not without dancing a bit in the aisles first. She's fifty-two years old and not a small woman. She wears thin wire-rimmed glasses and a flowing white headscarf, and her eyes and nose peek out from her headgear in a way that made me think at first that I'd best not mess with her. And yet here she was, playing around with the bus console and dancing with her students.

The next day, the students were doing their group activities before lunch, and several of us leaders joined in the games. The last game entailed one player from each team running to the middle of the room. Whoever grabbed the dartball sitting in the centre first, and then managed to escape without being tagged, won. It was a great way to build team spirit, as we cheered our teammates on. To keep the tension high, the moderator didn't call out the names of the individuals who would have to represent each team until the very last minute. So when Sitt Lara's name was called, she didn't hear. She was too busy cheering the rest of the team on. The other team's significantly more sprightly competitor ran to the middle, grabbed the dartball, and was almost back to her side of the room by the time Sitt Lara realised she was supposed to participate.

So Sitt Lara asked for a re-do and the game moderators agreed. This time, she was determined to be ready. I can't remember if she won the race for the ball, but I do remember her Olympic-worthy pose in preparation for the proverbial gun to go off. She stood a metre ahead of us, the rest of her team, right in the middle of our line. She wore a tailored skirt suit with the white headscarf, and as she flexed her legs, her long gray skirt was stretched to the max. Her arms too were flexed, left arm up and bent, and right arm down and bent. Her whole body leaned forward and rocked back and forth. All 200 pounds of her were focused on the prize of that dartball.

Shortly thereafter, she got word of the fact that I am a "doctor." For her a sociologist was as good as a psychologist, so she decided that I'd be qualified to help her work out her needs. If it wasn't too inconvenient, she asked, could I sit down with her for a while? Since she talked with me as if I were some sort of psychotherapist, I suppose I shouldn't share the contents of the conversation.

But I'll give you the background information: she was widowed at a young age, and has never remarried. Why? Well, she said there are five types of men who would marry a widow: an older single man, who will probably want children and she doesn't want any more children; a divorcee, who might still have ties to his previous wife or else might also want children; a widower, who is probably just looking for someone to help him raise his own children; a man who is already married and looking for a second wife, in which case she's better off alone; and... I can't remember what the fifth one was. Well, after an explanation like that, how could I doubt her? She'd clearly thought it out and had a clear explanation of why she would not be remarried. Nonetheless, she was humble enough to ask me, little old me who is half her age and has less than half her experience, for advice.

She's a clever one, though, and she loves her work. Her desire to help her students is so strong that she may suffer from it: wanting to be sensitive, she gives them their distance, but at the same time she's eager to sit with them and encourage them. She asks for no recognition for her work with marginalised girls and gets silently irritated with others who seek reward. I truly enjoyed meeting someone who tries so hard and has such pure motives, even to the point of throwing cultural proprieties to the wind whenever it seems that doing so will be better for her girls.

But perhaps the moment my heart was truly won over by Sitt Lara was when she informed me that she spends five or more hours each night gaming on the internet. It's Marge Simpson, to the tenth.

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