the students

it’s exam time again. every night the students spread themselves out on the grass around the school, notebooks on knees, memorizing as much as they can. inside the classrooms, groups of kids push desks together papers every-which-way to discuss concepts they don’t yet understand. and why should they? their notes are in french mostly, a high level textbook french that is mostly uncomprehensible. even if they do get it, can they explain it in a language that’s not their own? when the exams get dished out the next morning they’ll spit out whatever definition they’ve managed to memorize and hope it answers the question. reading comprehension consists of finding a word from the question that’s also in the text, copying out the sentence that contains it and crossing your fingers. which is not a bad strategy if you don’t understand a word of what you’re reading.

amanda and i are working on a study skills workshop that may help with some of this, but the language barrier is so enormous and the practice of note-taking so archaic that it’s hard to be optimistic.

but that’s not what i’m writing about today. during exam time, profs are expected to do ‘surveillance’. much like back at home, i walk the aisles for hours at a time and watch for cheaters. can’t read a book, can’t grade papers, can’t daydream too much or i’ll miss the casual ‘coup-d’oeil’ of a weaker student over the shoulders of a stronger one. because there are so many students and so little space, the school scatters them out in different classrooms as best they can – a senior six with a senior four, a one with a five. often students from the same class are stacked one in front of the other so they can share rulers and calculators.

i hand out the exams and the room goes silent, heads bent studiously, stress tangible in the air. after a half-hour or so you know who the cheaters’ll be. they’re the ones staring at the ceiling or out the window, chewing a pen, shuffling papers, drawing the header on their paper with extra care. i move the peepers as soon as i see them so that i don’t have to steal their papers and give zeros. i don’t remember so many cheaters back home, but maybe it’s easier here with such close-quarters, or maybe the exams are so painful that it’s the only hope for many.

but cheaters aside, there’s was a moment yesterday morning when i could almost forget i’m in africa. i stood in the back and looked down a row of identical haunched shoulders oblivious to my stare, attention focused solely on the task at hand and the clock ticking away. outside it’s summer and it’s hot and the birds are singing and vacation seems like it wants to burst into the classroom. it could be rhinebeck high school.

~ by aliciawolcott on July 6, 2007.

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