On any given weekday morning I wake up without an alarm at 6:45, un-tuck my mosquito net and drag myself out of bed. I lumber down the stairs to see what’s cooking for breakfast. If it’s bake and eggs or pancakes (“plax” as the Guyanese call them) I join my host family for breakfast, but if it’s fish or stew I make myself coffee and cereal. For a while I was committed to my French press, but I’ve recently realized that instant coffee isn’t really all that bad. It’s best drank with milk (powdered—no cows in St. Cuthbert’s!) and sugar (coarse brown Demarara sugar comes from sugar cane that’s grown and processed right in Guyana).
Wendy and Benji are often already bustling around the house and yard, working on their morning chores. Seven AM is late to get up in Guyana, even though almost no one has a job to get to. After I finish breakfast I join them—maybe I start soaking a tub of laundry, finish up my lesson plans for the day, or wash wares (dishes). With any luck, I’m cold-water-showered, dressed and out the door by 8:15.
During the five minute walk to school, I am often joined by some group of my students or another, and I’m always greeted by cheerful cries of “Good morning, Miss!” Between my summer school, remedial reading groups, my short-lived running club, and the fact that I’ve subbed for each class at least a few times over the past six months, all 178 students in the primary school know me, and I know them, easily 2/3 of them by name.
Lately, in the mornings, students often greet me by pointing out, “Miss, I am on time today!” (The wise guys in grades 5 and 6 say, “Miss, I’m late” with sly grins when they are clearly not.) For the past few weeks I have been enforcing consequences for lateness for the entire school. It’s a daunting task, but it’s preferable to watching our HM lash late students. I appreciate her willingness to allow me to experiment with an alternate consequence, which at the moment is copying the national anthem in after-school detention.
The bell rings at 8:30, and students in identical blue uniforms—shorts for the boys, dresses for the girls—hustle to line up by grade and gender outside the school. They say the national pledge and the Our Father and listen to any announcements that the HM and other teachers have to give. By 8:45 the kids are in their classrooms and registers are being filled out, and I’m taking the names of the last of my latecomers and preparing to collect my first reading group of the day.
Lions and Tigers and Rabbits, oh my—and all the rest of my reading groups. The morning is frantic, since I teach five groups for 30 minutes apiece, and my schedule changes daily. Throughout the day, I wonder how to deal with a 3rd grade Puppy who knows all the letter sounds but writes her letters backwards, a 5th grade Jaguar who can read the word “cylinder” but not “be” or “one.” One of my Lions, a fourth-grader, can’t read but is really quite bright, catching on to letter sounds quickly. Inevitably, he will stop coming to school regularly once his father leaves the village to work, as he does for a few months out of every year. Perhaps saddest of all are the students with severe learning disabilities that will never be diagnosed: a 3rd grader who must look back at previous pages in his book to see how to spell his name though he’s done it every day for years, a 2nd grader who rarely speaks and knows no letters.
As I walk through the school to collect each new reading group, I see teachers struggling to make due with a lack of materials, teaching subjects that they are not confident with themselves, and sleeping on desks. I see teachers neglecting students in order to complete the paperwork the ministry drowns them in, leading their classes in recitations and drills, and attempting to teach two classes at once to make up for a coworker’s absence. It is difficult not to jump in and substitute when a teacher is absent, but I know that my reading lessons will make more of a difference in these students’ educations than a frazzled substitute teacher. I only cancel my reading lessons if more than 2 of our 5 teachers are absent, which does happen once a week or so.
When the bell rings at 11:30, I straighten up my reading room, jot down a few quick notes about how the morning’s lessons went, and go home to decompress over lunch. Living with a host family has made lunchtime less stressful—curried chicken or fish over rice is usually prepared and ready to eat by the time I get home, so I can eat and vent about my day to Wendy instead of worrying about cooking.
My hour lunch break goes faster than I would like it to, and at 12:30 I’m back in school, filling in for whichever teacher is missing that day. I only have one 30-minute lesson in the afternoons, so otherwise I’m free to substitute, a good compromise between addressing staffing and literacy problems at our school. I do this at my own discretion…some days I simply put a lesson up on the board for a class missing a teacher and then retreat to my reading room to do extra work with students from my remedial groups.
It is October, and you know what that means—or, probably you don’t—school sports! School sports is sort of a cross between field day and a track-and-field meet for elementary school students, and it means we have 1-hour practices three days a week during school hours for the entire month, all in preparation for the big day. There will be 60- to 200-meter races for students of all ages as well as a cycle race, sack races, 3-legged races and a tug-of-war.
At 2:30, sports practice ends, and the staff and their sweaty, sandy student-athletes trek back to the school from the ballfield (cricket, not baseball!) and head home. I don’t usually go home right away. Between detention, staff meetings, and helping with the after-school literacy program and the community library, I am lucky if I leave by 3:30.
After school, I have a few hours of down-time unless I have clothes to wash. I might gaff with a neighbor or shop owner, take a walk to visit a friend or a student’s parent, or head to the landing for a swim. Other days I stay home to play with my dog (who may or may not be pregnant!), read a book in my hammock, hang out with my host family, or get a head start on the next day’s lesson plans.
Just before dark I go for a run with my dog and whatever 7- to 14-year-olds care to follow me on that day. That’s the only time it’s cool enough! I usually run barefoot down the sandy road that leads from the main highway into the mission.
After I get home I bathe and change into PJ’s—pants despite the heat, so the mosquitoes don’t eat me alive. The lights come on at 6 and it’s dinner time, and sometimes I cook, since Guyanese often eat light for dinner. Last week I made fried bake with fresh tomatoes, cheese and basil inside—it was delicious! I have much more fun cooking when it’s a voluntary activity.
After dinner, I prepare lesson plans, and if I’m not too tired I might study for the GRE, write a letter, journal, or work on one of my secondary projects, like the Secondary School Entrance Exam Prep book that I want to create. 9:00 is evening tea-time, and sometimes I join my family for a movie in the living room, but more often I take my tea up to my hammock and read myself into a stupor. Right now I’m working on Fast Food Nation, a great book but surreal to read so far away from American fast-food culture.
I try to be out of my hammock and safely in bed under my mosquito net by the time the lights go out at 10. I click off my flashlight, snuggle with my stuffed panda and enjoy the breeze from my tiny motorized fan as the rustlings of rats that live in my room lull me to sleep.