Taking up space

I am meant to finish the paperwork to extend my contract another year. It is almost finished. Only one or two things remain to be done on it, but I can’t seem to decide if it is worth doing or not. I cannot really decide if anything is worth doing.

There is a kind of despair that falls over me whenever I think about it. I don’t spend the rest of my day feeling that way. It is intermittent. But there is a sense that, although I want to help, I am not helping anyone. I might even be making some things worse. I am not a great classroom disciplinarian—as I work through trauma, I expect this to get immensely easier for me, but it never seems to. I think mainly I lack consistency. I know how to do it, but I don’t always do it as well as I might. And these days my classes are frequently very difficult. I think I know why: they are scared of most of their teachers, but they have no real self-control. It is all emotional reactivity. Also, societal control is shame-based. Extremely so. Humiliation is the primary, traditional way of disciplining children. Physical punishment also, but the physical punishment is often accompanied by or even replaced entirely of scathing verbal abuse. I don’t shame them and I have worked hard to make the students feel comfortable in the class with me, so I see their total lack of self-control or ability to think about future consequences very clearly. And it interferes these days with instruction. A lot.

So I end up feeling actually they aren’t learning anything from me. They would do better with a Country X teacher even if I actually know more and have more skills as a teacher. At least they shut up and listen to other teachers. I want to help, but I think I am doing less than someone else might do.

If I really think logically, I think I could be helping some of the teachers. I might (or might not) be helping the students, but it’s possible I am helping some teachers become better teachers by being a good colleague—there to to bounce ideas off of and offer encouragement, because there is this tendency here to fall to the lowest possible level of the performance. Country X is not known for its work ethic, nor for its innovativeness or even openness to new ideas and change. The teachers who want to try new things and who are trying to be better teachers sometimes have no one to really talk to about it, because their colleagues don’t care.

So I don’t know.

And I have that sense kind of generally. That I want to do so many things, but I can’t do them well enough that it particularly matters that I do them. I am mostly just hogging air someone else might be able to use better. Of course, there is enough air for everyone to breathe. I ought to be able to breathe too. But I still have that sense, that I am a waste of space on this planet.

I don’t know what has brought this on, but the feeling of futility is profound.

I am less lonely and homesick now. I worked some things about myself and about Country X that clarified the problem for me. Now I seem to have moved onto the next problem.

I know, for example, that I get uncomfortable here because it is really not a child-friendly culture. Children are first toys and then irritations and then slaves. There is honestly no understanding of child development or of what it is actually like to be a child. People do love their own children, but children are just not valued. I don’t totally understand the attitude about children here, but it’s not what I grew up with or entirely consistent with the values I internalized about children. Something about it is quite different, and it’s hard for me to always cope with.

The United States is much more child-friendly, and I don’t know what modern life is like for Russian children now, but my Russian friends loved children. It is a cultural value. Yuri didn’t share it—he was a sociopath—and it doesn’t mean that Russians are always nice to children, but there is a different attitude. So I’m bumping up against an internalized value about children and the value of the place I am in all the time because I am a teacher, and I spend my days caring about individual children.

And here in Country X people suck at cognitive empathy. They have enormous affective empathy and so if they understand the problem, they will do everything they can to help you. But most people can’t really see anyone’s point of view but their own all that well. They get along because people learn to shut up and not argue over things, but the kids are horrible. They fight every second, it seems sometimes, because they cannot fathom that the kid who pushed them almost tripped and fell and didn’t do it purposely or maybe they should ask before taking a pen that is not theirs if that person is not their friend. And “excuse me” and “sorry” don’t seem to be a part of anyone’s automatic response to making a mistake. Class Five students (mostly the age of American 6th graders) argue like 2-year-olds. I mean, really, the last time I saw so much hitting and arguing over trivialities was in a nursery school.

What’s interesting about it, in a way, is these things stop being an issue for adults. Children have a sense of personal space that is constantly being violated. “He’s pushing me,” is something I hear all day. Then adult push, bump into each other, crowd strangers and no one reacts. At all. It’s like there is some kind of innate sense of personal space that is a bit bigger than what is the cultural normal here in Country X, and childhood is spent whittling it down to its proper adult size. It’s weird, but anyway I notice perspective-taking is not a strong point.

So I spend a lot of time trying to listen and help children understand each other. It is frustrating, but grasping that this is just part of the culture, kind of like I don’t know how to plant rice or catch a snake, helps me feel better about it all. I don’t know that it makes any difference that I try to do this or not, but at least I know why this happens and I don’t just hate them for it.

Because of that, I feel a little better. I don’t feel so lonely or so homesick. Now, I just feel this despair at the futility of my existence. It keeps getting triggered by something I need to do—the paperwork—and consequently it seems I need to deal with it.

I am not sure how yet.


One thought on “Taking up space

  1. desilef September 3, 2015 / 10:33 pm

    So interesting. And you are making a difference, with C and with others. And I am sure that your attitude about protecting and valuing children is something that affects all of them though they may not be able to realize or name it, at least not yet. As for cognitive empathy, sometimes exposure to difference forces people to recognize that other people have difference perspectives and internal lives. You are probably offering that useful shock to some of the teachers and some of the students. But you know, evil behavior can have a huge impact. Doing anything worthwhile, it seems it’s always just one grain of sand at a time. It’s not futile. We need every single grain.

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