24 July 2003
-- Manatuto, East
What happened next, is perhaps the highlight of my experience
so far. A week ago, I had watched some of the children doing
homework, and asked alin China to read something she was copying.
She was shook her head, and I figured she was just too shy,
and dismissed the teasing she was getting from the other children
-- they were saying she didn't know how to read -- as simple
joking around; she was writing, and that usually comes after
reading, doesn't it? Well, the other night, I asked her to read
something to me again, and was certain, at that point, that
she couldn't read a single word. She was struggling to go though
the alphabet, sounding out letters, and didn't have a clue how
to put them together for a word. I thought may be she was dyslexic.
She happened to be working on the homework I had given to the
children in my ad-hoc English class the night before -- she
is amazing at copying writing letter-for-letter, without having
a clue what the words sound like (she is also very quick to
learn the sentences I am teaching orally). I asked her to read
something, and of course she couldn't. Like so many children
here, she does get embarrassed easily, but does not scare away.
She dissolved into an embarrassed smile, hiding her face in
her hands, but stayed put. I said I'd help her learn to read,
and she looked doubtfully in my eyes. Now alin China is a really
enchanting kid. Eleven years old, she retains all the innocence
of youth yet has the coordination and presence of a teenager.
She is also a little of a mischief causer. My host family is
raising her as one of their own, but she is the daughter of
a family living in the group of trees in the middle of the rice
field in back of the house. She works hard, and is always getting
the brunt of people's gruff temper. Her response is what really
marks her out as a potential star: she just smiles, often laughs,
and gets done what's being asked of her. Often, when one of
the adults is berating her for perhaps placing a fork on the
wrong side of the plate, she and I exchange a quick, knowing
smile, and she laughs!
Well, I wrote out the alphabet, and she knew each letter, but
struggled just a little with H and K, and a few others. When
I started to put two letters together to form a sound, she wasn't
quite sure what to do, but as I was sounding them out for her,
she quickly caught on. Two letters became three and then she
was saying ama (mother) before she even realized it was a word!
Apa (father), alin (younger brother or sister), maun and bin
(older brother and sister), hau and o (I and you) were next,
and the look of surprise and satisfaction on her face was enough
reward for all the crap I've put up with from the Peace Corps.
We practiced for about half an hour and she definitely had the
hang of it: she could read. It'll be a bit of work for this
kid to start reading Nancy Drew novels, but she's got the start
down and considering how quickly she learns other things, it
won't be long before she is reading kids material. Helping her
with this important step really made my day, week, and thus
far, my month.
One of the most remarkable things about this situation is not
that she is just learning to read at the age of eleven (plenty
of adults in this country don't have a clue how to write their
name, though the Indonesian rulers made a vast improvement on
the general level of education over Portuguese times), but rather
that she has been going to school regularly for at least the
last three years, and hasn't learned much more than the shape
of the letters. Asking about this, Senora Isabel said that the
teachers just taught the kids how to sing.
Another remarkable thing, is that while teaching alin China,
the other kids were around, and offering encouragement -- no
one was poking fun at her -- and picking lice eggs out of each
other's hair. They tried to make their actions seem rather civilized
by saying that the Indonesians ate the eggs and lice they picked
from each other's hair. Well, watching them pick clumps of white
eggs, easy visible from five feet away, off or each other's
hair was pretty impressive to me; I didn't need to imagine them
eating the eggs to complete the effect.