Teaching Alin China

In Manatuto, East Timor

24 July 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

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.


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