Friday, October 22, 2004

In the Loupe, Chapter 6

The best part of our official welcome to Guadeloupe - other than the fact that they told us about it the day before and so we spent a sunny Saturday on the bus only to be told at length that we were right, there's no curriculum - was the fact that it was three weeks to a month after most of us got here, having stumbled our way through bank accounts, red tape, creating a curriculum... Welcome to Guadeloupe, they said: you will discover that the island is a butterfly-shaped archipelago consisting of two parts... Really? They do bananas here? And sugar? Really? There's Créole? And different races? IT'S AN ISLAND???!!! Get out. Get. Out.

The chairman of I'm-not-sure-what-but-he-talked-for-over-an-hour was pretty hostile, sure that we were going to get swept up in gangs and do him shame. He was warning us, finger-shaking and all, about this one guy last year who overdosed on something or other and trashed his room and apartment building, then streaked naked through town and ended up in a strait jacket being sent home to the States. Now, and I mean really now, how likely is it that this could ever happen again? Some guy loses his mind, so now we're all going to freak out and destroy Guadeloupe? He wants us to take advantage of local customs and get out and do lots of stuff, but don't wear short skirts or fall in with pot-smoking islanders who will be our undoing. Meet people, but please be careful not to meet people.

He's also one of these people who has to know something about everything, so when he did roll call he had to comment on every single person, and I'm not exaggerating. They'd stand there uncomfortably while he rambled on about his feelings toward their hometown: "ah, Boston - does anyone know the name of a famous Boston university?" - as if half the crowd isn't American; as if we've all been living under a rock - "ah yes, Arizona - lovely Savannah." "Actually, I think Savannah is in Georgia" says the guy from Arizona. "No, no, it's definitely in Arizona" says Captain Geography from Guadeloupe. He was very excited to meet the lone Canadian and told us all about moose. Don't worry, they're peaceful creatures.

The good thing was making contacts for eventual week-end visits, as everyone's pretty isolated and desperate for English-speaking company. The bad thing was that of all the assistants, many fun and exciting, the girl living closest to me and with whom I spent two and a half hours on the bus (starting at 6:10 in the morning, when I'm up for very little to begin with) is the most irritating person you've ever met. Other than the chairman, but he doesn't live near me so it doesn't matter. And she's Spanish, so I couldn't even finally speak English. She talks in circles about nothing - nothing! - and your eyes glaze over, and then she asks you a question and you have to snap back into reality and figure out where the conversation has led to. What are you talking about? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? Then you feel really rude - not that she notices, she just keeps on truckin'. You know, one of those people.

On the other hand, meeting other assistants sometimes made me realize how lucky I am; some are living on this little paradise beach island, Marie Galante, that you go to for a peaceful week-end of sun and sand. But you go there because there are things happening in your life and you want a break. Living there... not so much. As well as no hot water and being made to teach extra classes - at a different level - as rent, they have nothing to do, ever. They spend ferry money every single week-end and come to Guadeloupe, clawing their way into a restaurant or someone's living room or even just to sit at the bus depot, because at least there are people. So they want us to go spend week-ends there as much as possible, which is awesome for me, and hopefully they'll have more people to hang out with in Guadeloupe now and things will be easier.

Meanwhile, amazing things keep happening here. Moderately amazing was the fish I ordered at a marina restaurant, having not realized that the entire fish would be placed before me, eyes, tails and everything included. The thing was huge. Disgustingly amazing was a piece of flagrant injustice in one of my classes. It happens to be the loudest, most frustrating group of kids I've ever met, but it was still unfair. The principal - who's a pretty uptight and nervous-making lady - showed up with an older kid (my class was grade three) and asked if anyone knew who had stolen his cards. No? Does anyone have cards? So Gary says yes, he has his Yu-gi-oh cards with him, the collection he started in grade one. Principal takes them from him, ignoring the cries of the classroom members who have seen him playing with them for years. If she finds the kid's cards, she'll give them back. But is the kid who stole them really going to stand up and say "yes, they're in my backpack this very moment"? Obviously she won't find them, and obviously Gary's cards are his, not stolen.

I don't have any proof myself but I did talk to her about it, because the whole class was really traumatized and angry - she told me that I didn't understand how things worked here and I shouldn't get involved. And there you have it. No, I don't understand stealing some kid's cards without any proof - could you maybe call a parent? or ask the first kid to say which cards should be in the pile and then check against it? - or smacking rulers down on desks or slapping kids' hands as if it were a one-room schoolhouse in 1892. Definitely don't understand.

So now I'm the caped crusader for the class and they all hang out with me at recess and tell me their woes. Gary said that if he gets the cards back he'll give me one as a thank you for trying to help - the last thing I want, pretty much ever, is a Yu-gi-oh card, but I guess it's the gesture?

Definitely less cool at another school: there's a two-and-a-half-hour lunch break and all the teachers go home, so I guess it's rare for them to use the washrooms. Not even rare, it just doesn't happen - so me coming out of the washrooms is an amazing concept for the kids to figure out. They're usually co-ed (with the urinals right at the entrance so everyone can see the peeing boys from the hallway - designed by practical jokers rather than architects) but one school just isn't. Not marked anywhere, though, you're just supposed to know; needless to say, I created quite a scandal by using the boys' side. A teacher who wasn't even there has since made a joke about it, so I guess it's the talk of the town. That Canadian girl - not so cool anymore. Oh, how the mighty must fall.


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