I found myself, at 23, in the land of Chinngis Khan, vodka, and milktea, completely unprepared to teach children. After living in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia for almost a year I concluded that anyone who came to Mongolia was running from something: an eight-year relationship, a gay father, law school, the pressure to get a real job. Why Mongolia? It represents just about the most distance you can put between yourself and anyone in the western hemisphere. It is located smack dab between two superpowers: Russia and China. Plane tickets here are costly: between $1,000 and $2,000 depending on whom you know. Ulaan Baatar is the coldest capital in the world. The country, governed by a disagreeable mix of former Communist leaders and a few who hoped for a smoother transition to democracy, runs on a system of corruption. If you are running from something, Mongolia is a great place to hide.
It took me one year out of college to realize how unhappy I was with my life. I was waiting tables in Austin, Texas, and saddled with a 28-year-old boyfriend — the son of a Mormon mother and Jewish father — who grew marijuana in his house. He wanted to marry me. I thought it was best to leave the country. On a whim I applied for a job teaching English at a private school in Ulaan Baatar that I found on Idealist.org. It was the only school I found that still needed teachers three months before the school year was about to start.
After testing negative for HIV, leprosy, and other various contagious diseases, I was hired and sent a contract. In three weeks I received my work visa from the Mongolian Embassy. I sold my car, rented out my furniture, sent my cat to live in Tucson with my sister, quit my job, and stored all of my earthly possessions at my now ex-boyfriend’s house. All of this happened in eight weeks.
Before I turned off my cell phone for good I left a message telling people to call back in one year. It took three hours to get to Los Angeles and another 13 to get to Beijing. Unfortunately, I landed in Beijing with the intention of going to Mongolia on a day when the Chinese government was incredibly angry with Mongolia. The Dalai Lama was in Ulaan Baatar to visit Gandantegcheling monastery. China decided to punish Mongolia by cancelling and delaying all flights from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. I spent a long day at a hotel in Beijing until the government let up on the flight ban.
Air China got me to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia in 2.5 hours. A sumo wrestler look-a-like of a man, Bisaa, whisked me and Amy, a young woman from Maine who resembled a tiny sprite and soon became my best friend and roommate, to our new home: a two-bedroom apartment on the eighth floor of what can only be described as a Soviet tenement. Bisaa left us alone in our apartment as abruptly as he delivered us from the airport. Still never haven spoken a word to us, he threw our backpacks on the floor and handed over some keys. As we explored our slum of an apartment I wondered when the next flight back to America was.
My first day as a teacher at the Hobby School — a private school for the children of wealthy Mongolians — was as close to a disaster as you can get without getting hit by lightning or breaking out in boils. Two days before the school year started, the head of the English Department, Boda, informed me that due to a mistake in hiring by the administration I would not be teaching primary school English. I would be teaching primary school science and one or two conversational English classes.
| The students of 4B (aka the bad class).
This was troublesome for many reasons. My mother, excited that another one of her daughters was following in her footsteps as a teacher, had gone out and bought 20 pounds of primary school teaching materials for me to take to Mongolia. The sheer weight of the activity books and print-outs that were to get me through the school year became problematic at the airport when I had to choose between lugging paper products or winter boots across the Pacific Ocean. The teaching materials won. Now I was out a pair of boots and stuck with books I couldn’t use.
If the administration knew that I — a writing major and Women’s Studies minor — had taken exactly one science class in my entire four years at college they probably wouldn’t have been so eager to entrust me with teaching second, third, and fourth graders everything they needed to know about science. The last real science class I had taken was chemistry as a sophomore in high school. I fulfilled my college science requirement by taking a lecture class about dinosaurs. During that semester, I spent more time on a bar stool drinking whiskey and cheap beer and playing rugby than I ever spent in a classroom. I could tell you the difference between bourbon and scotch but could barely remember the difference between the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs.
On paper it looked like it should have been a relatively easy day. I had a science class with 4A — one of the sections of fourth graders — and conversational English with 4B — the other section. 4A was filled with awesome kids. A lot of them had been born in the States or grew up in Singapore or Korea and spoke and understood English very well. I asked if they wanted to play games or do science. After a game of Simon Says they were ready for science. I distributed the science books and we began reading. The first chapter was about dinosaurs! I felt immense relief that my one science class in college was pertinent to the information I was supposed to teach.
We were blowing through the introductory chapter on dinosaurs sentence by sentence. Each student was allowed to read a sentence and then it was someone else’s turn. This was useful to me because I got to see the varying levels of the student’s English and brush up on my dinosaur knowledge at the same time. Just as someone read a sentence about what dinosaur skin might have looked like Arvin, one of the two white students in the entire school, stood on his seat with his hand in the air and yelled out, “TEACHER, TEACHER!! ALL DINOSAURS HAVE TAILS!!!!!”
Though I had only known Arvin for 10 minutes, I immediately had a good read on him. He reminded me of what my little brother John must have been like in elementary school. He could not sit still. He could not stay focused. He was adorable, bright, and very naughty.
Arvin’s statement startled me. Not just because there was a child standing on his chair and yelling, but because I really didn’t know if all dinosaurs had tails or not. I must have been absent from class the day my professor talked about tails. Just as I started to tell Arvin to sit down and wait his turn, a little Mongolian boy yelled out, “TEACHER! IT’S TRUE I SAW A MOVIE AND ALL THE DINOSAURS HAD TAILS!”
I thought fast. Children are like wild animals. Actually, after teaching them for a year I think it’s safe to say that they are, in fact, wild animals. If they smell your fear or hesitation they will pounce and you will never be respected again. I looked at the faces of 30 expectant children and knew I needed to give a definitive answer.
In bold letters I wrote on the chalkboard: ALL DINOSAURS HAVE TAILS. Thirty children obediently copied it down into their notebooks. I wondered if any of my grade school teachers BS-ed their way through class as much as I just did.
Class 4B was another story. A very bad, fighting, disruptive story. Out of the 20 students, about 15 were boys. Little Mongolian boys in three-piece suits. They were bad. They whispered in Mongolian and pointed at me. They laughed when I couldn’t pronounce any of their names. I mean, that was to be expected. 4A laughed at me, too, when I couldn’t pronounce names like Delgergerel and Bayarjakhlan. In the States there are names like John, Matt, Kim, Ann, and Joe. Mongolian names sound like something you coughed out and decided to put on a birth certificate.
|School attire: a three-piece suit with dark-wash baggy jeans.
The administration did not have any lesson plans, books, or instructions on how to teach a conversational English class. I started with a vigorous game of Simon Says. I hoped “Simon says do 15 jumping jacks” would tire them out. Oh no. They screamed. They punched each other in the stomach. Girls cried. At one point one boy was hanging out the third-floor window while another held his legs. I threatened them with homework. I threatened them with tests. I read them a story out of McSweeney’s about mollusks. I read a sentence akin to, “Teresa kicked Kenneth in the shin after he brought the 10-pound slug in the house.” I asked, “Do you know what a shin is? This is your shin,” pointing to my lower leg bone. Then I asked, “Where did Teresa kick Kenneth?” All I got were blank stares. Completely blank. It was then I realized that for as much English that 4A knew, 4B knew just as little. These students had absolutely no idea what I was saying.
I got so frustrated at one point that I threw the book on the desk and yelled, “Does anyone understand what I’m saying? I am talking! Does this make sense to you? Raise your hand if you understand!” The only student who raised his hand was one extremely bad little boy whom I made sit by himself in the back of the room. “TEACHER, I UNDERSTAND!”
The bell rang. Class was over. I went home and cried.
One night at 3:10 a.m. I woke up to an urgent, loud pounding on my flat door. Amy and I always get scared when we hear knocking at night because it’s either someone who’s drunk or our crazy neighbor below us who yells at us when our tub leaks water into their toilet room. But this pounding was different.
“Amy, will you get it?” I asked. “I need to put a shirt on.”
I peeked out my bedroom door and saw our neighbor and a firefighter.
“Open your windows. Fire. Smoke. Open them now,” our nice neighbor said. Then they closed our door and left.
“What is going on?” Amy asked. We turned on the light in the hall and our entire apartment was filled with smoke. We ran around opening every window. There was a fire somewhere in our ancient nine-story tenement.
“Should we leave?” I asked. We looked out our living room window down to our building’s one exit. Smoke was billowing from the only way out. A hose led inside.
“Shit,” I said.
“What do we do?” Amy asked. We called the only person who ever knows what to do: Bor. It took three times before he picked up.
“Bor, it’s LeeAnn. Our apartment building is on fire.”
“We opened the windows to let the smoke out but don’t know what to do.”
“We’re kind of scared.”
“Bor, just put Tahlia on the phone.”
Really, we knew they couldn’t do anything, but if we didn’t show up to school in the morning, I wanted someone to know that we were dead and not just missing work.
I opened our door to check out what was going on in the stairwell. There were firefighters near the first floor but no one else was out of their flat.
We got dressed (black fleece pants and sweatshirt for Amy and my rugby sweatshirt and sweatpants for me) and packed a bag: computer, camera, keys, knife, passport, plane ticket home, my two plane tickets to Thailand, and my Gloworm. Then we waited.
The two scariest things we discussed: There was really no way out. We had no smoke alarm, no fire extinguisher, no fire escape, and we live on the eighth floor and would certainly die if we jumped out the window. The other scary thing: If the firefighter wouldn’t have pounded on our door, we would have continued to sleep and probably would have died from smoke inhalation the way most people die in fires.
We shivered in our cold apartment, watched FashionTV for a while, and made fun of the models. After we fell asleep in the yellow plastic blow-up boat we used as a couch, we woke up and went back to sleep in our respective rooms with our windows wide open.
I called into work the next morning to tell them I wouldn’t be in until the afternoon because our apartment building had caught on fire and I didn’t get a lot of sleep. When I finally rolled into school in my Where’s Waldo dress and sneakers I taught my 4th graders how to survive a fire, thanks to all the fire drills I did in public school.
The key things I taught 4B about fires:
— If there is a fire, GET OUT!
— Do not stop to take your toys or books.
— If you are on fire, STOP, DROP, and ROLL! (I made them all come to the front of the class and demonstrate)
— If there is smoke in your room crawl on the floor because smoke rises.
— Touch the doorknob. If it is hot, the fire is on the other side of the door. This means you need to find another way out.
— If you live on the first, second, or third floor, you should jump out the window. It is better to break your arm or leg than to die.
— If you live higher than the fourth floor, wave something white out the window so that the firefighters know you’re there.
What’s scary is that these kids were 10 and had never heard any of this before. They all lived in old, outdated tenements with bad wiring and no smoke alarms. There was a teacher/administration meeting at 3:00 that day and you’d better believe I demanded a smoke alarm and fire extinguisher.
“Arvin, where’s your costume?”
| An English exercise: Brad Pitt with his
“old” and “new” families.
That was the first thing out of my mouth as I walked onto the Hobby School grounds. We were celebrating Halloween at school. Let me remind you that Mongolians don’t do Halloween. Despite this, Chimgee, the principal, and Boda, the head of the English department, suckered Amy and me into organizing a Halloween party for the second, third, fourth, and fifth grades. (“We want it to be authentic!” they said.)
Suckers, that’s what we were.
“But Teacher, my Wolf Man costume is not finished yet,” Arvin answered me. “It will be done on Monday.”
I stopped Arvin right before he walked up the steps of school.
“But Arvin, today we’re celebrating Halloween. There is no Halloween on Monday. You needed your Wolf Man costume today. If you wear it on Monday, you’ll be the only one in a costume.”
And so it began. For the past couple of years I always wanted to be Harry Potter, but would forget by the time Halloween rolled around — I was a Chiquita banana the previous year. But this was the year Harry happened. I wore jeans, a striped shirt, a green scarf, and my glasses, and I had a lightning bolt scar on my forehead. In case all of this didn’t give it away, I also brought in the broom from my apartment and carried a paintbrush as my magic wand. It was hot, trust me.
By this point in the school year, I had already resigned myself to the role of crowd controller instead of teacher. I was more babysitter than instructor but the upside was that I was crying a lot less in class.
I let my four classes run wild. I encouraged these kids to act like wild animals. I sent them up to other classrooms to look at costumes despite the teaching going on in them. 3A asked me to play Halloween music on my computer so we listened to the Clash and Sleater-Kinney and had a dance-off in the front of the classroom.
When I wasn’t putting makeup on all of the girls dressed as princesses in 4A, including fishtailing their black eyeliner, we all ran around the halls yelling, “Trick or treat!” I gathered them all up with my wand, got on my broom, and ran up and down the stairs yelling, “Harry Potter! Harry Potter!” in Professor McGonagall’s British accent. I could see the teeth rotting from all the candy they were eating and I didn’t care. It was the best day ever.
For the big party, Amy and I herded the primary school students into the cafeteria and taught them how to bob for apples. We insisted that the hokey pokey dance was part of the Halloween tradition. We threw handfuls of candy on the floor and watched students fight over it.
Halloween was wrapping up nicely. I munched on candy with 4A in their classroom. Then, some kids from 11th grade came in and asked if we wanted to see something special up in their room.
“Do you want to see a Halloween surprise?” I asked the 4A kids.
“YES! YES! YES!” all of the princesses, vampires, Mongolian warriors, and clowns shouted, pumping their fists in the air.
I got on my broom and flew up the stairs to 305 with the kids following. We lined up solemnly, single-file, outside until the 11th grade girls dressed as surprisingly spooky ghosts let us in.
Their classroom was pitch black except for some candles at the front of the room. There were only a few 11th graders in the room. There was a projector, as well. Nice, I thought. We were going to watch some clips from Halloween movies. Maybe something like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Then they turned it on. It was a PowerPoint presentation of dead people. People who had been shot in the head with their brains on the ground. A dead deformed baby. A dead man with intestines hanging out of his stomach. I saw in the corner of the clips the URL for a Web site that I knew posted graphic photos of actual death scenes. Uh oh. These were real, dead, disgusting people the 11th graders were showing to 8- and 9-year-olds.
Just as they showed the deformed baby, I heard a little voice whisper, “Teacher, I don’t like this.” The rest of the 11th graders then jumped out from under the desks where had been hiding and started screaming, grabbing students, shining flashlights in their eyes, and pretending to stab them.
Mayhem. Pure mayhem. I had crying kids, screaming kids, whimpering kids, kids yelling, “TEACHER, LET ME OUT!” Where was I? Scared and screaming as well because someone jumped up and grabbed me from behind. I had my Harry Potter broom and wand and I couldn’t even figure out how to open the door to let these hysterical kids out because the door was locked. I needed a real magic wand to fix this, not a paintbrush.
We busted out of there and ran back down to our classroom, the laughter of the 11th grade trailing us. What do you do for kids who just saw the worst kind of real, bloody death possible? You give them candy corn that your mom sent you from the States and tell them it wasn’t real; that the blood they saw was just makeup; that the baby they saw was just a doll; and that real dead people don’t look like that. And you hope they don’t go home and tell their parents.
I was sailing through my classes one day, six in a row. It was a relatively calm day; I failed three second-graders for cheating during their five senses science test and also received a pack of vanilla wafer cookies, which were much appreciated.
|An international tenet of teaching:
Do not show weakness.
Then came sixth period. Conversational English with 4B, the bad fourth-grade class. I didn’t want to yell that day, because it was pointless and made me lose my voice. I was writing food words on the board so that on Monday we could pretend the class was a restaurant and order food in English. I was even going to assign students the roles of cooks, hosts, and waiters so they could act them out in English.
As I was writing on the board, hoping they would notice I had started class, I heard wailing and sobbing behind me. I took a big breath and put down my yellow chalk. I turned around to see a sobbing girl, Ariun-Erdene, with her head in her hands, surrounded by a group of girls speaking fast Mongolian. Four boys were all pointing at each other, each saying the other one did it.
I ran over to Ariun-Erdene, yelling at everyone to put their butts in their seats in the mean time. She was crying and crying. I took her out in the hall and told everyone else that if I heard them talk or if they got out of their seats I would throw them out the window. I’m not kidding.
“What happened, Ariun-Erdene?” I asked. She pulled her head out of her hands and opened her mouth. There was black stuff all over her tongue and shoved up into her gums. For a second I couldn’t figure out what was in her mouth until I realized that it looked suspiciously like dirt. Dirt from the potted plants every class has in its windowsills.
If you could have seen this poor girl’s face, you would have been as furious as I was. She is a little taller and bigger than anyone (which still in Mongolia equals a skinny American kid), but I know that boys make fun of her and call her fat. Not in my class.
I put my hands on her shoulders and asked, “Ariun-Erdene, who did this to you? It’s OK. You can tell me.”
And she whispered, “Munkhtemuulel.”
That was it. I opened the door to class and started yelling. “Munkhtemuulel! Munkhtemuulel! What are you thinking? What is the matter with you?” In about three seconds flat I ran across the room and pulled him out of his chair by his shirt. The entire class was dead silent as I dragged him out of the room.
“Do you know what happens when you shove dirt into people’s mouths?” I yelled. “YOU GO TO THE OFFICE!”
At the sound of this, he dug his heels into the floor and tried to run back to his seat. I hauled him past the third- and fourth-grade classes yelling, “You do not shove dirt in people’s mouths! You are ridiculous!” while he tried to hold on to anything, including the lockers and doorknobs, in an effort not to go to the office.
You know why kids in Mongolia are afraid of the office? Because Mongolia is different from the States. Mongolia still believes in corporal punishment.
“Chimgee!” I yelled at the principal. “Munkhtemuulel shoved dirt from the plant into Munkh-Ariun’s mouth! Her gums are bleeding!”
Chimgee gave Munkhtemuulel the meanest look I’ve just about ever seen. She said something very quickly in Mongolian. Munkhtemuulel put his head down and walked over to the potted plant in her window. I knew this was my cue to leave. As I walked out the door I saw him put a handful of dirt in his mouth and eat it.
That’s right. In Mongolia, if you shove dirt in someone’s mouth they make you eat dirt. Actual, physical, black dirt. • 7 November 2008