ENGLISH CLASS AT
AN ISLAMIC MIDDLE SCHOOL
Before I left for Bali I visited an Islamic middle school in Surabaya after I was invited by one of the teachers, Silfia. I met Silfia by chance my first couple weeks in Surabaya when I was in a bookstore looking for a map of the city. Unfortunately, I did not know how to say “map” in Indonesian and was having great difficulty conveying to the staff what I was looking for. To the rescue came Silfia, an Indonesian Muslim woman who happened to be a middle school English teacher. With her help, I found my map and because I was probably the only American within a ten mile radius, she asked me if I could visit her classes and discuss American culture with her students. I said I would be glad to.
My visit to her school turned out to be a highlight of my summer in Surabaya . I was intrigued by the role Islam played in the school with the sexes being separated into different wings and all of the girls wearing veils as part of their school uniform. Luckily I visited both the girls’ and boys’ English classes, where I introduced myself in English and attempted to teach them about my home, Chicago , and respond to any questions they had about me or the United States . The students had clearly prepared for my arrival and had short presentations about Indonesia and Surabayan history for me along with incredible gifts. In these areas, however, the girls’ and boys’ classes were exceptionally different. The girls were visibly more excited and giggly about my presence and their presentation focused on how Surabaya was a city of heroes who defeated the Dutch colonial powers and, strangely enough, a city of great malls. Yet the most exciting part came when the youngest girl got up in front of the class and sang “A Whole New World” from Disney’s Aladdin—it was probably the cutest thing anyone has ever done for me in Indonesia . Afterwards, questions for me included “What is junior high in America like?”, “What is famous about Chicago ?”, and “How can I study political science in an American university?” (asked by a politician’s daughter). In response I mentioned sights like the Sears Tower and Lake Michigan and gave them a very poor explanation of how government works in the United States .
Moving across the school grounds to the boys’ class I quickly realized that they had much different interests than the girls, starting off with their presentation about Indonesia as a place which has a lot of corruption and previously had bombings. Following, the questions asked included “Can you tell me about the White House?”, “Can you talk about the protests at Chicago universities?” (this was attempting to ask about the NIU shooting, which I was amazed they knew about), “Can you talk about American soldiers and weapons?”, “How do teachers punish students for misbehaving and saying things like motherf*cker?” (that was shocking), and perhaps the most provocative “What is the policy of the United States towards Iran ?” In response I tried to explain the pluralistic nature of American society, and I hope that I combated a great deal of stereotypes about Americans which Indonesians have seen in the media and gave them an insight into the diversity of what constitutes an American. I imagine that is why I responded to that seventh grader by explaining what the United States government says does not always represent the feelings of Americans, that you have to remember that like anywhere else, a variety of changing, conflicting opinions exist and that each person has their own belief.
Despite the bizarre questions from the boys, they were still a fun group and took the time to build me a model house out of Styrofoam and toothpicks which was surprisingly good. The girls gave me a few cards, a picture frame, and a signed Indonesian flag which I have tucked away with my sentimental artifacts from Indonesia . In departure, everyone asked me to send their regards to Barack Obama, who they all knew and loved based on his childhood in Jakarta . When I mentioned that I am from the same city as him, a wave of smiles and cheers swept over the classes, and it certainly won me likeability points in their eyes.
This visit stands as one reason why I applied to the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant position in Indonesia with the hope that I could teach at a school like that in Surabaya . The kids were incredibly outgoing and curious—qualities which make them great students.