The school year was supposed to start on September 22, but when I appeared at the middle school ready to teach, the school secretary shook her head and said, “You’re teaching grade sixième? The class list isn’t ready yet. Come back Thursday.” When I followed her instructions and returned Thursday, the school secretary shook her head again and said, “The class list still isn’t done. Come back Monday.” A fellow colleague, a science teacher, replied, “Hurrah! Freedom!” I walked home ruminating that if the school year had been delayed like this in the United States, teachers would be arrested, PTAs suing and cars set aflame in protest.
The next Monday rolled around and classes finally began. Fifteen hundred students rushed around the courtyard in light blue smocks worn over their clothes. I stood near my classroom and looked onto my first class as they arranged themselves into lines. The school secretary rang the bell, and we walked into the classroom with me going to the blackboard and the students taking their seats. I wrote a dialogue on the board demonstrating phrases like “Good morning” and “It is nice to meet you,” and as they copied the dialogue with their rulers and colored pens I studied them from my desk. Grade sixième is the American equivalent of sixth grade, but my students appeared to range in ages 8 to 15. Most wore flip-flops, others were barefoot. They sat at their desks, which were more like benches connected to long narrow tables, in threes and fours; I counted them in this manner to reach a total of 82 students.
The second class had 82 students too. My third, fourth, fifth and sixth classes also had 80-something students. Despite their numbers, the students were surprisingly well-behaved, and I didn’t have to yell or force students from the classroom.
Other students weren’t as lucky. One day I looked out my window and saw a student doing the “duck walk,” a form of punishment that entails crouching to the ground and taking small steps around the courtyard. Corporal punishment is illegal in Madagascar but is still administered in many public schools throughout the country. “Duck walks,” slapping, and forcing students to kneel for long periods of time are common practices. One teacher at my school, an older man always with a smile on his face and a straw hat on his head, hits disobedient students from behind with a two-foot bamboo stick.
Grade sixième is students’ first institutional exposure to English, which I think makes my job easier since I don’t have to assess their skills or reteach them past lessons. I speak English for the entire two hour class sessions with French translations once in a while. I don’t speak Malagasy in the classroom because the students laugh when I do, even when my pronunciation and grammar are perfect. Tough crowd, tough crowd.
And of course there aren’t text books for the students to use. That’s why they regard their notebooks as holy as cows. They copy the blackboard letter by letter, word by word, with rulers and protractors handy to guarantee that every line is straight. Even when I draw pictures illustrating words, like a book for “to read” and a man with a big ear for “to listen,” they carefully copy the pictures with rulers. My class abounds with angular books and ears.