Concrete Jungle

Shutting Up

My education as a teacher began in Charlottesville, Virginia thirteen years ago, during my second year at the university there. I was nineteen.

After our freshman year, my friend Andrew and I moved out of the dorms directly into an off-campus house his sister and some of her friends had leased for the upcoming school year. In hindsight, it’s somewhat remarkable we were both fired (from a sketchy student house-painting company) and arrested (in a separate incident) only once that summer. After the detour with the student painters, I found a job maintaining ball fields for the university rec department: I used a backpack-mounted blower to clear fallen leaves off the tennis courts and a three-wheel Gator to groom the infields of the intramural softball fields out by the law school.

At the end of the summer, I came across a posting from Kaplan for SAT tutors. They offered me twenty dollars an hour to drive out to Woodberry Forest School, our former archrival in the Prep League wrestling tournament. I had to attend a few weeks of training before I could start. My first mock lesson happened to be on math; I read through my section the night before and recognized it was all stuff I’d done easily in high school. At training, I volunteered to go first. In front of my classmates, I immediately learned two things about teaching: it’s scary to be in the front of the room, and you really need to know your material. I didn’t remember how to do the problems I was supposed to explain. I blundered on for a couple terrible minutes, then said, “I’m sorry, I’m just not prepared,” and sat down. The Kaplan trainers were surprisingly sympathetic. But I never went back. I returned to the rec department and got a job swiping student IDs at a gym, where the biggest challenge was telling indignant bros they had to walk all the way back to the dorms and get the cards they’d forgotten.

The highlight of my summer at the softball fields was the day I drove the six-wheel Gator one and half miles to Poplar Ridge, the university’s ropes course, where we were helping out with some minor construction work. The Gator had a max speed of about eight miles an hour, so whenever a car came up behind me I would drive it up onto the sidewalk to let it pass.

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At the ropes course, where we were trying to excavate a Bobcat someone had driven into the swamp, I met Mark and Eric, who ran the outdoor division of the rec department. They must have liked the cut of my jib because they encouraged me to apply to be a ropes course instructor.

The training for the low ropes course took place over one weekend. There were units on safety, sequencing, and the operations of the different elements scattered in the woods. Mark and Eric emphasized again and again that the most important part of the experience wasn’t how the groups climbed the fifteen-foot wall or balanced on the giant seesaw, it was how well they analyzed their experience in the debriefs that followed. The two men taught me that the most important tool in teaching is the ability to shut the hell up. “If you tell them what the lesson is,” they explained, “then they don’t have to figure it out for themselves.”

I enjoyed working at Poplar Ridge. Most of the more experienced instructors had elaborate metaphors for every element, from the fanciful (the mulch below the platform is lava/acid/toxic waste/an alligator pit/interstellar space/peanut butter) to the inspirational (that foam ball you’re trying to lasso with your belts is the goal you set for yourself at the beginning of the day). My instinct was to keep it simple. “You all are out in the woods to do some weird activities that will force you to look silly and not care, trust each other, and work as a team.” I wasn’t sure whether this was because I actually believed it was more effective, or because I could barely remember the instructions, much less create a convincing metaphor. But even after I got comfortable with the course, and even after I could flawlessly deliver the ten-minute safety talk, I stuck with my stripped-down introductions.

It turned out that remembering the instructions for each element was the easy part of the job. The debriefs were another matter. I would put my group through an activity—tension traverse, spider’s web, the wild woozy—then I’d gather them and ask, “What did we learn from that?” I’d been told it was common to ask a question and get only silence, but when it happened, panic was always my first reaction. Everyone looked at their shoes, then at each other, then at me. They smiled, but there was embarrassment and resentment in their eyes. When the voice in my head escalated from This question must suck to You must suck, I’d answer it myself or ask two or three new ones so quickly it made everyone confused.

I worked at the ropes course until I graduated from UVA. That summer I got a letter inviting me to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya, and on September 22 my dad drove me from Petersburg to Washington, DC and dropped me at a hotel on DuPont Circle, where I stayed for two days with my training class before they flew us all to Nairobi. After ten weeks of training, I found myself living in a boys’ boarding school in Kajiado, the capital of its namesake district: twenty thousand square kilometers of arid and semi-arid savanna on the border with Tanzania. I was supposed to teach health classes and help teachers integrate information about HIV into their curriculums. For two semesters I stood in front of rooms of upperclassmen and said everything I could possibly think of about HIV and AIDS, including complicated lessons about ribonucleic acid, reverse transcriptase, lentiviruses, and CD4 cells.

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Kenyan classrooms were more restrictive than American ones. Students sat silently in rows transcribing lessons word-for-word into their notebooks. These exact phrases would be the only acceptable answers on their exams. When the teacher wanted interaction, he would call out a student, who would stand with his hands at his sides and announce his answer. My classes were popular because I tried to be engaging, because I was an American, and because I talked about sex. Condom day was always a lot of fun. I would blow one up like a balloon to demonstrate that it held air, an attempt to defeat the popular myth that the HIV virus could pass through “very small pores” in the condom. One of the most popular activities among HIV educators was the condom game, in which we broke down the process of using a condom into as many steps as possible (in my case, thirteen) wrote them each on a card, and had the students work together to put them in the right order. One of my classes insisted on posting the thirteen steps on their homeroom walls.

I knew I wasn’t doing any good. My students were fascinated with my classes not because I was offering information that could save their lives, but because I was a freak show, a novelty: a break from their brutal routine of rising at 5:00 a.m. for study hall in the same classroom they would occupy—with breaks for assembly, tea, dinner, games, and supper—until evening study hall ended at 10:30 p.m. The school had eight hundred students, almost all of them living on campus, supervised only by the matron, the deputy principal, and whichever miserable teacher was “on duty” that week. Keeping the boys sleep-deprived was the only way to maintain order, and it was fairly effective, though students still set fire to a building now and then.

And yet, except for the boys from Nairobi, their lives at home were even more boring than their lives at school. For Kenyan teenagers in rural areas, sex was one of the only activities available beside listening to the radio at home, hoeing in their parents’ shamba, or just chilling outside a village shop. I was pretty sure nothing I’d said in those classrooms would ever make a difference during a moment of freedom with a girl. In fact, I was willfully complicating the matter. I had two years to fill, so I was cramming my students’ heads with molecular biology and creating unnecessary complexities; there weren’t thirteen steps to using a condom, there was one: put it on. My students encouraged me to lead them down those crooked theoretical alleys because they were all a distraction from the hard, shitty, unassailable central point: the best thing in their lives could get them killed.

Around the time these realizations were coming together, I came across a book called Interaction Ritual Chains. The author, a sociologist named Paul Collins, proposed a universal theory of human behavior based on the idea that “the strongest human pleasures come from being fully and bodily absorbed in deeply synchronized social interaction.” These interactions take the form of rituals, Collins claims: anything from singing a song, to worshipping together, to attending a sporting event. But the most important are the most mundane, like saying hello. Or having a conversation. In a successful, satisfying conversation, the gaps between speakers last less than one-tenth of a second, “as if keeping up a line of music.” We are so closely attuned to this rhythm that just one second without speech feels like “deafening silence.”

I’d been handling the awkward silences in my health classes the way I had on the ropes course, rushing to ask another question or providing the answer myself. It was shocking to learn I was reaching this state of panic in less than a second. I’d been proud of how far I’d come since I first tried to teach at Kaplan. Now I realized that no matter how well I could stand up in front of a room and deliver a lesson plan, if I couldn’t use silence, I wasn’t in control.

Near the end of the second semester, I went to my principal’s office and told him I wouldn’t be teaching any more classes. I thought this might be a hard conversation, but he just shrugged. I’d been using my Peace Corps-issued mountain bike to scout the elementary schools within riding distance of town, learning to navigate the dirt roads and cattle trails that crisscrossed the ridges and valleys of the savanna. I decided that instead of standing at the front of the room and trying to pour HIV knowledge into people’s heads, I’d try to convince them to talk to each other.

There were usually about six teachers in each elementary school, a number small enough to gather in a circle and talk, the way I’d done at the ropes course. A volunteer who’d come a year ahead of me had put together a little manual for teaching HIV, and I adapted it so teachers could teach it to each other. In my ideal class, I sat at the edge of the circle while six teachers brought their heads together to discuss questions of fact (Agree or disagree: HIV-positive individuals can live for years without any symptoms.) and opinion (Is Kenyan society open to discussions about HIV?). To provoke discussion, I wrote scenarios based on stories I had heard (Washuka makes a little money brewing illegal liquor, but often the business is slow, and at the end of the day she has nothing to feed her family. Her husband’s brother lives on the other side of town. He owns a matatu and makes a good living. When times are desperate, she will visit him to ask to borrow some money to feed his nephews and nieces. He is a good man, and wants to help, but he also likes to get something in return).

Of course my classes were rarely ideal. I wish they’d just tell me they have to leave instead of walking off as if they were coming back, I wrote in my notes for one class. Even when everyone was present and engaged, ceding the floor to the teachers meant I couldn’t control their conclusions. When teachers at Inkinye reached a question on how adults could protect their families from HIV, the principal responded confidently. “Don’t come to the home with your lovers. Meet them outside.” The secretaries, who were responsible for reading the questions and writing down the group’s answers, were the unlikely heroes of these discussions. Usually the youngest, smallest, most unassuming female teacher was chosen for the role. But over the course of the week she would demonstrate a steely resolve to keep the group focused. When one secretary asked “What do men expect of women in sexual relationships?” A teacher immediately answered: “They expect faithfulness.” The secretary picked up her pencil, looked down at the question, then looked back at the teacher. “Yes,” she said, “but is it true?”

“No,” he said ruefully. Then he laughed. “It’s not true. But it is expected!”

My trainings culminated one year later, only six months before my Peace Corps service ended, when I made a weeklong trip to train a group of pastors in Lositeti, the most isolated place I’d ever visited in Kajiado District.

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My friends at a health clinic dropped me off on a Sunday morning; Lositeti was one of their of their monthly mobile sites. A service was going on, but the pastor, my host Paul, stepped out to help me carry my things into a small room that served as the office. In the sanctuary, Maasai women and kids were huddled in one corner, singing loudly. Light came in from translucent plastic sheets screwed into the corrugated metal roof. I took a seat with Paul on a bench at the front. Women took turns preaching, then Paul preached for a very long time. We were the only men in the room. When Paul finished they all took up a song. One woman sang a verse in a piercing wail, then everyone repeated it. The noise was magnified by the stone walls. Women began to drop out of the singing and pray to themselves. They closed their eyes and put their hands to the sky beseechingly, or turned to the wall and pressed their foreheads into the stone. The chaotic babble of the prayers intermingled with the taut rhythms of the song until the singing was only a whisper, and then the last singer stopped and took up her own prayer, and the room was filled with the sound of beseeching in a language I couldn’t understand.

That night, I was introduced to Daniel and Paul Sr. (who was not Paul’s father) in Paul’s cattle paddock, where the women were milking cows as the calves sucked from the other side. We watched the women work, then moved into Paul’s house, which was made entirely of corrugated metal roofing material. I thought we’d be eating soon so I brought nothing to read. But dinner didn’t come for hours. The three men sat in one corner, illuminated by the flickering light of a paraffin lantern, talking to one another in an intense, conspiratorial whisper, their voices rising with conviction. They leaned out of the shadows and their eyes glowed bright in the lamplight. They spoke in Maasai.

I was intensely, utterly, nerve-wrackingly bored. I picked up an English-language evangelical newspaper with stories about how prayer helped a woman pay her taxes and find a job and how satanic Masonic symbols are hidden in the most innocuous places, but I quickly exhausted the material. I was used to being bored in Kenya, but this was unprecedented. I finally got so agitated I abruptly shifted my arms and legs, accidentally banging the metal wall so loudly it halted the conversation. “You are bored,” said Paul Jr.

“I’m okay.”

They resumed, but English crept in. I heard the term “backsliding” and realized they were talking about evangelizing. Paul Sr. was so focused on the conversation he’d forgotten his mug of tea, which had formed a congealed milk-scum on top. When a silence finally fell, he dipped his finger, hooked out the scum, and flicked it onto the floor in a practiced gesture. He asked me where I was from, what I was doing, and why I was doing it. I told them; then Daniel told the story of Samuel, who was called in his bed three times by the Lord but who could not believe. Not of out of fear, malice, or sin, Daniel told me, but out of a desire for truth. He said I was like Samuel. One day I’d look back on my time here and realize I’d been working for the Lord all along. Then they talked among themselves about the problem of miracles. Certain people were too quick to claim them just to impress the preacher.

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Lositeti was a land of red earth and short, gray thorn forests. When I took my long evening walks I continuously heard the hack of machetes and saw tiny Maasai women bearing massive bundles of chopped limbs on their backs. The land was smoky from charcoal pits that burned for days in clearings all over the forest. The place was overrun with fat and lazy flies. I swatted them easily out of mid-air. Hyenas loped in the darkness, hunting for goats and sheep left outside the thorn-walled paddocks that surrounded each home. Walking back to the church on my first night, I saw two pairs of yellow eyes just beyond the light of my headlamp.

Seven pastors and pastors-in-training, all men, attended my five-day workshop. A few were not from Lositeti. I had the back office of the church to myself, with my sleeping pad and bag laid across two pews. The travelers slept in the sanctuary and woke me every morning by shouting prayers at 5:00 a.m.

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On the first day of the workshop, we discussed the stigma against Kenyans with HIV. The pastors compared it to the treatment of lepers in the Bible. They discussed every topic thoughtfully and intensely. Ninety percent of the conversation was in Maasai. We met in Daniel Sr.’s “modern” house, which was made of concrete. Women never entered the room. I could hear them outside in the yard, and occasionally they would reach through the window with a thermos of chai or a bowl of rice and beans. When they were around, the spirited discussions of sex abruptly ceased.

The pastors told me men were polygamous by nature. “So none of us will be faithful to our wives?” I asked. “Very true,” said Daniel. He blamed Adam’s fall. Another pastor pointed out that Solomon used polygamy to form political alliances.

When I came to Paul’s house for supper on Tuesday evening, I found Daniel and Paul Sr. crouched by the lantern, rereading the workshop materials. The next morning, Paul Sr. opened our discussion with Ezekiel 33: Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. “We must proclaim to our people this knowledge we are learning,” he told the group. “If we do not speak and someone dies of AIDS, then their blood will be on our hands.” That day we discussed various scenarios that illustrated how HIV could be spread, including the story of Mutundu, a physically abusive husband who becomes infected by HIV because his wife, Nzuki, is afraid to tell him about her positive status. When one pastor described Mutundu’s beatings as “harsh,” a discussion ensued. Paul Jr. explained to me that they were debating conflicting Maasai proverbs: Don’t beat me before you talk to me and The pained flesh is the one that obeys.

“Eh!” Daniel Jr. finally exclaimed. “More than two slaps, that is harshly.” I couldn’t tell whether it was the volume of his voice or the power of his logic that ended the debate.

On Thursday night, my last in Lositeti, I found Daniel and Paul Sr. again crouched beside the lantern in intense conversation. They were translating my materials into Maasai. They’d started that afternoon and were on page two of the introduction. I read a book in the corner; they interrupted once to ask me to explain the term “peer pressure.”

On the final morning, we practiced counseling techniques. If you asked the average Kenyan teacher or pastor what he would do if someone came to him with a personal matter, the answer would almost surely be: “I would guide and counsel them.” This meant telling the person what to do next. I tried to show the pastors how to give people space and freedom to talk by repeating an answer back to them, asking an open question, or just being silent. I explained that when you tell someone what to do, they won’t learn for themselves. But it was a tough sell. The counselees would feel cheated, the pastors explained, they expected to receive advice, especially from men who were paid by the community to study how scripture could be applied to every facet of life. And then there was this issue of gender. “In the Maasai community,” Daniel explained to me, “when I am a child and arguing with the father, even when I am right, I will be forced to be wrong, because of the respect for the father. And that is how a wife is. She is treated as a child to the husband.”

But the pastors enjoyed the exercise of rating different counseling responses (Counselee: “First I lost my job, then my son died.” Counselor: “Everyone gets through these kinds of problems.”). And I was surprised by what happened in the final exercise, when the men had to practice counseling. During a role-play with Daniel Sr., I played an upset man who’d come to him for help. “My wife thinks I am cheating on her!” I told Daniel.

“So you are saying your wife doesn’t trust you?” he replied.

They were seventeen scenarios to choose from, and the pastors insisted on trying all of them. I was elated. A few hours later, I rolled up my mat, packed up my things, and caught a ride back to Kajiado. It had been one of my hardest weeks in Kenya, one of the hardest of my life. I was going home in just a few months and had no idea what I would do when I got there. I’d ordered some books about MFA programs that arrived just before I left for Lositeti. I’d been reading them in my little stone room or sitting on the doorsill of the church, looking out on Paul’s metal house and the smoking forests beyond. I envisioned a world of networking at academic conferences, where people’s reputations mattered more than their writing. I felt the walls of my life narrowing.

There were times in Kenya when I tried to imagine these two years as just a part of my life: an odd, bright blip on the long tape of my time in the universe. It seemed impossible. Now it’s been ten years since my Dad dropped me off at that hotel on Dupont Circle. I wrote for a newspaper, rode my bike across the country, learned to teach college students, learned not just to endure silence but to savor it, learned to write, moved to Minneapolis, got engaged, got a dog, bought a condo, and in the process ironed most of the oddness out of my life. It’s so easy to slip into the flow and go weeks without reflecting. I endure the long winter, then sprint through the summer until the heat breaks and it’s time to start teaching again.

Somehow, my students are the same age I was that summer I spent dragging softball infields. At the start of every semester, I tell them we will experience some awkward silences: no matter how much I know about writing, there is more collective knowledge in their heads than in mine alone, and I’m willing to wait for it to come out. What I don’t tell them is that I’m not as willing as I used to be.

For years, I was really good at shutting the hell up. But it’s getting hard again. Not because I’m losing my confidence, but because I’ve got too much. Every year I do get wiser, and I think I get happier too. I feel justified in sharing what I’ve learned and less patient to learn from other people. I don’t think much about Kenya. It’s receded to that small bright point I didn’t believe it could. Sometimes I miss what I think I felt back then—the adventure and the mystery—then I wonder whether those are just the things I miss in my life right now. Regardless, it is what makes me appreciate the nights I go straight from work to an overcrowded, fluorescent classroom, or—if it’s a perfect evening and it’s possible—to sit with my students in a circle on the grass, the moon rising above us and people practicing parcour on the picnic tables a few yards away, because being a decent teacher, the way Mark and Eric taught me at Poplar Ridge, the way the pastors (God bless them) allowed me to be in Lositeti, still forces me to shut up, humble up, listen up, let people surprise me. And they always do.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.