Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bad Decisions

I'm irritable today.

It might have something to do with the fact that a medium-sized rat has taken up residence in my room. Being woken up at 3 AM by vague but very loud rustling noises, and knowing that you cannot simply turn on the lights but instead must wander blindly over to the vicinity of the unidentified intruder to light a candle, which then might or might not illuminate something terrifying . . . contrary to what you might think, it's not fun. But after 3 nights of hiding in my bed with my music turned way up to drown out the scary noises, I had finally had enough of my unwelcome visitor, and last night I decided to grow a pair and deal with it.

So let me tell you how not to deal with a rat in your room. Don't spray it with insect poison, even really strong and effective insect poison, because it won't kill the rat. What the poison will do is linger in the air for the rest of the night, prevent you from sleeping soundly, and provide you with a nasty headache in the morning.

Of course, most of you are probably smarter than I am and wouldn't even have considered this tactic. In my defense, it was a desperation measure;. I have not yet found traps or rat poison available for sale in town, but instead only an extremely ineffective and messy product called Rat Glue. The alternative to Rat Glue, which I tried before I resorted to the insect poison, is attempting to manually eliminate the rat, which in my case involved chasing it around for an hour with a broom by candlelight and unsuccessfully attempting to smash its brains in on my concrete floor.

So yeah, the whole vermin situation certainly isn't helping my mood (although, thankfully, the bats have been vanquished; my landlord installed a screen over the hole in the ceiling that prevents them from flying into the house). But there are more important reasons I'm in such an awful mood lately, and they all relate to several decisions I've made that are now coming back to bite me in the ass.

The first decision I made was school-related. This period, I flat-out failed any student who showed any evidence of cheating on this period exam, giving them the lowest possible grade for the period (the Ministry of Education specifies that all students must receive at least a grade of 50%, even if they do 0% of the work). I also decided that students who failed the exam would not be given the opportunity to take a make-up exam. And, furthermore, I took 10% off of the grade of every student I heard or saw talking during the exam, whether or not there was any sign they were actually cheating.

From my American perspective, this does not seem like an unreasonable approach. And I clearly warned the students beforehand of what I was going to do. But because cheating is so widespread, and the kids are so used to getting away with it, this zero-tolerance policy has resulted in a LOT of trouble with the students. In my 150-person chemistry class, 21 kids received a 0 on the exam, and about a dozen more lost points for talking. The percentage of kids in my class who are failing is extraordinarily high, well over half.

So my students are confused and hurt and blame me for their failures. Two students came to my door at 8 AM this morning to argue with me about their grades. And while I spent the better part of an hour explaining to them that, yes, the evidence that they were cheating was irrefutable, and no, I wasn't buying their lame explanations, and yes, they were going to fail this period, and no, they could not have a second chance, and no, they should not blame ME for giving them a 0 when they were the ones who had made the stupid decision to cheat after I expressly warned them what would happen to cheaters . . . this clearly wasn't getting through. I'm pretty sure that, regardless of what I was saying, what they were hearing was this: “I am the teacher and I have the power and I am the one making the decisions, and you are fucked because I have decided to fail you. Sucks to be you!”

So yeah, even though I don't know what else I can do, I still can't help but feel that maybe I'm being too harsh, that being such a stickler isn't really helping anybody. If the students are taking away nothing but anger toward me, I haven't accomplished anything.

The other decision I made recently that has not worked out so well is more administrative in nature: I am going to leave before June 26th, my official end of service. I made this decision after I found out that the school year, for all intents and purposes, ends in mid-May. There are two weeks in May during which no students are allowed on the campus (during this time, the seniors will be taking the standardized national high school examination). Students then return to school the first week in June to take their final exams.

Following this schedule would mean that I would basically sit around for half of May and most of June with nothing to do. This sounds horrible to me, and anyway, I have things to do back in the States – such as being in a good friend's wedding and preparing to start med school in July. So, I talked to the principal and he agreed that, instead of waiting around, I can give my exams on the last day of class in May and then peace out.

When I talked to Peace Corps to see if they could move up my official close of service date, since I will have completed the project I came here to do, they sent me a series of unpleasant emails implying that I was uncommitted, that I was disappointing Peace Corps and my school by wanting to go home early, that I had some ulterior motive (??), that it was “inappropriate” for me to give my exams early, and that they absolutely would not grant me an early close of service. This, shockingly, did not change my mind about not wanting hang around in Liberia for an extra month, chasing rats around with brooms at 3 AM. Of course, Peace Corps can't physically stop me from leaving, but this means that I will essentially have to “quit” and accept the fact that, in Peace Corps' official eyes, I was not a “successful” volunteer with a “successfully completed” service.

So although they didn't make me change my mind about leaving early, what the emails did do was make me feel shitty about everything I'm trying to do here. Of course, it doesn't take much to make me feel shitty about that, especially given the situation with the students lately. There's a part of me that knows I wouldn't be nearly so upset by all of this if I were 100% confident that I was making the right decisions – that the fact that most of my students are failing doesn't mean I'm a total failure as a teacher, that my rigidity with cheaters is totally justifiable, that my desire to go home early doesn't mean that I'm a terrible person or a flake. But I'm not confident of any of those things. There's a little voice in the back of my mind that keeps saying, “Peace Corps is right. You signed up for 10 months and you should stay for 10 months. You're lazy and you're finding excuses to go home early. If you were more committed, if you were more understanding, if you were a better teacher, your students would not be doing so poorly and you would be able to do something constructive with your time outside of school.” And I can't quiet that voice because I have a nagging sensation that it is correct.


  1. What exactly does the Peace Corp want you to do for a month and a half? You should talk to someone higher up.

  2. You're in med school, you will have completed what you were sent there to do...whether some desk jockey realizes it or not, you've been a great asset to the PC. Hell, you never had to come back in the first place after you were evacuated by helicopter from your last site, but you did.

    Go home, take a shower, and feel good about yourself.

  3. Yeah, well, actually I think that the PC Liberia staff is mostly unhappy because a LOT of people are now electing to go home early, which makes them look bad . . .

    It's not really worth my trying to make a stink about with PC headquarters because, honestly, it doesn't really matter . . . like you said, Adams, I'll be in med school and I doubt I'll be doing Peace Corps again once I have a medical degree. It just sucks that the "support" staff can be so unsupportive . . .

    But anyway, thanks for the comments :) I can't wait for that shower . . . Only two more months . . .