Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia

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We’re All Gonna’ Make It

To be honest, I didn’t think I would like teaching. If anyone doesn’t know, I was homeschooled, and this contributes to a certain discomfort in classrooms that began the moment I entered university. (Well, actually it began the moment I started attending public high school in the middle of junior year, but that’s a needless detail. So why did I add it? Why am I not deleting it? Because it’s MY BLOG, NOW STOP ASKING QUESTIONS.)

When I started tutoring ESL students in South Dakota, I was similarly indisposed to the classroom setting. I like passing on knowledge, sure, and I like helping people. But I just don’t like being in school – no matter whether I’m sitting at a desk or standing in front of a white board. I get fidgety. My thoughts jump all over the place. I don’t like people. I want to go outside. This is my brain on drugs…. Whoops, wait, no, I mean “This is my brain on school”. Anyways.

When I signed up to teach in Saudi Arabia, I did it as a means to an end. I knew that I wanted to travel. The money is good. Arabia and Islamic culture have fascinated me for awhile. So, “Sure”, I thought, “I’ll be a teacher, if it gets me there”. But, to my joy, I’m finding out that – money and adventures aside – I just like teaching!

Here’s why:

1) I like young people.
Did I really just say “young people”? Does that make me an “old people”? Well, no. I’m not much older than a lot of the “kids” I teach. But I like youth culture, with all its new ideas and questions and subversiveness and occasional angst, and teaching is a great way to keep myself right in the middle of it.

2) I like farming. “What? I thought he was teaching?” Here’s what I mean. I like cultivating things. I like checking in on them every day, feeding and watering them, watching them grow, and eventually eating them. O.k., so I haven’t eaten any students yet, but I do have some nice vegetables sprouting on my roof. You get my point.

3) It feels good to organize ideas.
My mom doesn’t believe in ADD. I do. I’ve been diagnosed with it by two separate people with licenses to evaluate and label things like this. I’m not saying I need drugs for it (although, to be honest, drugs make things a lot easier), but what I AM saying is that, sometimes I feel really frazzled and disorganized. This is stressful. It’s unpleasant. So when I have to sit down (because it’s my job to do this after all), and plan out a lesson, write out a conversation using a certain set of vocabulary, tie it in to some simple grammar, and neatly package it in the context of a pop culture reference, I feel good. Things come into focus. I calm down. I chug a bunch of green tea, do some pushups, and I make a plan – a lesson plan, a game plan, a life plan, I’m not sure. But it’s good for me.

4) I like simplicity.
This ties in to my last point. Let me tell you a bit more about the students I teach. Most of my classes are what my school calls “Foundation” and “Level 1” students. This means they have a very small handful of vocabulary (most of which they got from TV), they can introduce themselves, and that’s it. They’ve invariably received a PITIFUL grammar education, so as I teach conversation and pronunciation (which is my job), I also try to work in some simple grammar lessons. “We say ‘my’ and ‘your’. What are these? ‘Possessive pronouns’. A possessive pronoun is an adjective. What’s an adjective?” Etc. I like this. I repeat and repeat these things to the same students, because nobody else is doing it as far as I can tell (except for David), and it takes them a while to catch on. And I’ve found a sort of zen in the simple repetitive nature of teaching English grammar. Keep it coming baby.

5) I like sharing knowledge.
This world has the potential to be a scary place. Governments and systems and habits continue to cause a lot of problems. In the face of all the scientific, medical, and social progress we’ve made, places like Saudi Arabia (not to mention the US) have a long way to go before we can feel like we’ve “made it”. But I believe, like any teacher must, that we’re all going to make it. So while I help students learn a language, I also get a chance to help them learn to think, to learn manners, to experience a bigger culture than their own. This country has a terrible problem with idiotic driving and rampant littering. As my readers are probably aware, there are much larger issues with gender roles and freedom of expression which it is not my place to address in this blog. But if I can help a handful of folks evolve into slightly more enlightened people, I will feel like I’ve done a good job.

THAT is why I like teaching.


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Where In The World Is Simeon Brown?

Go ahead, just start off by listening to this.  You know you want to.
Now that we’ve pondered the musical question, “Where in the world is
Carmen Sandiego?” perhaps I can more adequately answer the question,
“Where in the world is Simeon Brown?”
The short answer is – Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia.  It’s a really nice
place (no offence to Sheldon, Iowa – the original “Really nice place.”)
I’ve been here since the end of May, so going on three months now.
Al Kharj is a “farming community” – or it was at one point.  It is
still the home of some of the largest dairies in the world.  (The Al
Safi dairy, located southwest of Al  Kharj, is one of the primary
suppliers for Danon products).
Al Kharj is a city of roughly half a million people.  It is a cheap
place to live.  Food is cheap everywhere in Saudi Arabia, since the
government subsidizes costs, but transportation and housing are also
only a half or a third of what they cost in a larger cities like
Riyadh, Dammam, or Jeddah (granted – even these costs are considerably
lower then what I’m used to paying in the USA).
Al Kharj is a city full of friendly people.  In my short time here,
I’ve made many friends – Saudi, Egyptian, Yemeni, Syrian, etc.  Do not
believe the negative messages touted by Western media; Arabs are
friendly, generous people.  I feel safer on the streets of Al Kharj
then I would on the streets of a major metropolitan area like
Minneapolis or Chicago (well, I feel safer from crime, although the
insane driving here is another story altogether…).  Since I’ve been
here, friends have invited me into their homes for meals, they’ve
taken me shopping, and have guided me on tours through their farms
and, um, camel ranches? I guess? I’m not sure what you call a herd of
camels in the middle of the desert.  But, yeah, they showed me that
too.  Good friends.
Al Kharj is only an hour drive south of Riyadh (less if you hire a
crazy driver and tell him you want to get there fast – I only made
that mistake once).  This is nice, because I can enjoy the benefits of
a smaller city during the work week, but still easily bump up to
Riyadh on the weekend if I’m so inclined.  My city is also just a few
hours to the west of Dammam and the Persian Gulf, and a few hours to
the north of the “Empty Quarter”, a picturesque area of clean, red
sand and rolling sand dunes, which I have still yet to tour.
Al Kharj used to be located on top of one of the largest natural
aquifers in the country.  Unfortunately, a booming population has
mostly drained this supply, and now the city’s water comes largely
from desalinated sea water, like the rest of the country.  However,
the presence of this aquifer was enough to establish the city as one
of the major farming communities in Saudi Arabia, as I mentioned
Speaking of water, one of the things that living in Saudi Arabia has
taught me is how truly precious water is.  Growing up in middle
America, I kind of took water for granted, with our cheap, delicious
supplies of fresh lake and river water supplying every city.  Of
course, it’s a different story here in the desert.  One doesn’t have
to look far to be reminded what a struggle it has been to build a
civilization here.  I plead with my fellow westerners – never forget how precious water is.  With many scientists warning of climate change in different incarnations, it’s never too early to start practicing smarter conservation practices.  I pretend that I’m on a mission to Mars when I use water now – using the smallest amount possible for washing dishes, showering, etc.  I’m not
perfect, but I’m getting better at it.
Salaam!  More coming soon! Simeon.