Points In Between: Episode 2
A Day in the Life
[Intro sounds: kids yelling, door opening, footsteps in hallway, classroom voices, bell ringing to start class.]
You’re listening to Points In Between.
This is Episode 2: A Day in the Life
Let’s begin with a visualization exercise.
Picture a school you attended. Or, maybe you’re in it right now.
How do you get there each day? Is the school fenced off from the rest of the world, or open? What does it sound like right before classes begin? Where do you sit during the times when you’re sitting, and how much space do you have to move around? A lot of people want you to spend your day there. So, is it, you know, a nice place to be?
Think about a full school day. What time do you start school, when do you finish classes, and how do you spend the rest of the day? Do you cross paths with different classmates as you move from room to room through your day, or do you pass the whole time as part of a single group? And what do you do all day?
This episode of Points In Between looks at the day-to-day contours of school days outside the US. It turns out, a “regular day” of school means very different things in different places. There are innumerable versions of normal out there. Some of them will sound familiar, some won’t.
This episode also introduces a mix of new voices – some of whom immigrated to the US and a few of whom are here for shorter terms as international students. As in the last episode, sometimes they introduce themselves in their first language before you hear them speak in English.
We’re going to start with Juliana, a 21-year-old college exchange student from Brazil.
Juliana – [Introduction in Portuguese]
She attended a private school in Brasilia, where she and her family lived.
Juliana: the first thing that you wouldn notice was basically fences all around the school. And I don't know if in America it's like this. I tend to think that it's really open like the campus and all that kind of stuff. But in Brazil we always have like the fences. And then once you get inside you will see everyone wearing the uniform with the name of the school … and yeah you had very strict rules like, oh you can't wear shorts at this size, very short or anything like that, and then you would go to class and one thing that is interesting is you would stay inside the class while the professor would come there and teach. And then he would leave and then another professor would come.
Compare this to the picture of school that you just conjured in your mind at the beginning of the show. Is Juliana right that your school is open to the outside world? Have you ever worn a school uniform? Or pushed the limits of the dress-code? And what about the room where you learn math? Do you think of it as your room that the teacher visits or is it the teacher’s room?
Our next stop is over three thousand miles away, across the Atlantic, in The Gambia, a country on the coast of West Africa.
Lingerr: My name is Lingerr Senghor.
Lingerr’s answer to “Where are you from?” is, as she says, “mildly complicated.”
Lingerr: When I was five my parents moved back to The Gambia, West Africa, which is where they're from. I lived there until 15 and then I moved to England for the last few years of high school and then I came back to the United States. So I'm an American citizen and I only got my Gambian citizenship in my mid teens. But I see myself as being from The Gambia.
The school Lingerr attended in The Gambia was founded by her grandfather. I asked her what I would see if I visited the school.
Lingerr: I mean, a lot of …Gambians. So a lot of people in uniform being really loud and friendly with each other and running around. Buildings that looked pretty underdeveloped compared to buildings you might be used to if you're from a more affluent part of the United States or even just like the middle class or even like a lower class part of the United States. Not many paved paths or anything like that, so a lot of sand a lot of dirt, which we would walk cross to get to our classes. Classrooms with, you know, actual chalkboards and things like that and, like, old wooden desks. And - this always got to me because I was a really big reader when I was younger - but our library was full of donated “books for Africa” books and it’s so many romance novels! And I'm like 11 and I'm trying to find stuff to read. And at this point now I've read so many hundreds of romance novels. Because that’s all we got…and expired textbooks.
Lingerr left the Gambia to finish high school in Hertfordshire, England – best known as the home of the fictional Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice.
That same year, a three-hour car ride from Lingerr’s new home in England, Siobhan was about to finish high school in Cardiff, Wales. Four years ago, after college in Wales, she came to the US to attend graduate school. But – you know - life doesn’t always go to plan. In school, she met someone, got married, and instead of heading back to Wales, embarked on a life in the US. I asked her to describe a school scene she thought any kid from Cardiff would recognize.
Siobhan: A large building built in the 1960s or 70s and it be raining…they're usually very large. Mine had 2000 children. It's 11 to 18 so a cross-section of kids is is much greater than here so you have people who look like really like children up to fully grown adults. Um, uniforms. They all have ties or polo shirts that all match the school colors, but still sort of hectic, not particularly orderly. Loud. Boisterous.
Shane: And did you have sports associated with school?
Siobhan: Yes somewhat. Not very seriously. We ...I played hockey field hockey and we would have practice twice a week during lunchtime so that only allowed us about 45 minutes of practice twice a week and then we would have one game a week. There wasn't there wasn't a league. We weren't really playing in a league. It wasn't taken as seriously by any means. The practice that we had wasn't even really training. I'm not entirely sure our teachers knew how to play hockey. I will say in my school they were much more serious about boys rugby and so they had something a little bit more akin to sports here. But that's fairly unusual.
But then, also, there’s this.
Shane: Would you introduce yourself in Welsh?
Siobhan: [Introduction in Welsh]
Americans often conflate the country of England with the UK – the United Kingdom, using the names interchangeably. Wales was conquered by England over 700 years ago and annexed by the English in the 16th century. But still, Wales is not England, and Siobhan is not English…. You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about this.
Siobhan: There are two streams of education in Wales. One is an English language stream and the other is a Welsh language stream. You learn exactly the same things but just the language in which you learn it is different. My parents decided to send me to the Welsh language stream so when I was 3 I went to a - having come from an English speaking home - I went to a Welsh nursery school where it was just immersion. And by the time I was four and a half I was fluent and then continued my education in Welsh until I was 18.
Shane: So your parents didn't speak it but you had all your education in Welsh.
Siobhan: Exactly that's very common in Wales. It's becoming more and more common for a couple of reasons. A lot of people like the idea of growing the language but the other thing is originally Welsh language schools were slightly better quality so it was… you were getting a state education, it was free but it was slightly better than most of the English language schools. And so that’s really why my parents chose it.
This was a striking contrast to Shiraj’s description of his school in India and Lingerr’s description of her school in The Gambia – both former parts of the British Empire. In both of those, English was still the language of instruction. The same is also true of many International Schools today.
Tobias: I’m from Germany so the actual way to pronounce my name is To-bee-us.
Tobias’ father is from Germany and his mother comes from India. He was born in Germany, lived briefly in the US, went back Germany again, and then lived in Belgium for most of his schooling.
Tobias: When I moved to Belgium I was in an all very international school. We represented over 75 different countries.
Because of its location in relation to embassies, Tobias’ school had a large American student presence.
Tobias: So there were very, like, what you would consider quote unquote American features of high school. We had prom. We had J.V. and varsity basketball. If you would go into the gym it would look a lot like the kind of gym that you would see in an American school, you know, with the banners hanging on the top of the arena. You would see, you know, Class of 2018, winners of these trophies. MVP was this player. So, you felt a lot like you were at an American public school.
In the introduction to this podcast I talked about the feeling of that moment right before summer break begins as one of the shared experiences produced by schools. Memories of prom night and the feeling of trying out to play a varsity sport are two other, pretty widely understood cultural referents in American schools. It’s interesting that Tobias’ International School picked these traditions to reproduce for their students.
If you work in education, you already know that discussions about the school schedule can lead to pitched battles. Everyone connected to a school, from student to parent or guardian, to teacher to administrator - everyone feels the power of that schedule because it’s the frame that defines the institution.
It turns out, there’s a pretty wide breadth of options around the world.
You’re going to hear again from Juliana.
She’ll be joined by XuHui and Mia, exchange students from China, and Angel, from Taiwan. XuHui attended a public boarding school, while Mia and Angel each attended regular public day schools.
XuHui: My name is XuHui and I’m from Nanjing, China.
Mia: Hi, I’m Mia. I’m an exchange student in Berkeley and I’m from China.
Angel: My name is Angel and I come from Taiwan.
Consider the differences in their daily schedules and what they’re doing during that time.
Juliana: Yeah, a typical day would be getting up at probably around 6:15 in the morning and then arriving at school 7:15 and then staying there until 11:40 and then going home, having lunc,h and then studying in the afternoon and then going to bed.
In Brazil, students typically attend schools in shifts. This way, the same building and resources can be used for two or three groups of students. Even in affluent schools, where buildings don’t do double or triple-duty, the same schedule is often maintained.
XuHui: The typical day for me is I wake up approximate at 6:00 AM, I grab some food, after that I went to the classroom and… yeah… the whole day through basically I'm in the classroom and basically I went to my dormitory at 11:00 PM and I will I will read some book in my bed. And then I go to sleep.
Mia: Normal Chinese students they want to get a good college. So like typical high school day would be like… study all day. Yeah, from morning to night, actually. Basically like you stay at school a whole day.
Angel: You have to arrive in the class before 7:30 AM and 5:00 PM you can leave the school. And you just sit in the same class room in the whole day and the teacher would come to our classroom to teach. So we don't have to change our classroom… just some like music and P.E. class we have to change the classroom.
Shane: And how many students were in each class, each classroom?
Angel: Near 40.
Mia: Sixty. More than 60
Mia: We don’t like that kind of…much out of school activities and like we have restricted of resources. We don't have like theater or movies or sports practice. China now invests more… like focuses more about activities or, like, other things. But we still focus on study, like you know, basic study.
Shane: When you said you were in the classroom all day and then you went back to your room at 11:00 PM, were you in the classroom from like 7:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night?
XuHui: Basically we will have breaks between two classes and you can choose to go but I prefer to stay in the classroom… yeah we have a lot of thing to do because we need to face the Chinese gaokao which is a really important thing for us and what we need to do is just do those exercises all day long.
Shane: So you just study study so you can pass the gaokao so you can go to college.
XuHui: Yeah… not pass gaokao, but excel in gaokao. Yeah I mean…yeah that's a phenomenon because it's a really important entrance exam for us to go to a higher level education and basically it's only way for us to go in.
They may have shorter daily school hours, but Brazilian students also face a college entrance exam. This is challenging for kids who need to work outside of their comparatively short official school hours.
Juliana: And then sometimes we would do like extra curricular activities such as… they’re called “cursinho” which is basically preparing you for the big exam for college, because in order for you to get to college you need to pass this exam… it's like… if you get a good grade you will, you will get into the college that you want.
Shane: And did you like it?
Angel: [laughs] Uh…OK. I didn't think of this because it's like I was forced to do that. I can say I like it because it's like with your classmate you can build a deeper friendship. But of course it's kind of...um... all of us are like oppressed by the education system. Yeah we're stuck in the same classroom. But it led us to be like long term and deeper friendship.
One of my frustrations, as a teacher, was hearing arguments that went like this: “Well, if teachers or schools would just do X, then student would do Y.” Of course nobody likes to be criticized, so that’s part of it, I acknowledge. But buried in that sort of comment is also this weird erasure of students as people with desires, opinions, and basic human agency. Schools around the world bring a lot of pressure to bear on students to get them to act in particular ways. But inside those structures around the world, students – of course also – have individual feelings about school and they make choices.
Simon: I’m Simon I go to Homestead High School
Simon has experienced two different school systems.
Simon: I was actually born in Korea. But then I spent most of my elementary school years here in America, from like…I think from preschool to fifth grade and then I moved to Korea back because of my dad's job and in Korea I think lived for about four years doing just middle school stuff and then I came back from my high school education. I came back in ninth grade and I've been here since. I lived in apartment that was literally two minutes away from school and there was a school basically within the apartment complexes. So everyone was basically going to the same school in the apartment complex.
So Korean school in general it's really, really different.
You're in one classroom and teachers come to you. Teachers…your math comes in one day, like one period, and you have like 10 minutes after every single period. Then you have lunch. And it's like that.
And as soon as school ended, I see, you know, half the kids take a bus to somewhere and I was like, “What's going on?” And I realized that they're going to school outside of school. Like basically classes, tutors these kind of like cram schools basically to go learn more or learn more extensively about what they are what we just learned in class and it was just really confusing because I thought there was everything to learn in school but obviously the other parents think not. And I think…huge shout out to my mom for not making me part of this hectic culture because, well, I know from my friends this is what they did. So we got to school at like 8:15 you'd stay until I think maybe 2:30 or like 3. Three on like a late day. And then some of them would go straight to school, straight like cram school. And they're always in like some subway stations a few miles out and they'd stay there until like…on hard days they stayed there until 11:00, 11:00 p.m. 11:00 p.m. is like the legal limit for schools for like cram schools to have kids. So like that kind of thing is like really, really stressful for kids and they do this like almost every day. Like you know, Monday is maybe math, Tuesday is English, Wednesday is, you know, science or something like that. They have like these specific days in specific places to go to for each subject. I went to math. I went to a math one because my dad was like a …he was really math guy and he saw I was struggling and he didn't want me to struggle in math so I went to a math one. But even that math was a… you could go in any time, three hours, self study, ask questions if you have it. It wasn't a “you learn from a blackboard, teacher teaches you every single thing that happens and how it has to happen.” It was a self study thing.
It wasn’t just academics. There were more personal changes, too, as Simon figured out how to express himself within a different student culture.
Simon: Oh yeah school uniforms. That's a huge part. It's just like, I was never used to wearing the same thing again and again and again you know. I was wearing a shirt, like a blue collared shirt, like a strap on tie, a vest, and like a jacket almost everyday and it was just so weird seeing like people wearing the same exact thing every single day. The way you had to differentiate yourself in Korean school was through your slippers. So we're - you're not allowed we're like tennis shoes we're like outside shoes in the classrooms or in the halls. You're supposed to wear like slippers. And they sell them at like convenience stores. But cool kids would wear like Nike slippers, Adidas slippers to differentiate yourself. And I was like, “I want to be part of that.” So my dad went to a business trip in America I asked him to get to get me a pair of Jordan slides. So that's how I was like…cool.
Simon’s parents always knew they eventually wanted him to transition back to US schools and that goal affected their choices about his education in Korea. Daniel, on the other hand, had a less intentional, shall we say, route to the US.
Daniel: My name is Daniel and I'm from South Korea and I'm 26 years old. I'm here for study because I want to change my major.
Daniel’s description of his school is similar to Simon’s.
Daniel: We have to be a school at around 8 AM and then we have to stay there until at like around 10:00 PM.
Shane: And was that normal?
Daniel: Yeah, it was normal. And they also regulate our, like, hairstyles and we have to wear our uniforms.
Shane: And you said it's changed a lot. What do you mean?
Daniel: Nowadays students are not staying like that long. Yeah. And they can they can change their hair color and they can perm, but we couldn't.
But like I said, students are people. They have agency. They make choices.
Daniel: Actually I wasn't… I wasn't a good student because I always like slept at school and just like, I went school for just hanging out with my friends and sometimes I skipped my class. And yeah I was not really a good student.
Shane: What happened after high school? What did you do?
Daniel: Well actuall,y my father's kind of really strict…So I have to be… I had to be a good student. So I prepared for, like, Korean S.A.T. for one year more after my graduation and then I can get into a kind of good university in South Korea…After I entered the university, I also… I also did a bad student like…like drinking alcohol and like hanging out all my friends and also skip classes.
Despite his disengagement with school, Daniel did eventually graduate from college. He had originally chosen his major – French – under some pressure from his dad, and because majoring in French enabled him to go to a more prestigious school.
Daniel: I was kind of like preparing to get a job. But actually I did nothing. So my parents asked me, “What do you want to be in your life?” or “What do you want to…?” “What kind of job do you want to have and also what you can do with your French major?” Then I can’t, I cannot, I couldn't even answer. Then I just …yeah I was worried about my future. They suggested me to go to US to change the major.
When I spoke to him, Daniel was attending undergrad classes in an effort to get his future onto a different track. If all goes well, the flexibility of the US education system will be an opportunity for him.
Daniel provides one example of a student resisting the educational structure.
Rauf: I am Rauf and I came from Yemen in 2010.
Rauf arrived in the US at age 16, just before the current war in Yemen.
Rauf: The reason why I left Yemen with my family is because of the Arab Spring and the feeling that, that the country was going to be falling apart. And my dad was already here and wanted us to join him.
5300 miles away, in South Korea, Daniel was studying for his college entrance exams. Ra’ouf responded to school very differently.
Rauf: I lived in a village in the north side of Yemen in a city called Ibb. But outside, you know, in the rural area sort of agricultural landscape. It's considered to be one of the most beautiful like you know ... visited you know a place that people like to go to because in the other side of, Yemen like t,he south it's dry and desert. So I think that place made me feel like sort of free because I was able to go outside, smell the fresh air, and eat natural food and felt happy and enjoyed all my time in there, even though I really didn't get the chance to go to school. And that's because of the ongoing violence in the school, but at the same time I was expected to help my family since I am the oldest son and my father was away from home. So I was always at the farm.
Ra’ouf was able to leave Yemen before the war began. But some kids actually attend do school during wartime as fighting takes place around them. You already met Omar, from Syria, in Episode One. He attended school in Aleppo and his time in high school coincided with the Battle of Aleppo, which was part of the still ongoing Syrian civil war.
But let’s back up and start with what school was like before the fighting.
Omar: I was like a special school in some sense because it was like a public school, but for like, kind of like smart people and stuff. So you have, like it's the only school that students are not from the same neighborhood as a school. Students are from all over the city and even from the countryside.
We didn’t have facilities. Every school in Syria is basically just the school itself. Like only classes, maybe some labs, maybe some theater and that's it. And backyard. And you wouldn't see anything else. Except for, yeah, in some private schools and that's not a big thing in Syria. Like, almost everyone goes to public schools.
So you have your day from 8:00 AM until. 3:00 PM and that's all. You have two breaks and that's it. You don't have lunch, you don't have any other activity. So you all have your same class. You always had the same 29 students with you, because we were 30 in the same class. And then the teacher would come in high school. You stay in the same place. And then each subject's teacher would come to you and give you a class.
We really new each other. Like everyone knew everyone within the school and especially within the class because we just are in front of each other for like eight hours a day, every day of the week. But then after the school the school day finishes, we usually would go to eat, falafel, shawarma, something, and then you would go and start...sometimes go and play football together or basketball or we used to go play video games together. And we used to play Counter Strike and like you had this one person in the class that is like always the sniper, the other one is always the…I don’t know… the person that's supposed to do something and that definitely created a team soul within the class.
Shane: Did girls play videogames with you? For some reason the way you described that made me wonder, was this an all boys school?
Omar: No video games, it was always just boys. And not everyone even. They accept both, because… in Syria secondary and high school you are like either only boys or girls. But then only this school, it was only the public school that was mixed, which actually was amazing. That was one of the very special things about that school.
When the civil war came to Aleppo, everything changed.
Omar: One of the major things that happened was when I was ninth grade and like in the beginning of the academic year…so, there was two suicide attacks on the main square of Aleppo and the square is basically the main square in the city. And it's like very very close to my school. And I was there when it happened. I was in the square walking to my school. It was 8, 8:15 AM. I was late, I remember it. And then after that, after those two bombings the whole situation changed in the city and especially in that area. So basically the school closed and everyone basically stayed in their houses for that year. Now, most of the students, most of the high schoolers in Aleppo stopped studying, and not just high schoolers, every student basically. Like I think 70, 80 percent of the students stopped going to school and most of them started working to support their families because the financial expenses just got way higher because of the inflation, the prices and stuff. And also because most of the other schools also were closed, either because they were destroyed, damaged or there were refugees in them. That was the biggest case. Like internally displaced people. So the thing is that, that year I continued I was working like I was studying on my own.
I think it’s worth contemplating for a moment here how much closing school because of war is NOT like ending classes for summer break. During school breaks, the institution is still there. In fact, the institution is the reason you have the break. It’s still dictating the rhythm of your life. Not being at school in the summer is – weirdly – still part of school. But in Omar’s situation, the institution itself is tenuous. That feels completely different.
Omar: I think that that's something that people don't really, like, don't usually realize is how much you would miss school after school actually stops. Like come on, let's be honest, the first reaction of almost everyone is like, “Yeah! School is done! blah blah. We don't need to wake up at 7 AM every day! We don't need to do homework in the night!”
But then a few weeks after people started missing this routine that they had in their lives because now that their lives don't have a routine, they don't have a pattern. Every day you wake up you don't know what you're going to be doing. And I think that's why the school reopened in 10th grade. It wasn't because they, like the school wanted to reopen or the government or anything. No, it was because the students were pressuring the school to reopen. Like the argument was that they're afraid about our safety and we were like, “We know that and we are aware of it, but don't care to be honest. Like if it's … if something… if we're going to die, we're going to die in our houses or wherever it's going to happen. So, I better be doing, like, having my studies while this is taking place.”
Omar’s school eventually re-opened, but like everything else, it changed because of the war.
Omar: So this school, I told you, it was supposed to be special and it was supposed to be for like the few, the elite of the students. And so we used to accept 60 students per class. So you would have about 400 students. But then after that year when they reopened it, so they realize that this is one of the very, very, very few schools that is operating in Aleppo. So they decided to increase the size of the class so they can accommodate as much as many students as they can. So they increase the size 1200 students and that meant that the class size increased, that meant that way more teachers were brought in, and that meant also that the level of, like the quality of the school went down. But I was I was in favor. I was, like, with this move because Yeah, my education level went a bit down but at least someone can have education when they couldn't if we didn’t increase the size of the school.
Because of his age, Omar had clear memories of school from before the war started. But younger kids did not. And what’s surprising, looking at it from the outside, is not the idea of school closings during wartime. It’s how tenaciously people hold onto the institution once it’s established. How hard they work to keep schools open even during fighting. It’s happening in Syria now. It also happened 25 years ago in another conflict.
Selena: My name is Selena Mrkunja and I am a child of two Bosnian immigrants and I came to the U.S. when I was 12 years old from former Yugoslavia after the Bosnian-Serbian slash Croatian conflict.
The war she’s talking about took place between 1992 and 1995. A UN peacekeeping force, including US soldiers, was sent to Bosnia in that first year - 92 - with a mandate to provide some protection to the local population until a peace agreement could be negotiated. It was far from perfect, but for Selena, school existed.
Selena: Well I think it's important I tell you that when I started going to school that was when the war started. So they would have proclaimed peace times that would be indicated by sirens. So a siren would go off when it started and a siren would go off when it was over. And it was usually in the middle of the day when children were supposed to be at school. However because my school was bombed during the conflict I actually went to first grade in essentially a basement with like some old chairs and desks. We didn't have bathrooms in my first school so you would just have to figure it out and sometimes that was not the most sanitary thing, because the basement itself like there was no bathrooms and sometimes there was no power, you know and there was no water.
And the reason it was a basement, it was like boarded up windows just in case the bombing happened like we would be safer. We had drills to get under the desk and you know hold each other or whatever it would be. And usually like if the siren went off and it meant the bombing was beginning you had like 15 minutes. So that meant either, you know, getting under the desk and trying to keep safe or our parents were running to get us. And there were no vehicles there, so like my parents would be like sprinting or I would be like grabbing my sister and we'd be sprinting home or something like that.
When I was in high school, both as a student and actually later, as a teacher, the sound of the first bell meant I had 4 or 5 minutes to get from classroom A to classroom B. I’m not suggesting it’s the same. I’m just saying there’s almost a parody of normalcy here with the siren. My bell meant, “Walk, the next class is starting soon.” Her siren meant, “Run, or hide, there’s going to be bombing.”
The things is, regardless of context, it was a school and one constant in the accounts we’ve heard is that schools run on schedules. Selena’s wartime Bosnian school was no exception.
Selena: Well, I remember I would wake up in the morning and I would help my sister and we went to the same school so we would walk to school and the school was probably two to three miles away. So we would walk, we would walk an hour before school started. And then once we got there, we always had to be early, we would stand with our partner from our class. And you would make a row and you would stand there until the doors opened and then you would go in there two by two. We would sit two per desk. We'd have like a long desk we would sit at and usually there was anywhere from 20 to 50 students. We would be just packed in there.
The way you guys raise your hand, for a long time we would raise two fingers because that was still like a former Yugoslavia kind of thing, communist thing that people did. And for lunch it was really… a lot of kids did not eat lunch. You just you… nobody ate, you know it was like that and you would just have to wait till you got home. Then at the end of the day we would be dismissed and then we would walk back and I lived on top of a hill past a graveyard. So I have to walk myself up this hill past the graveyard every single night because school for us went from, I believe it was like 7:30AM until 6 PM or something like that. Five days a week we would get weekends off and a lot of homework.[laughs]
But let’s be realistic. No matter how much structure parents and teachers tried to impose on the situation, there was still a war happening. Beyond affecting resources and policies, the war affected also personal relationships.
Selena: My first teacher she actually she was a girl and she died during the war she taught my first grade and one day she just didn't show up. And I think, she I don't I don't know the exact thing because I was a kid but I think that she got caught in one of the bombings. And then I got a teacher from like I think second or third grade to fourth grade. It was one teacher and he taught all the subjects and then my relationship with him was really deep. He even followed us to like our new school and I used to hang out in the library with him sometimes during the - when we were at our new school, during the bombings and then we would just you know sit between the stacks and he would talk to me and calm me down and stuff. And so I was really close to him and he was a great mentor to me. In fact, when I went to Bosnia a few years ago, it was in 2014, I knew where he lived because he had taught also some of my friends that still live there. And I walked by his house and I knocked on the door not knowing if he was going to be there. And this lovely little old man opened the door and he said, “Selena!” and he recognized me immediately.
Shane: I can't imagine being a teacher of students in that circumstance. It seems… it seems like the parents would have to trust you so much.
Selena: In my city, in my little town, everybody sort of knew each other and everybody knew - his name was Adam - and everybody knew him and parents really did trust him. And during the times when things got really bad he was just like this wonderful warm loving caretaking presence. I can't imagine how much like bold courage it took to do something like that, to watch over other people's kids in the middle of something so dangerous.
The war also made its way into Omar’s relationships at school. Toward the end of his high school years, the Syrian government engaged in these intense attacks on Aleppo in an effort to bring the city back under its control. Omar was, ironically, at the same time, taking a class he called Nationalism. In an American school I think it would be called Government, or Civics.
Omar: …And this subject is basically the basics of the Constitution and how you should be behaving within the state. And what are your responsibilities what are your rights and stuff like that. But the thing is that, that class because of the war and like because of the way that the subject is supposed to indoctrinate you with like some principles that turned a student into a person who doesn't think much but just acts as they are asked to. So that subject created lots of nice discussions in the class because everyone is afraid of speaking. Everyone cannot speak because we know that if we say anything against the government or anything against one of the figures in the government, we will just disappear. Us, our families, and stuff. But the thing is that me and like very few of my best friends, we were always like we don't really care. So we start, like, we all started those discussions in the class where you would…where we are showing the teacher that what he's teaching us is wrong and that this doesn't make sense and we …that was one of the most interesting classes because it was considered a subject that is like as a secondary subject or third. I think it was more of a psychological relief for us and for the other students to just say it out loud because we were just so done with it.
In extreme situations in wars and sieges I think people turn into extremes more and they start being pushed to the extremes more so you would start having those fights in the class of like, “No this is all wrong, blah, blah, blah” and then the other side is like, “No this is what's right. You don't deserve to do that, that, that.” And that's what that's what triggers discussions in those… I mean I'm calling them discussions now but they were more of like arguments, I don't know. Dialogues. They were definitely interesting to see and to see how even the teacher that I knew, in some positions, that he doesn't really agree with what's written there. But he knows that this is what he's supposed to be reading and teaching us. That was just an interesting class, definitely.
As you heard in Episode one, Omar is now attending college in Vermont. The fighting in Syria is still ongoing.
In Bosnia, the Dayton Accords officially ended the war in December of 95. Selena finally got to experience school in a more settled environment.
Selena: My last year in school was at the end, it was two, three years after the conflict was over and my school got rebuilt and it was all brand spanking new and shiny and I had a normal, I would say what was a normal Bosnian curriculum. We'd had music, we had math, we had history. But most of it was directed towards, like, you know history was like ancient civilizations and Bosnian history and, you know, geography was mostly like Bosnian geography and European geography. I didn't really - it wasn't very expansive.
So far you’ve heard about five hour school days and days that stretch to over 15 hours. You heard from someone who stopped going to school altogether and about classes in the midst of war.
I’m going to end this episode with Shiraj.
Shane: Can you walk me through what a day of school would have been like in 8th or 9th grade?
Shiraj: Okay, ninth grade was the best year of my life.
Just to remind you, he attended a 160-year-old British-style boarding school in India before coming California. There are some pretty fascinating intersections between imperial history, social class, and modern pop culture wrapped up in this one school and in my imagination of it, as an American. But that’s for you to think about later.
For now, I want you to consider the activities that made up a day of school for Shiraj, and how it felt to live it. He begins by talking about the relationship between the seniors – or 12ths – and the younger boys.
Shiraj: So they would basically appoint one of us - one 12th would appoint one of us - as their personal assistant. It doesn't sound…I mean it sounds bad but it's not bad. So it's like they're a close friend or…
Shane: Like a little brother.
Shiraj: Yeah, like a brother. They would just choose one of us and then we would stick with them and we would do some of their jobs, odd jobs.
Shane: Did you have a relationship like that was one of the older students?
Raj: Yes I did. You call them a boss. The boss I had was the prefect of our house. So if you have a boss who's prefect of the house or a head boy then you would be more preferred than the others.
As Shiraj describes it, in a lot of ways the 12ths, more than the teachers, are the mentors and authority figures for younger kids.
Shiraj: Usually everyone wakes up at 5:30. Then we have we have chai, tea, with buns. It's served at five forty five or six. We don't have bad because it's pretty cold. And then we either, if you don't have special practice, you can just jog or maybe they'll tell you to do yoga. If you have a sport you go to that practice. And then you would go in for an hour, one and a half hours and then we had to hurry because you don't want to get late for breakfast again because we were really punctual. I mean, you have to line up before the breakfast, line up there with your shoes shined, and your uniform should be perfect, your white shirt should not be dirty, and your tie should be properly tied it. Then basically you should just turn out smart because there are like four different houses. There used to be a competition kind of thing between the houses. So everyone would contribute their best to do that. The Prefect's would go around just checking us out .
And then at 7:45 we would go inside the dining hall. We would have a breakfast. Usually they serve South Indian food like idli, dosa, uttapam, sambar, and then they would also give us eggs boiled eggs sometimes. Depends. I mean, there's like a schedule and it keeps changing.
And then we get done that 8:15 and then they say the grace. Before we eat they also say it, and then after we eat they also say, “For what we have received may the Lord make us to be thankful.”
It’s the head boys or the prefects who say the grace and once it’s said breakfast time is over. Students who are late don’t eat. Just to situate you, time-wise, it’s 8:15 AM.
Shiraj: And then we would go to assembly. The girls join us at that time. Before that it's only boys. But girls have a totally different dormitory a hundred meters away from our place. And then in the assembly we sing a song or, like, a hymn –
Shane: Wait, let me interrupt you because I want to ask: were your parents Christian or they just send you to the school because they like the education?
Shiraj: It is Christian, but there were every kind of people there. It's mostly Christian because it was British time, so we used to follow that. But then I am a Hindu. There's nothing weird about that.
Assembly also includes student presentations of various kinds, ranging from original music compositions, to videos, to talks.
Shiraj: After assembly you have your classes. There would be seven periods, each would be 45 minutes and then you get a break after three periods. A tea break? They would serve you biscuits and tea again, or coffee sometimes. And then three periods after that we would we would have lunch.
Shane: Did you stay in the same classroom all day and the teachers moved or did you move from class to class?
Shiraj: The teachers moved. It was our class. We used to have a lot of fun in the class.
Shiraj had more subjects at the same time than is common in American schools: bio, physics, chemistry, computer science, economics, English, a second language – he took Hindi, history, civics, geography.
Shiraj: So after classes, 1:30 you have lunch and then you have our 7th period and then 3:30 we have are our games time so you go to your sport. I used to go play cricket. I used to like the game and I also used to score many runs and if you score a lot of runs your name comes on the newspaper. So yeah, I used to see my name on the paper and I would really feel proud and… I miss all that.
You might also want to know that this after-class sports time is the time of day to sneak off to meet up with your girlfriend, if you have one. It’s against the rules, but you know…
Shiraj: …And then we have, we go back we have a shower. It's like this open baths lab[?]. So we wear our boxers and we have a bath. And then we used to dance and we used to talk a lot when we bathed. When you are showering, talking, and laughing that used to be like a free time and do whatever you want. I mean, because there are no teachers either and just talk about whatever or talk about girls maybe, or whatever. Maybe classes sometime but usually not. [laughs]
Just stop for a minute here and take stock of all the different school associations Shiraj has with the feeling of friendship and camaraderie. Getting dressed in the morning isn’t just personal, it’s part of a house competition. He eats breakfast with the same kids each day. He spends all day in the same classroom – “our classroom, not the teacher’s’” he said. He plays on a team in the afternoon. Even showering is a time to hang out with friends.
It’s 6:45 PM now. The boys have an hour to do homework or nap, again under the supervision of the prefects. At 7:45 it’s time to eat.
Shiraj: …And dinner used to be the best part because it used to be like the best meal out of the three meals. If it's someone's birthday we used to - we have to tell the matron before hand - and then they would get us a cake. It used to be a really big cake and we would like cut it and then we would celebrate it. Usually we won't eat the cake we would just put it on each other. That is to me more fun than eating it. But even after putting it on each other we would eat it because it was… yeah. it wasn't dirty. I mean, even if it was dirty no one really cared.
After dinner the students have time to watch TV, chat, whatever. They were supposed to be in bed at 10:30, unless they get permission from a prefect to stay up.
Shane: How many kids were in your room?
Shiraj: Around 20. Yeah 20. There are different dorms. One dorm had like 50 kids in there. That was a really huge, huge room. But usually it was like 20, 30 people. And then the twelfths used to have their rooms. The prefects used to have their own room where we used to sometimes get invited. We used to talk, we used to maybe, make Maggie – oh, sorry –noodles, noodles. And we used to eat, talk. Just…yeah.
Shane: Wow. That sounds… I mean, that's like a book, like a story, to me.
Shiraj: It is.
So let me ask you again. Picture a school you attended (or look around at the one you’re in).
If I asked you to walk me through a day there, how would it be different from the accounts you just heard? Would it change you to go to one of the schools you just heard about? And consider the reverse, too. What would it have been like for any of the people you heard here to go to school with you?
In the next episode of Points In Between you’ll hear about expectations and reality. What did people think America was going to be like before they came? And what did they find when they got here?
[Outro sounds: classroom voices, footsteps, door opening, exterior noises, including school bus]
Points In Between is a production of the California Global Education Project. See the Points In Between web page for additional information about each episode. You can find it at CISPISGLOBAL.org. Look under the Resources tab.