lunes, 16 de enero de 2012

Learning the Hard Way

“Fingers on the lips. Fingers on the lips. NOW!”
Thirteen little voices echo my words back at me and thirteen tiny forefingers obediently press into a line of pursed lips. My five-year-old class is silent … momentarily, so finally we can move. Off we march through the double doors leading away from the playground and up the stairs toward the classroom. On the second flight of stairs I hit a blind spot and the more canny members of the group take advantage of it to break ranks and charge screaming along the corridor and into the classroom. Our four-year-old neighbours, lined up and still waiting for orders to break ranks, glance up at their teacher seeking some explanation for the human hurricane that has just torn past them. I too glance at her and her regiment. She’s not impressed but I have no time to wallow in shame, hell has broken loose in my classroom and I wade in there feeling decidedly unhopeful about restoring calm.
The children like the “fingers on the lips” mantra and so I resort to it now. Once they are sitting quietly around the table and I have called the register we can begin the process of learning some English. But it’s me who has learnt most in the five months since I was nominated teacher of these tiny human beings. Until September of last year I had absolutely no contact with children … of any age, never mind five year olds. Adults, strictly adult education, was my domain. Outside of it I have learned that the rules are entirely different, or so it seems to me.
For a start I am of the impression that routine, organisation and clear boundaries are fundamental to establishing and maintaining control in the classroom. First we do this, then this, and then this, and finally this. And we do it the way I say, no other way. Any deviation or indecision generally causes havoc. To prevent it I need a game plan and I need to be organised down to the last detail. Turning my back on the class to shuffle undecidedly among my photocopies – even for a few seconds – risks chaos. I tell the children I have eyes in the back of my head,
“Yes, I can see them. Little red ones,” pipes up Laura.*
Others murmur their assent, but only the most docile. Eric and Roberto look sceptical and resume kicking each other under the table. Kicking is much less lethal than their usual sport, fencing with sharpened pencils, the objective being to poke an eye out. If their behaviour deteriorates, there is always the option of asking one or the other to leave the room. Inevitably, that happens but it no longer worries me, not even when they make faces through the frosted glass pane on the door.
I have come along way since the first class on my first day at the school, which left me “traumatised” and I don’t use the word lightly. On that day, unaware as I was of the need for sergeant major tactics, I blithely urged the children to follow me, “Vámonos. Let’s Go.” And indeed they did. They swarmed on ahead of me, up the stairs and charged into the classroom, barely pausing to open the door. When I strolled in Eric was trampolining on the tables, Roberto had become a whirling dervish, Miguel was repeatedly crash diving on the floor and two of the girls were screaming in the corner. The rest were pogoing in a sort of group frenzy, or so it seemed to me. The classroom resembled a war zone. That was the start, and it only got worse from then onward. I emerged at the end of fifty minutes having aged fifty years.
Since that first day sympathetic colleagues have enlightened me about the importance of a system of rewards and “punishment” via the happy and sad faces routine, aka bribery. Now, each child who behaves well receives a copy of a happy smiling face at the end of the class and two happy faces can be exchanged for a sticker. The “sticker awards” have become something of a high point in the class and a sea of eager faces often besieges me in the final minutes of each lesson chorusing,
Dóna’m una enganxina” (Give me a sticker)
While I am doling out stickers, Eric and Roberto are whingeing miserably off stage over the injustice of the system. Each of them grasps a crumpled sad face in their tiny fists which their parents will have to sign. Cruelly, I hold up the newly purchased spider man stickers, which their classmate Arnau is deliberating over.
“Next time," I say, glancing over at the miscreants, “you too can have one of these … if you are good boys.”
Eric bursts into tears and buries his head among the coats on the rail behind him.
            For some reason the children have quickly grown fond of me. When I walk into the playground now to round them up, I get the celebrity treatment. The collective swarms over to me the second I arrive, joyously crying out my name. Both my legs are hugged, tiny hands slip into mine and little faces gaze up at me adoringly.  Elena, who habitually sticks to me limpet fashion, asks (again) if she is my favourite pupil. While I am still wondering what I have done to be worshipped in this way, my heart opens to the deluge and they’re in.
Whatever happens, no matter how much they wear me down, they have won me over and I suspect that long after the children have forgotten me, I will treasure the memories that these “tiny terrors” have given me. Those memories will not, however, slow my steps as I hasten back to my comfort zone of adult education. When my year in Tarragona is over that is where I will be. It’s where I belong and it is from there that I will salute the extraordinary professionals who have the skills and vocation required to be a nursery and primary school teacher. I am not one of them.

*The names of my pupils have been changed to protect me from the wrath of their parents!

viernes, 6 de enero de 2012

Nuclear - Yes Please!

Just before Christmas our television screens were filled with images of revellers gathered in bars, cracking open champagne and celebrating. Just before New Year almost identical scenes were broadcast again. In both cases the celebrants were ordinary working-class people overjoyed at a piece of news they had just received. Apart from the fact that smiles were broadened in the first case with champagne and in the second with beer, there was another crucial difference between the two sets of celebrants.
News of a massive lottery windfall had led to the spontaneous pre Christmas rejoicing. Many of those beaming at the camera and spraying champagne over each other had just become millionaires. However, the post Christmas cheers resounding through the streets of the tiny Castile village, Villar de Cañas, were in response to a government announcement that a nuclear waste storage facility was to be located close by. On hearing the news, the mayor, José María Sáiz, and a number of villagers gathered in the only bar for miles around, cheered wildly and raised their beer bottles to toast to a brighter future for the 450 inhabitants of the locality. Grinning at the television camera, Sáiz declared,
 “We have won the lottery, not once, but for sixty consecutive years.” This was not an opinion shared by “Disgusted from Cuenca” who phoned the nearby council offices protesting that the jubilant villagers were “subnormal”.
My initial reaction to the Villar de Cañas celebrations was incredulity. Surely, I must have misheard, misunderstood or missed a vital element in the story. But no, I hadn’t. These people really were overjoyed that the facility was coming to their town, where it is to remain for at least sixty years as home to around 6,700 tons of radioactive waste. For them the waste represents employment opportunities. Estimates suggest that 450 jobs will be created directly in the installation and a further 700 will be generated indirectly through work setting up the 750 million euro investment.
This is the first installation of its kind in Spain. Currently, waste generated by Spanish nuclear power stations is sent for storage to neighbouring France. That will change when Villar de Cañas opens its doors for business. The village had, along with seven other locations on the peninsula, put in a bid to host the facility and it won. For the decision makers in the Spanish government the fact that there are no railways linking Villar with the rest of the peninsula, meaning the radioactive material will have to be transported by road, and that there is a lack of qualified personnel in the locality were not significant obstacles. It was chosen regardless.
To my relief, they bypassed hopeful candidates like the nearby town of Ascó, in Tarragona province, in favour of Villar.* Disgruntled members of Ascó local council condemned the decision as politically motivated and are planning to appeal it. They may be right about the political motivation. The Villar de Cañas mayor represents the conservative ruling party, the PP, which was only elected to government last November … one month before the announcement that his town had won its bid to host the storage facility.
It is perhaps more likely that opposition was a key factor influencing the choice of Villar over other locations. The Catalan parliament was against opening the facility on its territory, in Ascó, and this can’t have gone down too well in Madrid. Furthermore, if I follow those suspicious thoughts of mine through the dark and murky hinterland that lies behind political decisions, I quickly come upon what could be the real reason why those disgruntled Catalan councillors in Ascó may be right. Local opposition to the facility in Villar is weak. On the very afternoon of the announcement 150 people joined a protest … in Cuenca, 75 kilometres away. That was it.
Spain is sunk beneath the worst economic crisis of the democratic era, and possibly even prior to it. In Villar de Cañas and neighbouring towns people desperate for jobs are muting whatever fears they might have about the danger of the installation. Mayor José María Sáiz remarked,
“Ecologists shouldn’t be so uptight about this. It’s not so bad. Dam it. There is a risk in everything in life …”
Television images of Villar have captured the desolate and deserted streets of a mid-winter Castile village that looks entirely uninviting. Abandoned by more than half its population, - young people who have left in search of jobs over the past four decades - Villar has become a ghost town. One of the villagers was quoted as saying,
“They talk about bringing a nuclear cemetery here. The cemetery was already here because the cemetery is the only thing that works in this place. The number of dead goes up while only one baby is born every two years.”
Locals are confident now that the promise of work will expand the population and inject new life into the village.
Once I had overcome my incredulity on hearing the news, my second impulse was to sneer at the naïveté of the villagers and their political representatives from the ranks of the disgusted. I wanted to ridicule these bumpkins but I couldn’t. Seeing those hopeful faces and listening to their expressions of trust in the decision makers saddened me. Only despair could have driven them to welcome nuclear waste into their neighbourhood. Economic circumstances, the crisis of unemployment, mounting debt and general hopelessness – as well as manipulating politicians – have all eroded their critical faculties. The long-standing healthy mistrust of authority that has been a catalyst for change throughout Spanish history was nowhere to be seen.
I leave the last word with Mayor Sáiz, who brushed aside unease about the decision, which he emphasised, has been “unanimously approved by deputies in parliament. Would they want something that is harmful for the people of Spain?”
Maybe someone should send that man on a junket to Fukishima in Japan.

*No reason to be smug here though. There are already three nuclear power stations in Tarragona province.