Teaching English in Istanbul has been marked by sporadic triumphs in the midst of far more monotony than I had anticipated. A few months ago, I graduated from college with a romanticized ideal about global travel and the experience of the “American Traveler.” Although I admit this with much chagrin, I know that this mentality is rampant for many in my generation.
It was a surprise to me, then, in my first few weeks teaching, when I realized how frustrating the experience could be. Students were barely engaged, demanded perfect grades (but refused to administer any effort or interest), and I could only rely on soccer as a means of igniting any passionate discussion — or any discussion at all, for that matter. Lessons were often interrupted by students coming and going (“to the bathroom”) and innumerable side conversations played out in hushed voices. [As an aside: forced whispers are always, without fail, more annoying than listening to someone carry on in a moderate, audible voice. It can be likened to the situation of the classroom "snacker" opening up a bag of Doritos as quietly as possible - please, just rip the bag open and get it over with.] Small victories soon became weekly highlights; Faruk requests extra examples of past tense sentence structure after class? I’ll take it.
Even though teaching highlights were rarely noteworthy, I still believe that my experience with one female student would remain the facilitator of a cherished moment, even if teaching in Turkey was rife with daily achievements and countless lives “changed forever.” My demeanor towards this girl was general malaise: another seemingly quiet, disengaged student. In retrospect, though, she was intellectually present — her quiet facade sheltered an engaged mind, I just didn’t have the prowess to bring her into discussion at this stage in my teaching career. In fact, she was the one who instigated her own contribution, as well as mine.
It was the end of the week, one of my last classes, and students filed into the classroom like cattle (standard) and began to take their commonplace slouching positions – also perceived as their “Cool Positions.” This girl took her seat near mine and began asking me a few questions. She wanted to know what I had studied in college, in particular. I told her English Writing and Sociology. After some explanation about what Sociology courses involved, I could see that she was engaged. Other students started to listen, and soon most side-conversation had ceased. “Tell me more about the experience of women in the US”, she said. At this point, I am positive that she, and the rest of the students, took note of the look of shock on my face. At once, I was aware of my own ridiculous naivete; I had come to another country with an ethnocentric attitude. My shock that this girl could, in a primarily Muslim country, inquire about the female experience was a giveaway for my own ignorance. I happily described some of my own thoughts, offering details from a few women’s studies courses I had taken. She proceeded to blow me out of the water with well-developed conclusions about social issues pertaining to women in particular. She ends with a simple, but firm stance; “Feminism is necessary.” Needless to say, I did not see that coming. Nor did I anticipate the nods of approval from other students (male and female) in the classroom.
Thanks, you enigmatic, worldly guru – you are largely responsible for outwitting my prior conclusions about not only American culture, but its relationship to all other cultures. So begins my “real” education: sheltered American, meet the rest of the world.