13 September, 2012

Lessons with Kisha

I've started tutoring.

That's quite surprising for two reasons. One, I'm not really qualified and particularly strong in subjects that kids usually seem to need help with; maths, chemistry, biology, french. My strengths are reading and writing. Not particularly practical.
And two, I'm rather intimidated by kids. Especially the American kind.

But I'm not good at saying no, so when one of my favourite professors called up and asked if I'd tutor her daughter because the tutor she'd arranged previously had left her suddenly, I said yes.

Luckily, the girl I'm tutoring is very good at math and doesn't really enjoy writing - so I'd actually be a useful tutor. And though she's grown up and been educated in America, she isn't really American. She's Indian. Sort of.
More importantly, though, her mom - a tiny, intense, inspiring, sometimes terrifying professor of sociology - is Indian, and has ensured her daughter has something that most American children do not; respect for elders.

Last week was my first tutoring session with Kisha* and before I picked her up from choir practice, Dr. Samuel* came to me with instructions.
"I've told her she's to listen to you, you're the boss, ok?"
"No, this will work out wonderfully. I'm glad it's you, you know. You can be hard on her, none of this American nonsense."
She was especially delighted that I came from a country and family that is fairly strict with it's children. She obviously has greater belief in my backbone than I do.

Despite my fears, the tutoring session went well. I managed to be helpful, not too boring (I hope) and made the effort to be more conversant than I usually am with strangers, even little kid strangers. And Kisha is easy to be with; she's bright (in intellect and personality) and brimming with confidence. Quite the opposite of me. Actually, I think our different personalities and working styles will complement each other in this situation. She is quick, clever and sometimes careless, with a ready answer to any question, a propensity to distraction (even in the library) and the ability to whiz through math problems at break-neck speed. Not to mention she knows how to operate a Mac computer. I am slow, thoughtful, quiet and freakishly-neat, and I revert to three-year old ignorance when confronted with a Mac. I'm not too gifted in the mathematics area either; I was still double-checking my mental answer to number 2 when she was starting number six, the pencil-numbers scrawling speedily across the page.

The only place I was able to catch a mistake of hers was in the word problems, where she didn't read a question carefully enough to understand what it was asking. I was secretly exultant when I corrected her mistake (after I'd read through it 3 times while she was doing number 35). Then I remembered it was grade 7 math and she was 12-years-old. It's quite humbling to be beaten by a 12-year-old in math.

I have another lesson with Kisha this weekend. By the end of the year I expect both of us will have grown a little; Kisha will be neater and more organized and able to express herself more clearly in writing assignments. I probably won't be any better at math, but I'll learn all sorts of things about Macs. And I'll be kept humble every step of the way.

*I'm not using real names here, just out of respect, not because I'm saying anything I think should be kept private

02 September, 2012

Good guys and bad guys

For several months I have been a volunteer blogger for Amirah Boston, a safe house for girls who were once trafficked in the sex-trade industry. About six weeks ago I wrote an article for Amirah entitled "Good guys and bad guys". I've re-worked that post and would like to share it here. I know that's kind of cheating - re-using an old blogpost - but I liked the post, I worked hard on it, I think it's relevant outside of Amirah...and recycling is good, right?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about war. Not a very cheery subject, I know, but one that has been pecking away at my mind, provoking some interesting questions. The most probing of which has gone something like this; is it possible for someone to believe so strongly that ‘I am right’ and ‘they are wrong’ that they’d go to war over it? That they’d kill, or tell others to kill for it?

Last week my dad and I took a 10-hour drive together and had the time and privacy to talk about all sorts of things. I asked him about his days on the national police force and what it was like to fight in the Rhodesian war. Back then (the 1970s) national service was required of all Rhodesian males and at 18-years-old, dad was leading squads of men, firing guns, transporting convoys of civilians through the bush, and watching for ambushes and landmines. I asked him what they were fighting for.

“Smith (Prime Minister at the time) was afraid of what the country would become,” he said. “The rebels in Mozambique were backed by China, the rebels in Zambia were backed by communist Russia.”

I struggled to reconcile this with the fact that my dad’s ‘side’ lost the war – the ‘rebels’ won. And today he sits in church, plays squash, has coffee and works alongside men who fought on both sides of that war – with and against him. ‘So,’ I thought, ‘what was the point of all that fighting? Who are the bad guys and the good guys and the victims?’

But war isn’t that simple.

I’ve just started a book called Dancing in the Glory of Monsters about the war in central Africa. In it the author, Jason Stearns, interviews a Rwandan army commander and asks him about his role in the exiled government that opposed Paul Kagame.  The commander’s response to Stearns made me reevaluate my questions:

“You are being too logical about this!” said the commander, “We were in the middle of a war. We didn’t have time to think whether we were complicit in a genocide – we were just trying to survive.”

Now, I realize that this sounds like a pretty flimsy, even horrific excuse in light of the awful massacre that occurred and I’m not at all dismissing the actions of this or any other person who participated in the genocide. My point is that I can’t make a judgment either way; I wasn’t there. I didn’t feel the fear, didn’t live in the climate or context of those tribe’s histories, I wasn’t born in Rwanda. I didn’t live through that war. So why do I feel free to make judgments from a distance, comfortable and safe in my moral superiority over ‘those people’?

It's the same way I feel about human trafficking but it isn't that simple either. It's not about helpless victims and evil traffickers, it's about people. It's about human beings with histories, men and women that come from specific contexts, needs, fears and situations.  

In things like war and human trafficking we have a tendency to seek out the ‘evil person’ – the one who caused all this suffering – and we want to find him as soon as possible. Then we can heap hordes of blame and judgment on his or her head. It’s a tendency encouraged by today’s sound-bite media and our own short attention spans – we want the problem simplified, digestible, easy to solve, and easy to blame. It’s encouraged by movies like The Avengers where the good guys are always right and heroic, never make mistakes and always save the day, while the bad guys are so obviously and totally evil that no one doubts the necessity of their destruction. Of course they have to be taken out.

But in real life we can’t just separate everyone into heroes and villains, victims and killers. In real life, war, poverty and governments are made up of human beings that do both good and bad things.
The problem with my question is that it’s too simple; it takes only one reason for war – individual belief – and ignores other factors such as country history, economic context, social situation, political climate, family influence and so on. My dad helped me learn this lesson on that 10-hour car ride.

As I sat mulling over his words, over the picture of him as a young man holding a gun, over the question of what I’d do if I had to choose a side in a war, I voiced the thought that was bouncing around in my head.

“I can’t imagine anyone being so sure that they are right, that they’d send their whole country to war over it.”

He glanced at me, then back at the road. “The only way to declare war,” he said, “is with tears in your eyes and a heart that’s broken.”