That first year of work in Al Ain was pretty wretched, and that day in particular in October 2009 was a real highlight. I had come in with a lesson about God knows what, and the class of grade 12 Emirati boys had been spectacularly uninterested. They talked over me most of the time, making shitty comments when it suited them, while a cluster of students keenly interested in trying to learn something, anything, from their terrible education system formed a cordon around me. They were a decided minority and had no power over the rest; it was to them that I relied heavily for translation.
I had virtually no power over them. I was an outsider in every sense of the term, on their turf, unsupported and alone. There was almost no reason for them to listen to me.
I had one last shred of credibility, one last card to try.
I went quiet. The good kids, they saw it first. They followed my lead, while the roar of the rest of the class dulled as they tried to suss out what I was doing. I sat casually on the edge of a desk, as I sometimes do when I want to signal that I’m about to level with someone. The talkers in the back looked forward; used to being yelled a by their teachers, they really didn’t understand what was going on. Our language barrier made this all the more absurd and I prepared my next salvo.
But when I stopped yelling and sat on that desk, they thought it worth noting. I had a brief window to launch my last volley.
“Most of you are failing,” I said quite honestly. “Your marks are very bad. You don’t have good marks from our exams or from our homework. If I gave you the exam tomorrow, most of you would fail.”
A moment of chatter followed as the good students translated this for the bad ones. A small roar erupted; I pretended to be unaffected. I couldn’t understand what the hell they were saying anyway, so there was no emotional blow to accompany the uprising.
“It’s because you don’t listen, and you don’t work,” I began, and for a few moments I cataloged their sins and what they could do about them. They were, after all, grade 12, and had been taking English classes since they were in grade 6. They should have been able to at least spell their names in English right, or to know how to use a capital letter.
The tirade was translated, disseminated, and encouraged quiet. The bell rang and I was able to escape in relative peace. For once, my head didn’t hurt.
Smugly reassured, I believed I had found my Emirati magic bullet. Exams would tame them; exams would discipline them; exams would be the shred of leverage I needed to get them to do something.
Not long after, I was taken off grade 12.
Even then, I believed the exams would be the great corrector. They would fail in swarms, and suddenly, suddenly, they’d learn to take both us English teachers and the Abu Dhabi Education Council’s program seriously.
When the official-looking stacks of English exams arrived, I felt a moment of great satisfaction wash over me. Now came the hammer; now came their fall. They had spent the entire semester trying to chase me out of the classroom; now my revenge would be enacted through their own ignorance.
Instead, when the results came back, nobody had failed.
When the exams arrived, they were unsealed by both the principal and the department head of whatever subject was on the docket for that day. As they gave them out, they took the time to make sure there weren’t questions that were “too hard.” If there were, they’d “help” by going from room to room giving out answers. The students would copy these down, word for word. If necessary, the department head would give individual attention.
As we monitored exams, students kept asking for “help,” and when we might explain a question, they’d “tsk” us, because what they meant is that they just wanted the damned answer and what was I doing telling them how to do something?
For these students, the exams were part of a ritual. They came to school; they sat in the room; someone told them what to write; then they went home, and nobody expected much of anyone.
To really hammer the point home, when we began to grade the exams in our central marking center – all English teachers were required to attend – we thought, at first, we were free to fail the failures. Not so, said the room coordinators. “Just look again,” they’d say. “Help him.”
And I watched many a Western teacher try to argue against that. But none of the coordinators budged. We had to look again, and we had to “help” them. And if we didn’t “help” enough, they’d send the whole stack back at us and keep us another night without paying us.
The next exam season, in the spring of 2010, was a lot more fun. The farce had been exposed, and so I just mostly ignored it. As the students chatted, exchanged answers, called friends on their cell phones for help, I studied Arabic, pacing back and forth memorizing words on flash cards. It was a better use of my time; it helped bring down my personal language barrier. Meanwhile, the students cheated to their hearts’ content, and there was nary I could do.
Everyone knew the scam. “They should all go to Hell!” shouted a Tunisian colleague who knew that cheating on an exam was pretty un-Islamic.
“If we don’t help, they will all fail,” remarked an Egyptian colleague.
My British advisors were more exasperated. “What are we doing here?” came up more than once with them.
The social contract was straightforward: students came, they stayed in the classroom (mostly), they either listened to a teacher or they didn’t, and then they went home. When exams came, they were given answers. If their results were too low, they were changed. Then, they graduated and went into the army or police. In exchange, they didn’t question the teachers who taught nothing, the principal who barely worked, or the sheikhs that had put them in place. They were happily kept ignorant and were happy to stay ignorant. Knowing too much was uncomfortable.
It was a distinctly corrupt system, and yet quite honest. In a nation of handouts, degrees were just one more thing that came from the sheikh’s palaces. Another thing to be grateful for. Another reason not to rock any boats.