All of the students look up from wrestling, from their paper airplanes, from their simits and water bottles, and from the endless cacophony of shrieking wonder to rush the front of the class hugging my legs and hanging from my appendages like an adorable workout exercise all while screaming, “Grandpa! Grandpa!” I’m filling in for a teacher at a private school and his parting gift was instructing the students to call me by my new name, “Grandpa”.
I’m teaching four second grade classes, two kindergarten classes, and one pre-K class. The youngest students are definitely the hardest. They barely understand English and giving them basic commands is next to impossible.
I’m yelling, “Line up. Okay, line up. Line? Wall? Line up on the wall.”
When that doesn’t work I’m physically moving children up against the wall and telling them to stay like they were dogs. That doesn’t work either. Two boys are grappling on the floor, the girls are running around the tables with Play Dough smears around the outside of their mouths, and the three kids I actually managed to guide towards the wall squeeze around me when my back is turned while checking the carnage behind me. Somebody is crying because I drew Batman wrong and my shirt is soaked with sweat from trying to corral the chaos.
“Somebody open a window,” I yell, but nobody knows what I’m saying.
Eventually the noise attracts one of the Turkish speaking teachers who joins me in the room and in a few sentences, she easily quiets every child who obediently returns to their chairs.
After class I download the Duolingo app for learning Turkish.
My two kindergarten classes are starkly different from one another. The class in Bakırköy barely speaks any English but my class in Çapa understands enough to play fun games occasionally. There’s usually a lot of grief about fairness and kids pointing tattle-taling fingers at each other; one trouble maker is erasing points off the board in an effort to pull his team into the lead while everyone else is screaming bloody murder about the travesty of their stolen points. They must think I’m completely clueless up here that I wouldn’t notice a curly-headed floor urchin crawling under my legs to get to the board.
Games with no winners don’t go over well in Turkey, rather I should say that games without losers won’t work. Forget the American notion that everybody’s a winner, that just isn’t the case in Istanbul. Every game needs a loser for the other half of class to wag their pious little fingers at. I’ve tried playing games with no losers and everybody goes home crying like bloody thirsty Romans watching a PG rated gladiator game.
Second graders are the funnest classes by far. Most of them speak enough English to play games that aren’t mind numbingly dull and they’re still young enough not to worry about being cool. The threat of sitting at their desks for the remainder of class instead of going to the play room is enough to keep them in line and for the more serious offenders, a chair placed at the front of the room called the “Baby Chair” is enough punishment to curb bad behavior for several minutes in a row. Everyone in class has their own unique personality but I can’t remember most of their names. I know the names of my best students and my worst. The first week in school I was too soft on the kids and by the end of that week, my voice was gone and I was using a harmonica in lieu of yelling to quiet my unruly classes. This week I’ve been a tyrant, letting almost no bad behavior fly. With the competitive nature of Turks, I can quiet a class by conducting a breath holding competition, when a class is getting unruly I take away the rewards of the play room, and when a student is being particularly disruptive I send them to the front of the class to be mocked by the other students as a baby. Things are looking up.
The school says they want me to teach there next year. I think I just may.