By Hännah Ettinger
The first time I set foot in a public school for academic reasons was the day I took the SAT. I was almost late because I’d run back into the house twice (pencils, calculator; lunch) and had turned into the wrong school parking lot (busses only for the elementary school next door, thanks to MapQuest). It was 2006. I’d found out I was taking the SAT just the night before.
I walked into the school hallway and panicked when I saw the sign about weapons on campus. I had a pocketknife in my backpack—I always did. I hoped no one would check. Next to the sign was a poster for Mean Girls, which was an ironic touch I wouldn’t appreciate until 2012 when I saw the movie for the first time.
And here I was: homeschooler goes to school. I jumped at my first bell, rolled my pencil off my slanted desk by accident, and couldn’t figure out how to gracefully tuck my bag into the wire cubby underneath my seat. I almost peed my pants waiting for the end of the essay time after I finished early, because I had forgotten that you can’t take bathroom breaks during a section and hadn’t gone during the lunch break.
The next time I entered a public school for academic reasons was this year, and this time I was teaching. In Kyrgyzstan. As an English language education volunteer.
The thing that surprised me most was not the culture shock or the students’ behavior or the barrage of questions I get from the other teachers. Instead I was surprised to discover how well prepared I was to work in this environment and in this sort of culture—and not by the training I received from Peace Corps. It was my 12 years of homeschool education that prepared me the most for thriving in this job.
Kyrgyz culture is highly family-focused, the result of generations of nomadic culture now settled into community-centered culture after Soviet organization and nationalization. Kyrgyz people are organically family-oriented in ways the new patriarchalists in American homeschooling can only fantasize about, and their communities are agrarian and place-driven in ways that would warm the cockles of Wendell Berry’s heart. I feel right at home.
I grew up as the oldest of 9 kids, mom’s right hand soldier in the day-to-day homeschool family fray, and was (as a little girl growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley) an avid reader of romantic agrarian novels—Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, Little Britches, etc. Living in a world where the social life revolves around what’s being harvested and canned right now, where everyone uses an outhouse, where you have to walk down the block to get water from the nearest well—it’s a world more familiar to me than most elements of American pop culture. I am more comfortable here among the sheep herds and bean fields of Talas than I was trying to find my way around the gilded halls of Las Vegas.
Homeschoolers have widely differing experiences, but perhaps one thing they have in common: the hurry up and wait schedule of a school education that is tied to the rhythms of family life. With your schooling dependent on your primary caregiver (usually) until a certain age when you’re able to self-direct and manage your attention and time well enough to be responsible for your own assignments, I ended up following mom around her day with my questions and textbooks.
“Mom,” I’d ask as she chopped vegetables, “why isn’t this long division problem working?” And she’d look over her knife and onion debris to my book on the counter and we’d talk it through while she kept cutting. I’d ask her to help me spell things while she folded laundry, read her drafts of my writing assignments while she nursed the baby. I worked on my math in the back seat of the van while she was in the grocery store, I read my science books in the back of the room during my dad’s evening community meetings for work. My education centered itself squarely around the higher priorities of family life.
When I arrived in country for my pre-service training for my time here as an education (Teaching English as a Foreign Language, or TEFL) volunteer, one of the first things we got told was that we’d have to adjust our habits as Americans to match those of our counterparts (the local teacher we’re assigned to work with and help support the professional development of), especially regarding our expectations for time management.
“First, think of everything you want to get accomplished in a month as if you were in America,” said a volunteer who’d been in country for a year already. “And that’s what you should expect to get done in a year.”
During training, we learned quickly to pace ourselves and slowly adjusted to “Kyrgyz time.” Here, if someone invites you for a dinner party and tells you to come at 6pm, it’s rude to show up any time before 8pm. Dinners during the summer months were regularly being served at 10 or 11 at night, and volunteers stressed over this, since our language lessons started at 8 or 9 in the morning and many of us were still struggling with the significant ripple effects of jet lag.
And then, we got sworn in and sent to our permanent sites. Most of us paired with teachers are working with female counterparts, and the women here are all married and closely tied to their obligations at home. Food preparation and housework and the kitchen garden and the children and helping out extended family members with anything that is traditionally considered “women’s work” all falls on them, and their work at school takes secondary priority. Teachers are regularly late to appointments or cancel lesson planning sessions (or even lessons themselves) due to their obligations at home.
My counterpart, a widow with a few sons in their late teens and early twenties, has been teaching for 25 years and gets to choose her work schedule at the school thanks to her seniority. She and I don’t have to negotiate with obligations to in-laws or a husband for our time to work together, which can be a struggle for other TEFL volunteers. But I still have to hurry up and wait to find time in her schedule to meet—in between her planning a wedding, canning relishes and jams for the winter, supervising the harvesting of the bean fields, and her popular social life as one woman in a tight communal membership of housewives and teachers and extended relatives in a small town in rural Kyrgyzstan.
For other volunteers, this is just another part of culture shock, something different to adjust themselves to. We got trained for this, and our program managers are supportive as we adjust and negotiate with the home-work balance of our counterparts to find equilibrium.
And I laugh–as I sip tea at my counterpart’s kitchen table while her phone buzzes nonstop on the bench beside her and her sons pop in and out asking when dinner will be ready and as she hops up from our lesson planning to fuss over the loaves of bread rotating through the little convection oven in the corner and stirs the soup and seals jars of compote—because I’ve just come back to the center of things again, negotiating education in the kitchen while the world revolves around a mother.
Hännah Ettinger is currently serving as a TEFL Peace Corps Volunteer in the Kyrgyz Republic.