Saturday, March 6, 2010

I have a confession to make: I'm a terrible teacher. I don't know most of my students' names. I've come up with plenty of justifications: I have at least 200 students, some of them only once a week for 45 minutes; I'm also supposed to learn the names of about 50 teachers at our school; plus, all of these names are Kazakh, meaning they're completely foreign to my American ears. And I have been trying. I have a list of all the teachers at our school, and I spent a day with one of our English teachers, surreptitiously asking her the name of everyone who walked into the teachers' room and making notes on my list about hair cut, tone of voice, and number of gold teeth in hopes that I would remember who's who later on. In the meantime, I've become the master of pretending like I know who people are. This is especially valuable on the street or while waiting for the bus; as the only American in town, everyone knows who I am, and if I even once said "Salametciz be" (hello) to someone, I think they expect me to remember them as well. At school, though, I actually do recognize everybody's face, I just don't know their name.

Kazakh names are very beautiful and unique. Most of them mean something; for example, Aigul means moon flower because 'ai' means moon and 'gul' means flower. Altinshash means golden hair, because 'altin' means gold and 'shash' means hair. Akbota means white (ak) baby camel (bota.) Assel means honey, Kumbat means dear one, Bakut means happy and Marzhan means pearl. I have to think about the meanings of the names, because the sound of them is strange to my American ears. For example, when I first heard that my counterpart's name was Nazgul, all I could think about were those evil, black, hooded creatures in The Lord of the Rings. But once I learned that Nazgul means beloved flower (and once I started using it everyday so I didn't think about it as much), I liked her name much more.

Some common female names are Aisulu, Nurgul, Asemgul, Zhanar, Guldanu, Gulzhanat, Bibigul, Ainash, and Aida. Some common male names are Bogenbai, Erkibolan, Talgat, Kuanish, Amangeldy, Serik, Kozhabek, and Temirhan.

I do know some of my students' names, and when I do I like to use them
as much as possible, as if I'm atoning for the lack of turkey at Thanksgiving dinner by putting extra mashed potatoes on the table. Sometimes, though, I accidentally mix up even those few names I know. One day, a third grade boy from my 3a class came to my English club, and I was absolutely certain it was Sanjar. I was so proud of myself for knowing his name, that I made a point of calling him "Sanjar" every time I talked to him. At first, he looked at me a little funny, but he didn't say anything, so I pressed on in my triumph of finally knowing someone's name. It was only after we'd been at club for over an hour that one of the girls leaned over to me and quietly said, "That's not Sanjar, that's Nursultan." Poor kid! He'd been taught not to question teachers, so he'd probably spent the last hour completely confused and not a little affronted.

I tried an experiment in my two 7th grade classes. I remember back in middle school Spanish class, when we had to pick Spanish names and use those in class. I was Mariana, and I loved it. So I made up a list of common boys and girls names in America and let them chose what they wanted to be called. I hoped this would make it easier to remember, since at least the names would be familiar to me. The plan backfired, though. They were very excited to chose a name, but unfortunately they all wanted to chose the same name. All the girls wanted to be Jessica or Ashley, and the boys David or Tom. Of course, I made everyone take a different name, and so both classes chose them like clockwork. The first girl to be called on chose Jessica, the second Ashley, then Angela, Mary, Emma, and Emily. (The boys were a bit more variable.) So now, I was faced with two of everybody, and their names all started with a vowel. And then, on top of that, they can't always remember each others' American names, so we still have to use their Kazakh names sometimes, meaning that now I have twice the number of names to memorize.

Back in January, one of my (very enthusiastic) 6th grade boys gave me an invitation to his birthday party on April 15th. That prompted everyone in the room to tell me when their birthday was, and invite me to their party as well. Mercifully, most of them were in the summer or next fall, so I have time to figure out whether I want to attend a birthday party for every 6th grade boy in the school, and maybe give them time to forget that they invited me. However, one kid's birthday was February 28, and he wasn't forgetting. Every time he saw me, he reminded me that I said I would come to his party. I asked my host mom if it was appropriate for a teacher to go to a student's birthday party, and she said it was fine, although she warned me to buy a modest gift because if I went to one I'd have to go to them all. (Was she hiding in the room when I was mobbed by my enthusiastic students?) "Whose birthday is it?" she innocuously asked. "Umm, I can't remember his name!," I admitted, embarrassed. "Then how will you know how to get to his house?" she wondered. I described how another student, who had walked me home from the bus a couple of times and lived in the same apartment building as us, was going to meet me out front at 12:20 and we would walk together. "What's his name?" "Umm..." I described how he lived next door, in the first entrance. "Oh, that must be Adilet," she replied. "Yeah, Adilet," I said, thinking, "I don't know! I hope that's his name!" Then she asked if I had any idea where the birthday boy lived. I hazily remembered a conversation on a crowded bus, five 6th grade boys pressed around me, excitedly talking in Russian about cartoons and summer and the Terminator. It was one of many occasions when I'd been reminded that I'd said I would go to this birthday party. And he'd told me where he lived. "It's somewhere in the next group of apartment buildings, across the field," I said, waving my hand to indicate the direction. "There's two 6th grade boys who live in the same building, one in the apartment right above the other." "Is the birthday in the apartment on the top or the bottom?" my host mom asked. "The bottom, I think." "Then it's Mediet," she said with authority.

My embarrassment was complete. I couldn't even remember his name after he'd invited me multiple times to his house, and my host mom knew exactly who I was talking about from a vague description and a wave of the hand. But now, at least, I knew what name to write on the birthday card.

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