Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Odyssey

Only Anwar seemed interested in the saga of Odysseus. He was at full attention learning about Ithaca, Penelope and Telemachus, the abduction of Helen from Menelaus, and Odysseus’s journey to war, building trojan horses, and being captured by Polyphemus, the Cyclops. I drew a one eyed monster, turned around, and everyone was all of a sudden interested in the story.  They stayed with me all the way to Odysseus’s return to Ithaca where, after slaying the wretched, squatting, vile suitors to Penelope, enjoyed a fine feast with his wife and son. I gave each student a sesame seed bar from Greece, so they could feast as Odysseus would have. They demanded to know if it was halal. A quick check with another teacher, and they were satisfied. I should have started with the honey bars, … or the Cyclops.

The kids came back from break complaining of the heat. As the girls sat down, they tugged at their hijabs to let air in. One pulled hers off just to cool down. The others followed. After a minute, they began to put their hijabs back on. I said that in my class, hijab was optional. They left them off for the lesson.

After reviewing the weekly spelling words, then quizzing them on English fraction words such as half, third, fourth (quarter) … tenths, I gave them free time. One girl put her hijab back on and worked on a USA puzzle with the boys. The other two girls walked to the floor fan and delighted in letting the wind blow through their loose hair. They’d turn toward me, bent forward and let their hair fall over their faces. Then they’d pop up and say, “ahhh!” They said they were hantu. Ghosts.

Arfat led the puzzle builders, but he was talking in Rohingya. I demanded, “English only!” Arfat then barked orders at his team of puzzle piece wranglers, “I need Nebraska! Please may I have Nebraska?”

Meanwhile, the hantu girls sang a tune I recognized: the Spongebob Squarepants theme song. Knowing the lyrics by heart (who doesn’t???), I wrote them out on the board and explained the words they didn’t know; absorbent, porous, nautical, nonsense. We sang Spongebob as they flipped their wild hair in the fan and hissed like hantu.

Rattan Punishment Cane

Apparently, in Malaysia, it’s common for teachers to employ a rattan stick as an implement of discipline. In fact, a google image search leads me to an apparently thriving trade on ebay. Eek.


I don’t care where you are on earth, or what culture you hail from, hitting children is always wrong. While it may bring short term compliance, in the long term hitting kids can result in low self-esteem, alienation, anxiety, rebellion, or distrust. Besides, what’s the lesson here? That hitting is a valid recourse for disagreements or non-cooperation?  Come on, as adults we should hold ourselves to a higher standard, and do the hard work of coming up with alternatives that respect everyone involved: ourselves as teachers, and our students, as good-hearted human beings in need of gentle guidance.

It was upsetting to learn that a teacher at the school sometimes uses the rattan. It’s a flexible hitting stick, similar to a riding crop a jockey might use on a horse’s hindquarters. He said he uses the rattan to discipline the children. For example, he smacks the table to bring the children to attention. Only when they’re really bad does he hit their hands. He assured me that he never hits them very hard. I tried to maintain a neutral face, for I wanted him to share openly and honestly. That’s tough to do when someone is judging you. Even so, inside my soul, I was appalled.

When asked, he listed a few situations where he might use the rattan: when the kids won’t stop talking, when they steal from each other, when they don’t listen. I could relate. All of those situation crop up for me too, and they can be unbearably aggravating. However, as I told him, in my experience, there are alternatives to the rattan. I asked if he’d be willing to learn about some of the alternatives that seemed to work for me and try them out. Incredibly, he said okay.

We talked about what the ultimate goal was: to teach the children self-discipline. This means that the regulation of their behavior must come from within. It’s up to us to teach them how to do this. The rattan may bring short term compliance, but it’s an external control mechanism. It’s not teaching them anything except to be fearful.

Misguided goals, such as revenge, feeling inferior, or vying for power, can manifest in problematic behavior. I gave my colleague a paper that listed such goals and ideas for dealing with them.

We talked about alternatives to the rattan – giving information, asking for help in brainstorming a solution, giving a choice, allowing natural consequences to play out, engage in surprising and odd behavior yourself (like talking to the wall to say, “no one else seems to be listening to me so I thought I’d talk to you Mr. wall.”), or rather than yelling, talking in a very soft voice so they have to lean forward and listen to hear you. He was laughing at these options.

I gave him a 12 year old copy of a book I used long ago with my daughters: How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so kids will Talk. I explained that, after my husband and I read that book, it transformed our household. We all became collaborators in coming to solutions, rather than adversaries fighting to get our own way. He seemed genuinely interested, and is taking the book home to read.

I don’t know. I feel like maybe I came on too strong with all of these suggestions. However, I couldn’t just say, “Don’t use the rattan!”  If I ask someone to stop doing something that they think works for them, the least I can do is offer alternatives to consider.

Maybe his agreement with me was lip service. But down deep, I get the sense that he too feels the rattan isn’t getting the results he desires. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll read the book and find a few suggestions that will work for him. I’m really hoping. The kids need loving guidance, not swats to the hand.