In the late night cover of darkness, I wander out to the naked goal post in the school’s field. The gates are locked up, the lights turned off, and blissfully, all the schoolchildren have gone home. The grounds have become nothing more than a cluster of sealed off, dark and empty buildings. I jump up to hang from the goal post, emulating the teenage boys that monkey around on it between classes. I try to do a pull-up, and fail. Suddenly the thought occurs to me: I’m the odd, unmarried schoolteacher from out-of-town living in a little house on the school compound; the teacher I read about in historical fiction novels about small towns with one-room schoolhouses in pre-industrialized America. The thought depresses me as I retreat to the pink doll-house I call home, and read myself to sleep.
Among Madagascar’s education PCVs, living on the school compound, often in an old classroom, isn’t all that unusual. I feel lucky to have a house separate from the building itself, but for whatever other problems it saves me, I still wake up to the sound of hundreds of screaming, laughing children, boys banging coins on the metal goal post, and the obnoxious drumming out of beats on wooden desks. I forever remain both impressed and horrified that these kids can make their voices sound so ugly, with a guttural shout I lack sufficient words to describe. In these moments, at precisely 7:00am, 9:00am, and 3:30pm each day, the nightmares of being trapped in a room with my overly-energetic little brother, age 11, come rushing back. Sitting though these breaks make me feel as though I’m living with 200 duplicates of his 11-year-old self, only this time I can’t shout “seriously, would you STOP that?!?”
To add to the terror, every once in awhile a stampede of children storm through my front gate on the pretext of cleaning the school compound. My first warning arrives in a deadly silence broken by a roar of shouts as assembly disperses. It is quickly followed by the pattering of kids running to fetch brooms, flip-flops slapping against their feet. I know what’s coming and rush to close up my doors and windows before I hear the ubiquitous slap-slap of my wooden gate. “My god, I’m under attack! Quick, get out of here!” I think. I know cleaning my backyard area is a part of cleaning the school – and we all know I’m not going to sweep up a yard full of dirt – but I hate being the subject of my students’ curiosity, hate that if I leave a door or window open they seize the opportunity to peer in (once while I was changing), and hate that they steal the unripe peaches off my tree in peach season. In this arrangement, the idea of keeping professional and personal lives separate falls apart. Or maybe, it never existed?
Living on a school compound is stressful at breaks, eerily quiet on Sundays and at night (although the architecture of Malagasy schools thankfully lack the quintessentially creepy high-school hallway popular in 80s slasher films), yet convenient on the odd morning I oversleep before class. I don’t think I’ll ever quite be used to the constant chatter of children, the bats that live in our rafters, or half a dozen students saying “hello teacher!” while I make my way across the yard from front door to “toilet” (it hardly deserves the title), but such are the challenges Peace Corps throws at us.
Photo: My neighbor’s son; the school is his playground.