A Morning in the Life of an English Teacher in Iraq

Yesterday – Saturday, May 14

4:30 am:  Roommate wakes up, turns the light on and makes coffee for herself.  Once awake, I realize nature is calling so I get up and stagger outside to the latrine in the thick, opaque dust, trying to not inhale.  Stagger back to the CHU along the pathway which is “paved” with large loose stones and hard to walk on at any time, never mind when you’re half asleep.  Back in the CHU, I drink half a bottle of water and go back to bed but roommate’s light is glaring into my eyes so I give up trying to sleep or rest, sit up and watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy on my laptop.

5:30 am:  Get up, drink German bottled orange juice, grab my toiletry bag and towel and go off to the showers which are a little further than the latrine, staggering just slightly less this time.

6:00 am:  ready an hour early for work so I settle down with my laptop to check email and cruise the net for a bit.

7:10 am:  leave the CHU, lock up and walk to the parking lot where our team’s two Ford Explorers are.  I leave my backpack and laundry in one of the vehicles and do the 15 minute walk to the DFac for breakfast.

7:25 am:  arrive at the DFac and very unimaginatively have my usual breakfast of O.J., oatmeal with brown sugar, raisins and mixed nuts and a cheese and tomato omelet.  Every day I ask for “just a small omelet” and every day get a huge one that takes up my whole plate.  As ever, everything is delicious.

7:50 am:  get a take out box for lunch and fill it with smoked turkey, swiss cheese, carrot and cucumber sticks and crisp lettuce, my current favourite lunch.  Wrap that all up in saran wrap with two oranges and two boxes of organic chocolate soy milk and leave the DFac.

8:00 am:  our two vehicles leave the DFac and we do the ten-minute drive to the office.  Once there, about 4 of us get out our toothbrushes and toothpaste, grab a bottle of water and head out around the back of the office (which is like a big, double-wide trailer) and brush our teeth.  We use the bottled water to rinse and then spit on the ground; there isn’t an actual latrine at work – just a porta potty.

8:15 am:  we drive over to the new school location and note the cadets are not milling about outside as they usually are. Odd, but not unheard of.

This had happened on Thursday as well and it turned out they had been talking to General Ali about their “mujas” (vacation time off).  They’d missed breakfast because of that and, soon after they arrived at the school about 30 minutes late, a bus had come, delivering their breakfast to them.  When we went into the classrooms for the second lesson, they were in sullen, angry moods and it was difficult to focus them on lessons.  I let them vent but it’s important to remain as neutral as possible and just sympathize, without criticisizing either their actions or those of their leaders.  Mind you, I actually do completely sympathize with their situation so my response had been genuine.  Thursday had been a difficult and stressful day for all of us and I suspected we were in for another.

We were.

The cadets are angry and frustrated with their leadership and, with each passing day, they get more and more so.  Their schedule is 10 days on and 10 days off; they toggle with the pilot cadets who also do 10 days off and then on.   Theoretically, one group finishes up their ten-day stint and the next group comes in and we begin with them.  It’s meant to be seamless but, due mainly to transportation issues, it never, ever is.  And so, because of said transportation issues, the GSO cadets, rather than having been here for 10 days, have now been here for 22 days.

They are pissed.

They get some, but not much sympathy from the US air force, more, but not complete sympathy from the English teachers and none whatsoever from their own leaders.  A good many of the US military and some of the teachers’ thinking is “Hey – this is the military; suck it up!”.  Thing is, it’s different for these guys than in any other military I know of.   Non-sympathizers compare these Iraqi cadets with numerous examples of people in the US military having to go on courses for much longer periods of time and not being able to see their families for six months or so.

But there are many differences.

1)   If you are informed you are going away for six months (or whatever period of time), you are mentally prepared for that longer period of time; you have an opportunity ahead of time to take care of business and to discuss it with your family.  The Iraqis are told “ten days” so that is what they, and their families, are mentally prepared for.

2)   Unless you’re a CIA agent, your family will know exactly where you are and how to get hold of you. American military members are able to keep in touch with their families through the use of telephones, skype or email messages.  The Iraqi cadets have no means of communication at all with the outside world.  Their mobile phones are confiscated at the gate if they try to bring them in and they are not allowed internet access whatsoever.   While these are important security measures imposed by the American army to keep us all safe, it means the cadets are unable to get hold of their families if they are delayed.

3)   Money is an issue for the Iraqis.  They get paid in cash while here (about $600.00 US / month, but in Iraqi dinar) and they take their much-needed money home to their families at the end of the ten days.  Because most Iraqis are poor and live hand to mouth, the cadets’ salaries are of critical importance to their families.  Some of them were feeling desperately bad about their families not only not having the money, but not being able to tell them why.  They were appealing to me for a way to help them find a way to get the money sent to their families; there’s little I can do although I did try to help facilitate  by speaking to the major in charge of our program.

4)   When they don’t arrive home after the expected ten days, their families have no idea why.  The delay could be caused by any number of things; certainly it could be the fact that their plane has broken down again (this happens ridiculously often) but it could be other – more dire – things as well.  Being a member of the military automatically puts them at high risk from the insurgents and they are key targets.  They find themselves imaging their parents and wives thinking they’ve got on the plane and it crashed, or that they are sick, held hostage or, dead.  Put yourself in their families’ shoes.

Naturally, the more time passes and the more they worry about their families, the angrier and more volatile the cadets, as a group, become.  Added to their frustration is the almost total lack of communication – never mind support – they get from their leaders.  And when their leaders do tell them something, it is often a deliberate lie; these lies pile up, leading to intense frustration for the cadets and, eventually, steam is let off.

This happened today.  They came to class only a few minutes late after 8:30, but in sullen, irate moods.  Not all of them even came; when I took the roll, I was told that “Ali ____ ______ was sick from the water”.  Mohammed _______? Oh, he was “sick from the chicken – maybe”.  (Both of these are actually feasible – they do have bad food and bad water but it’s unlikely half the student body would suddenly be affected.)  After a while, I’d call a name and look around and they’d just shake their head at me.  I had six students but two of them were refusing to work.  My star pupil who usually sat in the front and engaged fully in everything, sat at the back with his book closed.  “Please Miss, I’m just here for the attendance.”  Then, politely added, “I’m very sorry.”  Needless to say, I just let him be.  I was able to teach 4 students for the first lesson; they were highly distracted but they’re basically mature, well-mannered young men and they tried their best – for my sake.

We broke, as usual, at 9:15 and on the break, a buzz began in the corridor; at first it was more of a sensation than a sound but the volume grew and then individual voices could be heard above the drone.  I’d been on my way to the teachers’ lounge (a bare room with old, dusty chairs) but I stopped and turned around when I heard some yelling.  A group of cadets was gathered outside one of the classrooms and someone was in the middle, yelling back.  It was the cadet who has been assigned a sort of “sergeant” role and it was clear the cadets were trying to get answers from him.  This went on for the whole break; then when break time was almost over, I walked towards my classroom, passing the angry, gesticulating group.  By then, an Iraqi officer had joined the cadet sergeant and he was now the focus.  As I passed, one of my own students stepped out and stopped me.

Mohammed:  Miss Maureen, there isn’t a class now because we have something to do.

Me:  What do you have to do?

(Silence and long pause)

Mohammed:  Just… we have to go somewhere.  To do something.  So, we can’t have class.

Me:  Whose decision was this – the Colonel’s?

Mohammed:  No, no.  It’s our decision.

I understood that there was to be a walkout of some sort and I turned and went back in the direction I’d come from; I was going to tell Captain Williams who was standing at the end of the corridor.  Mohammed called after me, “Miss, you forgot your things in the class” so I turned and started back towards the classroom to get my bag but before I could get very far, more yelling broke out behind me another student of mine (one of my stars, also named Mohammed) stormed past me and into our classroom just as I reached it. He was a couple of steps ahead of me, yelling something in Arabic, and then suddenly he angrily hurled his textbook about 20 feet where it crashed into the wall.  I was a bit in shock at seeing my very sophisticated, normally exceptionally  composed student in this fury.  Then, from behind me came yet another Mohammed, this time an Iraqi Colonel (the one we call The Red Baron because of the nifty white scarf he always wears under his jump suit pilot uniform) and he, was in a truly thunderous rage.

As Colonel Mohammed and cadet Mohammed stormed against each other, I grabbed my backpack and left the room, walking down the corridor towards the teachers’ room and the (now two) female US Captains who were standing at the other end.  I waited with them for awhile until I saw Colonel Mohammed leave the room and it appeared that order had more or less been restored in my classroom.  One of the captains walked me back to the class and asked me if I was ok and told me I didn’t have to go back in if I didn’t want to.  I thanked her but told her I was fine and went in and sat down.

Needless to say, the very last thing on the planet my students wanted to do at that point was to review vocabulary, listen to a presentation on using modal verbs in reported speech or, even continue our previously quite fun discussion we’d been having on whether men could be as compulsive shoppers as women.  They wanted to talk, and I let them.  I listened to their frustrations about their families not knowing if they were safe and I listened to their frustrations about their leadership’s lack of communication and planning.  They even talked to me about their frustration with their own culture’s lack of planning and forethought and, interestingly, this was remarkably similar to the frustrations many of the Americans also express. They told me the suggestions they’d made to the general – we can go to Baghdad by bus, our families can come and get us by car, etc. – and how he had vetoed all of them as too dangerous (they were, really).  They vented and I listened, but commented sparingly.  I offered what little practical help I thought I could provide (internet messages to their families) but my main role was to listen without judgement.  Eventually, they allowed me to distract them a little and, by the end of the fourth lesson, I’d got them to tell me stories of their family members and of the fun things they’d done together when they were younger.  By the end, they were calmer;  some of them (although not book-thrower Mohammed) even laughed at the funny stories two of them were telling about their childhoods. Despite the calm, though, they left just as determined as before to make their leaders do something to help them.

And that, concludes my Saturday morning.

A classroom in the new school.  SO not a step up!  This is not my classroom but mine is similar.


About maurdian

I am a nomadic ESL teacher who, not surprisingly, travels and teaches English, largely at the same time.
This entry was posted in Iraq Diary. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A Morning in the Life of an English Teacher in Iraq

  1. Eddie Halton says:

    Maureen, this is great writing. The drama unfolds – soberly and one is left to make up one’s own mind. Keep it up. Take care and thanks for letting us all share. Eddie

  2. smonsma says:

    I so admire you, it must be extremely hard to listen to the Cadets issues and not be able to intercede on their behalf.

    I am sure it was more than a little scary to see them enraged.

    Your blog is fascinating, keep up the great writing and take good care of yourself.


  3. japglish says:

    Love it, love it. “By the end of the fourth lesson, I’d got them to tell me stories of their family members and of the fun things they’d done together when they were younger” – and therein lies the genius of great teaching and the signs of the truly great teacher. And so like you. Keep ’em comin’

  4. René says:

    Fingers crossed for your students and families.

  5. Maria says:

    I was really impressed that you got the Cadets talking about their families — and even more impressed by how it calmed them. I knew you were going there for a reason; it seems to be showing itself now. Keep up the good work!

  6. Cheryl says:

    Love it, I am so enjoying your blog, the way it is written captures the detail and drama so well. I hope all works out for your students and their families. I am amazed at your understanding and compassion of their situation while still being able to maintain your distance. Take care, luv ya!

  7. Maureen Bouey says:

    Thanks for all your comments – I really appreciate them. They connect me to all of you and I feel part of a community of people I already know and trust.

    Just thought I’d let you all know that all the GSO cadets mentioned above have made it safely to Baghdad – in two groups. A couple of them sent me email messages letting me know so I wanted to pass that on. The noisier but just as likable pilot cadets are here now:-)

  8. This specific blog, “A Morning in the Life of an English Teacher in Iraq
    Babylon Unplugged” was in fact remarkable. I am creating out a
    replica to show my associates. Thank you,Mirta

  9. maurdian says:

    Thank you for your comment Mirta. I’m not sure what you mean by “creating a replica” – can you explain?

  10. James Christian Knopf says:

    Not sure how I stumbled across this blog, but that was an interesting post and a well written story. Thank you!

    • maurdian says:

      Blog-stumbling is all too easy to do, I find! Thank you for your “like” and comment; I’m really glad you enjoyed it. That was almost 2 years ago now, am back in Iraq, only this time in Kurdistan, hoping to see some of my ex students. I look forward to checking out your blog as well.

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