So, finally, after 3 weeks of waiting, the GSO cadets left the base.
Before that happened, there was a lot more stress, partly caused by numerous assurances from the Iraqi leadership about ‘tomorrow’ (all the while the cadets knowing full well that these were just the standard fare face-saving lies) and with no way to send their families money or allow them to contact their families to let them know they were alive, their morale really sank low. It was challenging to try to get their attention in the classroom because it was difficult for them to focus but they did try, and we made some progress. To be honest, I played it by ear every day and if spirits were particularly low, I pulled out my computer and let them watch a movie or I showed them photos of Canada or places I’d traveled to. Often, we just talked and I let them guide the topic of conversation; unlike the Emirati students I’d become accustomed to, they have a keen curiosity about the world outside. I brought them newspapers (they’re voracious readers) and articles off the Internet and they devoured all of that. The College Advisors (the military) had a few dozen paperback novels that had been discarded and I asked if the cadets could have some of them. When I got permission, I took a couple of them over to the Charlie trailer where the books were and they selected a couple of cartons to take back to the barracks for the group.
One problem is that they have nothing to do when they’re not in the classroom. Other than marching, no provision is made for them to have any sort of recreation at all. No cell phones, mp3s or electronics of any kind are allowed. They have no books, no games room, no TV and the computer lab is available to them only one hour per day and only 20 cadets at a time can attend. There is strong competition for this one opportunity. They have no gym or sports facilities of any sort; when it was cooler, they played soccer but it’s too hot outside now. They have nothing, in other words, to pass the time or distract them from their problems and boredom. The US College Advisors are trying to persuade the Iraqi leadership to provide the cadets with a bit of an MWR so that they have something to do but this is slow going the Iraqi leadership are all pretty old school.
One day I saw a couple of my GSO cadets coming out of their DFac and they told me that General Ali had just ‘promised’ them they would be leaving the next day. I felt doubtful that it would actually happen as the latest news on the decrepit C130 had been that the engine had been contaminated with tiny metal shavings in the fuel line and that was a large, expensive problem to solve. I was afraid this would just devastate them further when it fell through (am I becoming cynical?)
Me: Wow, that would be great! Has the plane been fixed then?
Ali: We don’t know Miss but he said tomorrow. (Long pause) It must be.
And, somehow, it was.
The next day, half of the GSO cadets left on the plane and half the pilot cadets arrived. Wow. They actually got it together to fix the plane quickly this time. Impressive.
Then the plane broke again.
Major Shea is still trying to unravel how the rest of the GSO cadets left here for Baghdad and how the balance of the pilot cadets arrived at the base without a plane. The Iraqi Air Force Commander has previously ordered that none of the cadets are allowed to travel by road as it is far too dangerous but, somehow, both groups did. And it is very dangerous for them, even in their civies.
Monday May 16:
We started teaching the pilot cadets and I was lucky enough to get this Bravo class too. They’re a remarkable group of young men; they’re extremely bright, highly motivated and their English is excellent. And, it should be noted, the fact that their English is excellent is not – except in one or two exceptions – a result of expensive schools or privileged, travelled backgrounds. All Iraqi students learn English in school and have the same opportunities; when I inquire a little, I find that the ones who have some mastery of English are the ones who have, to the degree they are able, immersed themselves in English-speaking media and disciplined themselves to study on their own and learn from the Internet. They’re also very well-mannered, kind and appreciative.
To illustrate the latter, Husam from my previous Delta class, came over to give me some post cards he’d bought me; he explained he’d gone around to different shops to find just the right ones, “one from here and one from here – I wanted to buy you something because you are my best teacher. When you teach me a word, I know the word; when you teach me some grammar, I know the grammar; when you teach me some sentence, I know the sentence. I understand your teaching. Why now you are teaching Bravo class?” (I explain that the site lead likes us to rotate). “Please, Miss, I will talk to the general so you can teach Delta class again. We need you.” I think the problem was that their ‘new’ teacher is a cynical relic from Saudi Arabia who thinks he knows everything, never listens and doesn’t like the students.
The post cards are truly lovely, quite old-fashioned, and I was very touched at the trouble he’d gone to and the care he’d taken. We went over them in detail on the break and he explained each one to me. I should have taken notes actually.
Wednesday May 25
There is to be a book quiz tomorrow and we spent the morning reviewing. The truth is, Bravo class doesn’t really need a lot of help because they’re well beyond this book. After they’d diligently done loads of review exercises and asked a few questions, they requested a game. We played “Stop the Car” (a version of Categories) and it got a bit wild as they got more and more competitive, but it was fun. At the end, I told them this might be the last day I’d see them (I’m getting ready for my holiday, thought I might leave tonight and won’t be returning to this base) and I promised to email them the photos we’d taken over the previous couple of days. They were hoping for a CD instead but I told them I was sorry but didn’t have time. As things developed, I will still be here a few more days and will be able to make them some CDs after all, which I’m very happy about. They were incredibly sweet about saying good bye and we all promised to keep in touch by email. Then, five minutes before the end of class, one of them, Ahmed, looked at his friend Zamdar and said “will you sing for Miss Maureen?”. Without hesitation, Zamdar nodded. Ahmed hushed the group and they sang me a song. Zamdar was the soloist; he sang in the Arabic style, complete with hand motions and there were bits where the others played a role and did some sort of response; it was clearly a traditional song that they all knew. Afterwards, Ahmed told me what the lyrics meant. It’s a ballad about love and about how love begins with a bud and then, with rain and sun and tender care, it will grow and grow. And he said ‘this is how we feel about you Miss.’
It was one of the loveliest, most authentic, moments I’ve ever had with a group of students. I so wish I could share some of their photos here so you could see them but I can’t put them at risk; it’ll have to wait until you see me in person.