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Letters from the Desert (1) My Maid Ate My Homework

Dear Barry:

As you know I have moved to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where I teach English to Saudi teenage boys.

I arrived in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah well past midnight after 18 hours of travel and stepped into a climate so hot and damp I felt as if a giant wet glove had settled on me. I was met by a man holding a sign on which my name was misspelled - not a good omen, I thought, for the school - and driven in a small bus to a small compound which I have since come to know as home. A scant few hours later the same bus driven by the same man picked up my two roommates and me and drove us to the school.

This is a very strange school. The students are the sons of wealthy Saudis or of wealthy Arabic families living in Jeddah. I have discovered that there is a girls' school, but in the Kingdom - which is what everyone calls Saudi Arabia - men and women do not mix. In the several weeks I have been here I have seen not a single female student. Although, honestly, I wouldn't be able to tell if I did. In public women are blanketed head to foot in an all consuming black shroud called the abbaya. Aside from the most general impression of size, and a remarkably varied choice of footwear, they all seem alike.

My students all dress alike, too. They wear the thobe. Picture a dress shirt with a collar and full length sleeves. Then imagine that instead of shirt tails, the pure white fabric continues to the floor. Sort of a dress shirt dress. That's the thobe.

The distinctive dress is not the only difference between Saudi students and students in the West. In fact my students face difficulties I never dreamt of in my high school days. Many of these, I believe, result from the curse of their wealth.

Consider the average school day. First my students must get up early. School starts at 7 am and sleeping in is not allowed. Their servants - yes, servants -- are under strict orders not to allow it. Once up, the students wash themselves. I am led to believe they even dress themselves, although certainly the maids provides the day's freshly laundered, crisply ironed thobes. Breakfast is prepared by cooks but eaten without help. The teenager's insatiable appetite is, I have learned, a world-wide constant.

Between the table and the driveway the only stop made is to grab the Reebok or Nike or DKNY backpack, stuffed with textbooks and pens, and packed almost certainly by some member of the staff. In the driveway they climb into their cars. Not their fathers' but theirs. Each car, be it a Lexus or a Camry, a Cadillac or a Mercedes, comes with a driver. Drivers are on call 24 hours a day and live at the whims of their young masters.

On school mornings this means getting to school on time. Many a student has voiced with great indignation the injustice of being lectured for tardiness when clearly the fault was the snail's pace of his driver. It seems that nothing is ever a student's fault. Did they oversleep? No, the servants did. Was a clean thobe ready? The maid was slow in fetching it. Was the traffic heavy? The driver was incompetent.

I tell my students that these excuses are worthless, that they - the students - are responsible for being on time. I am looked on with astonished incomprehension, victims of the huge gap between Eastern and Western cultures. Perhaps I am being harsh. Perhaps their life of excessive indulgence has also created a sort of "excuse gap". I am beginning to think so, especially when it regards missing homework.

It doesn't help that most Saudi students are allergic to homework. Their aversion is so deep and so commonplace that many students simply look at me and say they didn't feel like doing it - so they didn't do it. They are the ones incapable of original thought. The ones who can think, at least enough to form an excuse or two, are handicapped by the gap. They can't, for example, blame anything on the family pet.

Dogs are rare in the Kingdom, even rarer as pets. My disadvantaged students, then, simply can't offer that classic Western student's defense - "My dog ate my homework." They can blame it on the help. Dogs may be rare, but the mostly Filipino servants are everywhere, and some of my students accord their help less worth than we in the West give our family pets.

I have yet to hear a student say, "My maid ate my homework." But last week one of my fellow teachers did have a student explain his missing homework by saying, with absolute sincerity and unswerving belief in his own innocence, "My maid forgot to pack it."

The bell for class is ringing. Just one more thought. My contract states that part of my job is, and I quote, "Perfecting students morally and educationally." I'm thinking it's going to be a struggle.

From the Kingdom,

The Major


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