The Chalkboard That Is East Timor

Author: Dave Devine

The lesson is over for the day.

My students, 50 East Timorese children who have traveled to this decimated school for two weeks of English classes, are long gone. They have walked back to the church for noon prayer. Back to the mercado to barter over insufficient rice. Back to the cool acacia groves to harvest coffee beans. In the last few days I had joined them after the lesson for spirited games of futebol in the pitted courtyard outside our classroom. They are legends with the fuetbol. They spin effortlessly away from my attempts to trap them. They toy with me. They laugh at the silly malai who cannot steal the ball that is somehow attached to their dirt-hardened feet. They laugh and spin and control the ball, all at the same time. They are legends. Today, I lack the energy and they, unfortunately, lack the ball. Someone stole it yesterday.

Balanced on my makeshift “teacher’s chair” (a drawer I managed to salvage from a shattered cabinet), I sit alone in the dim classroom. The solitude is a choice; the darkness is a legacy of the pro-Indonesian militias that swept through eight months ago, militias that attacked with genocidal violence after the East Timor vote for independence from Indonesia. Evidence of their handiwork is all around me. Descending from the scorched beams along the ceiling, blistered light bulbs dangle uselessly on their wires. Not a pane of glass remains in the windows. Splintered wood clinging to the hinges is the only indication of a former door. The rest of the furniture, a motley collection of charred desks, uneven chairs and additional drawers used as seats, is scattered and spread out in the loose pattern of the recently abandoned classroom. Rogue chalk dust dances in the shafts of light streaming through the chinks in the roof.

I should wash the chalkboard. It is nearly unreadable. The students cannot possibly read my phrases, cobbled together from inadequate English and misspelled Tetum. It is a disaster. I should erase it all. I cannot bring myself to do it.

The chalkboard, a chipped, wobbly frame slung at a precarious angle from the only two available nails, is a damn accurate picture of my mental state at the moment. Lacking anything resembling an eraser, I have, for a week now, used a combination of crumpled notebook paper and the yellowing heel of my own hand to wipe the chalk clear for the next lesson. This “technique,” if it may be called that, has left an unintentional record of my entire first week in East Timor. With its layers of text and its crossed-out, scribbled-over surface, the chalkboard is as accurate a metaphor for my thoughts at the moment as anything I could intentionally conjure. Everything is up for revision. Initial impressions have been challenged but not entirely wiped clean. A smeary collection of words and phrases overlaps in my head. Words I know and words I only half-remember and images I wish I could forget. I look at the chalkboard and consider taking it home. I will frame it and hang it in my apartment. I will tell everyone that this is East Timor. I will not erase a thing.

My brief reverie is ended by a pair of United Nations helicopters tracking low across the hills outside the school. This is not unexpected. On certain days they thunder past every 20 minutes. They interrupt the lessons, drown out my words until the students are left reading my lips, placing words in my moving mouth that make sense to them. I am speaking perfect Tetum when the helicopters rumble past. I am smiling and smearing the chalkboard. Through the pane-less window I follow the helicopters along the ridge line until they slip into the next valley. The rotor wash is deafening. It excludes all other sound. Thus, I do not hear the thin man entering my classroom.

Hesitant and timid, he steps through the door dressed in the anachronistic, hodgepodge clothing of the relief agency handouts. Perhaps 40 years old, he wears dark, thick-lensed glasses, a New Kids on the Block T-shirt, shapeless jeans and a pair of foam Surf City thongs. His hands, which are caked with dirt and grease, hold a severed piece of plumbing that drips its contents onto the classroom floor. I take him for a maintenance man, a laborer.

Shifting the plumbing to one hand, he extends the other towards me.

Bondia,” I begin, assuming the native Tetum.

“Hello,” he replies in stilted English, “my name is Victor Soares.”

After several minutes of fumbled conversation, it becomes apparent that Victor Soares is indeed the school maintenance man. And the plumber. And for five very long months, from the dark days of “Black September” 1999 until January 2000, he was the school’s sole teacher and headmaster. No one else returned to teach the 200 students who crept back from the mountains after the militias swept through. Victor Soares returned. He taught all 200 students in shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.. Every subject.

“The children,” he tells me, “must continue to learn.”

He had been a language instructor under the Indonesian rule, teaching Portuguese, Indonesian and English. When the militias rose up after East Timor voted for independence, they broke into his home, dragged his furniture into the yard and set it on fire. They used his English texts for kindling. Only because he is related to the local pastor was his gutted house spared the petrol and the match. Left with nothing, he returned to an equally gutted school to begin the business of educating the children who were squatting in the shattered classrooms. It is now July 2000 and the summer has brought a blessed respite from the 12-hour teaching days. There are just these English classes, which several Australian college students and I are teaching. Victor now has time to work on the plumbing.

School begins again in October. Victor Soares will be there, along with six other newly recruited teachers. They expect hundreds of students. They have a handful of textbooks salvaged from the fires. They have insufficient desks, one box of chalk and classrooms with no windows. Victor Soares has not been paid since black September. With humility he reminds me that he is the plumber, the maintenance man, the headmaster, the teacher. Soon after this, our conversation is finished. He slips out the door in the same way he entered, quiet and unassuming.

A puddle of brackish water marks the place where he was standing with the pipe. All of the air has been sucked from the classroom, and there are helicopters in my head. Chalk dust spins in the light beams. The chalkboard is a metaphor. I cannot take it home. It has layers that are not mine.

This is not my classroom either. It is his. In the distance I can hear the children laughing in the acacia groves.

The lesson is over for the day.

Dave Devine is the director of volunteer services at King’s College in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

East Timor facts and map