By Kimberly Nicole
The recess bell rings. It was never on time: the responsibility for ringing it was that of a grade six teacher who often passed that responsibility onto whichever of her students was wearing a watch. I step out of my classroom at the Castelmoron Combined School into the afternoon Caribbean sun.
CastelmoronCombined School is a village school, housing grades kindergarten through six. The village is in the south of St. Lucia, a Caribbean island once colonized by the British; thus, they say “grade six” and not “sixth grade” as we say in the United States. The school houses an estimated three hundred students (record keeping isn’t prioritized) in its brick buildings on a small concrete lot surrounded by a chain link fence. I was officially stationed there as an English literacy volunteer, but I suspected my only real job was to be a good political pawn by representing the United States well.
I am in the front building with the first graders when I step out for recess. My thick, waist-length hair is too hot to wear down, but its weight gives me a headache if I wear it up. Today, I chose to wear my hair in a headache. The only place with air conditioning in the whole village is in the school library, which is in the back building. Someone might stop me to chat on the walk to the library, but any conversations I might be obligated to have will be worth the fifteen minutes in air conditioning.
I turn left toward the brick building that houses bathrooms for both students and teachers. These bathrooms make a distinction between teacher stalls and students stalls, but not between gender—for either students or teachers. A few more steps and the Principal’s Office is on my right. My feet hustle past this building. I have already been in trouble a few times for wearing sleeveless—albeit professional—clothing, and I do not feel like sitting through the same lecture again. The male principal, like all good Christian men I’ve known, has misogynistic tendencies, and I believe his lectures to be more about control and less about the absence of sleeves. I hate wearing sleeves in the heat. The sweaty piece of fabric chafing my armpits and the ensuing rash only add to the list of things I don’t like about St. Lucia. My relationship with St. Lucia has been like most new romantic relationships. I’m excited and I really want to like her. She’s great on paper, and we have fun getting to know each other. But then, after a month, the conversation wanes and her quirks aren’t as cute and I’m not so sure anymore.
I am almost to the library without having to talk to anyone when I accidentally make eye contact with the groundskeeper, who waves me over. He has brought a watermelon from his garden to share. To refuse him would be rude. I walk over and join him, along with the school secretary, a few other teachers, and the young man who teaches in the computer lab, Rishi. A sweet slice of watermelon is handed to me. I follow the lead of the other teachers and bend a little at the waist to let the juice trickle from my face and hands onto the pavement instead of my clothes. We spit the seeds onto the pavement, where they land in the juice from whence they came. The teachers are talking about their weekend or the latest gossip in the village or Lucian politics or whatever. There’s a lull in the conversation when a new topic is suggested.
“Rishi, you should end Ms. Kimmy’s dry spell,” says the school secretary. I don’t know how to react. I’m taken aback, but when I think about this moment in the future, it won’t be so surprising. St. Lucia is one of the most hypersexual cultures I’ve experienced, despite it also being one of the most religious. I’ve been solicited by my landlord. A man once told me in public that he’d like to take me home and enjoy me. The secretary’s suggestion is tame. Rishi and I make eye contact. I laugh awkwardly. He says nothing. I toss the remainder of my watermelon into the garbage and continue my walk toward the library. Students run around the yard swapping snacks or kicking the one ball owned by the school. The bell to signal the end of recess rings as soon as I step into the library. I ignore it and lock the door behind me. I can’t make myself go back into the heat and back into a classroom where my co-teacher treats me like an assistant instead of a colleague and relegates me to the back of her class.
I flick on the air conditioner and move a chair to sit directly beneath it. A year ago, I would have taken this time to give myself a pep talk. “In education, in volunteer work, you are investing your time, effort, passion, spirit, hell…your sanity—” My thought is interrupted. Why do I sense another presence? The hair on my arms stands up, and not from the cold air.
I hesitate to turn my head, keeping my body rigid with fear. This fear feels familiar, like I’m being watched. I turn ever so slightly to my left, toward the window. Staring through the library window is the guy who lives down the street, who likes to look in my house windows. I mentioned this once to the police officer who lives next door. The officer advised me to keep my doors locked and my blinds drawn. Then he asked me on a church date, insinuating that the best way to stay safe was to get a man. He was right, but I still declined.
Rolling my eyes, I walk over to the window and close the blinds, glad that I locked the door. The air conditioner is blasting when I sit back down. Where was I? A past pep talk.
“In education, in volunteer work, you are investing your time, effort, passion, spirit, hell…your sanity. What were you expecting?! You knew this would be a challenge. The betterment of these kids’ academics is utterly intangible. You may not see the results of their social and emotional well-being. But trust they will be there! You probably won’t know them in twenty years but their lives will be better because of their education. Right? Don’t sell yourself short. You can do this. Guaranteed that something good will come from this experience. You got this.”
But after a year of being objectified and harassed, all the while rotting at the back of a classroom when I came here to teach kids to read, I had nothing left to say to myself. I didn’t believe my own words anymore. My work here didn’t matter. My beacon of purported American idealism had gone out.
Kimberly Nicole is based in Hong Kong where she has spent the past four years traveling Asia. She has been published in The WAiF Project and Wanderlust Journal.