Moving usually means eating out a lot. One day last week I was sitting outside our favorite fast-food place, waiting for them to cook our order and wrap it in tinfoil, when I saw one of my students. Lamine is a serious young man; head of the English Cultural Club, president of his class, usually wearing a suit and tie. “I was just about to call you!” he greeted me. “I wanted to invite you to the final ceremony of the English Cultural Club.” He patted a bundle under his arm. “You will be receiving a reward.”
Reward or award? And I challenge you to explain the difference between the two to an 11-year-old (gulp—12 year old, that is—his birthday was last week and we didn’t celebrate at all!) without resorting to your dictionary, which is somewhere in one of those boxes. Everything I could come up with could be applied to both words—something you earn, a thank you, recognition, a response to your hard work, a monetary prize.
So Friday evening, I showered and changed and left my family still struggling with yet another load to moved. (How can one family have accumulated so much stuff? Especially since it’s only 3 years since the last big move/culling?) I caught a taxi to the University, worried since I was already 15 minutes late. I needn’t have been. There was no sign of anything starting when I arrived and was shown to the second row of chairs. I settled in next to Mr. B and chatted with the linguistics professor, on my other side.
Mrs. B called at 6. She’d been at the University since 8 a.m., giving oral exams non-stop all day. “You’re not late yet,” we assured her. Things didn’t get started till just before 7:00, when a local singer took the stage to slide her voice through the scales of Mauritanian music. She was a favorite with the crowd; her face beaming, swaying in her paisley-patterned muluffa, encouraging people to clap and dance. Her two young daughters sang with her; they looked to be about 9 and 11, but already had stage presence and were comfortable with mikes and long cords. The local media was there, and I was amused at how the cameraman got up on stage with her and put the camera literally right in her face, the light shining in her eyes. She was unperturbed—perhaps this is normal?—and just kept on singing.
Then came the long, interminable speeches. The event was held partly in honour of a visiting group of 16 Study Abroad students from Delaware State University, where the head of the English Department is Mauritanian. At one point, all the teachers had to join all the visiting students on the platform to be photographed. Even though I am technically not a teacher this year, I didn’t protest too much when the linguistics professor took my hand to accompany her onto the stage. I just went on up and hid in the back row, which meant that even though I was wearing my highest heels, I wouldn’t be visible. I knew if I stayed in my seat, they’d call my name over the sound system and then I’d have to be in the front row. Often not making a fuss about wanting to stay out of the limelight is the surest way to do so. Sure enough, 2 assistant teachers who didn’t go up immediately were politely requested to join the group. I smirked happily from my place in the back row, and declined any requests to move forward to where I could actually be seen by the cameras. I don’t like being photographed, and the whole evening was one of students coming up with cell phones and me having to smile graciously, knowing how washed-out and plump these quality cameras make me look. (Or maybe they just emphasize how I really look, which is what I suspect, which is why I hate being photographed)
After we all trooped back to our seats, it was time to give out the awards. An award was given to the English Department, and another to the US Embassy for their support. Then it was my turn. I was called up, and one of my students beamed at me and handed me my plaque. It’s a typical ornate Mauritanian frame, made of thick black wood with hammered silver and brass round it. The sheet of official paper inside doesn’t quite fit the frame. In big letters at the top it says: “Rewarding.” Then it says “The English Cultural Club: Politeness—Ability—Success” which is their new motto this year. Then: “The members of the English Cultural Club are delighted to offer this humble present to their faithful teacher (Mrs. PlanetNomad) for her help, expertise, and invaluable time she invested to contribute develop the level of English students.” It is signed by both Lamine, as head of the Club, and the Department head. I hadn’t prepared a speech of course, but I did take the mike and say, “I will never forget my time at the University of Nouakchott.” And this is true. In fact, I want to write a book about it all.
Afterwards, I was invited to a dinner with all the visiting students. It started at 9:30 but we didn’t really eat until about 11 or so, and it ended just before midnight. I had a fun time chatting with Mrs. B and the linguistics professor. We talked shop, about the university, about various students and professors, about some research the linguistics professor is doing on her native tongue Hassiniya, and how it’s beginning to disappear, swamped under a tide of satellite TV in Arabic and French, with contributions from Peace Corps volunteers teaching English in the village high schools.
When I got home, I was exhausted. Donn and the kids were asleep. But I’m still not entirely finished with thesis students; they need to show me they’ve made corrections and changes demanded by their juries so they call me at all hours. “Can I come right now? Where are you?” they say. Soon, soon.