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A girl's school where the students and teachers go barefoot.
The Barefoot School

Note: this is my diary from my first year teaching English in Dakinaya from 2000 to 2001. I had just graduated from UCLA and my job search wasn’t going well. My roommate Courtney suggested I apply at International English, a firm that finds teaching finds teaching positions in Asia. She had already gotten a teaching job in Japan. I went and applied , but because I had waited so late, the only position they had available was in Dakinaya, a country I had never heard of before.

Sunday, September 1, 2000

I am currently in Navapur, the capital of Dakinaya. Tomorrow I’m going to start teaching English at a Secondary school for girls.

I am staying with the Tomasayans. The family comprises Natalie, who is also a teacher at the school; her father M.Y. (Matay Yosip or Matthew Joseph) who is about fifty and a  Mathematics professor at the University; and Deena, M.Y.’ s wife, an attorney who in her forties. They all speak English and they all seem like nice people. They also have a maid called Mary, who appears to be about 40. She doesn’t speak English but she’s a very good cook. Like today she made a fish dish which was kind of spicy but I’m used to it.
I was kind of disappointed because we were sitting at a table and eating with forks.

The  Tomasayans live in a house that is two stories tall. Downstairs is what they call the “parlor”, the dining room, kitchen, as well as a bathroom, and a small room for the washing machine. Upstairs they have three bedrooms and another bathroom. I’m going to have a room to myself which is a relief.

Dakinaya has a tropical climate. I really don’t know much about the country. But I hope I like it here.

Monday, September 4

Today was my first day at work. We didn’t actually have any classes, mostly it was getting ready and meeting everybody. The students won’t start school until tomorrow.
The name of the school is the George Elitot Secondary school.

In Dakinaya High School starts at the age of 12 and lasts for six grades, which they call levels. These are numbered in ascending order, which means that the youngest level is the sixth while the highest level is the first. I’m going to be teaching the first level, the 17 year olds. The reason for this is because I don’t know the Dakinayan language. I can’t make out the alphabet which to be honest looks like a bunch of squiggles. I did buy an English Dakinayan dictionary and Natalie has been helping me out. Like she helped me transliterate the names of the students. The good thing is that the classes are going to be small.

Another difference from back home is that the teachers are addressed as “Master” or “Mistress.” It’s a British custom. Dakinaya was a British colony until 1947.

The school is run by Headmaster Danilayan and Assistant Headmistress Abramayan.
I’ve gotten to know the other teachers in the English Language Department. The “Chairman” is Hanna Lukasayan, a woman in her fifties, who is going to teach the second level (16 year olds). I also met Filipa Grigorayan who will teach the third level (15 year olds) and Pamela Rafeelayan who will teach the fourth level (14 year olds.)
Natalie will teach the fifth level (13 years). The sixth level (12 year olds) will be taught by Liz Shimunayan, who is about 24. She’s very nice and friendly, with a small round face and big dark eyes. She wore a yellow blouse, a sarong skirt with a beautiful green and blue design and chapalees.  These are the kind of sandals where the sole is attached to the foot by nothing more than a strap across the ankle and a loop for the big toe.

Everybody seemed nice and helpful. But even so, as I was getting ready toward the end of the day, I began to feel uneasy.

Tuesday, September 5

Today was the first day of class and it was weird!

I woke up this morning and started to get ready. Natalie advised me to “Wear something
discreet, with sleeves. And skirts should be below the knee.”

So I put on a white blouse, a black skirt with a pink floral pattern, and a new pair of
Birkenthongs. To be honest I was trying to look like Ms. Schwartz, who was one of my
favorite teachers in High School. I took English Lit. and Creative Writing with her.

Natalie, for her part, put on a long green dress with a yellow floral pattern on it and
a pair of chapalees, which I guess are considered a step up from mere flip-flops. We walked  to scholl because it’s only a few blocks from the Tomasayan house. Natalie carried an umbrella because as she put it “You can’t trust the weather.” Even though it
was only eight in the morning it felt as hot as an August afternoon. But so far I liked
Navapur. The tall palm trees reminded me of Costa Mesa.

When we arrived at the school, Hanna Lukasayan talked to me again. She said that the girls in my classes, the 17 year olds, already know English grammar. I still felt nervous

George Eliot Secondary School, which is so named because it is located on George Eliot Street, is a quadrangular, two storey building. It is much smaller than the High School I attended. In the central courtyard a palm tree was growing. I noticed two girls walking by. They were dressed in the regulation uniform, white blouses and blue skirts, but they were barefoot. I assumed they had taken off their shoes for some reason.

The first bell rang at 8:25 and the first class came in. They were dressed in the uniform—
but they were barefoot. That seemed weird. I was already bewildered, having to introduce myself and check the attendance and assign textbooks.

I was glad when that class period was over. But then the second groud came in and they were also barefooted. I looked out into the hallways and saw that all of the girls were unshod.

But even worse was the way they kept looking at me, like they’d never seen a blonde
person before in their lives. I almost felt like saying “Is this supposed to be a joke?
All right, you got me! Ha ha!”

When lunch time came I walked to the teacher’s lunchroom. I sat down with the other
English teachers and asked, politely, why none of the students were wearing shoes. Hanna Lukasayan said that it started with the economic crisis of  1998. Many parents said they could not afford to buy shoes so Headmaster Danilayan allowed the girls to come to school barefoot. In the two years that followed, all the girls stopped wearing shoes.

Hanna Lukasayan didn’t seem pleased with the situation. But Liz Shimunayan, who’s been teaching at the school for a couple of years, is all for it. She says that in this country children are allowed to attend primary school barefoot, so why not secondary also? She also says that she herself conducts her classes barefoot.

Things didn’t improve during the afternoon classes. I was so happy when the last class period was over at 2:30. I had one free hour at the end of the day, so I slumped in my chair and kept trying to deal with the “culture shock.”

When Natalie and I were ready to go we stepped outside and found that the sky was completely covered with gray clouds. It seemed odd given that the skies had been clear just a few hours before. We didn’t walk more than two blocks before a heavy rain began to fall.

“Right on schedule,” Natalie said as she deployed her umbrella. The rain was so heavy that we removed our sandals and walked the rest of the way barefoot. Well, I guess it makes sense in that regard!

So then I started to think. Personally, I like going barefoot. Mostly indoors though I’ve done it outdoors on occasion. In fact, I’m really not much into shoes. I spent most of the time at UCLA with  a single pair of Birkenstocks. Though I did buy a pair of dress shoes with two inch heels. For job interviews and that sort of thing.

Come to think of it, I would’ve liked to have gone to school in my bare feet. Though I would’ve still worn shoes from November to March, when the weather in Costa Mesa gets cold and rainy.

Wednesday, September 6

I just realized that a miscommunication occurred between the Dakinayan government and International English. The company trained us to teach conversational English but the Dakinayans wanted somebody to teach English literature. Like the assigned textbook
starts with Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale.” Fortunately, it’s a version in modern
English. Next week we’re supposed to get started on Macbeth. Fortunately, I am
somewhat knowledgeable on the subject.

Another problem is the heat. The only air-conditioning in my room is this little rinky dinky Mitsubishi unit sticking in one of the windows. It doesn’t work very well. Anyway, I’ve taken a cue from Liz Shimunayan and during class time I take off my sandals and work barefoot. The linoleum floor always feels cool.

I’ve noticed about the girls is that even though they come to school barefoot, many of them still decorate their feet with toe rings and ankle bracelets. They walk with a peculiar lilt in their step. Is it because they go barefoot? I’ve also noticed that their soles have a leathery look; tough but still pliant.

Thursday, September 7

I decided to see if it was true that children in this country are allowed to go to school barefoot. There’s a primary school just across the street. I decided to take a look during my free time. And it was true! The little girls, and it is a school for girls, were all dressed in blue midi dresses and they were all barefoot. They looked so cute! And their mothers, coming by to take them home, were often barefoot themselves.
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