Alumni & Voices

Abdur Rabb Watkins



I first embarked on my Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grant to see if the developmental psychologists Piaget, Vygotsky, and Erikson were right. I had consumed theory and verified some of it through praxis in Clemson, South Carolina. With culturally relevant curricula and practices a prerequisite for effective instruction and world populations globalizing at the speed of broadband, how does a teacher trained just south of Appalachia connect with a 9-year old, a 12-year old, a 16-year old growing up north of Makassar? Where do we meet?

My Fulbright experience in Indonesia supplied life experiences in place of lectures to answer these questions. One of my first lessons came when a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck six days after I arrived at my teaching site in West Sumatra. Classes at SMK 9, a vocational high school in Padang, had just finished. I had changed clothes, sent my counterpart, Pak Zul, a “see you next week” text message, stuffed a fistful of students’ restaurant recommendations into my pockets, and gone to ask our senior hospitality students for directions. It happened suddenly. I still remember the agility of one boy as he hopped the counter, how fast two girls rounded the front desk before bolting out the door. It is difficult to describe the sensation of feeling something that’s always been stable and still begin to ripple and fracture underfoot. Many of us gathered at the parade ground to wait out the aftershocks. Cellphone towers were down and smoke was rising. Two old men sat calmly like old friends on a bench. I settled a few meters away from them on the patchy grass, convinced that when they moved, it would be safe for me to head back to my room at the school.

Like a hero, Pak Zul gathered me the next night and we raced on his motorbike through the clotted traffic and rain to the airport. We talked on the ground outside the entrance about his flooded house and his kids, who were safe. I keep his kindness in mind. Nellie Paliama, the senior program officer for the American program at AMINEF, greeted me at Soekarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta with a big hug and immediately put me on the phone with my mother, who was both relieved and surprisingly comfortable with my decision to continue the grant. They had bonded in those silent hours awaiting word of my safety.

Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, became my new post. The students made it home for me. Our time together learning in the classroom, playing on the basketball court, climbing the nearby foothills, sitting in the pitch-black cafeteria during power outages asking and answering questions were a precious education. My neighbor’s little girl had a smile that could cure. The slow buffalo and timely rains reminded me to slow down. The frequent blackouts reminded me just how bright the stars and moon are if we turn off the lights. For all the strange looks and giggles I still receive throughout Indonesia, there remain demonstrations of commonality. Our irrevocable humanity is our connection. The degree to which we acknowledge, respect, and appreciate this truth is the quality of our life together. In my new 4th grade classroom at Mentari International School in Jakarta and in life at large, this is the crux of the teaching and learning.

Last Updated: May 15, 2019 @ 2:54 pm

This article appears from the book of Across the Archipelago, from Sea to Shining Sea Commemorating the 60/20 Anniversary of Fulbright and AMINEF (Page 68 – 70) published in 2012.

Translator: Sagita Adesywi and Piet Hendrardjo.

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