The Affair of the Notebooks

Have you ever had a minor problem just snowball out of control? I have. During my first week of school it happened in an epic way…

I have 18 students on my roster this year. A big leap up from only 9 last year, but still manageable. The first week is always the toughest, and on day 3, there was a bit of a mix-up that turned into a full-scale problem.

The school I work for sells notebook packages for each student. I decided how many notebooks students would need over the course of a school year and ordered exactly that many for my students. Parents then pay for the notebooks to be delivered to the students in class, or pick them up when at school. All fine and dandy. Students all have the same kinds of notebooks and there is no envy. (Of course there are always parents that insist on purchasing cheaper notebooks elsewhere, but it’s not a major issue.) This year, I’ve ordered exactly 222 LE (about $31) worth of notebooks for each student.

Over the course of the week I’ve met several parents who are concerned about not having purchased notebooks yet, and I assure them that this is normal, and the real work of notebooks won’t begin until the next week. No big deal.

Midday on Tuesday my students are all gathered in the hallway trying to get themselves ready for Arabic class. As I’m herding cats, er… children, into line one of my students, Sh, looks up at me and asks, “Miss where are my notebooks?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have your notebooks. They must be in your locker.” I replied as I pried two children apart before a fight over first in line started.

“No miss, my mother gave them to you.” Sh insists.

Glancing into the classroom at the designated Bags-of-Notebooks-to-be-Distributed Table I see that it is empty. “Sh, I do not have your notebooks. Did you take them home yesterday?”

“No miss, they were in the classroom. My mother gave them to you herself.” Great. I have no memory of any parent handing me notebooks. I have met so many different parents this week, most for less than twenty seconds at a time. I couldn’t pick Sh’s mother out of a line up if my life depended on it.

Because I was frazzled and not thinking clearly, I decided that I needed to solve this problem right away, instead of calmly letting it go until a more appropriate time. I looked up to see Tomas, the head of the cleaning department, walking by. I called him and another teacher, M who can translate, over to me to see if we can solve the mystery of the disappearing ntoebooks.

“Tomas, there were two cleaning ladies in my room a few minutes ago, can you ask them if they saw or moved some notebooks for me.” As M translates, I corrall the rest of the students in line and tell Sh that she’ll just have to do without the notebooks until they can be located.

Then, it occurs to me that I have accidentally accused the cleaning women of theft. So not my intention. I love the cleaning staff, and I like to think the feeling is mutual. I know that they would never steal anything from me, I just wanted to know if they remembered seeing the notebooks.

As I steer my students down the hallway toward Arabic class M has to run to class and Tomas has disappeared. Along the way, I encounter Waleh, the cleaning woman, and ask her directly if she saw the bag. She understands less English than Tomas, so I ask a student, Ja, to help translate. Big no-no. But I’m frazzled and not thinking right.

Then Tomas shows up and there are three adults speaking in two languages trying to get Ja to translate all at the same time. Poor girl is only ten and not used to situations like this. Eventually I let her go to class (five minutes late, of course) and do my best in broken Arabic to explain that in no uncertain terms do I believe that Waleh or Sabra stole the notebooks.

I head back to my classroom and do a thorough search of the room and find absolutely no notebooks anywhere. Fabulous. So I go to the front desk to make sure that the books aren’t there, and that books were in fact purchased for Sh. No notebooks, but there is a record of the purchase, so someone has definitely misplaced these notebooks.

Upon their return from Arabic class Sh insists that I met her mother and was given notebooks. I insist the opposite. Stalemate. But I’m the teacher, and have the authority, so I tell her not to worry about it for the rest of the day. We’ll sort it out later.

Ja, in a flash of brilliance suggests that another student may have taken the bag home by mistake. Yes! That’s entirely possible! Be hadn’t come to school for two days due to a fever, and only stayed for a few hours that morning. It’s feasible that he grabbed the unlabeled bag of notebooks thinking they were his. They were near his desk, after all.

I email Be’s mother. She is at work and has no idea what’s going on, but promises that she’ll ask him when she gets home.

The rest of the day passes without much incident, until I get an email from Sh’s mother. She too insists that she met me and gave me notebooks. I search my memory and swear that the mother I met the previous day mentioned notebooks, but didn’t hand anything to me. By now I realize that the situation is getting out of hand, so I cc my boss on the email and then go explain the situation to her.

El is understanding, especially when I say that I am more than happy to replace any notebooks that were lost. I still am ready to swear on a stack of Bibles (despite not being religious at all) that I did not receive and notebooks. One thing is clear: the notebooks are not in my classroom, and they’re not at Sh’s home either.

Once home, I’m ready to put the matter behind me. Except I keep getting emails from Sh’s mother:

Hello.Iam R  Sh mother, sh just told me that you lost sh notebooks the big plastic bag i gave you yesterday. Please let me know if this true, and what you will do about that situation.
Kind Regards
R

 

Ms. chris i met you in the holeway neer the loukers and you took the bag from me and entered a class and said oky i will leave them here for tomorrow, and that was after the class dismessed.
I am sorry if you forgot , and you can check with the lady i bought from her the note books yesterday , as she marked beside my kids name that i paid her.
Please solve this problem for sh cuz she is sad you don’t belive her thats 1 and she don’t has her notebooks like every one else thats 2.
Thanks.
R

Wonderful. I assure R that I will pay for the notebooks and we can resolve it in the morning.

Wednesday morning comes, and I’m running around making copies, prepping for class, and greeting students. Then Sh and her mother show up. Immediately I see my mistake. The whole time I was insisting that the mother never gave me any notebooks, I was remembering an entirely different conversation with someone else’s mother. I am so in the wrong here, it’s not even funny. But the notebooks are still missing.

Be shows up as I am trying to explain my mental mix-up to R. I interrupt myself to ask him if he took home a bag of notebooks yesterday. “No miss. [Gulp] …But my mother gave me this, she said we don’t need them.”

IT’S THE MISSING NOTEBOOKS! Ja was right, Be had them the whole time. Immediately I hand them to R and apologize profusely for the mix-up. “Please write her name on all of the notebooks so that this doesn’t happen again.”

“Okay, fine.” she says, seeming distracted. “Do all students need this bags?”

Huh? I look and she’s pointing at another student and is transfixed by the folder/bag that many children use to keep loose papers and even entire notebooks. They’re good for keeping all supplies a student needs for each subject. “Oh. Yes, but the ones Sh has are fine.”

“I will buy her these ones.” Good for you lady. Just go away, please!

So mystery solved, everything is all fine and dandy, yes?

Nooooooo.

Thursday midmorning another teacher, D, comes to me. Waleh has asked her to ask me to tell Tomas that the notebooks were found. Seems he’s still intent on finding them or finding whoever stole them. Great. No matter what I said, I still ended up accusing someone of theft. Not my intention, but it’s now out there and I can’t undo it.

I didn’t track him down until Saturday, but eventually I let him know that the notebooks were found and the whole debacle was all my fault. The whole affair has finally blown over…

 

…Hopefully.

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Categories: Egypt, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “The Affair of the Notebooks

  1. ah, yes the old cultural miscommunication….eeeeeeeeeeekkkkkkk…this was a hilarious story!!

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