Making the Grade in Mongolia

Written by  Cheryl Dunkerton August 11, 2009

Volunteer teacher Cheryl Dunkerton finds that Mongolian students juggle more than just exams in order to make it through school.

Bundled in coats, my university English students huddle like little pigeons on wooden benches.  But wait – do I have a new student today? At the back of the class, wedged between her brother and an ancient clanking radiator, I spy a little girl, peeping shyly at me from under her woolly hat.  Ganbold sees me notice his sister.

“Today, my mother is ill.  My sister, Tseren, I take care of her.  She is very quiet."

“Sain bainuu,” I greet the little girl, who shrinks away from me as I approach.  She knows she shouldn’t be here, it seems.  I suppress a smile and turn, quickly distributing the test papers.  I place one on the table in front of the little girl and fetch a box of crayons.

Throughout the fifty-minute exam, Tseren doesn’t make a sound.  Ganbold, intent, huddles her on his lap, one hand scrawling answers, the other resting gently on her head.  She peeps at me now and then.  I smile from the teacher’s bench, and am rewarded with a slow smile.  She crayons solemnly, sucking a piece of hair.  It’s as if she knows how much is at stake for her brother.

At the end, I busy myself cleaning the backboard.  The classroom falls silent and I turn.

I look at the top of the paper pile.  There lies a crayoned drawing with my name written in shaky English letters.

For poor families like Ganbold’s, the cost of healthcare has become a heavy burden since the collapse of the Soviet regime.  Healthcare in Mongolia is still readily available to those who have medical insurance, but vulnerable groups such as single parent families and rural migrants struggling to find jobs simply can’t afford it.  When a parent is sick—as in Ganbold’s case—the burden of responsibility often falls to the eldest children.

In addition, the heavily subsidised Soviet education system that had boosted the national literacy rate to 98 percent—comparable to that of Canada—is gone.  To send a child to school, families now have to bear the costs of tuition, boarding and books, in a country where one in three people lives below the poverty line.

Term 2: Turning away

Only six students turn up today—less than half the class.  But this is the first time Ganbold has missed a day of school.

It is always easy to spot when one of my male students is absent.  After all, I only have four of them, out of about one hundred students.  At the tertiary level, three quarters of all students are women.  For the sons of herder families—which account for 40 percent of the population—education is secondary to tending the herds that represent the family livelihood.

As my students turn to work together, a soft tapping distracts us from our task.  I see Ganbold’s sheepish face at the window.

“Carry on,” I say, and step outside the room into the cavernous corridor.

“Hello teacher,” says my favourite student softly.  His hand is shaking, as is his voice.  My heart clenches.  “Can I come in?”

I swallow.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you in today.”

His kind heart has led him here.  He hasn’t been able to pay his semester fees and is to be excluded from classes until further notice.  I know he lent the money to a friend, who promptly disappeared to the countryside.  He turns and walks slowly to the street, away from his dream of becoming an English teacher.

Term 3: A schooling in tradition

A professor, on sabbatical from Exeter University in the UK, visits our department on a European Community funded project.  My students gather at his request and shyly yet proudly answer his questions about their education, their lives, themselves.

By this time, Ganbold has managed to scrape up enough money to pay his fees and is back at school.  As I walk the professor out of the department, Ganbold stops us and beckons us into an abandoned classroom.  Empty because of the leaking roof, snow-puddled floor and howling gale through the panes.

For the sons of herder families, education is secondary to tending the herds that represent the family livelihood.

He produces a plastic bottle filled with airag, fermented mare’s milk.  The professor holds his cup gingerly while Ganbold fills it to the brim.  Ganbold’s face broadens into a huge grin as he watches.  Despite his daily struggles, he has honoured the nomadic tradition of welcoming and feeding every guest.

I wasn’t around long enough to see if Ganbold finished his studies, but I do know that someday a group of lucky schoolchildren will have a dedicated and passionate English teacher standing in front of them.  In a country where the wide-open spaces make it easy to feel alone, I saw that the strength and resilience of its people is where the true beauty lies.

Cheryl Dunkerton has been teaching EFL for nine years.  She worked as a VSO volunteer at the State University of Education, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for one year.

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