Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ceremony is Stupid...Usually

I am not a fan of ceremony.

Let me just put that out there. I hate dressing up, I don't like having pictures taken, I spend the whole time critiquing the speakers and counting the number of times they say “um” and then feeling bad because that's not a very nice thing to do. I feel like ceremonies encourage people to say what sounds pretty, which may or may not be what is true.

Here in Afghanistan, ceremony is everywhere. Social status is very important, which is why our debate award ceremonies include “Certificates of Participation” that are presented individually to every debater, even those who didn't win anything. Everyone is vying for positions and activities that will get them noticed by important people, so the students put on elaborate ceremonies to congratulate themselves for winning debate tournaments.

We attended one of those ceremonies yesterday at Kabul Education University. The school chancellor was there, the dean, the head of the department. There was a big stage with banners and comfy chairs for important people (Josh was invited up there, but not me. In fact, when one of the speakers thanked me for training the students, he didn't even remember my name! I don't care, though. I would be uncomfortable sitting onstage with everyone watching me, and as long as I know that my work was quality, it doesn't matter if others know or not.) Each important person had his chance to give a speech, and then they spent fifteen minutes giving out certificates and gifts to the students who won the tournament.

Sometimes I wonder if all of this rigamarole is a good thing or not. It seems to take away from the intrinsic value of competing in a debate tournament, where the skills you gain and the friends you make and the fun you have are all overshadowed by someone's desire to stand onstage and shake hands with important people. Ceremonies like this seem to be expected, and when APT didn't jump to participate, it was almost like students were disappointed. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I think that the value of something comes not in the status you gain but in the skills you learn. I'd rather see someone put those skills to use than see them be awarded certificate after certificate.

Granted, the students are right to be proud; three of the top four teams at the tournament came from this school. The recognition is good for them, since all are about to graduate and enter the workforce, and it is good for the school and for debate in general. I know that there is a lot riding on these extracurriculars for our students, and that landing a good job might mean their family has food on the table the next day. I may mourn my declining bank account, but I know that my safety net can catch me if I fall. Most of my students have no safety net, so accomplishments and ceremonies like this matter.

Nargis and her partner took first place in the tournament, and she also was the first place speaker. I'm so proud of her!

There are times, too, when I see the value of these ceremonies. Yesterday, the head of the English department stood up and spoke about the importance of debate, the necessity. He was in the United States in 2008 and saw the presidential debates on TV. He watched them discuss issues, watched them disagree but do so respectfully, watched them dive into important policies and concerns and attempt to talk them out, and he thought, 'I'd like to see that culture come to my country.' Now, it has.

I had a little smile on my face as he spoke, because that is why we are here. To teach that respect, that critical thinking, that ability to listen to your opponent and disagree. I'd rather do all of that without sitting through ceremonies or taking pictures, but if that's what it takes, I'll rub shoulders with the best of them. I'm still going to count their 'ums' though. A girl needs her simple pleasures.

1 comment:

  1. Rachel, it's refreshing to hear about this experience from a woman's perspective. I look forward to your next post. - Elizabeth (Josh's friend :o))