Monday, September 20, 2010

Raising the flag

So every Monday morning all across Indonesia, students and teachers gather at 6:30 a.m. for a flag-raising ceremony. And I don't mean just a select few, those who'd like to salute the flag, maybe get a little patriotic before tackling the week's work. I mean the entire student and teacher population of Indonesia gathers at the same appointed time, in soccer fields and parade grounds or wherever they've erected a suitably serious flagpole, for the singing of their national anthem and the hoisting of their two-tone, red-and-white banner.

Here in Magelang, there's an honor guard, a school choir to lead the anthem, and a master of ceremonies who barks over a loudspeaker as though leading basic-training drills. The student honor guard--all boys--does a lot of goose-stepping and exaggerated arm-swinging and they appear to take their jobs very seriously. I was standing close enough today to hear them smartly snap the flag as they readied it for raising, and I was close enough to see them cut muddy divots out of the soccer field as they pivoted and stamped their way on and off the scene.

This morning also marked the return of students to classes after a two-week break for the Idil Fitri holiday. Indonesians add a closing celebration to fast-breaking holiday that's called Hilal Bil Halal, which features a kind of repeat of the Lebaran tradition of seeking forgiveness for a year's worth of small-scale misdeeds and missteps. But where Lebaran is a time for friends and family, Hilal Bil Halal is set aside for showing respect to co-workers and, in the case of schools, to teachers and students. The idea of both traditions is to maintain salubrious social relations, as Indonesians are nothing if not well-mannered. So after the flag was raised, the principal of my school led a short talk where he asked students to forgive the teachers for their trespasses and I'm pretty sure the students were absolved of their trespasses. Then the principal said my name and beckoned me to stand in front of a microphone in the middle of the soccer field and to introduce myself to about 2,000 students and faculty.

"Good morning, students of SMKN1 Magelang," I said in Indonesian. "My name is Brett McNeil, or Mr. Brett, and I'm an American. I am from the city of Chicago. Barack Obama is from the city of Chicago. I am an English teacher. I don't speak Indonesian but I am studying Indonesian." (Big applause.) Here, I waved, smiled, and switched to English: "And I can use your help! I am happy to be here with you this year. I will be teaching English to many of you. I think we will have fun. I will see you in class."

The principal gave me a big handshake and smile and sent me back to line up with the other teachers. He later asked me to talk with the teaching faculty as students left the assembly. Speaking again from a microphone, I fielded two questions: "Are you married?" and "Do you have children?" I said not. Someone asked, "How old are you?" I told him the truth. "Ohhhh." Later, the principal whispered, "The female teachers, they like you." He slapped me on the back.

After classes today, the principal and three other school staffers took me furniture shopping for a new couch and a carpet for the guest house. They also bought me dinner. A nice bunch. And a pretty good first day.


  1. Where are couches in Indonesia made. I am pretty sure that the ones on sale at Ikea are from Indonesia. Good luck with the female teachers. You are likely in for some good home cooking.

  2. Sounds like you did a great job introducing yourself--in a foreign language--to 2,000 people! Thanks for the link to the blog. I look forward to reading about your experiences.

  3. We had to do an introduction at our school in Hungary. It was wild, knowing that I'd be responsible to teach this group of kids who'd just listened to THEIR national anthem in THEIR country. Humbling moment when I can barely eke out some of the magyar language.

  4. Okay, I am all caught up and this is so fascinating! Really puts my current experiences as a first year teacher in an urban school in perspective! Why do I picture you 20 years from now teaching in Charlie Hart's room at Sandburg and showing your slides from your time in Indonesia? Hmmm...a legend in the making.