Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Nature of Things - written June, 2009

On Thursday of the first week of June, the head teacher at the nearby primary school asked me to help him prepare a grant proposal. The purpose is to fund renovations at the school. Great idea, there’s a donor agency that will fund that kind of project, I’m more than happy to help. As a bonus, the provincial building and grounds officer for our office had already done an assessment of the buildings and we had a list of supplies/materials ready to go. Step (1)—check.

Step (2) was to send the list to a hardware store for an estimate; we needed to know how much money to ask for in the proposal. On Friday I made copies of the original supply list, wrote a cover letter, and prepared to fax the request to the hardware store on Santo for an estimate. However, our fax machine wasn’t working so I walked over to one of the stores, where a local entrepreneur provides a fax machine for people to use. He hadn’t arrived at the store yet so I returned the same day during tea break. The fax-man was there, but I needed a phone card to send the fax and the store was out of phone cards. I tried the two other stores but they were out as well. The next week I stayed in another village to attend a math workshop. I thought I had asked the secretary to send the fax for me while I was gone, but she either forgot or my Bislama got in the way and the end result was that the fax didn’t get sent during week 2. Week 3, I returned to the office Monday morning and asked about the fax. It was still sitting on the desk, only now the last page is missing. I need to recopy it but Michael, the man with the original, isn’t at work on Monday. Tuesday I am able to recopy the fax but there still are no phone cards. On Thursday, finally, I can send the fax off to the hardware store.

One week later, the estimate has not arrived. One very definite obstacle is that our fax machine is not working again and the hardware store only has the number for the office. So if they have been trying to send the estimate, they haven’t been able to get through to us. So I call them to give them the fax number for the machine at the store. The estimate is ready; a man at the store promises to send it out that afternoon. This morning, Friday, I walk over to the store to see if the fax arrived. It did, but the fax-man didn’t. He hasn’t come to the store yet so I will have to go back again later. It has taken 1 month to complete 1 simple step in a rather lengthy process. There is no telling when I will be able to cross “grant proposal” off my list of things to do.

Another example. The last week of April, one of the ZCAs and I discuss several projects he has in mind for the schools in his zone. One of his requests is that I prepare a workshop about writing tests. He wants the workshop to take place in June so the teachers have time to apply the ideas from the workshop in their mid-year assessments. We choose June 12 for the workshop and I make a flier to give to the teachers. I spend the first two weeks of May drafting the workshop. Then I attend a week-long Ministry-sponsored workshop on literacy that causes me to make some drastic changes to my plans. So I spend the fourth week of May revising and retooling the workshop based on those necessary changes. But during the last week of May, the Ministry of Education finalizes the dates for its math workshop. My Friday becomes their Friday so we have to reschedule. June 26 is the next Friday payday so we reschedule the workshop for the 26th• (Paydays are good for workshops because the teachers come to town to go to the bank so they’re here anyway.) I now have two more weeks to revisit my workshop plan and make some new changes based on the math workshop. (There are a lot of workshops and projects and methodologies being introduced to the teachers so I wanted my workshop to reinforce those ideas wherever possible rather than to feel like yet another new idea they have to implement.)

By the week of the 26th, I’m closing in on my plans and getting ready to do the visual aids. But our printer/copier has run out of toner so I can’t print or copy any of the materials I’ve prepared. We’ve ordered a new one, but it missed the flight to Ambae on Wednesday so no copying on Wednesday. This turns out to be a positive situation anyway because, during a brief conversation with the ZCA about the workshop, I realize that in all of my revisions and retooling, I’ve come a long way from his original intention for the workshop and I have to go back to plan A, literally. Fortunately, I saved my original workshop ideas so I don’t have to start over, but it is Wednesday noon, I am spending Thursday morning at a school and the workshop is Friday! Wednesday afternoon is hectic, but I make good progress. I come back to the office Thursday after lunch and we still don’t have the toner. It missed the flight again. The next flight from Santo is Friday at 3:00 so this means, even if it comes on the flight, it won’t arrive until after the workshop is over. So at 2:00 on Thursday afternoon, the ZCA decides to postpone the workshop. He calls all of the head teachers to tell them tomorrow’s workshop is off and the new date is July 23. Yes, the next Friday that is available is a month later.

On the bright side, now I don’t have to panic about getting everything ready in less than 24 hours. I have whole month to make the workshop as effective and efficient as possible. But on the dark side, the next date is a whole month later and who’s to say we won’t have to reschedule again. It was going to be my first workshop too so I was looking forward to it and now…

Procrastination plays a different role for me in Vanuatu. Having plenty of time and not enough to do means I have too much time to think about, make changes to, rewrite any kind of plans I make. And when I have limited time to get ready (as with this workshop that I had revised out of its true purpose), the procrastination adrenaline only kicks in about halfway because, deep down, I don’t really believe it’s going to happen. My “to do” list habits are also changing. My single list has morphed into 3: a personal, hobby-type list that includes gardening jobs, letters to write, crafty projects to do, housework, etc.; a work-related list of small tasks that can be completed (or at least attempted) in a day or two; and a long-range list that includes larger projects such as workshops and drafting teacher observation forms. Each long-range item usually has its own to do list as well. A bonus of having multiple lists is that I can work on my lists when I have exhausted all of the productive options. Take today, for instance. I need to call my program administrator at Peace Corps as well as the administrator for the community health program, but there is no phone reception for some reason. I will be teaching a 2-hour, 6th grade math lesson on Monday, but I already have a plan for that. My boss asked me to prepare a document for her on the computer, but I made a template for it weeks ago. She just wants some small alterations but she hasn’t had a chance to tell me this morning exactly what she’d like done so I am waiting for her to be free. I need to talk to two of the ZCAs about various projects (a second grant project and teacher evaluation forms) but they are both out and about and unavailable. So I go back to my to do lists to see if there’s anything else I can do, anything I need to add, or anything I can cross off because I’ve actually managed to complete a task. If I include “edit to-do lists” as one of my jobs each day, I might actually be able to cross something off the list once in a while. OK. I’m finished ranting for today. My friends at CCS middle school, this probably sounded very familiar to you. Different context--same tone. I don’t have a soap box or a captive audience here so I pound out my frustrations on the computer keyboard. ©