Fri, 12 May 2000

Life is not simple for Balinese teachers

By Degung Santikarma

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): In the ancient tales of the wayang kulit shadow play there are teachers. Sages like Indra and Yama sought out the wisdom of the natural world by retreating to the forest, returning to the world of humans to offer lessons and guidance to kings, heroes and the common folk.

For these mythological figures, it was easy to get by, living off the bounty of the land and the generosity of those who appreciated their gifts of knowledge. But for Wayan Mendra, a teacher at a public high school in Denpasar for the past 15 years, life is not quite so simple.

As an experienced teacher, Wayan Mendra's wage is Rp 600,000 a month. But each of his paychecks is cut to shreds by the money he must lay out to maintain his job and his family. Each month, there is the mandatory fee for members of the state civil servants corps (Korpri) and the payment owed on the loan he took to build his simple, three-room house.

There is the cost of the uniform he must wear for civil service celebrations, and the fees for tuition, books and clothing for his three teenage children. There is the scholarship insurance contribution to ensure his children can later afford to attend university, and the credit payment owed on the motorbike he bought for his sons to get to school.

And if he wants to introduce his students to something not found in the limited state curriculum, like a newspaper or magazine article, he must buy the materials himself. Even though Wayan Mendra tries to supplement his income by driving for a travel agent, and his wife also works, earning Rp 250,000 a month as a seamstress for a garment business, at the end of the month, they are lucky to have anything left to show for their toil.

Wayan Mendra knows he lives on the edge, where one major expense or serious illness can push his family over into poverty. This is why he still drives the same motorbike he owned when he started his career. Not long ago, when the tire went flat in the middle of the road, Wayan Mendra was rescued by one of his students, who happened to be passing by in his late-model sedan.

But even this type of kindness cannot be counted on from his students. Some of his pupils, whose parents have showered on them expensive cars with their new riches earned from Bali's tourist industry, find it highly amusing to watch their teacher try and start his ancient bike in the school parking lot.

Hiding behind the wall, they mimic his frustrated motions and his sweat-streaked face as he works to kick the starter into life. Mimicking the "gruk-gruk-gruk" sound of the bike as it spits and struggles its way toward the road, they double over in a laughter that is sometimes hard for Wayan Mendra to ignore.

Resting at home one night after an especially tiring day, Wayan Mendra got an idea. Like most contemporary Balinese, his media is no longer the shadow play with its ancient moral fables, but the television, with its endless ads and images of worldly success. But that night, as the shadow-like shapes cast by the tiny box flickered against the walls of his living room, Wayan Mendra saw something he had never seen before: teachers, like himself, leaving their classrooms to fill the streets of Jakarta with their bitter experiences and their hopes for change.

Carrying microphones and waving banners, they were proclaiming their anger with a system that had left them struggling to survive. Without realizing it, Wayan Mendra, his wife and his children began to echo the shouts of the figures on the screen: "Support the teachers! Education is our future!" As Wayan Mendra watched, he began to wonder if this was something that could happen in Bali as well.

With May 2, National Education Day, approaching, Wayan Mendra talked to his colleagues about his desire to join the new round of demonstrations that teachers in Jakarta had promised to mark the occasion. But he failed to persuade his peers. "Bali's different from Jakarta," one of his friends commented. "We have a culture of art, not a culture of politics," he continued. "That's why we've been so successful at attracting tourists.

"If we demonstrate, the tourists will be scared off and that will hurt everyone," he warned. "Not only that," cautioned another teacher, "but we'll probably be fired, and then what will we do?"

Frustrated, Wayan Mendra left the school for the boarding house where one of his nephews, a university student activist, lived with his friends. There, he thought, he can find the demonstration experts who can help him figure out a way to make something happen. But pouring out his plans to his nephew, Wayan Mendra received a response he had not anticipated.

"When I went to demonstrate against the BNR [a project to build a luxury hotel near the holy temple of Tanah Lot], you got angry and told me that protests didn't fit with Eastern values! You told me that Balinese had to be polos, naive, that they had to live a harmonious life and not start trouble!" As Wayan Mendra's ears began to burn, his nephew's friends joined in the tirade.

"Wasn't it you teachers who taught us about the history of the New Order? Wasn't it you teachers who told us that critiquing the government went against the philosophy of Pancasila? And wasn't it you teachers who warned us we'd be called communists if we tried to fight poverty?"

Returning home, full of confusion and impotent anger, Wayan Mendra looked around his narrow living room. Hanging proudly on the wall was an old picture of himself, dressed in a neatly pressed safari uniform, receiving an award for his role as an orator during a campaign for the Golkar Party, which all teachers, as members of the civil service, were required under the New Order to join.

Underneath it was a photo of his oldest son on his first day of school, dressed in his new uniform of shorts, shirt and tie, a look of great solemnity on his still-unformed face. And stacked neatly on the table were the books on the nation's history that he had to teach tomorrow morning to class. As an educated man, Wayan Mendra knew there were things in those books that were wrong.

But as a practical man, and as a man with few alternatives, he also knew he would not risk his job by trying to teach what had not been handed down from on high. He knew he was not Indra and he was not Yama, and he had no forest to retreat to when things got complicated in the real world.

The next morning, Wayan Mendra parked his bike behind the school and walked into his classroom, the weight of his bag heavy on his shoulders. But this morning, his students did not rise, like they usually did, to wish him a good morning in unison. Instead, one of the pupils called out, "When's the demo, Pak? We're all ready to go to the Legislature building." "Cool!" another one exclaimed. "We're bored in class because nothing ever happens," said yet another. Wayan Mendra was speechless. All he could do was imagine, with a new hope rising in his heart, that something might be possible after all.