Notes from the field: Talking about Laziness

I had an interesting conversation with the youth about laziness.  Many of my students have only had a few years of primary school and some have only gone to Koranic school and not the classic public schools.  It’s a challenge to get them to do their homework and it’s also a challenge to get them to behave like students during class – to listen, take in information and try to learn what I’m teaching them.  Sometimes the class can be surprisingly chaotic, and it seems like no one is even pretending to pay attention.  What also surprises me is that my assistants and other elders present in the room will just let the chaos reign and often the response to the youth’s lack of attention and a noisy classroom is that everyone calls each other lazy.  It’s a running joke now. Sometimes the students pretend to run away from me, and I pretend to drag them back to their work while chiding them for being lazy.  Or when a student is at a loss for a response, either because they were not listening, and/or because they didn’t understand, the assistants and interpreters will always call them lazy. “Parasseaux.”  You can also call someone “le parrasseaux” meaning the lazy person.  This is often used in place of calling someone’s name, for example “Hey lazy person!”  The response is usually laughter when someone is called lazy.  A guilty laughter.

Laughter is always good in the classroom, but at the same time I’ve been trying to figure out if this joke about laziness really makes sense for us to use. Is it positive or negative?   So my colleague Nancy suggested I ask the students what they meant by lazy, that I shared what I meant by lazy, and that we even draw pictures of lazy people.  We had a very amusing conversation and everyone participated.  The class really had a lot to say about laziness.  Some of the surprising definitions of laziness: “someone is lazy when they are sick and they can’t work, or when they don’t have time to do the work they are supposed to do.” What?  How can that be fair I wonder? “Someone is lazy when they think too much and don’t do anything.”   We made a list on the board of the different definitions and then we revisited the list to discuss it.  I challenged the class on some definitions, “Is someone really being lazy when they are sick and can’t do anything?  Is someone really being lazy if they don’t know what they are supposed to do?”  The less surprising definition was familiar to me: “Someone is lazy when they avoid responsibility.”  Even though this is a definition I know we use in the States for someone being lazy it seems that all these uses of the word lazy might not be fair or accurate.   When I avoid working, is it because I’m being lazy?  Sometimes it can also be because I’m tired, or stressed, or overwhelmed. 

I wanted the students to know that they weren’t lazy, as much as we all joked about it.  When I said this to them one of the biggest, loudest trouble-makers in the class announced that I was speaking to his heart!  Maybe it was a joke because everyone laughed, but I was touched. Maybe the students don’t really want to be joked about as lazy; maybe they want to be understood as youth who work hard and try even when they are called lazy.  I know they are all trying something new in this art class.  They are new to the classroom. No one has taught them how to be learners and no one has taught them how to draw before.  And yet the running joke, and sometimes genuine insult, is always that they are lazy.

The students then made drawings of lazy people: people standing by as cows ate the laundry hanging outside, people letting goats eat their food from the table, people dropping things on the ground and not picking it up, people looking kind of like useless zombies. Everyone was amused and dying of laughter.  Sometimes I made arguments for the lazy person in the drawing,  “What if I didn’t see the cow eating the laundry or I was new to Burkina Faso and had never lived around animals – would that make me lazy?”   “No,” the students answered. I wanted to make a point that many times when people get joked about and ridiculed because they aren’t doing something they are supposed to do, it’s not because they are bad, lazy, or stupid.  Sometimes it’s because they don’t have the knowledge of how to do something.  People respond harshly and ridicule a person or child when they perform poorly here.  I think it’s a common problem people everywhere in the world experience – that people are faulted for failing when they haven’t been given the proper tools to succeed.   

– Christina

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