teaching, learning and living around the world
Each day that goes by, layers of depth unfold in all of my new relationships. The teacher who I work with the closest, knows all about my family and I know all about hers. I’ve shared that my mom, like her, loves to sew; that my dad, Marcia and the girls are coming to visit in December. I know that she is a single mom, and has eight children. On Tuesday, one of her daughters was sick. Tomorrow her younger sister is coming from Bukavu to visit her.
The students and I ask a lot of questions about each other. I ask about their siblings and parents, and they tell me lots of things in Swahili- of which I understand maybe 25%. The other day I was wearing a beaded bracelet, and one of the girls noticed it and said, “Kikomo ni MZURI!” (Your bracelet is beautiful!) I said Asante and proceeded to explain in Swahili, French and miming, that the bracelet was MADE by my sister-in-law, Shawn. (I always beam with pride when showing off crafty things made by my family.) After it finally seemed that I communicated this point successfully she paused, deep in thought, with a facial expression that said, how bizarre, and she asked in Swahili, “Is she a white girl too?” I laughed and laughed and said yes, she is a Muzungu like me.
As expected, no one’s life is entirely peaches and sunshine. But on Friday there were two students who I had a lot of questions about, and Beatrice shared some unexpected layers of their lives.
The first student is a ten year old boy. He is at the hospital school because his family all are handicapped due to a genetic problem with their legs. He has a caste on both legs, and uses crutches to walk. He is also among the stars of the class. He is the kid who always has his hand raised, always has the right answer, and always finishes his work first and expects 100%. He is well liked by the class, and is quite the singer. When he takes the stage at the front of the class, with the end of the jumprope in his hand as a microphone, the classroom turns into a dance party as he works the crowd. He is also quite the artist, and draws exquisite pictures of gussied up women. Not only does he show off his artistic talent, but he also reveals Congo’s very different standard of beauty- check out her hips! I love it!
On Friday, as I was observing the class, I started putting two and two together about this lovable high achiever. He often has his nails painted… and he can often be found styling the hair of girls in the class. The kicker on Friday was he had a piece of fabric that he had wrapped over his clothes to become a fashionable halter dress. (I wondered, could he be gay?) As he left the class, and readjusted his dress, the teacher caught me smiling at him- and clearly she knew what I was thinking. After he left, she explained to me in a mix of French and Swahili, “He really wants to be a woman. Honestly. And this is going to be a serious problem when he gets older.” I agreed and thought, yes- a very serious problem indeed. In Congo, it is socially, politically and religiously unacceptable to be anything but heterosexual, fitting neatly into the gender roles dictated by contemporary Congolese culture.
The second student whose life abruptly unfolded this week is also a boy, around 14 years old. He has been at the hospital for a while, and just started coming to school on Monday. The first thing I noticed was his exceptionally neat handwriting and excellent French. Then I noticed that whenever he smiled, he looked down and covered his mouth with his hand. His teeth are rotting, and clearly this embarrasses him. On Friday, he asked permission to go to the bathroom and went. 30 minutes later he went again… 30 minutes after that, again. After the fourth time of leaving class- the kids started commenting and teasing him about it. I just figured he must have diarrhea- but no big deal, we all get that.
After class, the teacher followed up her comments on the first boy wanting to be a woman by saying, “So many of these kids have BIG problems.” Then she launched right into, “Have you noticed how the other boy goes to the bathroom all the time?” I told her- yes I was just noticing that today. She then told me that he was raped, and as a result is now incontinent.
I think as teachers, we all experience shocks when discovering new things about the lives of our students- sometimes good, sometimes bad. Throughout each school year, as our lives unfold before us in the classroom, I am reminded of the Curry School mantra that in college we all made fun of- “Know your students,” they told us time and time again. As much as we rolled our eyes then, as each year passes now, my appreciation for this mantra grows and deepens. It might sound obvious and absolutely cheesy… but it is true and important nonetheless. Knowing our students allows us to see the world through their eyes, to understand where they are coming from- both as learners and as people.
No matter how different our lives and lenses may seem- teachers are asked to find that magical link that allows effective teaching and learning to happen. I love that challenge, and look forward to exploring it further throughout this year, as our lives unfold before us.