This is my class.
We begin each day in the same way; the same way that classes begin in classrooms all across Zambia.
“Good morning!” I say.
“Good morning, madame!” they say, rising to their feet.
“How are you?” I say.
“We are fabulous, thank you. And how are you, madame?” (“Fine” is usually the operative word in this section, not “fabulous”, but I took a cue from a fellow volunteer, and change the word each week; my students draw a new one out of a bright yellow cup. Let us find all the words to say that we are fine.)
“I am fabulous, also! Sit down,” I say.
“Thank you, madame,” they say, and sit. (Then we begin our deep breathing and stretching and vocal exercises.”Who is this hippy?” some of them doubtless wonder, every day.)
My students are the reason I came to Zambia; my students are loud, kind, funny, and quick. My students are also the reason I put down my chalk and simply walked out of class two weeks ago, crying. Teaching them is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
Before I started teaching my current class–fifth grade, English language–I gave them each an assessment, developed by other Peace Corps volunteers. One by one, they joined me in an empty classroom, and I tested their ability to speak to me in English, to recite words from flashcards, to read stories and answer questions. Most vibrated with nerves; some (mostly girls) clapped their hand over their mouth with embarrassment until I gently moved it away. The most advanced students sat utterly still, their mouths quirking with joy that they tried to suppress whenever I said, “Very good.” Younger students gathered outside the windows to watch, whooping and scattering when I walked outside to shoo them away. I took notes on everyone, marking down possibilities. (For one amazing girl–who coolly demolished the entire assessment as though she read the Oxford English Dictionary in her spare time–I simply wrote: “OH MAN.” When I was done, I divided them into groups–the superstars, the children below them who were getting there, or could; the low-level learners.
I thought for a moment, then wrote down a heading for one more group: “Cannot spell their own name.”
Here are presuppositions one might have about a fifth grade child: they can spell their own name. They know the alphabet. When presented with the words “the” or “and”, they are able to identify them. Take those presuppositions away, and try to teach them English. Try to teach seventy of them English at the same time, with no textbooks. (And seventy is nothing; I know volunteers who teach ninety, one hundred.) Try to get them used to your American voice, to wrestle with your vowel sounds. Try to teach them to pronounce the word “ocean”, when they don’t know what an ocean is. “But. The Atlantic?” you say, perplexed. You draw America, Africa, and the Atlantic on the board, and turn around to confront a sea of impenetrably confused faces. Well, then. Back to the beginning.
There are children to whom understanding comes as easily as breathing, and there are children who do not know the alphabet. They literally sit side by side, and it is my job to stake out a place between them. I teach a lesson about adjectives, and feel supremely confident that I have made my case clearly, then mark my students’ notebook exercises at the end of class and reel at some of their answers. What have I done wrong? Did I speak too quickly? Assume too much? My use of the local language in class becomes inevitable at times, when the gap between the English they know and the English I want them to learn is too great. I have watched them in other classes, and they are quicker to process in the language they live. They are supposed to learn everything in English. On a recent day, I entered class after a social studies lesson. The teacher had written a moderately lengthy paragraph on the board about the economic and trade practices of Zambia–in English. I asked the students if they understood what it said; they nodded their assent. “But who can tell me?” I asked. A long pause followed, and everyone looked at me with silent apology.
I erased it.
I wasn’t supposed to teach seventy students at once. I was supposed to teach two fifth grade classes, separately. I cannot describe the feeling I had the day I walked into class and was confronted with the fifth grade class entire, and tried to adapt my pretty little lesson plan. (Wo) man was not meant to teach so many, nor children to learn four at a broken desk. But there have been days where twenty hands are thrust in the air–“Madame! Madame!”–and I could levitate off the ground from happiness, all of us in this together; you could drop an anvil on my head and I wouldn’t feel it. I remind myself of that the next day, when I break up a fistfight in the back of the room, and students eat guava at their desks and pitch it out the window when I catch them. (And those are the least of my concerns.)
We’ve all cornered the market on a rough day at work–this is universal–but I have never had quite so many days where I wondered how on earth I was going to return the next day and meet with success. “I am a failure, attempting the impossible,” I said to my family in America one day, and then I am sure–courtesy of the emotional rollercoaster that is the one facet of the Peace Corps experience upon which you can utterly rely–that the very next day my heart burst and overflowed as I watched the light of understanding fill a student’s eyes.
My students do not have textbooks. They come to school with one pen and a motley collection of raggedly-wrapped notebooks, and some come with less than that. The most recent iteration of the Zambian school curriculum requires that students take computer classes. My school does not have working electricity, let alone computers.
One day, during a class referred to as “Expressive Arts”, the fifth grade teacher tried to delineate the difference between a drawing and a collage by writing the explanation on the board. English was their next class, but I was so tormented by the bone-dry paragraph that confronted me when I walked in the door that I couldn’t begin teaching until I addressed it. I asked them if they understood the difference between a drawing and a collage. They did not. I rummaged through my bag and emerged with a few scraps of colored paper and the glue stick I use to make my teaching aids for class, and hastily concocted a collage standing at my desk; I made a house. When I lifted it up to show them, they understood. “Ohhhh!” they said. I longed for a warehouse full of old magazines, sturdy paper, and Elmer’s Glue. Why didn’t I think of this? Why didn’t I remember collages? They should know about collages. And oceans. Sculpture. The president of Liberia. They didn’t know what Italy was. I have to tell them everything I can remember, everything I have ever learned.
I want them all to have glue sticks. I want them to have scissors and glue sticks, their own packs of markers, bright white notebook paper, rulers, textbooks. Textbooks. They learn without textbooks. I could get them everything they needed. I could buy out the store, replenish the paper, acquire stacks of scissors. But when I go, the supplies stop coming.
And there lies the central issue, the question, the rub, of anyone’s service: is that the best way for me to help? What is?
I did walk out of class, and I did cry. This is difficult to address, but it is important to be honest. I have a notebook filled with admonishments written to myself: “I must be patient with them.” When you imagine teaching in the Peace Corps, you imagine a sun-dappled classroom, students and teachers working together with mutual trust and respect and understanding, nary a ripple in the water. The reality is that kids are kids; that some of them do not know better, be it in Zambia, America, or Denmark; that, if you are an American woman, and you teach a class of seventy fifth graders in Zambia, and everything about you is different–your voice, your skin color, your habit of standing on the stoop outside the classroom and firmly tapping your watch with a smile for them to come back when their break is over (when seemingly no one has ever, ever required that of them before), your expectations for their punctuality and their respect for the classroom, for learning, for you–and a student is scared or insecure or eleven years old, or has no living parents, or hasn’t eaten since yesterday because there was no food, or has been stumbling to school sick with malaria every day, and weeping in the back of the classroom until you press your hand to their hot forehead and make them go to the clinic for medicine when their own parents will not, or cannot spell their own name, or has been caught inexorably in an education system which repeatedly fails them on every level that can be imagined, again and again and again, they will let you know how little they think of what you are trying to do. They will ignore your rules, imitate the sound of your speaking voice with breathtaking mockery, refuse to write down your notes in class, laugh at you when you say hello. You will be struck dumb with astonishment. And when you have not slept the night before because something that sounded like a regulation basketball with claws for feet kept landing on your roof, over and over, and you are thinking of your mother, who is 8,000 miles away, and who you miss each day with the pain and constancy of a toothache, and your entire fifth grade class caterwauls and shrieks their way through the first fifteen minutes of class when they should be learning, steadfastly ignoring your every attempt to focus them on the task at hand, and then collectively hoots with laughter when one of your most difficult students insults you to your face, guess what? You cry.
The very next day, the same students will raise their hands again and again to answer your questions in class, backs straight; catch your eye miserably, watching for the signs that you’ve given up on them; they will wait for you to pack up your things at the end of class so they can walk you home.
Try, try again.