One day an artist, the next day a teacher

08 July 2014



Yesterday an artist, today a teacher.  Every day a new adventure.

Today, Wednesday, we drive to a new elementary school, where we are greeted by every child in the whole school standing in perfect formation, waiting for us. We file into a crooked line in front of them, blocking our eyes from the morning sun, and introduce ourselves.  Nothing like shouting your name at the top of your lungs to a sea of school children.

Then Heather asks them to sing us an African song.  After they sing a sweet little tune, we look at each other for a song to return, settling on The Star Spangled BannerMy gosh, I realized how booooring that song is.  I mean, that song is all meaningful or something, but to African schoolchildren, I'm sure it ain't no baseball game.  Yankee Doodle or Party in the USA would have been more interesting.  Plus today, I woke up sick.  A sore throat that will grow increasingly stronger until my voice just goes raspy man for the rest of the trip.  So for the high notes on the Star Song, I just raise my eyebrows and look really operaish.

Afterwards, the students are instructed to file back to their classrooms, and each member of our team grabs a bag of oranges from our car and walks with a teacher to her room.  I select one of the 7th grade teachers in hopes that I will see my girls from frisbee a couple days before.  Grace finds me and runs toward me shouting, "CHANTEL!"  Feels good to feel popular at a school.  For once.   Ha.  Ha.

I pass out the oranges to all the classrooms around me and talk with all the kids. Confidence just flows in settings where you're completely unknown.  Once all the students and teachers have been treated to an orange, I realize my team is long gone, already set-up in the library with paint and rollers.  Heather comes trailing in as late as myself, where we whisper to each other that we'd prefer to stay with the kids.  Then we look at Josh with big, droopy eyes.  He laughs and says that we have more than enough hands for painting so why not.  Heather and I head back to the classrooms to find one without a teacher.

Heather is a math teacher back in America, so she marches right in and begins a math lesson on long division.  I watch for awhile until a student approaches me from outside, saying his teacher is also missing, so could I come teach his class?  I wave goodbye to Heather and follow the young man to his building.

I enter the classroom to a full room of big eyes.  I recognize a couple of the children from Afternoon Club days before.  "HELLO!"  And I introduce myself as the teacher for the day  They all clap.  I learn they are supposed to be studying Reading.  So I borrow a manual, turn to the page they say, and jump headfirst into teaching my first 6th grade class.

Our lesson is on a Swasi-born musician named Th*keim(sis)  or something ridiculously hard that the American mouth is completely incapable of saying.  I open the discussion by talking about music.  "Who is your favorite music artist?"  They all say names, and I nod very affirmatively as if I totally know them.  I don't.  Then I ask if they want to hear some of my music.  "YES!"  So I play some Jason Derulo and have my own little dance party at the front of the room.  Why can I not control my inhibitions when a good beat comes on?  A couple of the kids bounce along, while most of them just stare at me, while I wave my arms around.

Okay, moving on. 

We proceed to take turns reading the chapter in the workbook, selecting a new student for each paragraph.  After learning all about this musician, I open up a discussion with the questions at the end of the chapter.  I ask the children what they want to be when they grow up.  A lawyer!  A hairdresser!  A chef!  A oiujipfs.  Sometimes I can't understand what they're saying.  I ask if any of their parents want them to be something different than what they dream?  Hands go up and heads nod.  "How do you feel about that?"  I don't like it.  Makes me angry.  "Good, yes." as my inner therapist comes out. "It's frustrating to not feel the support of your dreams from the one you love."

"Let's share more music with each other!"  And I ask if someone will sing a song for us.  Man, am I a brutal teacher or what?  The class is silent.  "No really.  Who wants to sing a song?"  A girl raises her hand and then comes to the front.  She stands beside me with quiet confidence and jumps right into the most beautiful, enchanting melody!  She sings the full song for us, and then sits back down as if it ain't no thing. 

What just happened?  I couldn't believe her talent! So I make the whole class applaud her for the next seven hours.

Well, no I didn't, but she deserved that.  Then I ask if everyone wants to sing a song with me!  And I make them all stand up.  See, I was envisioning this song that my grandpa used to sing with us - "Singing in the Rain," and we'd follow his actions, each verse having to do something strange with our body - "toes together, knees together, elbows in, tongue out."  And it gets so ridiculous that we laugh the whole way through.

But what I envisioned was not at all what happens.

Couldn't remember the tune of the song, so I just sang words to random notes.  And when we finally ended with our Partly because I can't remember the tune of the song at all so it sounds horrible, and partly because the kids don't understand why they have to follow me doing such strange actions, and partly because singing a song with your tongue out in a second language just really isn't a fun thing for anyone.  Ever.

So, moving on.

I learn that their next subject is science.  "Um.... okay nah, let's play a game."  So Heads Up Seven Up it is for the next hour.

But then I feel guilty for ruining a perfect day of education, so I let them play one last round, and then pull the class back to the science textbooks.  Except they can't remember what page they're on, so I flip through the book and find a chapter about the Respiratory System.  Sure, I can blow smoke about this for awhile. 

I begin by talking about outer space and how there is no air, and we'd all suffocate immediately because we need oxygen to breathe.  I explain that humans inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, explaining the anatomy of the body and the oxygen travels down our esophagus and into our lungs.  I make them put one hand on their chest and one hand on their stomach, explaining more about the movement of the diaphragm and how it expands and deflates the lungs.  Then I explain how the oxygen is then diffused into the cells of our bloodstream, which is carried through the rest of the body, giving our brain, kidney, heart, and other organs the ability to function.  For example, if we ever feel light-headed, that means our brain isn't getting enough oxygen.  Then I jump into sports, having all the soccer players raise their hands.  I talk to them about breathing with high intensity when we're running really hard, because our bodies need more oxygen to pump to the muscles in our body.  I ask if they've ever cramped up, pointing to my lungs.  I explain that this occurs when we don't release enough carbon dioxide, resulting from short inhales, and not full exhales.  So a secret to release a cramp is breathe out for as long as you can.  Breathe in briefly and then exhale again until the cramp goes away.  Then I tell them that plants have their own respiratory system.  "Plants breath in carbon dioxide. And that's what humans breathe out!!"  Acting as if it's the most exciting thing in the world.  Enthusiastic teachers are fun right?  "See how sustainable our environment is!  Plants breathe out oxygen for us to breathe in, and we breathe out carbon dioxide for them!" And then because I'm just freestyling this whole lesson and can't think of where to take it next, I tell them that smoking will turn their lungs black, and they'll shrivel up, and won't hold any more oxygen, and they'll die.

Then the bell rings.

Well, that was one way to end a lesson.  But not bad for off the cuff, I'd say.  Could have omitted the grim reaper death part, but oh well.  I think that was my subconscious being angry at Dan for smoking all the time.

I head to the teacher's lounge to find my group.  All the teachers and my team are taking a break with avocado sandwiches, oranges, and herbal tea.  We chat with each other, and everyone asks how my teaching is going, as their hair is all chunky with paint.  I tell them that I can't tell if I'm horrifying them or helping them.  Josh tells me that he walked by a couple times, and I'm doing really great.

After break, everyone resumes painting, and I sneak back to the classrooms.  The normal teacher has returned to my class, not sure where he was the whole morning, but okay.  So I walk to another building to find another class without a teacher.  Impromptu teaching!  Such a rush for me.

I find two classes without teachers, so I go to the first of 7th graders and tell them to come with me into the 4th grade class!  "Today is a special day!!"  As if I own the place.  They all look confused, but I reassure them it's okay.  Eh, or probably not.  Oh well.

The kids follow me to the second classroom, and I tell the other children to "Make way!  We are joining up!"  Which I severely underestimated the number of children and the noise it would make packing all of them into classroom.  One hundred kids shuffling around and hollering to each other is quite the ruckus.  So, I wasn't really surprised when the principal showed up....

But luckily by that point, I had already begun reading a book that a couple of the girls had given to me and asked me to read.  The overflowing classroom of children was still pretty loud, but my throat was hurting way to bad to do much about it.  Luckily, as soon as Miss Principal walked in, the class went silent.  

I continued reading the book, which I quickly discovered is a very intense story about a young girl who is touched all over her body by her uncle, and her uncle threatens to kill her mom if she tells anyone.

Well, okay.  Considering that 80% of women in this country are sexually abused at some point in their lives, I'd say this is a very real topic that I appreciate is so openly discussed.  Not sure if I'm qualified for the job, but I guess we'll find out. 

After I've read for quite awhile, as loudly as I can muster for my scratchy little voice and this HUGE room of children, Miss P taps my shoulder.   "I'll read for awhile.  Your voice sounds like it needs a break."  Oh God bless.

She takes the book from me and begins.  She instantly uses hilarious voices for the dialogue, lightening everything up with a bit of humor.  The kids roar with laughter.  As the little girl confesses to her friend about being touched in the private parts, the principal stands up and begins rubbing her own private area!  Not sure what's going on, but we're still going with this.

She keeps reading, making the read funny when it can be but serious when it should be.  She passes the book back to me to finish.  Once I've closed the story, and the little girl has resolved the situation by telling a friend, I'm not really sure how to open the discussion.  Miss P notes my hesitancy and saves me, sparing no fear of being too personal.  "Okay class, what are you private parts?"  PENIS! (pronounced peh-nis)  VAGNIA!  BREASTS!  Alright then.   "Do you let people touch you in the privates?"  NNOO!  "Good, what do you do if someone does?"  TELL SOMEONE!  "Good!"  "Gentlemen, have you ever touched a women inappropriately?"  NO!

Then Miss P speaks bluntly about the horridness of sexual abuse, and that the men need to be upstanding examples, and the women need to be strong enough to say no.  It was actually a really incredible discussion.  Then she goes off on how education is power, and with an education you will have the most opportunity, explaining that she expects all of her students to work hard in school and continue on to a university, sharing a story of a former students she sponsored all the way through college.  She continues about the importance of choosing dreams and following them. 

Then she looks at me.

Gulp..  How do I follow that??

"Umm, I agree.  Education really IS the key to success.  And the best way to education is hard work.  It's important for all of us to choose dreams and never lose sight of them.  Um... I'll tell you my story."

Then I tell them all about how I started in an elementary school just like them.  And my full story of education all the way to high school, then onward to college, working really hard to get into the program I wanted, finishing my degree, then landing a position in the number one masters program of my area of study, more hard work and dedication, getting my degree, then going on to study intensely on my own for several years to get a professional license.  "And now, because of ALLLL of that hard work, I have a really great job that gives me the opportunity to travel and really follow my dreams.  Which is the exact reason I am in Swasiland today, teaching all of YOU!"

Then the entire class breaks out into outrageous clapping and cheering.  Not expecting their enthusiam at all, I'm completely taken aback. Miss P leans over to me - "Your story is incredible.  Thank you for sharing."

She turns back to the class, "Isn't that amazing?  All that hard work!  Imagine all the dreams you can accomplish if you never lose sight of them and work just as hard.  Let's tell Chantel THANK YOU!!!" They everyone abrupts in yelling, and I am too stunned to even move.  Is this a movie?  This is unreal!

I thank them.  Then announce that I must take the older class back to their room to resume studies.  Miss P thanks me again and gives me a copy of the book to keep as a souvenir.  I thank her and take the book, grateful that I will always have memory of this moment celebrating dream chasing with all these children.  But also, this isn't the lightest bedtime reading. 

I take the older kids back to their room and ask for their next lesson.  But truly I'm too tired, and my throat is hurting too bad for any more teaching.  So, Heads Up, Seven Up it is until the bell rings.

Once school is out, the children help me clean up paint brushes for the rest of my team.  Then I attempt to teach them Red Rover while my team packs up the car.  It's mostly unsuccessful, but I leave them with many hugs and goodbyes, as I squirm out from all of their grasps to run to the car.

I jump in next to Dan.  He puts his arm around me, while I tell everyone about my inadvertent Sex Ed class, finding it so easy to share and laugh about.  Then I sink back into my seat in complete exhaustion, staring out the window with a degree of trepidation.

What I don't share is the hundred of bright eyes I can still picture in my mind, all staring at me with fiery dreams and passions and eagerness to learn.  And the intense bond formed between teacher to student, so quickly caring about the future and the path of all these students, truly wanting their success in education and goals, feeling like maybe, just maybe I have edified them a tiny bit.  But I also see the poor classrooms, the tattered school supplies, the lack of teachers, the children's fear of society's aggression, the meager circumstances, and the societal cavities that will never allow these children even close to as much of a chance as I had.  How is it fair that opportunity can be so uneven with just the country you are born in?  How can I drive away with that rich experience of being a teacher for a day, but knowing I've been given every stepping stone while so many of them are given none? 

It's not about reconciling myself going home and standing in my pile of belongings while they stand barefoot.  It's about going home and standing in my pile of possibilities knowing they often have no more than one.  And how to open more doors for others with

Let the day I was a teacher in Africa stand as reminder of that.



Upward and onward,


The school children performing an African dance.

Heather teaching long division to the students.  She is my top favorite humans of the world.


Me teaching my own class!

Here's where I'm reading the story about sexual abuse to a FULL classroom.

The girls following along to my reading with their own books.





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