Wednesday, June 30
I haven’t written that much about what happens in the classroom, but the school is where I spend most of my time, and it’s the core of my work. I can’t believe I’m leaving now and will only be back once a week. I love these kids and this is where my Ghanaian family is (Euphemia and Alfred, Gladys and Kofi). The other night on the way home from dinner at Euphemia’s, I laid down on the side of the empty road and stared up at the stars, thinking about all I’ve tried to do for the kids and all I wish I could (seriously, me, a city girl, lying down by the grass and looking up at the stars?). The time has flown by and now I’m half done with my trip. It’s hard to encapsulate because there is so much, but here are some moments:
- When I substituted for a class at the primary school (“the teacher’s not here, teach whatever you want”). I led a spelling bee that got indefinitely paused after the first word, “orange.” I was giving a hint for the last letter (“it’s a vowel”), and I discovered that the class didn’t understand the concept of vowels. After maybe 30 minutes of me trying different ways to explain it and having them vote on what they thought was a vowel or not, I went around to individual rows. Finally, the way y works clicked with a group of girls. I gave “yellow, yes, and yo-yo” as examples of “sometimes y” acting as a consonant. The girls racked their brains for their own example and finally came up with one that was familiar to them: “yams.”
- When I led the theater warm-up for the first time with my kids in the play. I had them push aside the desks to form a circle and repeat tongue twisters after me. “Eleven benemolem elephems,” they would say. “Eleven benevolent elephants,” I would re-enunciate.
They laughed at “m-m-m-ma” and had trouble remembering, “I am not a pheasant plucker, I’m a pheasant plucker’s son…” For the longest time, they couldn’t pronounce, “My mummy made me mash my m&m’s,” which I learned from my middle school theater teacher, Ms. Magee.
“Wait, do you guys not know what m&m’s are?”
Ever since I explained to them that m&m’s are little round chocolate candies coated in colored sugar, that’s been their favorite tongue twister, though they still sometimes pronounce it “em-em-ess.”
-When I was looking for Ebinezer (the teacher here who oversees me) but couldn’t find him, so I just sat down with a bunch of students in a classroom and asked them to teach me Dangme. I was having trouble with some sounds like “nge” and “mo hee,” but they laughed and helped me out. I was there for a while, enough time for one of my kids in the play, James, to come and go. He returned maybe 10 minutes later, put his nose up to the window, and said, “Ba.”
One of my new vocab words: come. Come?
I gave a quizzical look to the students huddled around me.
“It means he thinks it’s time you should leave,” they laughed.
“Oh!” Whoops, I guess I’d been sitting there a while. I turned to James. “No, you ba. Wait – mo ba (You come)!”
I could speak Dangme myself. Everyone cheered. James grinned and came into the classroom.
- When I was closing up a prep session with my Environmentalism Day leaders, having just had a vigorous debate on whether or not waste was a problem. As I picked up my bag, the kids crowded around me and Michael asked, “Madame, what’s the next topic?”
“The next topic? There is no next topic.” Was the environment not enough? Were they bored already?
“No, miss, we like your teaching. What topic will we do after this one?”
“Oh,” I laughed. “Well, there won’t be another topic next week, and I won’t be here next year. But you guys can start your own day. You can do whatever you want. Will you still be here next year?” They nodded. “You should lead your own day, you know how. You can do it.”
They looked around at each other, then said, “Yeah, we can.” A couple of the boys high-fived. As I left the classroom, I turned back to say, “Good work.”
- When Ebinezer brought me around to all the classrooms on the first day to introduce me.
“This is Miss Robin,” he said. “She is here with the Junior Art Club. She will be teaching you Creative Writing, Art, etc. She is a very talented artist. She might be sitting there drawing you and she can sketch you straight.
For the record, I’m not, and I can’t. I do more conceptual and relational art, and journalism and filmmaking. Good thing none of the kids asked me to draw them.
- When I went to substitute for Class 2 in the Primary School and was finishing up a grammar exercise (“Teach whatever you want,” they’d said). One of the kids asked, “Do you want to see our drawings?”
“The dog, Beatrice, from the story.”
Ohh. I’d taught this class back on my second day of school, and we did a creative writing exercise much like the one in the junior high about Sylvester (“Silver Star”). Except that these kids came up with a story about a dog named Beatrice who was hungry (notice a pattern?), because the other dogs always beat her up and took her food. I’d asked them to draw what they thought Beatrice looked like, and I’d said that the next time they would write the story.
I didn’t come back, so they didn’t write the story. But they did have the drawing.
“Look at our drawings,” said another student over by the cupboard, already pulling them out.
“Oh wow, that is wonderful,” I said. “I love the detail on Beatrice’s limbs.”
“Ooh, Benjamin used color. It looks great.”
“Yes, grade them, Madame.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll grade them.”
I scanned the books and saw that the exercises were graded with red marks like 3/4 or 4/5. I couldn’t grade drawings like that, so I did what my middle school teachers used to do: check plus or check plus plus. Next to each drawing, I wrote a note of encouragement like, “Excellent shading,” or, “Nice note of explanation.”
As I finished grading each assignment book, the kids would grab them out of my hands and rifle through to see their marks. I hope they didn’t mind that I didn’t give them an actual grade. If they’re like me, the comment would mean more than any number.
- When I was sitting with David and Justice helping them work on a character sketch for the play (their characters, they decided, lived in a thatch house by the sea with vines over the gate). David turned toward me and asked, “Madame, when are you leaving?”
I bit my lip. “Next Wednesday is my last day.”
David and Justice stomped their feet and shook their heads. “Oh, Madame, we will cry,” Justice said.
“Who will take care of us?” David said.
- When I took half of Mr. Isaac’s French class to play charades with the recent vocab. The students were having trouble guessing ranger, then out of nowhere, James called out the correct answer.
“Excellente!” I said in French. James grinned and got up to go next for charades.
“Madame,” cried one of the girls, “he is cheating.”
I stepped over to James’s desk, and lo and behold, he had the textbook hidden under his desk. James smiled sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders. Maybe I should have been mad, but I laughed and shook my head. “You didn’t have to cheat, it’s really not that serious. But since you clearly want to go that badly, you can go next.”
James got up and acted out monter with great success.
- When I was sitting with some of the students during a break from class and the conversation turned into a quick history and current events lesson – on the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America’s occupation of Iraq, and 9/11, none of which the students could accurately describe, and most of which they hadn’t heard of at all. I was asking Mark, one of my Environmentalism Day leaders, to explain back to me what the Holocaust was, when one of the boys said, “Miss, your bag.”
I quickly looked down to check for my bag. It was still at my feet.
“No, your back,” he said.
I turned behind me and Slim, Rita, and a couple other girls were standing at the window (pink cement curlicues with air holes) playing with my hair through the peepholes.
“Oh!” I laughed. “Hi.” I hadn’t even felt them.
- When my student David came up to me one morning and greeted me with his usual, “Onge samina?” (I think that’s how it’s spelled? It’s pronounced “ing-uh sum-in-yuh”).
“Wait, wait, I have it, don’t tell me.” I was trying to remember the response to “How are you” in Dangme. “Um, umm… I knew it yesterday, but you didn’t ask me yesterday.” I started fishing through my faded LeSportSac bag for the slip of crumpled paper on which David had written the phrase for me. Notebook, hand sanitizer, tissues… where was that paper? “Wait!” It suddenly came to me. “Ig po pe ee” (pronounced “ig poe pay ay”).
“Yeah!” David smiled and clapped for me. “You’ve got it, Madame.”
- When I showed up to school in the second dress Euphemia’s friend Josephine sewed for me – short sleeves and just below the knee, a deep blue with an orange pattern that Josephine sewed at an angle to make look like a sash.
One girl I’d never met came up to me on her way to the assembly hall and said, “You look beautiful, Miss.”
- This wasn’t in school, but: when I was sitting at the beach, writing in my journal and looking out at the water, thinking about the upcoming Environmentalism Day and all that I wanted to do for the students. While I was staring at the ocean, a few kids from the primary school came over.
“Hey. How are you guys?”
“Fine-thank-you-and-you-Madame,” they said in the robotic greeting they are taught to say to their teachers.
“Fine, thank you.”
“What are you doing, Miss?” one of them came closer.
“Just writing in my journal.”
They sat down by me on the pile of cement blocks.
“Hey, have you guys ever cleaned up the beach before?” I asked. Steven nodded. “Really?” I was surprised. Kofi had told me his school stopped their beach clean-up a few years ago. Was my Environmentalism Day not going to be anything new?
“Yes, we come by sometimes in school.”
“Oh.” I turned to my notebook to write about how naïve I was, and how silly I thinking I would bring about some change. “Have you guys ever heard of global warming?” Steven nodded. The others stood still. “What is it?” He shook his head. Okay, so I did have something to teach them. Environmentalism Day might be useful after all.
I started to explain as best I could. We talked about climate change, conservation, and waste management, while looking out at the blue water and piles of trash. The kids told me they would sometimes throw their garbage on the beach. I told them about how that kills the sea life and makes the beach dirty. They nodded and seemed to get what I was saying.
As the sun started to dip, I said, “Well, I guess I’d better get going. See you in school.” I padded out onto the sand and the kids said goodbye. When I got to the road, they were already there, waving to me from the grass on the right. They had taken a shortcut.