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Posts Tagged ‘presby’
I’m sitting here on my last night before college, reflecting on my time in Ghana. What did I do? What did I accomplish? I feel like I learned and gained so much – what did I give back?
I just sent off a package to everyone in Ada, so I suppose there are the physical things. But did I bestow on any of the kids an excitement for learning? Are any of the teachers going to stop caning, and is that even the right thing to do? Are any of the students going to take to heart my advice to study hard and apply to university, maybe in America, maybe even Haverford? If they wanted to, would they even be able to? Are any of them going to stop throwing their trash on the ground; start recycling their water sachets? Are they going to continue the warm-up I taught them for the play? Is acting going to be a useful skill in their lives? Are any of them going to get past Ada? Will I make a difference?
The time went by so fast. It was filled with eating banku and okra stew, going for runs along the beach, doing washing, heading to market with Euphemia, laughing with Alfred about “my monkey in the US,” walking back from the internet café with Kofi, listening to the radio with Gladys, taking pictures with my students, talking with them about American and Ghanaian culture, watching football matches and African TV, greeting “hihowareyou finethankshowareyou.”
And what about what I did in Accra? Meeting with artists and getting to know the city – it was so great for me, but what was I doing for others, for the organization? I think the most useful thing I did was set up some excellent contacts for the JAC. I hope we make use of them. It will be easy for them to slip away if we don’t keep them up.
I left for Ghana having very little idea of what I would be doing. I made up some things on my CPGC application based on the JAC website and the few emails Kelvin sent me, such as making a documentary, writing a newsletter, and organizing exhibitions. I did not do any of those things. We did not have the materials or resources for those things. But I did end up meeting a whole bunch of people who changed my life. I think, if only in a small way, I changed theirs.
At the CPGC retreat in the spring, they had us write an entry in the journals they’d just provided about how we were feeling about our upcoming internships. At the time, I was just stressed about the Bi-Co News and all the papers I had to write. “Ghana feels a million miles away,” I said. “Maybe in two months I’ll be reading this, and Haverford’s Quaker Meeting House and its wooden benches will feel like the couldn’t be farther.”
I did indeed read over it in Ghana, on my last bumpy tro-tro ride to Ada. I had written in the spring, “It’s weird that now Kelvin is just someone I’ve been exchanging emails with, and in a couple months, he’ll be a real person I’m working with.”
As my eyes skimmed the words on the page, Kelvin was sitting right next to me. And now, I’m reading it here at home, about to leave for school again. Both Ghana and the CPGC retreat feel like a million years ago – or maybe just yesterday.
At the time, my journal was fresh, a shiny new black. Now it sits on the dining room table, wrinkled and falling apart. It has traveled to Ghana and back. Its gray pages are falling out. My tiny scribbles cover the green-lined pages; my students’ drawings claim a few.
It’s strange to me that my eight weeks are represented inside this journal. Where is my trip contained? Inside this little black book? In the photos on my computer and now on Facebook? On this very blog? In the notes on my computer that never made it to the blog? In my head? In the heads of all the friends I made and the people I interacted with? If I had to go and track down what I did, where would it be?
What has come out of my time and work? In the end, was it for them, or for me? That was my main question when I wrote my journal entry at the CPGC retreat: who am I really going to help, and who am I doing this for?
Maybe I thought I was going to Ghana to find answers or solutions. Instead, it has filled me with more questions. My task now, after I ponder, is to keep up my work.
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.
Thursday, July 2
On Monday we finally had the Environmentalism Day I’ve been working on for the past couple weeks. It was supposed to be Friday, but it got pushed to Monday because of a sports day issued last minute by the Department of Education, which then got postponed due to lack of funding. But we kept our day on Monday anyway.
I’m really happy we did it. I’m proud of the kids and thankful to Ebinezer, Kelvin, and all the other teachers and sponsors who helped make it happen. Still, I have some lingering regrets, which I’ll get to soon.
I came up with the idea for the day when I was going for a run on the beach. It was covered in trash. I was leaping over sachets and old flip flops, and I felt like I was in one of those video games where you have to avoid the alligators or hot lava. This is really sad, I thought.
I remembered a man I’d met at a recording session with the JAC the week before, who’d just been working in Ada Foah with endangered turtles. He said that there was not much environmental awareness in the area, and that people struggling to get food each day could hardly afford to care. It occurred to me, hey, I’m at a school, working with kids. I can do something about this.
I thought back to the diversity and activism days we’d had at my small Brooklyn high school, Berkeley Carroll (BC). I wanted to have a day like that here focused on the environment, along with a beach clean-up. I figured I could start off the day by talking about global warming and environmentalism; we could do a line-walk activity like the Walk of Privilege we used to have at BC (the whole school lines up and we read off statements like, “Step forward if you reuse your plastic bags and bottles,” or, “Step backward if you don’t have access to running water in your home”); we could train a group of students to lead discussions; and we could have a beach clean-up competition with sponsors and prizes.
Ebinezer and I got Brightest Restaurant to provide lunch to the winning team. Kelvin helped us get Club Rubstone (pronounced Robstone – also the place where we’re putting on the play) to throw a little party give sodas (“minerals”) and biscuits to the winning teams. We contacted the Department of Sanitation, and with only a week’s notice (we did this thing spoontaneously), it was too late for them to provide latex gloves. They would like to participate in the future, though, and they agreed to help us dispose of the trash afterwards, so that we wouldn’t have to burn it in a pit the way we usually do. (It’s seriously disgusting, you can’t walk through the town without smelling burning trash. Barbeques are never going to be the same to me. There is no adequate waste disposal here, so the people have no choice.
Ebinezer and I went by Radio Ada, the local station, and asked them to announce the day on the radio. Mr. Isaac, the nice man there, thought our project sounded great and invited me to come back and talk on the radio. That’s what I did this morning, which was pretty cool, though I didn’t get to hear the interview they put on tonight because I’m in Accra.
Ebinezer and Kelvin were all excited about Environmentalism Day and said they would continue it every year after I’m gone. I was thrilled. And then, I was disappointed, a little.
I led a couple of prep sessions with my Environmentalism Day leaders. I gave them a 101 on the environment (which they sorely needed), challenged their ideas (“okay, but why do you think that”), had them challenge me (some of them didn’t actually think global warming was bad at first. They said, “Hey, we like the sun.”), came up with discussion questions (“How can we deal with waste better and conserve more?”), and practiced icebreaker games (does anyone out there know the game, “I like people who like”?). It was intense, and we left the sessions feeling invigorated. I told them, “I’m counting on you to inspire your classmates.” They nodded.
On the day of, the kids had a blast with the beach clean-up. They got really into the competition and loved the prizes. They were collecting trash on the way over, and we had to stop them so that we could finally get to the beach.
The environmentalism part, though, I’m not so sure they got. Listening in on some of the discussions, I could tell they didn’t always know what they were talking about. They would say things like, “We have to stop throwing our trash on the street because it is heating the earth.” They had all these concepts and information being thrown at them, and I guess it got jumbled. They were earnest and they meant it, but they didn’t really get it.
One of the discussion questions was, “Make a list of the top 5 problems in the world. Is global warming on that list?” Practically every group had global warming as number one, even though that morning during the line-walk, hardly anyone stepped forward for, “if you could have given a definition of global warming before today.”
“Really?” I said to the group. “You all think that global warming is the number one problem? Yesterday you didn’t know what it was.” They stared at me. “Why? Why do you think global warming is so important?”
Finally, one of the boys spoke up, “Because we need to take care of our Earth so that we can keep on living.”
(Interestingly, most of the groups’ other top world problems were natural disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes, and tornadoes. I guess things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America’s occupation of Iraq, the modern slave trade, incarceration rates, and even poverty don’t make it into conversation much here.)
At the end of the day at Rubstone, we had an open circle where people could come forward and share thoughts, reflections, or something they’d learned, à la Berkeley Carroll diversity day. No one stepped forward. Kelvin asked the group leaders to say something, and they all spoke about how proud they were of their groups for the clean-up competition. None of them said a word about the environment, until Christian, the last leader, whose group had gotten first place. He just added, “and for helping global warming!” The kids cheered.
I don’t expect them to suddenly be environmental activists, and I know it’s going to take more than a day for environmentalism to sink in. I’m glad I helped to get the conversation started, and I’m glad they’re going to do it again next year. I hope a few of them go home and get their families to start recycling water sachets (there’s a company that will pay you for them!). I hope they try to reuse plastic bags and bottle more, and not toss their trash on the street. Maybe some people will take in what I said on the radio. Maybe a government official will hear my plea for better waste disposal in the area. Still, I felt a little sad as I picked up discarded biscuit wrappers of the floor of Rubstone, just hours after we’d cleaned the beach and talked about better waste practices.
I do think the day had an impact on some of them, though. For the others, I say, next time, and the time after that.
Friday, June 26 continued
About 20 minutes later, Mr. Caesar walked back in holding two students, one boy and one girl.
“See, we were just talking about students misbehaving, and look what happens when I leave the classroom to get some chalk,” he said, opening his palm to show two white sticks. “I come back and they are all fighting. Look what he did to her eye.”
The girl had two drops of blood in the corner of her eye. The boy was hanging his head.
“I told you I would try other ways, but this is unacceptable,” Mr. Caesar said.
“What happened?” I asked the students, getting out of my chair and sliding around the desk. “Wait, first, what are your names?” Let’s call them J and B. “You hurt her?” I said to J, crouching down so that I was at his eye-level.
He shook his head.
I turned to the girl, B. She said he’d been mad at her for talking but she wasn’t, and then he hit her with his pen. I asked J, and he said he didn’t think she had been talking, he’d just turned around and hit her with his pen by accident.
“Well, I don’t know what happened,” I said, “but either way, you were misbehaving, J, and you hurt her, and that’s one of the worst things you can do. You should never hurt your classmates. Can you please apologize to B? Are you sorry for what you did?”
J nodded and mumbled something.
“I can’t hear you, what did you say?
He spoke a little louder and said what I gather was “sorry” in Dangme, the local dialect.
“Can you look in B’s eyes, and say it in English too?”
J glanced up and mumbled, “Sorry.”
The teachers were fidgeting at their desks. They itched for their canes. “Kneel over there!” one of them said.
“Give me this, please?” I said shrilly. “J, I’m trying to get you not caned. Please look at B and apologize like you mean it.”
This time he did: “I’m sorry, B.”
“B, do you accept his apology?”
She nodded. “I forgive you.”
“Thank you. Now J, what you did was serious. I don’t want them to cane you, but it can’t go without punishment. I need you to write me a letter explaining why you’re sorry and it won’t happen again. I don’t want excuses, I want to see that you understand and are truly sorry. If the letter is good, I will ask the other teachers to consider not caning you. Okay?”
“Bring it to me at your next break.”
Mr. Caesar brought the students back to class, and I sat at my desk with a sigh of relief.
One small victory? Let’s hope that letter’s good.