During my time in Zambia, I have had the opportunity to teach English and math to grades three, four, and five. I am not a teacher, I have never been a teacher, and I don’t plan on being a teacher someday. So why am I doing this? What could I possibly bring to the table to help these wonderful students further their education? How can I, a man that has never been to college, be anywhere near qualified to help these kids? How can I do more good than harm? I don’t have the answers but I ask myself these questions often. While I think that there are people more qualified than me, I have moments where I feel like I am in the right place. When I first started writing this, I had been teaching for about two months. I thought that was enough time to reflect on where I was and what I was doing when my computer ate over half of my finished blog post. I decided to wait awhile before I attempted to finish this blog post again. That became a challenge because I have not been in the same optimistic mood that I was in when I first wrote this post. I’ve been going over my options, since the end of November, on how to move forward with this post. Should I try to finish the post as if my current feelings don’t exist and pretend to be overly optimistic? Should I completely rewrite this post in a way that accurately portrays my current feelings? Should I just drop this post altogether? I didn’t want to give up on the post, because the post is about my favorite experience here in Zambia, but I didn’t know if I could convey my feelings about it honestly anymore. Well, I awoke this morning and I had the idea to mix my original thoughts with my new feelings. My hope is that you can see how mixed my thoughts and feelings have become. If you want to play a fun game, you can try to guess where the original post ends and the new one begins.
I spend two hours a day with my grade five students. The class was a class of five students, but due to financial reasons, we now have only four. They are four very active boys ranging from age eleven to age thirteen. Over the past two months we have covered shapes and basic geometry in math class, we have worked out of the English book (which leaves me with questions about how much English is actually able to be taught from that particular book), and we have read a children’s version of Treasure Island. The boys really enjoyed Treasure Island and that excites me. You see, the children at the school have a varied level of English comprehension and reading capabilities. The contributing factors include; which schools they have been to before, their ability to maintain regular attendance, and if the child has any learning difficulties. This means that many of the children have a hard time reading and don’t have the desire to learn how to read.
When I started reading Treasure Island to them earlier this month, the boys soaked-up every detail. They loved the character Billy Bones and the songs he sings. They were concerned for Jim Hawkins when Israel Hands was chasing him on the Hispaniola. They booed when (SPOILERS) Long John Silver got away at the end (END SPOILERS). When we finished the book they were disappointed when I told them that the next book would not be read until the following school term in January. I think that the small selection of children’s classics might be the way to get them excited about learning to read. Since finishing Treasure Island, I have seen one boy in particular have a change of heart about reading. I’m not going to write his name here in my post, or include his photo, because I only have the child’s permission and not his parents’. The boy really wanted me to talk about him to people in America because he said that he “wants people to know that I am here”. That being said, I don’t want to constantly refer to him as him, my student, or the pupil, so I’m going to refer to him as Daniel.
One day, right before lunch, Daniel came to my desk and asked, “John, can I interview you?” I had no idea that this was going to happen and I was caught a little off guard. The only interviews I have ever had were job interviews and I don’t think of myself as someone that deserves to be interviewed otherwise. I said yes, but only on two conditions. The first was that we wait until lunch and the second was that I could ask him questions as well. He agreed and he waited patiently. When lunchtime came around, we both took out our food and started the interview. It is important to note that when he saw that all I brought was a sandwich and an apple, he wanted me to have his food. Of course I said no, but I think this shows his personality well. I’m going to include part of the interview but there is another important thing I want you to know about it first. Daniel has a really hard time reading and writing so between each answer I gave, I would spell out my answer to him.
Daniel: What is your whole name?
John: John Stuart Black
Daniel: How old are you?
John: 23, but I turn 24 at the end of the month.
Daniel: Where are you from?
John: The United States.
Daniel: And which state?
Daniel: What is your favorite food?
John: My family makes a special Mac & Cheese that I love. What is your favorite food?
Daniel: Not macaroni and cheese. I don’t like cheese; it makes me sick. I like chicken.
John: I understand why you don’t like it.
Daniel: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
John: I have one brother and no sisters.
Daniel: You only have one brother? What is his name?
Daniel: When do you leave Zambia?
John: Not until July.
This went on for quite some time. He asked questions about America, my family, and my likes and my dislikes. After a while I asked him a question that had been on my mind for the entire interview.
John: Can I ask you a question?
John: Why are you interviewing me?
Daniel: I want to remember you.
That sentence broke me and it was really hard to continue the interview. The way he answered the question confirmed that he was writing it for himself. The significance of this is that Daniel can’t read most words that are longer than a few letters long. This meant that he was writing it for a future version of himself that could read. It meant that a kid that really struggles with English sees it as something he will conquer. What he said also hit me hard because I have some self-image issues. I don’t think of myself as someone that should be remembered so to hear Daniel say that he not only wants to remember me but that he is going to do so by learning a skill that is challenging to him really shook me.
I still don’t think that I’m the most qualified person to teach these kids. I struggle daily with issues that a trained teacher would be able to handle with ease. With that being said, maybe I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. It has now been months since I started writing this post, and a lot has changed. I now teach math, English, science, and Creative Technology Studies to grades three and four. This means the grade five boys, which are now in grade six, no longer are a part of my daily teaching schedule. I still see them at school and I interact with them almost daily. Another one of the boys I taught comes into my class daily to ask me questions. He has been curious about space recently and wants to learn more about the planets. He asked me about Mars on Thursday and Neptune on Friday. I’ve been able to pull up pictures and facts about the planets for him and he is really fascinated by it. Additionally, Daniel has been asking me questions as well. I’ve been thinking about offering a reading club during part of lunch. I had the idea because the grade six boys have been curious about the book we are reading in class. The book is a children’s version of Moby Dick. Despite the fact that it is a children’s version, there are parts of it that are hard for me to read to my Zambian class. The phrase “savage” has been used to describe many characters, which is true to the original, but the phrase only is used to describe nonwhite characters. I’m seeing a book that I’ve read before through a completely new set of eyes.
I’m getting off topic and need to wrap-up this blog post. I know that even if I don’t help these students significantly in their education, I’m still impacting their lives. I have to remember that fact going forward so I can be mindful of the memories that I’m leaving them. I also have to remember to enjoy the way these kids are changing me.