Everyone told me this trip would change me, but my friend Arline Saturdayborn, the mother of one of Waynflete’s finest, put a different spin on the saying. “You will become more of who you are, Sue Stein.” That’s what she said. I think I know who I am now. I am a teacher.
While in Zambia I visited several schools. I finally saw what my students have been talking about.
At each school I have had glimpses into what students have been telling me for years. Being here is giving me a slightly better understanding of the jump students and their families have made going to school in the United States.
There are government and private schools in Africa just as in the US. Students in Zambia (and it appears similar in Rwanda) go to Primary School for what would be our grades 1-6. At the end of Primary School, there is a test before beginning Secondary School. (In Zambia education is compulsory only until grade 7.) Secondary School is divided in two parts and after Secondary Three students again take another test which sets them on the course for their university or college selection. Many students end their formal education then, however, according to an article in the New African (May 2013) there is a “booming demographic” of young people in sub-Sahara Africa, and while now only roughly 30 % of students are completing their secondary education, that is up from 9% in 1975 (“Investing in Africa: A Future of Boundless Opportunity,” 13). At the end of Secondary Six students who “win” and achieve good scores are chosen by the government and earn a scholarship to the Government University. In Butare, I was given a tour of the National University of Rwanda by Paul and Letitia Runyambo’s cousin Celestine who is studying to be a lawyer.
Celestine is full of life and energy and explained to me how it is the Constitution and the upholding of it that makes his country different from others. He proudly tells me there is no capital punishment in Rwanda because the law is meant “to instruct, not punish.” Quite an approach from a country with such a painful recent history.
I have been told classrooms have 40-60 students per room, and students have many subjects to study like: Commerce, Agriculture, Business, English, Geography, Design. I have paged through some notebooks of students and seen meticulous renderings of the teacher’s exact words copied with precision. There are artistic renderings to accompany the notes. It is detailed and rote. Students are expected to memorize exactly what the teacher says. When tests are given to secondary students, they are expected to recall minutia derived from a wealth of possibilities. It is not like the SAT or ACT. It is a test directly derived from facts and information learned over a student’s lifetime.
Being at Kablunga Girls’ School gave me the opportunity to see a small slice of how that information is delivered. I was surprised they even let me in, but I just walked into the school, found the headmaster’s office and asked if she would consider letting me observe a classroom. She was a bit leery at first, but I kept talking and suddenly this big smile came over her and she said, “Fine.” My heart leapt up (to change the verb tense from William Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up”). I was going to be in a classroom! I was led to the teacher’s room where I met Nancy Moono and observed a team of professionals grading stacks of papers. I had 20 minutes to prepare a lesson on illiteracy in Kenya. I was interrupted in my rapid preparation by a teacher who explained that government schools suffer because private schools take all the best students, but later Nancy said she did not necessarily agree. I walked into a classroom of about 55 girls and began like any totally unprepared teacher from America would, “So, who knows where Maine is?” We went from there. At the end of class (thankfully, Nancy let us move rather quickly through the dense passage on illiteracy) I offered students candy or a pencil. Down to a person, they all wanted the pencils. I had to come back and give them more because I hadn’t brought enough. I walked “home” on a cloud. I had been in a classroom again. I felt alive.
I felt the same way yesterday taking a walk in Kibuye, Rwanda when I met some children on the road. We began talking (me practicing my Kinyarwanda, them their English), and they were excited when I told them I was a teacher. I asked if I could take their photo and they agreed. I have a beautiful picture of them holding a Waynflete pen, but after I took the photo an adult (and every adult here looks out for the children) said, “No photo” so I do not want to publish it. But oh the delight from a pen.
Let me end this entry with a poem Arline’s daughter Caitie Whelan (class of ’02?), sent me on the eve of my departure. It captures how it feels to know who I am again.
Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
where everything shines as it disappears.
The artist, when sketching, loves nothing
as the curve of the body as it turns away.
What locks itself in sameness has
Is it safer to be gray or numb?
What turns hard becomes rigid
and is easily shattered.
Pour yourself out like a fountain.
Flow into the knowledge that you are
finishing often at the start, and, with
Every happiness is the child of separation
it did not think it could survive. And
Daphne, becoming laurel,
dares you to become the wind.