On Being a Teacher

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“MY STUDENTS!” Tanita screams, as she leaps up from the couch. I look down at my phone and see that it’s 5:59, and Tanita is about to be late for her 6 pm tutoring session. It’s Sunday evening and, like the vast majority of the students, me and my girls have been hanging out and enjoying the last few moments of the weekend before the week starts back up again. We’re watching a movie (The Notebook, because 16 year olds are 16 year olds everywhere you go) which Tanita has been dying to see ever since she devoured the book last year. She can’t stay to watch the end though, because her students are waiting for her.

Tanita is one of my 18 girls, now in her second year. She’s completely fluent in English (and French, and of course her native language, Kinyarwanda, and she’s in the process of learning Hebrew too) and she spends a lot of time thinking about her peers who are less linguistically advanced than she is. One of the major philosophies of the Village is that students should not spend their time thanking us – the educators, donors, or Village founders and leaders. Rather, our students are encouraged to use their skills to pay it forward, thus increasing the impact on the community. Tanita, whose talents, skills, and abilities can – and have, on several occasions – brought crowds to awed appreciation, has the potential to create breathtaking ripples of impact once she figures out how she’ll pay it forward.

She’s already begun though, with our first- year students. She works with Patrick, my current Minister of Foreign Affairs, who’s now in his fourth and final year at ASYV. Last year, Patrick started tutoring the first-year students – Tanita’s classmates – in English. He and Tanita became good friends through the Debate Team and when Patrick realized his schedule this year would be too difficult to maintain, he enlisted Tanita to pick up the tutoring baton. Pick it up she did, and now she, usually along with Patrick, and one or two occasional others, runs hour-long tutoring sessions three or four times a week.

I check in with Tanita sometimes to update her on what I’m teaching in class. I give her copies of classwork, tell her when my students have homework, and help her find resources whenever she asks. The rest is up to her. She schedules classes, takes attendance, and scolds students who miss class or come late. Yesterday she came to me asking for (read: demanding) printed lyrics to songs, as well as downloaded mp3 files of the songs, a flash drive to store the files on, and the Library speakers. Why? Because she wants to work on pronunciation this week and the best way to teach vocabulary and pronunciation and not bore the kids to death is to teach them a song. She’s a genius.

Back to Sunday. It’s now 6:30ish and my movie has ended. I’m walking home and I pass a building where I can hear a group of students singing. I sneak a look through the window and sure enough, there she is. My 16-year-old tutor, running a classroom of about 15 students, more or less her own age. She’s singing at the top of her voice, while the other students are hunched over the lyrics, doing their best to mimic her pronunciation. I spend about thirty seconds trying to decide if my presence will be distracting, and then I take a step into the room so I can enjoy them a bit more comfortably. Tanita catches me watching her and just smiles as she continues – she used to me coming over to watch kids do their thing, so she doesn’t falter when I invade her space uninvited. Her students smile a little self-consciously, but they know they’re being watched so they continue on attentively. Patrick sees me in the doorway and he comes over to say hi.

“This is amazing Patrick! I’m so proud of what you’ve started! I can’t believe all these kids are here on a Sunday afternoon.”

“I know! You can’t even understand,” he says, with his big eyes smiling the sheepish smile of a teenage boy whose been caught doing good.

“Can’t understand what?”

“You just can’t even understand how amazing they are! They’re all just such incredible students!” he responds.

“Oh Patrick,” I laugh, as I start to head back home, “I think I understand just fine.”

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The Kindness of Strangers

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’ve fallen soundly and deeply asleep against the window of the bus. I’m woken by a gentle tap, tap, tap on my shoulder. “Sister,” he says, “This is where you need to get off. Have a safe journey.”

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Zipping though the city on the back of a moto. HONK HONK. Another driver motions to mine that we should pull over. He shouts something at us in Kinyarwanda as he flies by, something that causes my driver to turn around and look at me. What’s happening? My driver looks down at me and pulls my legs further up on the foot pedals so I’m more secure. We don’t pull back into traffic until he’s satisfied I’m sitting as safely as possible.

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We’re at the market, eyeing a bundle of fresh mint leaves. We’ve never bought these before so we don’t know what a reasonable price should be, but we know we’re definitely being overcharged when the vendor says 700 francs. We haggle, and bring him down to 500. Just when we’re about to pay, a voice whispers in my ear.

“Don’t pay a franc over 200,” the voice says with a wink. I look up and see the vendor from the next stall has come over to interfere with the transaction. Thank you, we say to him, as we insist on the lower price. The vendor rolls his eyes and accepts our 200 francs, while his neighbor returns cackling to his own stand.

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The bus pulls over to let the young mother get off. She’s struggling with two bags and a small baby. She can’t manage the baby and the bags and we can see panic and frustration rising in her face. Like a well oiled machine, the people sitting closest to her spring into action. A split second later, the baby has been taken out of her arms and passed over to me, the closest passenger with two empty hands. Her bags are lifted out of the bus and a hand is offered to help her step over the other passengers and their various belongings. She steps off the bus, adjusts her bags, and looks up for her child, who is being gently and carefully passed through a window into her waiting arms.

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It’s late at night and I’m on my way back to the Village. I’ve already made arrangements to make sure there will be a moto waiting for me so I don’t have to stand alone at the station. I step off the bus and hear the familiar beep-beep of a moto. He takes one look at my short sleeve t-shirt and hands me a jacket to wear before we take off into the darkness.

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I’m lying in a hospital bed with a fever of 102. I’m asleep and awake at the same time and am suddenly aware of gentle hands smoothing my blankets. I open my eyes and discover that the mama from the next bed has come over to tuck me in. She brushes the hair out of my face and readjusts my pillow.  A short while later, the young man she came in with comes to check on me.

I heard the nurses say that you don’t have a caretaker with you – is that true?

Yes, but I’m fine.

You? You are not fine. Look at you. You are definitely not fine. But that’s ok because I’m here now and I’ll take care of you even though you think you are fine.

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We’re traveling through a busy city. The bus pulls into an unfamiliar station and I look up just in time to notice the man sitting next to my sleeping friend reach his arm across her body. I’m immediately alert and tense until I realize he’s just closing the window she’s resting against. He notices me watching him and says simply, “Someone might reach in and steal her phone.”

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We’re not lost, not yet anyway. We’re trying to explain to our moto drivers where we need to go, but it’s a bit outside the city and all we have is a simple map. No major landmark, no other way to explain where we need to go. We’ve never been there before, so we can’t even direct the drivers on the way.  As we’re trying to explain, more and more drivers approach. They discuss, they debate, they’re still unsure of where we need to go. A well-dressed man sees the commotion and comes over to investigate. His English is good and we explain where we’re trying to go. He knows the place and quickly explains to our drivers how to get us there. Thank you, we say, thank you so much.

Don’t thank me, he says to us. This is what we do. We take care of our families, we take care of our neighbors, and we take care of our guests. This is just what we do.