School’s been in session for almost a month, and the first of our three terms will end in just a few weeks. I haven’t accomplished much as a teacher in this short time, but I’ve been experiencing what I longed for and predicted, optimistically, when the walk to school still wracked my nerves on my first week: a gradual getting used to and an increasing sense of ease.
I teach 12 periods a week, 6 periods with S1 students (they’re between 12-17 years old, in the rough equivalent of 6th grade), and 6 periods with S2. My colleagues teach around 35 hours a week, so I often feel guilty lounging in the staff room or showing up late to school while they teach 8 different lessons a day, back to back. Then again, my job is supposed to encompass much more than teaching alone, and truthfully it has. I chat at length with teachers about random topics, answer random questions about literature, grammar, physics and computers (don’t know what I’d do without Wikipedia and Google), and chat with students while they’re lingering outside their classrooms during free periods. It’s tacitly understood that it’s my prerogative and responsibility to seek out opportunities to support teachers and converse with students as often as I can. I’ve been wandering into classrooms where teachers are absent to meet students of different grade levels and help them practice English by initiating discussions or answering their questions.
At first, leaving the teachers’ room and crossing the threshold of my classrooms took a good bit of courage, especially during the first week, when 50 to 60 students were packed into a single room before they were divided into smaller sections. Despite the moment of anxiety that precedes my getting up out of my chair in the teachers’ room and taking a step towards my classroom, I’ve noticed that my perception of the students is far different now than it was in October, when I first came to visit. They don’t intimidate me because I give them the benefit of the doubt. I assume the best about their giggles and whispers, shy smiles and stares. When their manners and expressions were completely foreign to me, and I was only too familiar with my own insecurity and dread as a relatively clueless English teacher, I could cast a sinister light on just about anything they said or did in my regard. I sincerely believe that the innocence, goodwill, and kindness I perceive in my students now is accurate, at least far more accurate than anything my pessimistic imagination previously produced. They’ve proven as much with their attention and work, their earnest questions and participation in class. Most days, when I stride into my classroom, I feel that the energy is good, that my students have been waiting to listen. They (generously?) chuckle at my bad jokes, and I feel their silent gazes of anticipation; I see them crack smiles of benevolent amusement as I speak Kinyarwanda in class, to translate English, explain directions, and show them that it’s okay to be vulnerable (and incorrect) in a new language.
Some days I still long to remain in the safety of the staff room, rather than venture outside and stand in front young crowds as they laugh, ask questions, and inevitably broach semi-inappropriate topics: are you married? Do you drink beer? What’s that tattoo? But every day, they also manage to defeat my suspiciousness and unease. Sometimes it’s the comical, endearing height difference among our students, some four feet tall, others past six feet and twenty-five years old, disarms me. It’s the earnestness of students who want to practice English with me, and the over-the-top showmanship of others who either want to flirt or entertain themselves as I try to respond to their amusingly personal questions. It’s the fact that they approach me about meeting after school to practice English, to study novels, to learn grammar, and have debates. At the end of the day, I can walk upstream among students, down the steep path towards the teacher’s room, riddled with ill-fitted bricks, without feeling self-conscious or out of place among them.
I’ve grown a tougher skin, and I’ve learned to improvise based on the way my students respond to me on a given day. I’ve come to terms with the fact that my lessons are actually supposed to be more free than those of my colleagues, since what I really have to offer is my conversational fluency, the ability to help them practice speaking and listening. I found this kind of fluidity disconcerting at first, but I’m beginning to consider myself lucky…I can choose to have fun with my students, and essentially think of productive but creative ways to elicit English from them. During the first week of school, I went to class with the vague intention of teaching something about articles and testing their knowledge of verb tenses, but we wound up practicing the verb ‘to try’. Little by little, almost all of the students became eager to share something about themselves with this verb. First, the present: “I try…”, then the past, “I tried…”, then the future, “I will try…” Previously silent students began to speak up and raise their hands, their eyes brightened with interest and I finally began to receive non-generic answers that really came from their own, personal experiences.
I’m one of two female teachers at my school; my headmaster, our dean of discipline, and 16 other teachers are all men, most of them relatively young. I’ve found it surprisingly easy to befriend them and fit into their dynamic. Each day, I understand more and more the way the other teachers interact, their brand of goofy, slapstick humor. They come to me, more and more, for advice and for help, and include me in their banter. I’ve claimed a seat of my own, between two other teachers I get along with particularly well. One I collaborate with because we’re both S1 English teachers, the other is a funny and warm Geography teacher. We have our own table, and at this point it feels like my territory as much as theirs. They patiently translate the banter of our colleagues and the announcements of our headmaster, we talk about how hungry we are, make fun of the mountains of food they serve themselves, and laugh about stupid things. I’ve symbolically taken ownership of a cardboard box to store the few grammar books and papers I’ve accumulated thus far, following the example of other teachers in anticipation of the work I’ll give and do…everyone else’s boxes are already overflowing after years of use.
I savor the little things that gradually bring me into their fold as we experience them together: the four basins of beans and maize bread that we all share at lunchtime, the fact that I can sit back, comfortably and serene, when I watch them converse animatedly without understanding, yet without feeling awkwardly out of place either. It’s the way one teacher greets me in Swahili every morning just to mess with me, because I never understand what he’s saying, the way another tells me about his morning jogs, and the handful of times they’ve said they feel lucky to have me and that I’m welcome. It’s how they chat with our students and care for them, in their own way. It’s the compassion they have for students who struggle in different ways – those who are poor, who live far away, who are refugees – the care with which they respond to students who misbehave, and the rules to which they make sure students adhere. It’s the combination of hard work and untimely, nonchalant flexibility that simultaneously characterizes their attitude towards school, somehow. It’s the way they all share a single mug for water, and the fact that the key to the one latrine for teachers is missing half of the time. All in all, it’s the slow embrace of this school, which feels more and more like home.
I’ve found in these teachers, among others, unlikely friends. But friends they really are. Spending so many hours together I’ve come to know them much more quickly than I expected. They’ve stared at my tattoo and tentatively touched its scabs, seen pictures of my family, and watched me trace the trajectory of my flight from Virginia to Rwanda four months ago. I’ve learned the names of their kids and learned what makes them laugh, which ones like to stay quiet, when and why. We’ve pored over sonnets and I finally convinced them that my hair IS naturally this color, texture, and length. We’ve discussed why I’m not married, and made fun of the ‘old’ 30 year old bachelors among us. I’ve asked a million questions, and so have they. I shuffle in and out of classrooms just like they do, because for some reason they’ve chosen to trust me with their students, despite my inexperience, my comparative youth, and my unfamiliarity with it all. They have some kind of mellow faith in me that gives me calming determination, as well as the equally calming assurance that little by little, I’ll know what I’m doing and do it (relatively) well.