I began the second term with renewed determination to be a fun, original teacher equipped with exciting teaching aids. During the second week of school, propelled by fresh motivation, I presented my S1 students with a self-authored paragraph about my family’s customary celebration of Easter. What a great idea, I thought to myself, a creative, interesting, and (dare I say?) witty introduction to our unit on Holiday activities!
On Sunday afternoon, I meticulously copied my anecdotal text onto a rice sack with a Sharpie, and brought it to school with a roll of masking tape to stick it to the chalkboard. My first, unlucky victims are always the students of S1A; their class serves as the testing ground for my yet untaught lessons. On Tuesday mornings, I inexpertly pilot new methods and concepts with them to the benefit of S1B and S1C, who enjoy the modifications that my awkward transitions and confusing explanations in S1A subsequently engender throughout the week.
All kinds of unpredictable problems, both practical and intellectual, arise during the act of teaching that I can’t (or simply don’t) conceive of prior. On the morning of my Easter text’s debut, I rushed to school at 7:20, clutching an unwieldy assortment of materials. I’d cut out pieces of paper to cover several words of the text in the hopes of beginning my lesson with a listening activity in which students would guess the words I’d concealed. I arrived just a few minutes before class, and after scrambling for several minutes to tape the right sized pieces of paper over the correct words on my one square foot of desk space, I gave up, threw away the stupidly unlabeled scraps, and marched out of the teacher’s room with the rice sack’s fraying edges furiously trailing behind me.
I strode into S1A and taped my neatly scripted Easter passage to the wall with feigned confidence, filled with preemptive dread as the difficulty of the challenge I’d posed myself began to dawn on me. Since my planned introduction had quite literally fallen to pieces, I improvised something else: “Students! I want you to clap each time you hear a present tense verb while I am reading!” They stared at me, blankly. I repeated myself as simply as possible: “You will clap when you hear present tense.” Not even the slightest flicker of understanding rippled among them. Still, I forged ahead with dogged determination: I began reading painfully slowly and attempted to cue them with significant looks and emphatic enunciation. Even so, only a few students clapped, doubtfully, 5 slow seconds late in response to my exaggerated pauses rather than the text itself. Once we finally reached the end, I didn’t bother urging them to try again and do a better job. Instead, I looked at my students in mild exasperation tempered by the realization that even this seemingly simple exercise was unsuited to their skill level, too foreign to them as a quick, introductory warm-up.
We quickly abandoned present tense clapping, and began re-reading the passage in order to, well, actually understand what was going on. With every passing syllable haltingly uttered by the brave students who’d volunteered to read and the terrified students I’d forced to contribute, I became increasingly aware of how strangely we celebrate Easter, objectively speaking. I scribbled relevant, essential vocabulary on the board in a column flanking the rice sack: basket, hide, find, look for, candy, chocolate, bunny. When the Easter bunny made his appearance mid-text, I produced a chocolate colored stuffed rabbit from my bag, as well as a handful of cotton balls. My students gazed at me in wide-eyed wonder, and before I knew it I was gesticulating wildly, miming my parents’ filling an imaginary basket with ‘delicious things’ (my less than adequate translation of treats into Kinyarwanda). I found myself loping across the classroom pretending to hide the basket under a desk, then scattering cotton balls from my imaginary bed to the imaginary basket with the exaggerated stealth of an imaginary parent.
How insane I must have seemed, waving the bunny in the air, moving his little paw towards his tail to convey that he had supposedly plucked the trail of cotton balls from his own behind. In the captivated, both concerned and bemused stares of my S1A students I saw mirrored the pathetic, desperate frenzy of my supplementary acting. And yet, their puzzled little faces only fueled my fire as I abandoned my pre-written, English text and launched into an animated, almost supplicatory explanation of my parents’ well-intentioned deceit in Kinyarwanda, an increasingly urgent, last-ditch effort to make sense of my strange behavior and props.
By the end of our forty minutes, the floor of our classroom was littered with bits of cotton, and I’d only glimpsed a few signs of amused understanding in my students’ eyes, only elicited a few soft smatterings of hesitant, uncomprehending laughter at my crazy theatrics rather than their meaning. Exhausted and unconvinced that I’d managed to explain the Easter bunny and convey the comical absurdity of this tradition rather the comical absurdity of my strange lesson, I feebly concluded by asking them to share their own holiday traditions. Their answers rendered the nonsensical phenomenon of the Easter bunny, and the phenomenon of my outrageous explanation, even more ridiculous: “On Christmas, I eat meat.” “On Easter, I cook fish and rice.” And so on.
I decided to consider S1A’s reception a partial failure. Sure, some students had grasped and chuckled over the oddity of the whole thing, but what remained seared in my memory were the glances of lingering confusion, the moments of awkward silence in what should have been funny moments. They looked at me in dubious silence as I laughed at my own story, alone, a spectacle as bizarre as the tale I’d tried to tell. Afterwards, when I slumped back into my chair in the staffroom with a heavy sigh, I gloomily contemplated the prospect of repeating this impossible lesson in two other sections of S1. I peered at the sagging rice sack contemptuously, its plastic strings hanging limp and sad, and asked myself who had decided to celebrate Easter this way in the first place.
Fortunately, I didn’t entirely lose hope.
By the time the passage reached S1C, I’d become a skilled actress and elucidator of all things Easter. On Thursday, I unfurled my rice-sack with practiced confidence and slapped vocabulary words onto the board in a perfected order. There was no present tense clapping to speak of; I immediately chose one student to begin our recitation, and instead of waiting until my handful of student lectors had finally made it to the end of the passage to explain what the hell was going on, I carefully led them through it sentence by sentence, from one moment of Easter to the next. I whipped out the bunny and the cotton balls at the least confusing and most thrilling times, building suspense as I gradually set the scene in the calm, deliberate manner of a seasoned podcast host who reels you in with rhetorical questions and pointed transitional phrases, who speaks with a steady voice devoid of panicked urgency because they believe in their plan.
In what will likely be one of my greatest victories as a volunteer, the climax of my story, the ‘punch-line’ of my passage, was well – no, more than well – received. When we reached the sentence in which I declare that I knew my parents were lying to me about the Easter bunny, “because a bunny can’t buy candy or chocolate at the store,” S1C burst into uproarious laughter. When I revealed to them the fabricated source of the cotton ball trail, rolling my eyes in mock disapproval of the Easter bunny’s indecency, I wasn’t met with the nervous laughter of a skeptical audience I’d only half-reached, but with the full-throated bellow and sparkling eyes of a genuinely delighted, fully-comprehending crowd. This time, when I finished, I exited in triumph, the tendrils of my rice sack waving like proud (though weary) flags.