I Am a Teacher

Ndi umwarimu. 

I am a teacher. 

This is a scary identity to claim. Teaching terrifies me for many reasons, not least because it’s a task in which I might fail in front of a large group of people and then have to face them everyday and in which my failure might significantly affect their success. 

I feel underqualified and overwhelmed at every step of the process. 

I’m about to start my second week of model school. Model school consists of several hundred students willing  to show up each morning for classes at a local public school. It’s theoretically mutually beneficial—we get to practice teacing and they get a little between-terms education plus a pen and notebook each. 

The first day felt like drowning. 
There was a time, once, when I was swimming and the waves were too high and my legs were top tired and it took every ounce of effort I had to catch one more lungful of air each time I bobbed above the water and to hold it as I sank under. That is how teaching felt on my first day. 

I stood in front of about ninety primary 6 students and tried to teach them something—anything—and my hands shook and my heart tried to escape my ribcage, and I thought, This was a mistake. I can’t do this. 

But the next morning I walked back into that classroom. The students didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them, and I felt ineffective and miserable, and it was hard.  But it no longer felt like drowning. 

And by the third morning, when the kids rushed in and took their seats in a mob of pushing hands and kicking feet and shouting voices, I recognised a handful of faces. And when I stood in front of them and they chorused, ‘Good morning, teacher!’ I was able to muster an actual smile. 

Over the course of the week, I learned more than I could’ve imagined. 
I learned that the little girl in the yellow shirt knows the scientific definition for every word but may not actually understand the question. 

I learned that the older boy in the back has some sort of learning disorder and that asking him to come up and answer questions is both ineffective and unkind. 

I learned that the girl in the burgundy sweater has a vision problem but can do any assignment I give if I make sure she can see it and understand the directions. 

I learned that teaching children entirely in a language they barely speak requires patience on my part and tenacity on theirs and that learning happens when we all bend a little to accommodate each other.

I learned that this was not a mistake, and that I can do this. 

By Friday, when I said goodbye to them, I had fallen in love with that mob of bright eyes and loud laughter. 

I love their high-fives as they troop out the door, and I love the kids who circle back for a second one. 

I love the little girl who passed in the door to wink at me and the one who caught me after class to ask if I would be at the same school next week so she could still see me. 

I love their enthusiastic shouts when they know the right answer. 

I love the courage in their stammering when they know the right answer but have to frame it in a language their tongues struggle to form. 

I love that they try anyway. 

I am a teacher—not because of a qualification or a job title, but because of those children. 

Because by the end of the week,  the desk of boys at the back, who didn’t seem to understand a word for five straight days, were able to create a group project with correct ideas articulated in understandable English. 

Because I saw shy girls answering by the end of the week. 

Because they left singing the songs we had taught them. 

I am a teacher. There’s a lot to this identity. There are fears and aspirations, beliefs and doubts. There are students in my past and students to come in my future, and there’s a world of new experience waiting. 
But whatever is still to come, this identity is mine right now, thanks to a roomful of Rwandan children. 


Blank Page Phobia

Photo cred: Flickr user Matt Roberts

If there’s a trope in the writer world more cliche than “It was a dark and stormy night…” it’s the terror of the blank page.

We all face it—the emptiness like a white-out blizzard that might swallow us and numb us until the terror turns to frozen death—the fear we try not to acknowledge, hiding behind funny writer jokes and declarations of how much we adore creating worlds out of graphemes.

I face it when I sit down to the first daunting word of an assignment and when I open a document for a new story. I face it two paragraphs in, when the rest of the page stretches like the wilderness at the crumbled end of an abandoned sidewalk. I face it when I open a new blog post like this one and wonder yet again if I have anything to write that’s worth posting.

The world is full of shouting voices. The internet is a veritable sea of people waving their arms and shouting, “Over here! Hey! I’m right here!” and “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” And somewhere, in the midst of that, in a world where 6.7 million people blog on blogging sites alone and and somewhere between 600 thousand and a million books are published each year in just the US—somewhere, buried in the noise and the chaos, each of us hopes to be heard.

Photo cred: Flickr user steve

That blank-page-phobia isn’t really about coming up with the right words. It isn’t “What if I have nothing to say?”

It’s “What if nobody cares?”

Our greatest fear isn’t of being silent, but of being silenced.

We fear obscurity. We fear redundancy. We fear the “so what?” factor—that the words we feel to be so intimately a part of us will be met with apathy if we open them to the world.

We are portrayed time and again as a selfish culture—all of us, whether as a country or as a generation—but the truth is that we don’t shout for attention because we’re narcissists. We shout because we’re desperately lonely. In a world where all of us plead for attention, most of our voices mingle into unintelligible noise.

As writers, we’re told to churn out material constantly. The most oft-repeated advice I’ve heard is, “Write every day.” Write because practice makes perfect. Write because the more pieces you put out, the more likely one or two of them will float to the top of the pile and gain notice.

Write. Write. Write.

And I stare at the blank page and tell myself to write, and a small voice inside me whispers, “But what if nobody reads it?”

So today, I give you and me permission not to write.

To set the blank page aside and listen to one or two of the other voices screaming into the void. Today, let’s take the time to let some other lonely soul know that their voice is heard—that their words are not white noise—that the confessions of their heart are not redundant, not worthless.

And then, when we’ve done that, I give you and me permission to write.

To craft sentences and select words and make typos and finish—or not finish. To publish—or to not publish. I give us permission to write because we are writers and because the craft itself is a worthwhile endeavour. And I give us permission to love our writing even if nobody else reads it, to set our words aside if they do not contribute to the clamour of voices—or to lay our souls before the world, knowing that the act itself is meaningful, no matter the result.

Because none of us is silent. None of us is obscure. None of us is redundant. No matter how many voices drown us out, each of us matters.

Photo cred: Flickr user Amy Palko

Why I Shouldn’t Study Lifespan Psychology

You guys remember that first blog post, way back when summer sunshine still reigned and the trees had no premonition of the impending winter? That first blog post in which I promised to try something scary every week?

Like this. This is how the world looked back when I said that.

It turns out that scary things are…well…scary. They’re also not fascinating. The truth is that fear isn’t a novel plot. It’s not a lot of specific fears which I vanquish as I approach an exciting climax–a big fight where I, the main character, vanquish fear against all odds and send the denizens of terror fleeing before my epic main-character-ness before I go home to tea and scones and rejoicing. The truth is that life doesn’t get a tidy “happily ever after” tacked onto the end every time I do something right.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing something right.

I go to a lifespan psychology class twice a week. Last night I read two chapters of the textbook and slowly came to the realisation that probably I should not have taken the class. Because the book methodically goes through every stage of life and explains everything that could possibly go wrong, all the decisions and personality traits that signal horrible endings in the future, and common causes of death. To say the least, it’s depressing.

Also a little terrifying. I go through it thinking, “Oh no! I do that–I’ll never get a stable job!” and “Oh no! That’s my personality–I’ll never form deep relationships!” and “Oh no! I don’t exercise every morning–I’m going to die of heart failure at 45!”

It’s like this–a fast track to the future–except that instead of the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s a black hole.

Actually, to be completely honest, it makes it hard to get out of bed every morning. It simultaneously sets an impossible standard for a “good” life and gives a hundred reasons why I will never reach that standard. And it’s freezing outside. It’s becoming Antarctica, and I hate the cold–so why bother getting up if I’m doomed to failure anyway? I’ve taken to keeping my email closed so that I can’t see all the things I should be doing. I try not to think about the future, because my psych book has already told me there’s consistent disappointment waiting for me. I’m stressed now, and my textbook assures me that I’ll probably be stressed for the rest of my life. Stress will result in horrible mental, behavioural, and physical disorders. By middle age, I’ll be dying alone and miserable, probably homeless, on some street corner. Or maybe under a bridge.

Given my luck, it will probably be winter, and I’ll probably be living in Greenland, Siberia, or Alaska.

So why bother doing anything when just staying alive is terrifying? I guess the only answer is that even if my life has to read like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I have to live up to my status as the main character (which I’m not entirely convinced is the case, but for now we’ll go with it) and I have to keep fighting.

By which I mean that… I’m more frightened of failing my classes than I am of potentially dying on a street corner. Because my classes are immediate. The street corner…that’s pretty far off in the future.

So this week, I got out of bed. Every morning. I also did my homework, walked through snow, and went to work.

I’m feeling brave.