Back at school we’re given the opportunity to address a class with some brief words of motivation. We’re instructed to take around five minutes and talk about our own education experience, perhaps working in the importance of staying in school and studying hard. I request to be sent to Grade 6 for this exercise in order to maximize my time with my reading partner, Teza.
I compliment the 6th graders on their beautiful country, and share with them my observation that Hope School students are friendly. And smart. And hardworking. Such affirmations prompt quite a commotion.
“Yes!” they shout louder and louder in response.
One boy mimes shining his shoes, riffing on an alternative English meaning for smart, (i.e. snappily dressed).
I double check with a native speaker that they understand my actual meaning to be intelligent. She nods and smiles and gives me the internationally recognized eye roll for Kids. What can you do?
I tell them I write. I tell them that to write, you need to have a story or experience or message to convey, and by virtue of their short lives they already harbor stories enough for a stack of pages. I urge them to ponder and consider writing down their stories; I assure them I’d like to read them, and others will, too.
I scan the faces, meet their eyes, and say, “I see teachers …”
“Yes!” they answer.
“Authors…businessmen…and businesswomen…and nurses…!”
One boy raises his hand.
“Pilot,” he says. “I’m going to be a pilot.”
“I’m sure you can do it.”
This spirited classroom’s teacher, Daisy, has a fortitude about her. A knowingness. Wonderful expressions play on her face as she interacts with her students; she has a winning demeanor for handling soon-to-be adolescents. She’s witty and unflappable.
The night before, over dinner, she shared some of her story with me. She got her teaching certificate in Lusaka, and was working there when her husband, a gemstone dealer, was attacked and killed coming home from the mines. Her second child was only three months old at the time.
She returned to the Copperbelt after that, explaining that she just had to get away. Both her children now attend Hope School, and I believe her son is in her class.
It was startling to hear such a tragic story. I placed my hand on her forearm and said, “You’re very strong.”
She lowered her head slightly, gritted her teeth, and gave me a friendly No shit, Sherlock look.
Teacher Daisy makes it a point to be very open with her sixth graders about hygiene, sex, and HIV. She says they may not get the frank discussions at home, but she will make sure they get them in her classroom.
She says, “I’d be killing them [to not encourage such a dialogue].”
“What do you most need?” I ask.
More books, teacher guides, atlases, and scientific instruments, she says. The students only ever see the latter in the pages of their books.
The above is excerpted from my photo essay and travelogue A Groupon to Africa, which will whisk you off on a feel-good, far-flung adventure on even the dullest day. Promise!