Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Africa

at Two Writing Teachers!
Those tests are nestled tight in my magenta accordion folder, waiting to be graded.  I can hear them calling to me from the layers of polka-dot file folders that are enveloped by the bright outer plastic.

But the sun is shining.  And this story has been calling to me too.  It's been calling for seven weeks now, patiently tumbling around inside my head.  Some days it just whispers, but on Tuesdays it pokes and prods and screams.

So today, I spread open the drapes, settle onto the bed, and take a few deep glances out the window.  Slanting sunlight on the slanting roof, green leaves still obscuring the orange and red ones across the street.  I breathe in the world.  Time to write...

It's Friday afternoon of the first week of school and my advanced class is halfway through their country sharing.  A Mexican-American boy and girl have just finished a spontaneous joint sharing session because, coincidentally, they both brought images of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  After a spirited discussion about Mexico, Mary, Catholicism, and religions, the usual between-presentations chaos fills the room for a minute: whispering, giggling, squirming.

W. gets up and touches the SMARTboard to make a star on the map for where he's from.  The star lands on the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"What did you bring to share?"  I prompt him.
"I have a map of Africa."
Uh oh, kinda missed the point.  There's not much to share about a map.  My brain starts spinning with guiding questions.  "What do you want to tell us about Africa?"

"In Africa, life is very hard."  His rich, musical accent is a soft but deep rumble through the room.  I lean forward to try to decipher the words through the accent.

"What'd he say?" I'm not the only one who's having a little trouble.  A few giggles scatter through the room.  They aren't mean giggles.  The kids are just hyped up from the liveliness of the last presentation and it's hard not to be filled with a kind of curious delight as you listen to the rhythm of his voice.

"He said life is hard there.  Why is it hard, W.?"

"In Africa, many people can't get a job.  There is not enough food.  Sometimes you only eat 1 meal a day."  The room is still now.  No whispering, no squirming, definitely no giggling.  "That's why many people want to come to America."  W. shuffles around in front of the room and scratches his head.

Time for one of those guiding questions my brain was working on earlier.  "What was school like in your country?  What do you think of our schools here?"

W. grins and nods.  "Oh, America schools is so good.  They give you books to study."

"So in your country, you didn't have books at school?"

"If you pay, you can have a book.  But books is expensive and so many people cannot pay to have a book.  Here, it's easy to study because everyone can have a book."  Now the kids are leaning forward, eyes shining with interest.  "And school language is French, but at home we speak Lingala."

A hand shoots up off to my left.  "Wait, so you speak TWO languages?!"
"3 -- don't forget English!" I add.

W's bright white teeth light up his face.  "I speak four languages: Lingala and French, also Swahili and [he makes some clicking noises]."  Whoa. I've never actually met someone who spoke one of those clicking languages. So cool.  

"That's 5 -- don't forget English!"  I grin at him.  He shrugs as if he's not so sure if he should count English just yet.

The astonishment and admiration swirling inside me are mirrored on the faces of the other students.
"No way!"  "5 languages!"  "That's so cool!"

More hands shoot up. "What do you eat in your country?"  He mentions a few special dishes and then, "We eat dog and cat.  Here nobody would eat it but it's so good."

"Dog and cat?"  "You actually like it?"  "Does it taste like chicken?"

"Oh yes, cat is sweeter than chicken. I wish I could go back to my country just to eat cat!"

Nobody says "eww" or "gross".  Their heads are full of new thoughts: eating only once a day, having to buy textbooks, and speaking five languages.  And yes, eating cat.

New thoughts make minds grow.  Growing minds make a community.


  1. Jennifer I'm so glad you let this story shout out that it wanted to be told. It is so amazing to learn about the lives of our students but your students have additional layers to their lives. I am so in awe of those who speak multiple languages.

  2. Amazing. And to think of the things I complained about today. Nothing compares. What a story and I'm so glad you shared his story.

  3. I love your opening, Jennifer, made me want to read on so much! And the story is wonderful, that you've made such a safe community that he is willing to share some real things from his past. There is a CNA who cares for my husband, going to school nights to become a nurse, is from Cameroon, says he too speaks French & a number of other dialects. I think it's amazing too. He is also saving to help his wife & son immigrate here-they've been apart a lot of years! When we begin to know each other, just as you said so beautifully at the end: "New thoughts make minds grow. Growing minds make a community." Lovely!

  4. I "hear" the soft, deep rumble as it fills the room and lean forward, too. I loved the way you kept reminding him to count English. I also liked the contrast with the spontaneous, spirited discussion-both were such a part of the new thoughts that day that are creating the rich community in your classroom.


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