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Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Story Book Ending

                It’s now been six months since I returned from Guinea. Going along with the barrage of clichéd feelings I’m experiencing, I must admit change is hard. Since leaving Guinea, I’ve seen 10 other countries, rediscovered my loving family, started two jobs, applied to grad school, and I’ve never been so restless in my entire life.

                I may post another, more cathartic, blog in the future, but I still want to keep my promise to my “readers” (I think they’re out there) about staying positive. So instead of a weepy, emotion-filled story about my feelings, I’m going to write about a weepy, emotion-filled story about my students and my last day of school.

                It’s no secret that teaching was not my true calling in Guinea, but I dedicated no less time or effort because of that. My school was my primary goal and I did my best to keep it that way, though malaria work was a close second. The students of Le Collège de Wonkifong still spent two full school years with me, and for my 8th-10th graders that was a lot of time. I went from a scrambled mess of papers and chalk dust to a composed educator striving to reach my students and push them to achieve more. I can remember so many instances of walking away from a full day of teaching just feeling defeated and wondered whether anyone learned anything that day. After my last walk home from school, I’ll never wonder that again.

                The day started like any other, I woke up, ate some oatmeal, drank my instant coffee and left Monkey asleep in the living room. Heading to school I knew that it was probably my last day. I say “probably” because the end date of classes in Guinea isn’t a firework-finale like we know it in the States. Instead, the students gradually stop showing up until the teachers give up teaching and admit that there are no more exams for the year. On this particular day, I figured I’d be one of a few teachers to actually show up. I found I was wrong, I was the only teacher there that day. With the lack of educators, I combined all of 10th grade (normally two classes of about 45) with all of 9th grade (one class of normally 55) to make up one class of 45 students.

                Feeding off of my excitement for the culmination of two years of teaching, I had spent the few days prior trying to think of fun activities followed with an Oscar winning speech for a “drop the mic and walk away” moment. I had nothing. As I began the class, I kept to routine and wrote the “Warm-up Activity” on the board. These questions are normally pretty easy, based off of what I had taught the week before, and most of all, made up on the fly. I began writing an English question about articles and verbs when I thought of a better question: “Qu’est-ce que vous avez appris de Monsieur Issiaga?” (What have you learned from Mr. Issiaga?) I explained that I wanted them to write what they had learned from me over the past two years. Not just chemistry and English but anything at all. I followed it up with the fact that I wouldn’t read their responses until I was back home in America. I was proud to see most students putting in a lot of effort to their responses. A few even asked if they could use more than half a sheet of paper, which was the standard for Warm-up Activities. I gave them extra time, using it instead to collect my thoughts and plan last hour as Mr. Issiaga.

Please ignore the mustache.
                I passed around a manila envelope for their responses and sealed it in front of them. The only fully planned activity for the day was to read the story of Cinderella. Thanks to the efforts of other volunteers who had organized a “mini-book” project, I was able to provide paper versions of the story for every student. We read it through together and I identified difficult words. Despite the story being written in French, many students still struggled to follow the action, so I would pause to retell major parts of the tale. I had promised myself that it would be a fun and happy day but I still ended up scolding multiple students- bad habits are hard to break.

                After the story was done, I knew it was no use trying to keep them much longer. I joked around with them for a bit then felt I had their attention enough to give my little speech. Based off of my earlier question, I began to tell them what I hoped they had learned from me.
                                “To all of you, I hope you have learned some chemistry and some English. I hope you’ve learned that education is important and that it can lead you to something better than what you have now.
                                To the girls, I hope you have learned that I believe in you. That you are as smart and as important as any boy in this classroom. I hope I’ve inspired you to reach higher because I know what you are capable of when you try your hardest. ***eyes starting to tear up***
                                To the boys, I hope I’ve taught you respect. How to respect each other, how to respect the girls, and how to respect yourself. ***voice rising as I hold back tears***
                                I hope that you all will never forget me because you have taught me so much and I know I will never forget you. No matter where I go, I will always remember my students from Le Collège de Wonkifong. ***crying**”
                I took a depth breath to collect myself before I went to grab my bag. As I stood still for a few seconds, I noticed how many students, boys and girls, were crying with me. This touched me deeply, knowing how hard it is for Guineans to weep. They cry out all the time, but to come to tears is something that makes them thoroughly uncomfortable. But now, I had students openly crying at their desks. Finally, one student raised his hand timidly. A bit surprised, I called on Alseny Mariama Camara. He asked me if he could give me a hug. Laughing, I said of course, explaining that a group hug would be totally normal for this situation in America. I was quickly surrounded by the entire class. Each pushing in closer trying to give me an individual hug. I can’t express how I felt in that moment, just the best feeling.

                Breaking away after 5 minutes of hugs, I grabbed my bag and went to the main office to calm down and chat with my principal/counterpart Mr. Pepé. I resurfaced after I felt like my eyes weren’t so puffy and saw that all my students were still in the classroom I left them in. I should have suspected but they were all waiting for the photo opportunity that I had denied them for the past two years. The cell-phone photo shoot lasted 45 minutes.

                I photographed my last walk home and then sat on my porch like I would have on any other day. But this time I sat and reflected on the greatest feeling of accomplishment and pride that my students had given me that day.