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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Often at night as I drift into sleep, my reflections are accompanied by native drums in the far off distance. They provide a rhythmic backdrop to my thoughts, a circling back over the events of my day. More often than not, they usher my worries about tomorrow into the night air as I focus on the “tah tah bi tum, tah tah bi tum” of two, four, maybe six palms sliding across tightly strung goat hides worn smooth by repetitive sweeps. Sometimes, I think about who the musicians are and why they are beating their tam tams. Are they communicating a coded message to the universe? Talking to their God? If so, what are they saying? Are they lamenting their hardships or celebrating their fortunes? Of course, the magic lies in the absence of words--the drums carry different messages for us all. I like to think they are offering up a prayer of sorts, one that says something like, “Life is hard at times, but thank you for another day. May tomorrow be bet-ter, bet-ter, bet-ter.” At least, this is what the drums convey to me and I try to heed their call, try to employ gratitude for the good things that have come our way. As the difficult stuff inevitably floats into my mind, the hard-put questions, the worries, there is something about the constancy of descending and ascending hands that answers back firmly: “stop, stop, stop.”

I went back to school recently. Not to learn, at least not directly, but to teach English to pre-schoolers at the Kalan International School here in La Somone. The night before I started, beckoning sleep, my stomach fluttered and my mind flustered and posed all sorts of doubts and apprehensions amid the distant drums. I was nervous on behalf of Jamie and Sunny, who would also be starting their first day of school in Africa. How would they adapt, culturally and linguistically, with new children, the French they barely spoke and two or three words of Wolof? And what about my new role? Was I equipped to teach small children? One ordinary day, an acquaintance had said, “I’m thinking of starting a new school here. Would you be interested in teaching English?” I can’t say why, but it was as if I had been waiting my whole life for this question to be asked. “Yes” was my answer, spoken with unwarranted confidence. But on this eve of dawning actuality, I began to question myself. Before raising my own, my experience with children was limited to semi-regular babysitting as a struggling post-college New Yorker. I remember being terrified on one particular evening when I arrived to sit for a little boy and was greeted with his two additional friends and a craft project that his mother had laid out: construction paper, scissors, glue, glitter, the works. A wrench had been thrown into my normal routine of Mickey Mouse and mac ‘n cheese. As she wove through the chaos of three grabbing, crying three-year olds and made her way casually toward the door, panic flooded every cell in my body. “But, what are we doing with all this?” I shouted above the din. “Whatever you feel like,” she called over her shoulder. “By the way,” she added just before closing the door behind her, “the TV’s broken.”

I don’t remember the specifics of how I got through that night, but the memory of feeling incompetent and unprepared rushed back at me as if it were yesterday. As I layed awake trying to imagine how I would feel in the morning as I greeted sixty-five children, the drums mocked, “knock, knock, knock” . . . “Dumb, dumb, dumb” . . . "thrum, thrum, thrum."

The air was cool and a light breeze flapped the flags around their small wooden poles on that first morning at school as I stood holding hands with Jamie and Sunny (perhaps a little more tightly than I should) waiting for things to start. The flags represented the various nationalities of the students: Senegalese, French, Belgian, Iranian, Lebanese, Spanish, Brazilian, American (my own two) and Guinean. In my mind, I rehearsed the simple song I had made up to initiate my students into the world of English: (to the tune of ‘Frere Jacques’)
Good morning,
good morning
Now it’s time to learn,
now it’s time to learn,
English, English.

I had finally allowed sleep to come after the song came into my mind the night before. I had been so satisfied with this simple ditty, which now, in the light of day, seemed inadequate to me. Soon, the children began filtering in, clinging to their parents. I stood frozen beside my children knowing that I needed to let go, just simply step into, my new role as teacher. And then someone tugged at my dress and a new part of my life was set in motion.

That first day passed in a whirlwind of tiny unfamiliar faces and chaotic attempts at structure amid the heart-wrenching cries of children wanting only to return home to their parents. Within twenty minutes of arrival, three children had set off a crying chain that quickly rose to a crescendo of utter devastation. Seeing my colleagues and myself as nothing less than prison wardens and the school as colorful captivity, the children’s resistance was exhausting. Our schedule for the day went out the window at 8:15 a.m. Any attempt at organization gave way to the constant need to pick someone up, pat them on the back, wipe their nose, whisper comforts into their ears, and hope for the best. The crying went in waves with small periods of calm interspersed between bathroom trips, snacks, hand-washing and one disastrous attempt at a craft project (which felt all-too familiar). The director of the pre-school division, a petite and lovely woman from Belgium, lost her color early on but never her composure. I watched her carefully as she moved easily and assuredly from group to group, handling each situation with aplomb, in hopes of learning something from her. Getting through the day became a question of survival. My biggest struggle became understanding the Senegalese children as they spoke to me in Wolof. At one point in the day, when no one was available to translate, I decided to wing it. Afterall, I wasn’t a complete novice--I had a solid base in Wolof. After I asked a little girl to repeat her request three times, I triumphantly handed her a glass of water. I discovered quickly that what she had really asked for was to be taken to the bathroom. The results of my mistake were disastrous, both for her dress and my left shoe. Never again would I mistake “saou” for “n’dor”!

I understood early on that first day, that for some of the Senegalese children, this school represented a world of new opportunities for them. When I presented a little boy with a basket of crayons and asked him to choose one, he looked up at me curiously and asked, "are they salty or sweet?" For many, this first day of school meant the first time they had played with a toy or held a crayon in their hand, heard a language other than their own, seen or touched a book, held hands with a white person. How much we take for granted, how much we have to learn.

As with all new experiences, the anticipatory anxiety, the way in which we play out scenarios in our minds, express fears, imagine outcomes, is always more stress-inducing than the actual event. I suppose this is our way of preparing our psyche for a worst case scenario, of exposing our insecurities so that we are prepared when faced with adversity. But somehow, when we are in the present, living the new situation, we always get through it, often exceed our own expectations. Maybe even surprise ourselves. And if we are lucky, laughter has been a component of our day and lightness allows us to continue with a new grain of confidence.

As the weeks have gone by, somehow, it has all come together. There is a familiar structure and routine, laughter has replaced the tears of the unfamiliar and learning takes place despite differences in skin-color, culture, capacity and language. Sunny and Jamie have adapted to their new school with astounding ease, communicating with their new friends in a myriad of ways. I have found an unexpected confidence and joy in teaching these children, who like tiny sponges, soak up all we have to teach them with endless thirst. Although my role is to teach, there is an inevitable symbiosis that has taken place. My French and Wolof have improved tremendously, my understanding of the nature of children has expanded, as has my patience, my creativity and my capacity for love.

While my days are ushered into night atop the slow, steady refrains of drum notes filtered by the wind and the waves, I am reminded of the undeniable strangeness of living in Africa and I in turn feel like a stranger. But the morning tells a different story. In the morning, as I stand holding the door open, welcoming sixty-five small children to school, sixty-five smiling portents of the future, I am reminded sixty-five times that there are no barriers to learning and loving. Sixty-five times, small fingers grasp my own and I am greeted by each small voice in English . . . “Good Morning, Miss Ellen.” And the message is clear and hopeful: we are one, we are one, we are one.


  1. May I borrow your goodmorning song, please? I can pass my songs on, but I make the tunes also, so you'll have to guess.

    Because its fall, I give them all leaves to use with this one:
    Leaves are falling
    Leaves are falling
    to the ground
    to the ground
    Leaves are falling
    Leaves are falling
    all around
    all around

    The magic lies in giving them the leaves to hold and flutter.

  2. That was just so beautiful. I am so excited to show my little boy what crayons are. Are you trying to make a pregnant lady cry, Ellen?