I’m never going back to Sankofa. As someone who feels emotions very quickly and deeply, and in a place where there’s less need to shove them away to get my homework done, I teared up. I wrote earlier about how quickly the kids started to feel like “my kids” and they still do. Class Four will forever be my first ever class, and my first ever full day of teaching. You feel responsible for their getting from Point A (known) to Point B (unknown) that you just want to put everything you have into getting them there.
“I’m glad you’re teaching, but what you are doing is a hard thing to do. Just have fun with the kids” a professor told me via e-mail after that first day. I read this as a gentle reminder to stay humble, not be the white savior, and avoid missing out on building relationships with the kids. From a man who’s incredible at balancing the teaching and the relationships part, I took it seriously and on the second day when I showed up to learn I would be teaching every class that day, I just kind of went for it all.
They quieted and we learned N. Science. A lanky boy with his uniform shirt half unbuttoned and slightly askew leaped up to get me the textbook. I took a guess at the last thing they’d learned by checking their notes. We discussed rusting. I made one overt concession to my American training and socialization and asked them questions before writing the information on the board for them to dutifully, albeit slowly and distractedly copy down. Much of teaching in Ghana (in all four days I’ve been here…) is getting kids to copy down the information. Because I answered to their teacher, I needed them to get that information copied, showing him that I a) knew how they did it, b) wasn’t trying to upend his entire pedagogy, and c) that I was a fleeting influence on the kids. It’s HARD to get kids to copy things down and also try to get them to understand what it means and then have them tell you so you know. But again, by the end of the lesson, I asked them what they had learned and they all knew where to look. Kids that had finished copying earlier, I had been able to sit with and go over their answers, “checking them,” but actually going over the concepts behind it. As more of their classmates finished, clamoring for me to come here with tinny, high voices and closing their four fingers onto their little palms like Americans’ waving goodbye, those I’d sat with popped around helping their friends understand. Translating easily from English to Fante, they got to places I couldn’t and simultaneously reminded me of myself when I was younger (ok also now…) both wanting to help and impress my peers.
Then it was break. We played clapping games again, kids laughing at my inability to clap and jump and kick during Ampe, gently frustrated and greatly tickled at the fact that giving me ample examples was doing nothing to help. An over empathizer, faces screwed up in about-to-be-tears stand out to me. One of my little favorites, it’s fine, teachers have favorites, was frantically patting his desk, slipping out of his seat to pat the dusty ground around the desk, and his little round face was clenched with severe stress. “What is wrong?” I asked in a poor but effective version of Ghana’s English. “Madame, please, I have lost my money.” You have to understand, this school is for the kids with families living closest to the bone, and the 2 cedis he’d lost would mean a lot. At first his friends dismissed the concern as lying. But after he hissed and muttered in Fante, they got just as agitated, and I took the poor kid outside. “Tsah, here.” I handed him two cedis, and he refused them. “Hey hey, it’s my money, my choice, right?” He nodded through sniffles and took them, walking back in and coming over a few moments later mumbling a small “thank you Madame” and hugging me lightly. Yeah, of course he was my favorite, the little cutie who would stay in during break, telling stories with the dolls and sassing back just enough to be adorable.
The bell rung and we learned math: “properties of basic operations.” We got through half of the lesson, that to change the order of subtraction problems meant changing the answer, but doing the same in addition problems did not. I had some of the jargon familiar to them from the book like “changing the order” and “operation” and “addition problem.” I tried to be careful against using synonyms I’d been introduced to at various points in math, which was harder than you might think.
Quickly I realized that “-“ only meant subtraction at this point in their heads, not negative. If it was attached to a number and not in a problem, they’d dismiss it, saying the answers 5 and -5 were the same. Understandable problem… but how does one show that a number and its negative counterpart are different when the entire concept of “negative” isn’t there already? I chose “less than 0 and more than 0” but forgot to include the “-“ as a part of the explanation, the indicator if “less than 0,” the “negative” part of the negative number. We fumbled through, and 4 or 5 asked for homework, which I checked on Wednesday.
Break 2 came and went, and then I was supposed to teach them Fante… so instead of that, they played, some taught me the alphabet and 1-10, then we sang the songs we’re learning at SARD, and they, pleased with my knowledge of their world, giggled and instructed me how to move stones in rhythm to the song. For the rest of the day we played.
Once again, my little favorite’s face was tight with emotion, and refusing to learn or pay attention, I noticed his drifting further and further from the classroom. During “Fante,” after we had started playing, I went to ask about what was wrong now. “Madame, someone took my exercise books.” After a few beats pause, he murmured “and my momma will beat me when I go home.” My middle class American heart broke into a million pieces, but this was delicate, an entirely different parenting style in a different country in a different setting. I trusted my instincts that told me this was more than the typical beating. He was soft and needy with me in class, delicate and emotionally volatile, and I wondered how severe it would be, how different from the hard smacks of their teacher accompanied by the kids’ playful groans and his pre- and post- joking around. I wrote a note. I know… cue the groans. I tried to use the authority vested in a teacher to back up the story of them being taken, knowing that might assuage the severity of any type of punishment. I wrote that he was very responsible and that she had raised a very good boy, and to please not punish him too harshly for someone else’s mistakes. Yes, this was all very White Girl Goes to Africa, and I tried to avoid preemptively judging whatever the mother’s decisions were in the note, but she read whatever she wanted in the letter. All I know for sure is that the attention paid there helped assuage the boy’s worries enough to let him pay attention to the lessons again. Who knows if he gave the note to his maame, that was almost not important. I told him to tell his mother that I would be bringing 3 exercise books back with me on Wednesday. We all kept playing.
My last day was much the same. Playing, handing over my phone and getting some amazing photos, handing over the recording and getting everyone’s versions of the latest hits. Once again, the kids worked for much of the day, going from PE to break to work at making the grounds ready for the big anniversary. I stayed in the shade for most of the day, inside the classroom with my kids coming in and out, and others whose groups were done or not working that day hanging out with me. I taught some budding artists about perspective, breaking up the typical US art lesson about vanishing points into a few steps on the board and then going through a typical drawing. They loved it, diligently copying down as I showed them what the steps were in a drawing. After drawing some faces for various students, and a brief rainstorm, I hugged some of the kids and peaced. I was there for four days, did almost nothing except hang out with some bouncy and earnest kids and they instilled in me that yup, I definitely want to be a teacher.