‘you are my fire’

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With coffee pulsing through my body, adorned with a very “smart” white button-up blouse that was a gift from Maisara and Zahara, it’s time to go. I have my elephant-cover lesson plan book in my backpack, along with my grade book and schedule book (thanks dad!), and yes, even my journal. I have learned in my 24 years of life that one should always carry a notebook and pen along. You never quite know when you’ll need to write something.

It’s interesting, because with teaching, it’s a bit nerve-wracking right as you are about to start, but once you get in the flow, the nerves die down and you find yourself just doing your thing.

I finish the day with small chunks of chalk in my pocket and with chalk dust tucked between the strands and roots of my hair. There are a lot of handshakes, greetings, and hugs in between. The school is alive; a sea of blue uniform wearing students swarm the classrooms and the flowers are in full bloom from the planting a few months ago. I’m significantly more aware of what’s ahead of me—in a sense, I actually know what’s going on. As much as I could, I suppose. I know that some days push the lines of perfection, while others feel like a full kick to the chest. I know what it feels like to fail miserably in the classroom, and I also know what it feels like when students ‘just get it’. It’s not that I’m any wiser. Simply, with one year under my belt, it’s not like I’m completely in the dark, either.

I sure didn’t forget how much I love being with my kids. I missed them. But it’s hard too, because the Senior 3 kids from last year won’t all be coming back and many other students change schools because that’s just how it works. They tell you not to grow attached, but I just can’t help it. If I decide to put my heart into something, I do, and while it’s usually a good thing, it can also lead to a lot of disappointment.

This year we have mostly the same staff, a new accountant and a new Entrepreneurship teacher notwithstanding. That’s pretty amazing considering its Rwanda—these things change all the time. I’m teaching the same workload as last year—Senior 1, 2, 3, and 4 (like 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th graders) for a total of 16 hours of teaching per week. The students were finally put into class divisions today (Senior 1A or Senior 1B, for example) and we even had a parents’ meeting. Things—slowly—are falling into place. I am still trying to construct my scheme of work for Senior 1 and Senior 4, but for Senior 2 I am focusing on basic conversational and writing skills. Senior 3, my favorite level of students for this year, should be great. I have a large culture unit planned with a Rwanda focus and a lot of exercises to practice listening. The two Senior 3 classes will be the ones taking a major National Exam in November and these classes also happen to have a large group of my favorite students (and friends). Thus, I personally feel a greater sense of investment for them.

I suppose that is another challenge I anticipate in this 2013 school year. While I can more proficiently navigate our school culture, I have different relationships with my students now. I’ve visited a good portion of these students and even more so, there are a small handful of my girls that are some of my best friends here. Seriously. We have inside jokes, memories, emotions, and all of the bits and pieces that make a relationship function and thrive. We’ve shared a lot together and the trick is letting these bonds enhance our student-teacher relationship without affecting the necessary level of professionalism while at school. With just under two weeks in, I’m learning (and so are they) how hard this is. For example, probably my dearest friend of all, Divine, has been really distant with me in the past couple of days. It could be anything; something could be happening at home, it could be that time of the month, or what I fear, she could be pulling away because she is realizing that maybe our close relationship is not appropriate for the time and place we find ourselves. Rwandans are so good at that; they can move a lot more fluidly in relationships. If they need to build distance, they can build that sucker in minutes. But for me, I need time. I can’t just shut myself off like that. However, the bottom line is that she is right. We can’t be all giddy and in our little friend-world all the time. I get that. I am trying to accept that. But, it still sucks, you know?

And, it’s not like all of this is not okay. That’s one of the things I really love about Peace Corps: you have a lot of control in defining what this experience is for YOU. There’s a lot about it that you can’t anticipate (or control), but it’s how you react, what you do, and what you bring to the table. At the end of the day, I’m just me. And, I happen to be a very friendly, open, and loud woman. I don’t hide this (I probably couldn’t if I tried) and if it has allowed students to feel comfortable around me, then there are ZERO regrets. None. I can take my lessons seriously and I can make sure I’m mingling with all of my students; that’s no problem. But I won’t change how I teach or how I relate to my students in general because isn’t that the whole point (for this, but also in life) to share who we are? To be happy, I’ve found, I need to be myself. And, I expect that from the people around me as well.

My goals for this school term and year are rather simple:

1. Implement the good communication skills that I’ve been reading about (I’m currently reading Bridges Not Walls, a book about interpersonal communication, yes, yes, and yes. I’m a dork, but I love that kind of stuff.) with my staff members. If I want to implement “sustainability” with the ideas I have, I need to approach my staff as equals.

2. Reach out to quieter students. Make sure I’m saying hello to as many students as possible each and every day.

3. Speak English only. Yeah, it’s harder to do than you would think. Kinyarwanda is too easy of a fall back sometimes. Use only when absolutely necessary.

4. Have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously. (Like, if a lesson bombs, be okay with that. It happens.)

5. Continue GLOW club. Yeah, it’s kind of like my baby.

I am really happy to be back. It’s right. It really is.

Now, I’ve already seen heartbroken students told they have to repeat a level (because they failed), I’ve discussed with our new dean of discipline about new approaches to punishment, and I’m pretty certain that I’ve already had some of my ‘superstar’ stickers stolen.

You see, it’s not easy, perfect, or uncomplicated. But, I’m admittedly a little sad when the school day is over—and though I could be the first PCV in history to admit (or even feel) that, I think it’s a good sign that I’m enjoying the work—the life—before me.

Some highlights in the classroom so far:

*teaching ‘I Want It That Way’ to Senior 3. Favorite lyrics? You are my fire. They have been repeating this over. And Over. Again. This is my life.

*the next day, teaching ‘As Long As You Love Me’. Yes, I was on a Backstreet Boys kick. I have no defense or justification for this.

*creating ‘food names’ with some of the girls. I came up with the slogan, “girl-FOODS” as opposed to “girl-FRIENDS” and found this hilarious. For example, I’m ibitoke (banana), Divine is ibijumba (sweet potato), Eugenie is umucheli (rice), and Clemantine is ubugari (cassava bread). It’s weird, but also absolutely hysterical.

*my Senior 1 students brainstorming different animals and making the sounds of each animal, like goats, cats, and pigs. I was laughing so hard that I had tears in my eyes.

*playing a game to review various directions (forward, go left, go back, etc.) with a student wearing a blindfold and listening to the students’ instructions to find the piece of chalk.

*sitting in the grass, during break, chatting. For sure, my favorite activity. Ever.

*teaching a very successful lesson on culture (pretty sure I experienced a teacher high following this lesson) and watching my students act out different scenarios in their dialogues and ROCKING it. Divine approached me before her skit (her topic was about Rwandan weddings) and told me they had planned the whole thing in Kinyarwanda and she asked me if this was okay. I told her that they really needed to try in English. She looked slightly dismayed, muttered “no fear”, and went on to perform the best skit all day—and in FANTASTIC English. It’s so good to see tangible success like that!

*giving the football girls their letters from the Hendrix Field Hockey girls. Their minds were BLOWN. They loved the pictures, the words…but mostly, I think they just love knowing they have a friend in America.

*on a walk with Clemantine, she remarked at the rain, “Hello rain! How are you? How is heaven?”

*little bits and pieces of what we studied last year coming up in conversations; for example, Yazina pretending different weird scenarios to demonstrate her “imagination” and Felicien asking why Americans like bacon. Happiness, beyond belief, that maybe my kids are learning something (even if it is imagination or bacon related).

*finally, getting a letter at the end of the week from Divine who, it turns out, had a rough week because she was afraid she couldn’t continue studying because she only had partial school fees. The letter said the following,

Dear Heather Impano,

First of all thank you very much today. You are a good teacher because you are understand the question for me. After the meeting for in school the parents to make the situation for to pay the school fees is seven thousand. Me I think what is the school fees do you have? Thank you to help me.

All things do you have in your life I say and help me because you have good heart or you have compassion.

Mother for you and father thank you to be birth because you came in Rwanda. You help the students but me is very high in all students.

All years to be in the earth I love you because all things you do for is very nice. Let me finish I wish to be the way compassionate in the life for you.

Nice dream.

Love, Divine

I think that letter encapsulates every great part of this experience. You get something like that, and you just thank your lucky stars that somehow, you are here, doing this, living your life and it just makes you happy. My kids keep asking ‘Am I your fire?’. And I’m just like, y’all. You have no idea.

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About heathermnewell

Hey y'all, I am a twenty-something (okay, I'll be honest, I'm just about 25) and I spent the last 2 years of my life working in the Peace Corps as an English teacher in Rwanda. Before that, I studied American Studies at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. I'm originally from Colorado and somehow I've managed to become a product of all of these environments: loud, weird, adventurous, and a southern-wanna-be. I love writing, eating burritos, being with family and friends, reading Oprah magazine, praying, and country music. I am re-adjusting back to life in America and I hope to carry with me all of the things I learned while in Rwanda. Here's a glimpse into that process as I find the endless blessings that God gives. It doesn't matter where you are: God gives. God is love.

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