An unexpected but very clear sense of pride rolled over me as I listened to my students sing back ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ after just one time hearing me butcher any sense of melody the song offers.
In honor of President’s Day, I deemed it ‘America Week’ and taught about the good ole’ U-S-of A in all of my classes. I teach all levels of students at my school and so I tweaked some parts of my lesson based on the levels (for example, the lower levels had a focus on basic American facts and then making poems about America, while the upper levels created a dialogue about the differences of America and Rwanda, reinforced with a listening exercise of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in which they wrote their own dreams in their notebooks).
I certainly was in my element. I touched on cheeseburgers, geography (no, New York is not the capital, and in fact, the continent America is located is called North America), and in some classes, even 9/11. I suppose after a bagillion dollar education from Hendrix with a piece of paper indicating Heather Michelle Newell as a holder of an American Studies degree, well, I should be in my element, right?
Man, I sure do love America.
The best part is, I think, is that I’m learning to love where I come from without a heavy dose of self-righteousness and with a real grasp of where my country of origin stands in the world.
American study majors everywhere are cheering: this is what it’s all about. Knowing what it means to be an American outside the physical and cultural sphere, and yet still staying true to your unique and distinguishable roots.
CASE AND POINT: many responses from my students about their dreams (see list below) involved coming to America. Over and over again. Obama was a popular buzzword too. What gives? Why America? I mean, I get the whole superpower thing, believe me. America is dripping in Rwanda everywhere; and I presume the same is true in many countries around the world. But, beyond Beyonce, 50 cent, and the explosion of American music in Rwanda, I also believe these students see America as a land for opportunity; a place that gives anybody a chance to succeed.
The liberal arts woman in me immediately wants to stop this classic American rhetoric and make a case that this just isn’t true; America has problems like any society, and one of those includes the problem of exclusion. You see, not everybody gets an equal playing field (if you want more information, feel free to ask for a copy of my SENIOR THESIS…this is at the core of what I wrote about). I still believe that, but as I look into the eyes of my students, as I get laughed at during sector education meetings for suggesting a new way of doing things (i.e. not placing discipline above the actual education of our students), and as I watch women tirelessly till the soil, probably reaping just enough to eat for the day, I realize that even with all the problems, America is at least open to new ideas more than many countries in the world. I can’t emphasize enough that the US isn’t any more immune to cyclical poverty than other places around the globe (I’ve seen plenty of this myself right in my backyard of Denver, in New York, Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Little Rock) but what I’m saying is that at least social mobility is a concept, an idea. It’s the America my students see, and I’m learning to see too. It’s nice to see the good things about your home—instead of focusing on all the criticisms, negativity, and problems—as American Studies majors tend to do. Really, it’s true: in our senior seminar course last year, we learnt from hard data that the vast majority of American Studies majors actually held a very cynical view of the very country they invested all their time studying.
Another thing I love about America?
Hold your breath.
The education system.
I know, I know, I know.
It’s also pretty messed up by a lot of standards. There are so many problems in so many places, both urban and rural. But, let’s have a little perspective.
Imagine a room with three shelves of books, stuffed to the rim with textbooks. To the left, there are easily 25 boxes filled with, yes, more books. Are the students using them? No.
Teachers come to class. Most of the time. But, accountability isn’t always a high priority.
The students can’t speak English very well (especially considering the official language just switched to English a couple of years ago, along with French and Kinyarwanda). Yet, their notes are exact copies (handwritten) from American textbooks that teachers are using to serve as their lectures and lessons. Their notes hold all the information they have access to and in most cases, they don’t know what most of it means.
There is a computer lab, though. Full of 25 computers! However, with no electricity and malfunctioning generator, the students are instead taught computer skills with a paper keyboard or a keyboard drawn on an old dusty chalkboard.
The biggest issue at every staff meeting? Discipline.
Discipline. Discipline. Discipline.
If half the energy put towards discipline was put towards methodology and the education of students, then maybe we’d see a little progress.
My school is the lowest performing school in my district.
I’m teaching at an under resourced school in Rwanda and an underperforming school to boot.
It makes me look fondly on my years of American public education; I had knowledge consistently on the edge of my fingertips.
I’ve maybe painted a hopeless picture of what I’m up against for two years, but all of this leaves me more energized and devoted to doing the best job I can while I am here. I believe in my students 110%. Plus, the mayor of my district came for a visit last week to “evaluate” our school (the mayor would be the equivalent of an American governor) and gave us a really positive report. And, much to my delight, he visited some classes, gave comments, and reminded us of the importance of our jobs, and that is to focus on the students. My point was simply this: it’s easy to criticize when you are enveloped in something. But, step away a bit and it’s like seeing something for the very first time. I’m more grateful for my education than I have ever been in my life, and I’ve never been further away.
Yes, I sure do love America. I love the bountiful amount of parks, the clean water, American traditions, Southern hospitality, and the fact that you can choose to eat any kind of food at any time of the day. Oh, and I love the drive to succeed that so many Americans have. It’s engrained in me, and even in a small rural African village I feel my Americanness (is this even a word? It should be!) all around me: my to-do lists, my running schedule, my insistence of using any kind of cheese in my meals whenever possible, and reading a book, newspaper, or magazine if I have spare time (which, admittedly, I have a lot of).
But, like I said at the beginning of all of this, I’m seeing how America is seen in the world and embracing that view only without the insistence that America rocks at every single thing.
By no means will I be canvassing outside my home to villagers and proclaiming that America is the best. In fact, a lot of the time, I share America’s issues to prove that no country is perfect. I want to level with them—to show that there is good and bad whenever it comes to culture and physical places in the world. Even with good ole America.
Rwanda has a lot to offer as well, and I think when it comes to development, the challenge is helping people see their own self-worth and the possibilities in front of them. I want people to see that Rwanda, despite its small size can bring a lot to the world: culturally, historically, and politically. The country has been to hell and back and considering the leaps that have been made in just under two decades, well, there’s your proof.
The other day I walked the 5K to the main road from my village. It was around 8:30am, oh, and it was pouring rain. I couldn’t get a hold of my regular moto driver and due to a Peace Corps meeting that I had to attend, I just bit the bullet and walked.
About 10 minutes in, a small family, huddled under their tin roof next to their tiny gravel-mud home called me over. They offered me their umbrella to use for the rest of the walk.
Success in a society starts with the people.
It’s gestures like that that offer hope.
This country is beautiful. America is beautiful too.
How blessed and fortunate I am to know two such places.
The best of the “I have a dream” responses from my students—
WHAT IS YOUR DREAM?
“I have a dream to be a superstar.” –Felicien
“My dream is to be an honest man in my family.” –Emmy
“My dream is to be a light to many people.” –Emmy
“My dream is to do well and to be a person who love with another people.” –Alphonse
“Teacher, I dream to visit you.” –Legis
“My dream: I will be good parent.” –Abou Bakar
“My dream: I want to be like Barack Obama.” –Patrick
“I have a dream to change my life.” –Silas
“My dream is to help all old man who haven’t power to work.” –Robert
“My dream is I want to be like Martin Luther King Jr. because he is a good person.” –Robert
“I want to be a teacher like you.” –Robert
“My dream-I will support my family and country.” –Julienne
“My dream is to be a pilot.” –Richard
“If I finished my schools I bought a car and help my family and helps ourphones [orphans] and widdos [widows] and thanks to every person can help in my education.” –Joyce
“I will be a shopkeeper or commerce trader and I will be a rich man.” –Aphrodis
“I have a dream that I will meet with my God in heaven and I will meet with Jesus.” –Ismael
“I have a dream that I will be a stronger man who may resolve many problems in society because of my knowledge I have got.” –Ishmael