Monthly Archives: June 2012

girl, grow up

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I was 16. It was 2005.

I was in my sophomore year of high school. With a license to drive I was toting around my grandma’s old car: a ’97 Chevrolet Lumina. It was maroon-a decent color for a car-but that’s where the perks end. That car caused me hell, breaking down at the most inconvenient times, often when I was running late to my first period Spanish class, or following a yearbook meeting after school. But I remember thinking that it didn’t matter: I had a car, I had the keys, and I had freedom. It was my first year on the Varsity field hockey team and I’ll never forget the letter that each player received after tryouts, forecasting your fate on the high school team–be it JV or Varsity. That year, the letter said something like, Congratulations! You have been selected to join the Grandview High School Varsity Field Hockey Team. Meet for bowling tonight and get ready for a great season. I was humbled by the very talented group of seniors (the first group of girls to play hockey at my suburban Colorado school) and so I think it was that year that I really learnt how to play hockey, how to love it, and what it felt like to be a young, new player on a stacked team of experienced girls. At this point, my parents had divorced and remarried and so both sides of my family grew: new step-parents (Randy, my step-dad, met mom at Divorce Recovery class at church; Gretchen, my step-mom, met dad through her mom, who happened to be my Grandma’s best friend) as well as a new step-brother and step-sister. I was all settled living in Aurora, roaming the perfectly trimmed sidewalks on Friday nights with my friends, working at Dairy Queen (I still know how many scoops it takes to make a large Oreo blizzard thankyouverymuch), and attending Fellowship Community Church on a regular basis. 

That was seven years ago and a lot has happened with time. However, I find myself drifting back to those years, and the years since then, as I compare my teenage years to what my very own students are going through themselves.

Yvonne, one of my favorite students, with a sweet sweet smile, a curiosity for knowledge in any form, and a girl with profound swagger on the football field, told me she was 16 as we looked through her small and treasured photo album. 16. 16. She seems so young and mature at the same time. Being 16 is being 16 anywhere, but it’s a lot different than what it looked like for me. Yvonne, a senior 3 student, lives with her mother, Solange, and her younger twin brother and sister. She told me her father died in the Genocide, which despite Yvonne being born in 1996, is possible and probable, because even though the Genocide officially ended in 1994, violence continued for years after. She loves music, clothes, and henna (what Rwandans use as nailpolish) and I’m pretty sure she has several boys chasing her–she’s quite the catch. She loves her girlfriends and visits them on the weekends. She also has a heavy load of responsibility at home; she helps her mother to cook, to fetch water, and to take care of their black pig out back. Yvonne–or Ingaby as I call her, from her family name, Ingabire–carries a larger weight for her family, and those communal needs often come first. We–myself included–like to think that we put our family first in all things. Many times, we do. But, this is a whole different level entirely. She, like many of my students, study at home only if she has the time and can do leisure activities only if her commitments at home are fulfilled. Even at 16, her womanhood is coming fast, and I would even suggest that children grow up faster here: they have to. 

I thought about all of this as I was getting ready this morning. 

Peace Corps, by nature, gives you a lot of time to think. That’s the definite upside of having a lot of alone time–you can let your thoughts wonder like a calm breeze moving through the trees. Even as extroverted as I am, drawing a great deal of energy from other people, I yearn for when I can think on my own and without interruption. Living alone in the dark nights of Africa can do that to you. 

Like I said, I was getting ready this morning, slipping on my white keds, humming terribly to a Billie Holiday tune that I had listened to on my small netbook the night before. I packed my green and red fake Ray Bans in my African fabric themed bag as I made sure that I had all of my school documents in place. I stopped for less than a moment and realized that I, in this season of my life now, am a wonderfully awkward hodgepodge of youth and maturity. 

I’m only 23. I realize, fully, how young I still am, and yet, as I develop strong relationships with my students, who are often around the mere age of 16, it’s so clear what I am not. In the same way, my best friend in the village, Jackie, is in her mid-30’s, the mother of one of my students, and a level-headed woman running an entire household on her own. Obviously, I’m not there either. So, I wonder, when do I stop being a girl and take on all that is woman-hood (whatever, that is)? 

I’m afraid this is approaching too closely an old classic Britney Spears coming-of-age hit (I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman–I remember reflecting on this song for an assignment in 7th grade. That seems silly now, doesn’t it?) and so I’ll try and keep the self-identity crisis to a minimum. 

What I’m getting at, I think, is that as much as this entire experience is not about me–it’s about my community, my students, my school, the process of integration and teaching, embracing a new culture–you get the idea–I happen to be doing the whole Peace Corps thing as I am “growing up”. 

It’s a new kind of growing up though: it’s more than the dethroning of teenage angst when you realize the world is not all about you, and it’s less subtle, I think than the maturity you find and pursue freely amidst a college campus. There you may change political parties, discover a new way of seeing God, and redirect where you see yourself going in life down the road (all of this, of course, in between studying, nights out and girl talk). Yet, here I am, a teacher in East Africa, a post-grad, and a 23-year old woman. Combine these things together and this kind of growing up–specifically, becoming a woman, I might add–is all about flexibility and balance. 

I have a good idea of who I am, what I believe in, and what I desire in life. Still, I think I owe it to this experience to be flexible and open to discoveries about the world and even myself, because it’s happened to me before: Africa changes people. And this time, I’m entrenched in the culture as much as I feasibly could be and really, I have a life here. Two years of this growing up business here–who knows what that will look like?

So far, I’m learning that I take a lot of pride in being a woman, and that maturity has nothing to do with being a dork: they are mutually inclusive. I blaringly see my limitations. I have seen that I do have a breaking point–everyone does. I understand happiness is often relative, and actually, not necessarily what we should be after. Contentment and gratitude–that’s the real good and real sustainable stuff. I welcome my coffee addiction, my new appreciation for chocolate, and that life’s far too short not to express how you are feeling. I know who my friends are, can’t express how grateful I am for my family, and that we all have the capacity to change the world no matter where we are, what we do, or what we believe. In fact, upon reflection, most of what my parents told me growing up in my teen years–around the ripe age of 16 in fact–is of course, true. Parents have a way of doing that, I see. They told me I would understand some day:

  • if you can count your best friends on your hand, you are lucky. 
  • success is having options. 
  • the people that love you will love you for YOU, and YOU alone. 
  • time goes fast. you’ll want those real good moments back. 
  • balance is key: especially in what you are eating. 
  • in everything, do the best you can–you’ll live with fewer regrets. 
  • do what you love. 
  • listen to what your parents say: they have lived longer–“I was your age once, I know what I’m talking about.”
So, as I try to navigate everything that living in Rwanda throws my way (and some days, this does feel endless), I also continue to reassess who I am, what I’m doing, and the purpose of my life. I’m of course doing this as I have a context for a completely different teenage experience and trying to understand what it’s like to be a teenager in Rwanda. The game is a bit different, that’s for sure. 
 
My parents gave me some pretty solid-sound advice when I was younger, and now it’s all making a lot more sense. I’m at a critical juncture, and I genuinely think that the entire two years in Peace Corps Rwanda could profoundly shape the path I take years and years beyond my life in a small, wonderfully rural village. I’m growing up. But no reason to fret; I’m still the girl I have always been just with a bit more life insights. Oprah, watch out, lady. 
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What is important in your life?

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Oxygen is important because I like respiration.

To pray is important in my life because I love God.

This week I decided to tap into the creative spirits of my students and have them express what is important to them with a pen and the ever-popular crayons. For the first 10 minutes of each of my 10 classes at school, we brainstormed what could be important in their lives. It was a neat experience, as a teacher and friend to my students, because I think what you value in your life says a lot about who you are. The students had fun with it too, and managed to turn out some really neat and cool drawings. Though I love writing and believe that words are incredibly powerful, sometimes pictures really do speak volumes. Here are some of my favorite drawings. They might be a little hard to see, and so I wrote what they said in the captions beneath the pictures. Enjoy. It’s these kinds of things that really make being a teacher completely, and 100% worth it.

Heather teacher is important in my life because she teaches very well.

Families are important in my life because they pay for school.

Teacher Heather is important in my life.
Mother for me is important in my life because we help the children.

 

 

 

Important in my life is a sport because in my players I need a goal.

 

Study is important in my life because if you study you have a nice life.
I’m a student at Ruramira.
I love to study.

 

Love is important in my life because we laugh in the heart.

weekend solace and the joy of coming home

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I was that girl on the rickety red bus coming up the hills outside Kigalil; I was of course the strangely dressed girl (I wore sport wear simply because I felt like it), as well as a weird white girl, but I was also a very obviously happy girl. I was en route to Suzi’s site, the sun was shining, and I sat next to a sparky old woman who-for once-seemed to actually understand why me (a young 23 year old woman living in Africa) wasn’t in the market for a husband. It’s a strange paradox I have found when it comes to age, marriage, and becoming a woman. While being 23 often incites audible gasps from people surprised to hear my young age, those gasps continue when they realize I am in fact, single. Apparently, in Rwanda, you are a “girl” until you take a husband, but after the age of 25, you are somehow considered a muchechuru, that is, an old woman. Go ahead and try and figure that all out. I’m still trying.

As we all bounced  simultaneously in some condensed-squished together rhythm, I literally could not stop smiling. It’s that feeling when joy fills your body and you are content in that moment because you can be—because you want to be. I was also just greatly anticipating the weekend ahead of me: a visit to Suzi’s site, a trip to the Southern Province to celebrate Alyssa’s birthday, and the prospect of coming back home at the end of all of it. Lately, being in my community—being home—it’s just working. I love it. As unbalanced as emotions, moods, and perspectives can be here, I feel as balanced as you could really expect. I’ve been staying busy; but not in the classic American way of filling to-do lists and moving from one thing to the next. Instead, I’ve been busy visiting. I have been visiting my students at their homes and believe it or not, it’s a pretty big time commitment. First of all, we have to walk there. Which, for many of my superstars (this is what I call my students these days—they love it) is quite far. Then, there is the photos…and the food…and the praying…and the talking. And so, it takes a long time. Yet, I love it, and it’s making me feel so much at home with my community, specifically with my students, and I actually think it’s paying off in the classroom.

Suzi’s site sits maybe a 15 minute walk off  the main road. I’ve visited several times now and I enjoy every time I come. Her home welcomes you with a plethora of colorful flowers and shrubbery; ‘the garden of Eden’ is how I like to lovingly (and aptly) refer to this place, and it’s pretty darn accurate. The compound she lives on is behind the all-encompassing Catholic church and right before the school grounds where she teaches English. The beauty of her site is always so warm and welcoming, and yet it is just a tip of the iceberg in terms of what makes her site so great.

Suz lives with nuns. Yes, nuns.

And, I might argue, some of the best nuns you’ll find. Not that I’ve met a lot of them in the world, but I think these ladies would be hard to beat.

Suz has infinitely more insight and wisdom into the lives and characters of these eccentric, kind-hearted, and gracious women, but I feel fortunate to even  have met them and visited them on a couple of occasions. They greet you like a long lost daughter, feed you like you haven’t eaten in days, and  make you feel like you are right at home. In my short visit last week, I heard the special song they made for Suzi, saw Sister Martha do the shopping cart dance, heard an impression of my laugh (which was strangely accurate), showed photos of my family and friends, and explained that I can, in fact, cut and prepare plantains, cook them on a charcoal stove, and feed myself. I wouldn’t trade my site for anything’ I’m comfortable here, and my community has fully embraced the sport obsessed, loud, and goofy woman that I am. However, herein lies the beauty of visiting friends in Peace Corps: you can experience a piece of their lives in Rwanda and better understand the roles they have in their communities and what they go through on a daily basis. I love visiting Suzi because I get to be around strong and undeniably hilarious nuns, share a meal like a family, and the hot milk and tea is a wonderfully fantastic bonus.

Moreover, I love visiting Suzi because I think an important part of friendship is spending time together and exchanging stories of love, small victories, frustrations, embarrassing moments, and everything in between. In a span of about 18 hours, we played volleyball and football with some of her students, went together to her adult education class, made macaroni and cheese, nearly cried after successfully baking funfetti cake, and talked till nearly 1:00 am (that’s about 4 hours past my normal bedtime!). I knew I had a good friend when I looked at her in the kitchen and asked if I had a bulk of cheese sauce on my face and we just laughed hysterically at what our lives have become. We’re goobers, as she might say.

We traveled together to a rather neat Rwandan town that holds quite a bit of historical significance. It is considered the first area of civilization in Rwanda, where kings ruled for years, and as a result, it has many museums and historical sites. Our trip took a bit longer than what should really be about an hour and a half; we rode largely uphill and we had to stop frequently as there was some cycling event in which we watched serious cyclists climb one hill at a time and cruise gratefully downhill when the opportunity presented itself. It reminded me of what it looked like to watch the Tour de France on TV with Mom and Randy…only this was in person! And in Rwanda! But hey, it was cycling, so that’s a start, right?

We arrived at a hotel pool to find our friends lounging around with food, coke, and beer. Ah yes, a beautiful way to spend a Saturday. I jumped recklessly in the greenish-seaweed color pool (sketchy. Yes. whatever) and felt the cool water strike my skin. It’s June. It’s only natural to be in a pool, right? It is summertime after all. That’s easy to forget about when there are only two true seasons here: rainy or dry. I was a sight for sore eyes: lots and lots of hair on my pasty pasty white legs, dirty feet from traveling, oh, and a huge pimple on my lip. I looked like your run of the mill volunteer from the village—what can you do? In celebration of Alyssa’s birthday, we had chickens cooked and prepared and then brought to the house many of us stayed at. Someone also brought BBQ sauce. Bless their heart. It was heavenly and reminiscent of an American summer celebration. We had lofty ambitions to go out and explore some live Congolese music…but no. The conversation, wine, dancing, and chickens got the best of us. We stayed in and had our own dance party. Pictures were taken. Curled up in a cozy brown and white blanket with red wine and Tracy Chapman’s Crossroads (one of my favorite albums) playing in the background talking about everything from family to Peace Corps to music and sports was a nice way to reconnect with fellow volunteers and friends.

I hugged and greeted children along the road as I carried my maroon flowery bag to Sunday market in the next village over. I was back home from  my quick weekend getaway, and when I checked my food supply, I realized I was in desperate need for some grub. I arrived at the market amidst old women farmers who sell their excess crops and greeted them enthusiastically. They are always so kind and friendly to me; and as far as I know, give me the prices for food and things that are the actual prices. No umuzungu prices for this girl here. I bought some basic vegetables, potatoes, and bananas. It was fun. And those same children that I greeted along the roadside took my hands and we walked together home. I would unpack, wish my dad a Happy Father’s Day, and catch up on the phone with Rachel.

It’s an amazing thing to go exploring in old and new places in Rwanda, but there’s also nothing quite like coming home. It’s somehow possible that the difficult times here actually plant the seeds for the good times to flourish. Now, I am finding a sense of solace in visiting, a bounce in my step when greeting, and a profound sense of pride in my small little rural community. It’s far from perfect. The bad days will continue to come, of course. But, in feeling a bit more at home and connected with the people that I am living with, it’s becoming familiar. Most of all, I find myself welcoming that feeling of Monday morning, which seems odd and at ends with how most people view Mondays anywhere in the world. But for me, it’s when I get to see my students again, when I get to hear about the weekends they had, and start the week all over again. It’s a fresh start. Thank goodness for those. 

home visits

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I knew I was onto something when upon entering Samson and Dative’s home, their mother started jumping for joy (quite literally) and passionately—almost abrasively—praying to good ole’ Imana (that’s God here in Rwanda). Over and over again she kept repeating thanks to God for my presence and asking for Him to bless the conversation we were about to partake in. Sarcastically (in my head of course), I thought about the inevitable awkward silences that come with home visits and that God should probably bless the lulls in addition to the actual conversation too. I chuckled to myself, momentarily realizing two very important things:

  1. If that’s what it takes to make me laugh these days, I’m concerned about what living out in the village is doing to my humor. And,
  2. It’s actually quite likely that the silences aren’t awkward at all. And yet, because I’m American, and a loud and yappy one to boot, quiet moments are confusing to me, and inherently the social situation feels and becomes awkward.

Like I said, Mama Samson was euphoric. Her home, from what I could gather, is a muddish-concrete-gravel mix with give or take 3 rooms. They have an outdoor kitchen, maybe around 4 total square feet. Their home sits well off the bigger dirt road through town; they live at the cusp of a downhill mountain and so they are about as isolated as you could be in my village, which given the extraordinary high population density of Rwanda, isn’t saying much.

I sat on a long wooden bench that is common for Rwandans to have (if they have furniture—given the nature of a communal culture, most do have at least one place for guests and residents to sit) and of course, looked intently through a bundle of photos. Home visits have become something of a habit for me as of late and I have it down to somewhat of a science (as much as it really could be):

 Steps to a successful Rwandan home visit:

  1. Pray
  2. Attempt dialogue
  3. Ask about photos
  4. Look at photos
  5. Compliment photos
  6. Attempt dialogue
  7. Pray
  8. Eat
  9. Attempt one more bout of dialogue
  10. Hear speech about gratitude of your visit
  11. Offer some words about the happiness you feel about your visit
  12. Hear another speech
  13. Pray
  14. Finally, you are escorted out of the home, and accompanied to the road—a core Rwandan social tenet.

Depending on the family, visits can take 1-4 hours. Yet, there is that occasional family that will make such a hoorah of your presence that you will arrive back home 5 to 6 hours after you left. That’s not including travel time.

Samson and Dative are in my Senior 2C class (they are brother and sister) and both ranked in the top 10 students of their class last term: Samson was number 2 and Dative was number 8. They asked if I could come and visit and according to my newly developed home visit policy (which you should know, I developed in my head a few days ago and is by no means a publicly broadcasted rule of thumb), if they ask, I go.

I have done around 20 student home visits—a large chunk of these in the past couple of weeks. A mix between the cultural emphasis of visiting, my interests in social work, as well as getting to know my students outside the classroom (the confines of a classroom wall, I have found, are rather limiting—there is far too much to know about them than can be learnt in a classroom context) that has motivated me to be available to my students outside of the school hours of 7-2. I’ve visited students all over my sector—I’ve been to parts of all 4 administrative cell areas—and have gone as far as some 5-10 km to going merely across the street from my lovely turquoise-blue trimmed abode.

There is something quite transcending, I suppose, about seeing where a person comes from. Some of my students have hard-working, close-knit families. Some don’t live with families. Some don’t have families. Some live in broken homes. Some live in homes with few problems. Some live in violent homes. A select few are “rich” by the standards of my village in Eastern Rwanda; maybe they have cushions to accompany their wood framed furniture, a painted house, or multiple cows. However, the vast majority are poor. I imagine that many families maybe make around 500 USD per year—and that’s for everybody included. Yet, the beautiful thing about my situation is this: I live among poverty and thus might be better able to address it. More so, I don’t look at my students and their families and see poverty as the defining characteristic of who they are. Many of them certainly do about themselves—almost always I hear a comment about them having no money, about them being poor. I see them as people. I can’t stress this enough: by no means do I intend to romanticize the extreme poverty around me. The noble savage is not what I’m getting at. Simply, because my community members are people that I have relationships with, I don’t perceive them as a project or another social case. Anyway, the point of all this is to say that more than anything, the best part of this home visit business is that I’m grasping a deeper sense of purpose in my role here, and that after 6 months at my site, feelings that I have for people, especially my students, are intensely real.

Okay. That might sounds similar to a one-on-one date interview off The Bachelor or some other ridiculous (and addicting) reality show, but I do mean it.

I didn’t even know how much I cared until last week.

It was Thursday—our market day—and after school I found Maisara working out the quadratic formula on the black board with a couple of other students. Maisara is a beautiful, healthy, big smile, energetic kind of girl. She was the one who became vice-student dean this past February when the onslaught of Girl Power became a thing here with my girls. I approached her with a hand on her shoulder and asked if today was a good day for me to visit. Her sister, Zahara, a senior 1 student full of intellect, spark, a bull-dog attitude on the football pitch, and a gregarious laugh, had insisted that I visit sometime soon. Thursday was a clear day for me mid-afternoon so I figured it would be a good day to go and see them and their home. Maisara suggested there wasn’t any problem and we left school together, passing the cows, the primary students, and recalling the events of the day. I asked to stop at my house to drop my heavy books and presumed she would follow. She didn’t. And when I came outside my gate, she was gone. Assuming she went on to notify her parents or something, I kept walking. And walking. For 2 hours, in one direction. People kept telling me to continue and so I did. Yet after fruitless assistance from a sweet old woman, I turned back a little peeved and aghast that my entire afternoon was wiped. Not to mention I was profusely sweating, had walked into the next sector, and was exhausted from the combination of walking, doing a run earlier that morning, and teaching all day. Would I even make it to market on time? Would I make it to market at all? I huffed and puffed for a while until at the turn of the road, where a large band of trees meets the edge of a cliff, I saw a young girl running. Maisara! And Zahara! They threw their arms around me apologizing profusely.

“Heather! Heather! Please please forgive. Ah, we are so sorry. Sorry. Please forgive! Forgive me.”

I didn’t even know the reason, but they were long forgiven. I couldn’t be mad at these girls. Impossible.

We started walking up a notoriously steep Rwandan hill when everything kind of flooded our conversation at once. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

In sentences and broken phrases full of Kinyarwanda and English (and a lot of heavy breathing) the girls told me that they are in the process of switching homes. Their dad, as they put it, is “a very bad man.” He consistently beats their mother and even his children and is also a community problem—in a part of the village, I am told, that is full of not so great people. This was all from them, like I said, and so I don’t know what the details are, but I don’t question them for a minute. I would later receive confirmation that the information about him beating his family is in fact true, and that some of our school officials are aware of the problem. Now they’re living with their grandmother but are facing the problem of school feels (their mother is a subsistence farmer and makes little money, and it appears their father contributes little to their well-being; it appears, in fact, that he does quite the opposite). I listened with my mouth wide open.

The story isn’t new to me. No, I’ve faced challenging situations dealing with abuse in many different contexts and experiences—in Ghana as a teacher for children who couldn’t afford to go to school, as an intern at The Gathering Place in Denver, and at the homeless shelter in Conway, Arkansas, the Bethlehem House. Yet, not only is this striking a more personal note (I love these girls), it simply surprised me to the core. These girls—some of my best students—are victims of violence? Tears welled in my eyes. It’s not as though I didn’t believe this was happening to any of my students…it’s just…I guess I didn’t fully comprehend it can really happen to anyone, even the best and the brightest.

They walked me to the market (after treating me to the universal sign of love: a Coke) and asked me to come next week, this time to meet their mother and grandmother. I agreed without any hesitation. They giggled with delight and we started to talk about my family back home. Sensing their interest, I asked if they wanted to talk with my mom from America—they squealed with joy and agreed enthusiastically. They laughed when they heard mom’s voice and repeatedly said, “Heather is my friendy.” When mom ended our conversation with, “I love you honey,” their eyes opened wide. Had they heard that before? Had people told them that they loved them?

Today at one of our inter-class football scrimmages, I watched as Maisara in a black knit sweater dominated the field. She was everywhere! She even scored 2 goals and carried her class to victory over an upper level class. I felt like a proud mom or something. My heart was just so content to watch her play with such joy, conviction, and determination. I cheered, clapped, and yelled, because that’s the job here I take pride in the most. Teaching is beyond important and learning English is essential as Rwanda develops and becomes integrated as the leader of the East African Community (EAC) where the official language is English. However, being an agent of change starts with being a person who loves.

Martin Luther King Jr. talked a lot about love—who doesn’t?—and he lived a life within the Civil Rights Movement that exemplified being an extremist of love.

I want to be that for my students, if nothing else. To realize such a purpose is daunting and yet, completely invigorating. Love is what really matters, and it’s what has really mattered all along.

Suzi made a book for my birthday this last January—it’s called the Komera (‘be strong’) Book full of inspirational sayings, stickers, and colors for when I’m needing encouragement (love. her.). The one that is pushing me forward as I aim to be a supporter and mentor for my students is this little gem from Confucius:

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

I can’t stop the violence here single-handedly. I can’t rebuild broken homes. I can’t expect to make things better simply because I’m American or simply because I want to.

But, at the very least, I can be here, and I can love. I can love my students, remind them that they do matter and that no matter what happens, I’m here for them. To me, that’s the best job you could ask for. It’s the job I wanted in the first place, and the job I want to continue to have as long as I’m willing and able. And so, that’s why I do the home visits in the first place: they matter. The students matter. And that’s something far more important for them to learn than any subject you will find in the school curriculum.