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.”