Tag Archives: students

slow goodbyes

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*
Fidele reads from a short-handed list of the things he has interpreted as my successes while in Ruramira as a teacher, Peace Corps volunteer, and community member. I nervously smile, nod my head when appropriate, and listen as he describes to our student body, teachers, and administration what my two years have added up to.

He touches on the tangible things: he talks about the improvement of students’ ability to speak the English language (or at least try), he gives great gratitude for the sports project, and he commends the objectives and achievements of Ruramira Secondary School’s GLOW Club. He continues to describe what he feels are my most laudable personality traits: I am a umunyaukuri (a person of truth), a hard-worker, punctual (Lord knows any American could be in this culture), and he says that he can see that everything I do comes from the fact that I love people. He chuckles and proceeds to tell the student body that I actually know more about the inter-workings of families in our community than most due in large part to the many home-visits I have completed.

I’m humbled and proud of his assessment; if this is what he can take-away after two years, then I certainly have demonstrated the values and characters in which I try to live my life. Moreover, Fidele, perhaps more than any other co-worker of mine, has seen me at my worst. He has seen me when I have been angry and unforgiving to Rwanda. He has seen me act cold and distant when I’ve been unable to culturally adjust. He’s seen me cry a handful of times when I lose words – either in English or Kinyarwanda – to describe the frustrations I feel. And yet, he can still say such nice and warm things.

I smile and also sigh heavily; I really don’t know how to do this.

We are at my goodbye “party” which is taking place on the last day of term III and thus the last day of the 2013 school year. The students have moved a great number of desks to one of the school’s large, open rooms, and they are smushed together – so they can listen to the speeches that are an ever-present part of any Rwandan gathering. The program is relatively simple: Fidele speaks, some of the girls sing and dance for me (traditional music, of course), Headmaster commands each class takes a photograph with me, Headmaster speaks, and finally, I take 5 minutes to speak the last words I will speak in front of these students.

I had written my speech the night before. It was simultaneously easy and difficult. The ideas came easily but the words did not. How do you begin to thank a group of people for giving me what I have been given? For two years, I was shown a particular way of life; I was provided a purpose; and I was opened up to numerous special relationships. And so I was glad I had prepared the words below the night before. It gave me the time I needed to sort everything out the way I wanted to say it in the most concise way possible. I also made the conscious decision to speak in King-lish (an uninterrupted combination of both English and Kinyarwanda; my most common way of communicating while in the village and with my students). These were my words when it came time to speak and say goodbye:

Hello my dear headmaster, DOS, Jessica, and all the wonderful teachers.
Hello my super students – ugire amahoro (peace be with you)!

Today I am happy because we are together. Ariko (but), I am also sad because today will be our final day as a group – it is our last warning.

In a short time I will go back to America. In America I will see my beautiful family, my dog, and my home but I will miss Ruramira greatly.

Nzakumbura imisozi, nzakumbura abakekuru, nzakumbura ibitoki kandi ubugari cyane pe, nzakumbura umuco mu Rwanda, ariko nzakumbura i Ruramira cyane cyane cyane. (I will miss the mountains, I will miss the old mamas, I will miss bananas and cassava bread a lot, I will miss the culture of Rwanda, but I will miss Ruramira the most).

Namukunze cyane. Namukunze kandi nzakomeza kugira urukundo kubera mwese mufite umuco mwiza. Mufite umutima mwiza. (I have loved you greatly. I have loved you all and will continue to have love because all of you have a good culture. You all have good hearts).

You have the motivation to increase the life for you, your family, and your country.

To be a teacher in Ruramira was difficult in the beginning ariko now kumererwa neza (it is very comfortable). Noneha (at this time), Ruramira ni wacu (Ruramira is the home for all of us).

My favorite time in Ruramira was at this school. The best days were teaching songs from America, watching you students show theatre, helping GLOW club, and coaching football. I will never forget those times and all of you.

Sinshobora kwibagirwa (I could never forget).

Mfite imyizerere ko Imana ateguye kuzana mwese mu ubuzima banjye. Kubera wowe na kubera Imana nagize amahirwe. Nabonnye amahoro, nabonnye umuhati, nabonnye ubucuti. Murakoze cyane. (I have the belief that God planned to bring all of you in my life. Because of you and because of God I have had an incredible opportunity and chance. I have seen peace, I have seen courage, and I have seen friendship. Thank you very much.)

I hope in my 2 years I was able to help you do something. Birashoboka (perhaps), the English for you has increased. Birashoboka, you had the improved opportunity to play sport. But most importantly, I hope I helped you to find icyizere (confidence) and the belief that yego washoboye (yes you can)!

My goal as a teacher was also to be a friend, an umujyanama (counselor), and a supporter for you.

All of you students have the ability and power to have a good future – but it starts with you.

Thank you for sharing your hearts, your ideas, your love, and your home. Thank you for helping me to be an umunyarwandaikazi (Rwandan women). Ushaka inka aryama ntayo (Rwandan proverb: if you want a cow, you must lie like it). Thank you for making Rwanda a special part of my life forever. I will always remember this excellent place. One day I hope to come back and visit and see you students as leaders for this country – because yes you can.

I am sad to go.

Ndababaye cyane kubera umutima wanjye iri i Rwanda na Amerika. Ntakobwa ariko kubera Imana. (I am really sad because my heart is in two places; Rwanda and America. I don’t have fear though, because we have God).

Turi (we are) together in the spirit.

Imana ikomeze kubaha umugisha. (May God continue to bless all of you).

*
After I finish, my goodbye is over. It’s that simple. The school has a plan to continue to distribute the students’ reports and because we are over 2 hours late, we must move quickly. The top students in each class are announced and the class teachers call the names of their students so that they can see the results of how they performed for the entire year. Disorder creeps into the school day and so it makes a long-drawn out goodbye impossible. Students are everywhere. Some still need to pay school fees. Some want the village photographer to take a photo with myself and them. Some just want to return back home. I loiter for a while, but eventually, I resign myself to the small bar not too far away from school. Our headmaster has arranged for school sponsored fanta, beer, and goat meat (brochettes).

It feels weird that that was the goodbye. The speeches were wonderful and it was really kind for my school to organize something just for the sake of giving appreciation. Yet, it just ended. Like that. It felt weird that it could be over, after so many months, days, and hours spent at my school. I was perfectly okay with a goodbye that wasn’t full of tears and drama, but it just felt strange. That’s all. I drank a turbo king (one of the few beer brands available in-country) along with my teachers that afternoon and fully recognized my inability to process the movement of time. It wasn’t until a few days later when I actually thought about it:

um hello. That was the last time you will see most of those students. Ever.

As usual, I was on a run when this thought finally made some connection in my head and heart and I had to stop running for a few moments.

My students were the ones who taught me. My students were the ones who became my friends. We had our ups and downs, my students and I, but I could never relegate their influence in my life.

Many of them live in conditions that some of the world could never understand. I will never ever be able to reconcile why does the world work this way? when it comes to piecing together the circumstances that life has dealt them.

My students were the best thing about living in Rwanda.

And maybe what I dislike the most about goodbyes is that there are never enough words. And the words you use don’t necessarily convey exactly what you want to say. You try to explain further in detail, but it’s almost as if the more words you use, the less expressive you feel. So that speech above? Yeah, I think it covered most of what I wanted to say. It hit the right mixture of the two languages I have been speaking for two years. But, I wasn’t sure if my students walked away knowing just how grateful I am for their presence in my life.

*

The school goodbye marks a final transition and shift regarding my Peace Corps service. Now, my primary assignment is officially completed. I’m done.

As November nears, I am more and more aware of the time remaining. I have 6 weeks left in Rwanda.

This phased goodbye process is great in that you feel relatively stable as it goes. Yes, goodbyes are difficult, but slow by slow you can build the closure you need to really bring things to an end.

That’s essentially what I am doing the last 6 weeks I am here; slowly saying goodbye.

I have to admit, I am a little afraid of what it will feel like in the final hour, when it really is all over. I’m afraid because the down-side of spacing out goodbyes as such is that when you’re finished, that’s it. You are forced to look at life change in the face and accept it without question, hesitation, or delay.

Divine recently moved in with me for the next month in order to be better located for the national exam she will take, to help me pack, and to accompany me on what I have dubbed my Goodbye Tour. Nearly all of the Peace Corps Volunteers in my group will leave in early November and so Divine was adamant that my last days are not spent alone in my house. I am so grateful for this decision as it’s been like having a sleepover each and every night; we talk late into the night and wake early in the morning to drink tea and coffee. I then read from the Jesus Calling devotional (thanks Grandpa and Glenda!). At the end of the small devotional blurb, she reads the provided scripture in Kinyarwanda, I follow by reading from my English bible. Most of all, after living relatively alone for two years, it’s an amazing thing to have someone else around – to share meals, to chat, and just to have the company. The routine of her presence has provided a level of comfort that I never knew I could have in a country so far from my own.

It’s this, I think, that scares me the most about saying the REAL goodbye in over a month. I can say goodbye to my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I can muster a teary farewell to my village, and as I have already done, I can make peace with having finished my job as a teacher. But, say goodbye to that kind of friend? Say goodbye to the intangibles that a friendship like that brings?

I don’t know.

We both are aware it is coming and we touch on it from time to time, but never too long. Perhaps it’s a state of denial, again, I don’t know, but I figure it’s okay because it’s making my last days enjoyable, memorable, and a fun part of this journey in Rwanda.

This is all mutually exclusive from the joy and excitement in returning home, obviously. That feeling and anticipation is 100% present throughout the process of goodbyes as I remember that I’m lucky to have something so wonderful to go home to (namely, family and friends).

And so, it’s a matter of clinging strongly to our beliefs, our relationships, and the experiences we know to be true that make goodbyes bearable. I personally believe that God’s hand and love are most visible in times of transition and change; if He got us there in the first place, then surely He will put us right where we need to be. And, if he has continually put amazing people in our lives then that is forever. You may not get the people you want in the physical sense, but they change your lives for the better and you keep that always, no matter where you go. It’s not easy, it’s not always ideal, but it’s the reality.

When you become best friends with a person you don’t always know what they will bring. In foresight, I could never have known what Rwanda, Peace Corps, my school, or Divine was going to do for my life. Now, I’m starting to get an idea and I’m humbled, grateful, and happy with what I see and feel. I’m continually blown away. Hindsight is a beautiful thing. You see God’s hands in all that He has touched and orchestrated and you are unable to fathom at just how awesome it all is.

Here’s to one last, final month.

May it be full of laughter, memories, and a solid foundation to say a necessary goodbye. It’s these goodbyes that will lead me into the next chapter, a chapter that is waiting back home with more incredible people that God has so infinitely blessed me with.

Here we go.

*

during headmaster's goodbye speech.

during headmaster’s goodbye speech.

 

giving my speech.

giving my speech.

 

bananas outside the ceremony. i am going to miss the banana trees. so much.

bananas outside the ceremony. i am going to miss the banana trees. so much.

 

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little wonders

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our lives are made in these small hours
these little wonders
these twists and turns of fate
time falls away
but these small hours
still remain.
– “little wonders” by rob thomas

*

The boys run, skip, and jump as they exit the holey, grassy, and worn field. Many are holding hands and many are fist bumping anything that moves. They’ve just defeated an “Academy team” – a premier regional team that draws from richer, private secondary schools to create an all-star esque sort of combination. Our team – Ruramira Secondary School – beat them 3-2 on a Saturday afternoon of football. Our team. You know, the boys who come from the village. The boys who help their families and cultivate on the weekends. My boys, many who cannot afford the 8 dollar fee for school each term. We won. I’ve always loved a good underdog story. You can imagine the mountains of food they created when we followed the match with a team dinner courtesy of the remaining funds from the sports grant I received earlier this year. It was buffet style, and my, how those boys (and girls) can eat!

victory is sweet.

victory is sweet.

*

My girls are singing as we turn on the right-hand side of the black pavement to enter the dirt road that will take us home. We are 18 strong in a cramped blue bus and they are clapping their hands, slapping the side of the bus like a drum, and singing beautiful Kinyarwanda. Usually they sing all the GLOW songs I have brainwashed them with, but in this moment, it’s all them. It’s all their culture and it’s becoming one of my favorite moments in my 2 year service as the bus jangles further down the road. Divine is leading them in old school Rwandan rhythms which is perfect considering her role in our club. She’s “Mama GLOW” and so I found it fitting that she would be the one singing the more traditional songs, especially with her Catholic-style influence. She sings a verse and the girls repeat, and it changes each time. I try to catch the words, and I understand that she is singing about the good ideas the girls have and the journey we have traveled and that all thanks goes to God. As this is happening, Zahara looks at me wide-eyed and grinning, “Teacher! Look! The girls are so so very happy very high!” I do as told, and I see what she sees. Genuine happiness.

bus time songs.

bus time songs.

We are coming home from a GLOW field trip to visit another club, about an hour and a half away. We met the other club led by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer to “build friendships and share ideas.” Two members from each club (Divine and Yazina were our representatives) taught lessons and we also played games, made jewelry, and even blew bubbles. I watched as my girls interacted in their perfectly pressed uniforms, as they enthusiastically raised their hands to participate in all of the activities, and how they repeated our school name over and over again in their songs. It was pride, y’all, and how often have these girls been able to truly celebrate where they come from? We were at a much nicer school – a far cry from our crumbling classrooms and neglected toilets. And yet, time and time again, they prove it’s not those things that determine WHO WE ARE. They are just some of the best girls I know.

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

*

I’m sitting with Eugenie in her small room in her seemingly smaller village called Buhoro, which translates as ‘slowly’. A fitting name for your typical Rwandan village, because that really is the way things work. I’ve come for a visit after praying together for 4 hours at her Pentecost church, about an hours’ walk from where I live. We’ve been revising Geography and she comments on how the big national exam that all Senior 3 students in Rwanda will take is quickly approaching. She sucks in air quickly and gasps just a bit. Yeah girl, time is crazy, I tell her. She looks away for a moment and after a quiet pause she starts tenderly crying, with each tear waiting for the other to finish it’s journey down her petite face. I don’t even have to wait to hear why:

“As you know, my mother has birthed four girls. No boys. My father, he always asks my mother WHY? He thinks having girls is useless. He isn’t happy that my mother didn’t give him a boy. My mother just tells him about the sperm and that it is two people who make that baby, not just my mother. And she does not choose which sex she makes the baby.
I want to succeed in exam.
If I succeed maybe he can see that I have value.”

I rub her upper back and don’t know what to say. Sometimes knowing how to mentor my girls is easy and sometimes it is not. I’ve also become increasingly aware that often less is more. And so, I remind her that so many people believe in her – especially God – and I just sit with her as she finishes her tears. I tell her she is special. I tell her she is different from a lot of students – and this is all true. Eugenie is perfectly quaint, kind, and chirpy. If you need a friend, you will have one in Eugenie. Soon after my well-intentioned encouragement, she’s studying with even more intensity. Eugenie is a classic gentle soul, but she’s also quite determined. She is humbly aware of her intelligence and wants to “make it.” Desperately, I want the same thing too.

So the revision continues.
We are studying the methods of fish preservation.
Obviously, an area of expertise for me.
Not really, but I try to help in whatever way I can.

my sweet Eugenie.

my sweet Eugenie.

*

I had a two hour lesson block with one of my classes today, Senior 1A. It is currently the last week of lessons as quizzes start next week and so I wanted to do something fun, enjoyable, and relaxing for all of us. Enter Center Stage.

In the first hour, I relished in their expressions as they glimpsed at flashing images of frolicking ballerinas, a couple kissing and making out publicly, and images of New York City. When the first hour came to a close, it was time for the daily 10 minute break in which all of the students in the school either lie in the grass, walk around idly, or play football with a ball made from plastic bags. I usually take this opportunity to visit the girls’ toilet area as this is the prime place for socialization during school hours. Catching up and greeting some of the girls, I lose track of time and was late back to class. I’m clearly such a good role model.

When I entered, ALL of the students were sitting quietly and waiting to watch the film. They spit my usual (and I will openly admit, annoying) “time is time” mantra back in my face and I did the punishment I usually divy out to them: jumping jacks. This seemed all the more ironic considering last week I got really upset with them for being late and not taking my lesson seriously. Oops? We laughed and turned the movie back on. They huddled around as a group (same sex PDA is perfectly acceptable and encouraged in Rwanda; I actually love this because friends can very openly show their appreciation for each other) and gazed up at the small screen that I had set up by stacking a chair on two combined desks. For a short while we could journey elsewhere and it was a joy to watch them.

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

*

It’s these smaller day-to-day things that I will miss the most.
It’s these micro examples of my life here that ultimately, make it what it is.

Days and weeks pass and sure, I’m teaching, or working with the girls in GLOW, or running, or cooking my latest food preference, but what is my life actually full of? What and where is the substance?

These are the things I have been thinking about lately. Because I know when it’s time to pack up and come home, I will somehow have to explain 2 years of my life in a few sentences. The crux and core of my experience is the little wonders as Rob Thomas sings about; it’s the little things. Sometimes…actually, often, they come and go extraordinarily quickly. Perhaps you don’t know you are even having a “special moment” until you get home that night, put some tea on the kettle, and reflect on what has transpired.

I don’t know how to hold on to all of this.

I finally am admitting this to myself; quite frankly, I have to. Remembering and moving forward beyond my Peace Corps life is a lot more than fitting it in a perfect little box and expecting it will unfold naturally. There has been so much good, weird, bad, horrible, ridiculous, unbelievable, insane, extraordinary, inspiring, awful, amazing, disgusting, and normal things that have happened in the past two years that a wonderfully contained story doesn’t really exist. So, I’ve tried to take stock of all of the little things (yes, even the negative) and write as much as possible about those events and experiences as they have come.

August became September and now October has arrived and I’m not quite sure what to make of that. I made it my goal to live in the moment! and to enjoy each day as it comes!  or to YOLO: YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE for the last chunk of my service, but what happens when you take a step back and one, two, or three months have passed? Sure, it’s great, but it’s also like, um, excuse me, I’d like to figure out exactly what time is doing here…?

But I’m certain this is not a problem just because I’m in Peace Corps. Or because I’m coming up on a major life transition. Or because I’m also almost officially in my mid-20’s. I think that’s just life. I know full well that life has continued back home and so when I step back on American soil for the first time in a very long time, it won’t be just me that has had to wrestle with what time has brought and taken from us. My parents, my brother, my friends, and family at large all have been through things the past couple of years and my experience abroad can certainly fit into that, but it’s not the whole story.

I’ve mastered appreciating the small moments. I think in Peace Corps, you kind of have to. Because absolutely, some days those are all you have. Did you wash your dishes? Yes! Success! Did you make it to market and successfully find all of the vegetables you were hoping for? Congratulations! Did old mamas greet you enthusiastically and wish you to have a wonderful life forever? Excellent!

But the challenge – the next step – is being okay with what time has waiting for you. Appreciating the small moments isn’t enough; you have to appreciate them because you know they are fleeting. It’s not that they are just essentially great – it’s that you don’t have those people or those feelings or those situations forever. This is a big jump, especially for me. I don’t like letting go and though I thrive in change and adapting, I try picturing a life outside this village and that world seems strange now. I’m a little scared. And I’m majorly blown away of how fast time has passed.

But, fear doesn’t do anything for us. And as I’ve been teaching about fighting fear for the last two years with my GLOW girls, it’s time I take my own advice.

Maybe I can’t hold on to every single thing that has composed the past two years of my life, but I will be walking away with memories, life lessons, and professional experience. I have a lot of photographs. I have 7 volumes of my journals (I’m so serious). I have stories. And I know I’ve changed, mostly for the better. How could I not?

But as always, the best thing I will be walking away with are the friendships I have made. A Peace Corps Volunteer and I were recently discussing about friendships in Rwanda and about how it is impossible to build a true, solid, and trusting relationship in this country. I listened and laughed, but I couldn’t agree. I don’t have many, I’ll give you that, but I do have a lot of caring people that I have met. I have a community full of people who have shown kindness just because that’s what you do. And when it does come to friendships, I will manage to walk away with at least one best friend who has totally revolutionized the way I see the world. In the best way possible.

Phew.

That was a lot of tangents, ideas, and thoughts.

But that’s what has been on my mind and I wanted to share it. Because that’s how we are able to understand ourselves and other people better.

Here’s to sharing life.

2 months to go. I’m ready to enjoy all of the little wonders that I still have waiting for me. Time is on my side.

coach heather.

coach heather.

welcome home.

welcome home.

 

‘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.

sunflowers and bananas

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Humans have a funny way of becoming a product of their environment.

I’d support this claim in a variety of ways with sequential and supportive evidence, alas, I’m not exactly livin’ the 4G life here, I don’t have Google (or Wikipedia for that matter) as my best friend, nor do I have a plethora of academic databases lying around; so, I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or, go ahead and just listen to my friends—they’ll tell you—I am lately exuding very Rwandan-esque behaviors. You’re becoming so Rwandan they say. This is usually after I phrase something in Rwandan English such as,

“How do you see Rwanda?”, or,

“Even me, I love milk.”

And one more for kicks and giggles,

“Ah, yes. The day is okay.”

And that’s just what my friends see of me.

They don’t see that girl who does a special greeting-handshake-thing with her students (called the push), or when I’m playing football and laugh when somebody falls down (laughter is completely accepted when somebody is embarrassed or in pain), or even when I mumble yes-way (coming from the Kinyarwanda phrase, Yesu we, meaning, Oh my Jesus!) when something surprises me.

Moreover, I get comments about having spent too much time in the village when I glorify plantains (a regular part of my diet), talk about my consistent visiting habits, or greet each and every person we pass on the streets—even if we are in the city of Kigali (a city is a city, and greeting like you do in the village isn’t really the norm).

In my defense, I can chalk up a lot of these behaviors to me just being me (in Rwandan form, of course) and also, I have taken a strong liking to Rwandan culture. With any culture, there are parts that you quite literally cannot understand and there are even parts that you want nothing to do with. I have my share of that. Yet, when I leave my little village world for a short trip, get together, or meeting and always, without fail, am told that Heather is becoming more like Impano (my Kinyarwanda name…or is it alias?) every day, I’d say the culture is having a good effect on me. A strong one, at least.

Better yet, is that these days when I leave, I want to come back. ASAP. Homesick? For the village? Maybe it’s not just being products of our environments that matters (Lord knows, I tried my darndest—and still do—to be Southern when I was living in Arkansas)—it’s the process of becoming a part of something larger than yourself. Before you know it, you’re changing, your worldview is breaking down only to be rebuilt, and you can just add one more place to the growing list of where home is.

Yeah, home is a huge word to throw around. Like I taught my students in the first term, home isn’t quite just a place—it’s a heavy mix of structures, thickly laced with layers of memories, comfort, and most importantly, people. When I think of home in the broadest sense, I think of images, sounds, flashbacks, and a dozen other senses (memory is quite powerful, after all) involving Norfolk Street, mom, dad, family BBQs, my large and crazy family, Buddy’s feet pattering in the kitchen, throwing the football with Lance, mom (and dad’s!) enchiladas, coffee on the way to work or school, my Ghana blanket, expansive trees, jokes with friends, studying in the sun, watching Friends with friends, NFL on Sundays, Hendrix College, long walks at dusk, bike rides in the summer, American highways, reading on the porch, sleeping late in the best bed in the world, chatting loudly and freely on the phone with my friends, my favorite pair of sweatpants, and just sitting and talking with my friends…family…or really anyone who cares to listen. Home is powerful you see, and these things—these images—are just what comes to the top of my head when I reflect on what home is to me. It goes so so much deeper than even this.

And now, I’m coming to see Rwanda in its very own way is becoming home too. Peace Corps blog policy (believe it) prohibits me from disclosing the exact location of where I live—which is unfortunate, otherwise you could be like dad, who seems to always be searching for my green house on google maps and finding me via satellite. I think I see you! You’re in the forest, right? Love him. If you’re curious, by all means, ask him.

But, I live in a great place. It’s beautiful—I can’t find another word that suffices—and it’s rural, green, and lined with dirt roads (like most of Rwanda). In between batches of sunflowers (incidentally, one of my favorite kinds of flowers) and banana trees, you can find my house. I live in the sector center (the sector, a small part of the entire regional province, has 4 main cells, like large villages. Yes. I know. It’s confusing.) which includes our secondary school, one of 3 primary schools (this one hosts 2000+ screaming children…you better believe that I plan my runs around when their school day ends), the health center, the red-bricked and ominous Catholic Church, a sector office about a 45 minute walk down the main road, and a few clusters of boutiques where you can buy salt, batteries, sugar, banana beer (a special home-brew; moonshine ain’t got nothin’ on this horribly disgusting excuse for a beer), phone credit (the company I use, MTN, is one of the largest corporations in all of Africa), and candy, to name a few.

With most of my community members working as farmers, you’ll see vast fields of banana trees, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, coffee, corn, sorghum, cassava, and rice. Having developed the consistent and strong habits of visiting my students and going on runs, I‘ve seen nearly my entire sector. It’s funny because while I do know the roads well, I often learn a secret shortcut, back way, or new path every day because that’s the nature of living amidst hills and the countryside—there is always a new way to go.

 

I can walk comfortably to most places. I mean that quite literally. If I want to wear my comfy sports get-up, I do. I’ve become adjusted enough that I don’t feel like I have to be on my best behavior and dress immaculately on every outing—it’s just me greeting the neighbors or stopping in for a quick Coke on a dry, hot day. That’s surely a strike in the whole me-becoming-Rwandan-endeavor, but it’s certainly what I prefer. I even veered from my discourse in wearing long black capris on runs to wearing the orange mesh field hockey shorts I brought with me. I wore them to our girls’ practice the other day, and ohlala. The girls went crazy. In a good way. They kept telling me how smart I am (that means you dress nicely) and I was happy to break the mold a bit…and get my pasty white legs some fresh Rwandan sun, for goodness sake!

 

I think the biggest sign that this once uncertain place has wagered a serious move to become home has everything to do with knowing the people. Like I said in the first place, that’s the biggest part of a place or time in your life feeling like home.

It’s a beautiful thing, I tell you, to run or walk 30 minutes away, see the mothers and fathers of my students, to call them by name, and greet them like it’s just another day. That provides such a sense of belonging and to hear them say things like our teacher, she loves people, she knows Kinyarwanda, she loves to laugh, and she is loved by all…what else could you really ask of a place thousands of miles from the home that I came from, a place I knew nobody 7 months ago, and a place embedded with a complex and hard to understand (and hard to break through) culture?

Granted, it’s not all ice cream and sprinkles; of course people still say umuzungu, make inappropriate comments, gawk and stare at me like I’m the newest zoo animal, and mock me just for the hell of it. I don’t preach perfection; this community (like anywhere in the world) has good people, bad people, positive signs of development, negative and intense issues, and that’s just from what I can actually understand. But instances of negativity are growing less and less, and the good comments, the man, I really feel at home because you said that comments are increasing and becoming more regular each time I step outside in the world of my little community.

I’m happy here. Not all the time, but that really is okay. Genuinely, truly, completely. For the first time in my life, really, for a consistent amount of time, I have been okay on my bad days. I realize that they come with the territory, and that life really isn’t life without a bit of everything. We’re human, after all. I’m happy when it matters; when moments come and it’s just so clear that this is exactly where I need to be. I call these home moments.

Here’s a few:

  • Sitting on the school grounds with my students laughing…talking…doing nothing at all…even letting them play with my now long blonde hair…
  • Watching the Senior 2A girls beat the Senior 3B girls for the girls’ inter-class football championship. I was sitting with my student and friend, Zahara, among other girls, and we were glued to what was happening on the field. After a 1-1 draw, the girls lined up for penalty kicks. With an edge of 1, the Senior 2A girls came away as the victors. We cheered loudly and proudly while also consoling the older girls who had every advantage to win (they are a stacked team, you might say). I will never forget the moment that I looked over at the S2A girls, hugging each other in a large circle, screaming at the top of their lungs. That’s what sports is all about—for a moment nothing else mattered. And I was both in that moment, and outside that moment, realizing that I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of that myself. Anyway, just being there, able to witness such a moving thing reminded me of the ties I have here now; I’m a supporter, a fan,  if you will, and it’s amazing to have such great students to cheer for.
  • Telling the 5 girls from our school that they were accepted into GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp this July and August. About 30 girls from our school applied, and the 5 that were selected—Yvonne, Joselyne, Joyce, Divine, and Maisara—are some of the best students at our entire school. I gathered them in our staff room and presented them with a homemade card made by yours truly, that said “you are a superstar! …congratulations! You will be attending GLOW Camp 2012!” They fist-pumped and high-fived each other. And, when I started to explain more details about the camp, and the importance of their selection, I saw tears in their eyes. This is huge for them. I knew it would be…but to be in that moment, to realize exactly what this camp could do for them…I too was overwhelmed with emotion. The next week, I had them over for coffee and bananas to go through the details of getting there, and I just know this is going to be a highlight of my time in Rwanda. Not to mention, provides a great deal of purpose and sense of community with the girls that are going. Yes, indeed, a home moment in every sense that it could be.
  • Playing football. With my students. With the community women’s team that I just joined (I’ve had a couple good practices, scoring a few goals! holla.) As always, it just feels like I’m in my element and culturally, I’m dabbling in a sacred part of Rwandan life. It’s a match made in heaven. Ha. No pun intended.
  • Going on walks with one of my good friends, 3 year old Olive. Frequently, I’ll visit her house, check in with her mom, and we’ll hold hands, walk to the next village over, and turn back around. We don’t talk that much (what can you really talk about with a toddler?) but we giggle, and have fun, which is what matters.
  • Riding the moto on my 20 minute ride back from the main road into my village. It’s just so nice to have that feeling of, yes! I’m coming home! And the rolling hills peppered with an open sky certainly does not hurt the eyes as I whizz on by rural villages stacked together.
  • Reading books, magazines, and newspapers in bed on Saturday morning, staying intertwined in my Coca-Cola themed sheets till gasp! 10 am. Nothing like catching up on the news (even if it’s 2 months behind) in bed with a good cup of coffee.
  • Holding hands with my Rwandan friends. Holding hands is another cultural point of importance, and I’ve totally embraced it. It’s nice to feel physically close with someone and feel comfortable expressing that, and this not meaning anything else other than close friendship.
  • Really really good home visits. They are all generally pretty good, but some are just absolutely wonderful, where you have a strong connection with families, and can build on the relationship you already have with the student. It makes you feel at home because suddenly you have a whole group of people wanting to love on you, make you feel welcome, and showing you the ropes of their home. It’s an honor, really, and most of these families, I don’t think even realize what their hospitality means to me. That’s what hospitality is all about: making you feel at home. Which is why really really good home visits are impacting how I see and feel about my place in this community. The best is returning, coming back again for another home visit, and having a repertoire and relationship already established. I have a couple families like that, and it’s just nice to know I have a place to go.

Sometimes, these self-dubbed “home moments” are small. Sometimes, they’re big. The big ones typically involve my students. As this place grows as a home for me, my students are undeniably a major part of this. This term has just opened up a whole new dynamic with my students and I…well, I love it.

And, it’s actually just so hard to explain.

There’s a lot of love in the world, but loving your students is so different. I’m vested in them; they’re vested in me. And for the ones I’m particularly close with, there is a shared sense of admiration, connection, and ease. I’m navigating how to be a teacher, friend, mentor, mother, and supporter, all in one relationship. It’s a lot. It’s weird. I can think of a handful of students where it’s just so natural to be with them and their company alone is incredibly uplifting. My heart flutters when they succeed. And when the face challenges I, even at 23, will never understand, my heart breaks. I want to fight for them. I want them to know that I am on their side. Yes, I am always, always, on your side, I think to myself.

When your heart is out there—for the good and the bad—and you are vulnerable like that, I think you can be sure that you are giving the place and people you are with at any stage in your life a fair-shot to become your new reality of home.

I can only hope that in doing so, I’m offering something to my friends, to my students, and to my community. What exactly I’m giving, I don’t really know. Because you can line this Peace Corps service with projects, aid ideas, and development, but like I’ve believed all along, the mark you leave behind is far more deeper than that (and far more important, maybe). They are giving me a home. I suppose in my heart of hearts, my hope is that throughout this process I am showing my community ways to believe in the people they are, that really, we are all just people, and that though the world is markedly unfair with profound inequalities (that’s entirely another blog), we are all living out a piece of what God wishes to see in the world and in humanity.

 It’s a lofty ambition. But I came here, for the first time, completely freaked out. I never imagined I would feel the way I do—about the place, but more so, about the people. And so, lofty ambitions can be achieved. A village can become a home. And we can change the world. You just have to start small, and go from there.


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.

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.