Inside the Classroom
As I sit here, 25 years later, I am transported back into the past, to Classroom C-4 where I was given the responsibility of teaching English literature and grammar to 8th graders, a majority of whose parents worked at the African Development Bank; the others were from families associated with the American Embassy, or missionary groups.
Little did I realize that a few weeks earlier, on my return from the States, with my seven- year-old Bibi, in tow, I would meet an extraordinary, beautiful teenager, who came over to befriend and to play with Bibi, as we waited in the airline boarding lounge. Turns out it was the beginning of a teacher-student; eventual “aunty-niece” relationship that is still intact. Minia Mikael-Debass—joined by Symchay Chalobah, Jung-sun Park, Lars Westergren, Maysa Simsa, ismael, Jenny Robinson, Ndubisi Umeh, Ama Dei, Maavi Norman, Tsoke Adjavon, Julia were among my new 8th grade students.
I had been given a contract to teach one class of 8th graders, along with Speech, and Drama, for high schoolers until the original teacher returned from the States. The Director behavior towards me convinced me that I was not his choice to fill the English teaching position. However, I’ve learned that the Universal laws outweigh human laws, and that our only responsibility is to say what it is that we desire, and leave the unfolding to the universe. Enrollment grew and the Director was forced to add a second class of 8th grade English. I had also been given a class of juniors to teach a course in American Literature, but the Director gave the class to an overseas hire (“she needed a full plate”)whose contract specified that she was to teach Social Studies. Within two weeks of being given the class, it was clear that she was way in over her head, and the class was grudgingly returned to me.
Oh man, what magic my students and I created in our classroom!
The following is an excerpt from an essay I had to write in completing the final requirements for my clear Secondary Teaching credential. The prompt was to remember a time when I was evaluated for something I did. I began the essay by writing that my most vivid memory “is about being evaluated for who i was.”
In my profession as a teacher, I am aware of the doubt, usually conveyed in very subtle ways, that I am competent to each a subject, English, where the preponderance of evidence ‘proves’ that African Americans cannot master this language in any of its forms. I first became aware of this unspoken evaluation while living overseas in a French- speaking country. I had been hired to teach English at an international school in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, West Africa. The school had been created in 1972 by American Embassy employees who wanted their children to attend a school where the language of instruction was English, and the curriculum was modeled on the curriculum used in mainland American schools. At that time, the only options were to send their children to boarding schools in the States, or to enroll them in local private schools where the language of instruction was French, and the curriculum modeled after that used in French schools.
(I’ve already outlined the problems I had in having the promise to hire me honored, so i’ll skip to the classroom experience).
For at least two years after I began teaching, the Director and I co-existed on campus. In the meantime, I made alliances with like-minded colleagues, as well as members of Abidjan’s African American community, and I proved myself to be a competent, caring, and dedicated teacher of English, Speech, Drama, Creative Writing, and African History—a required course for graduation from ICSA. I proved to my students, their parents, my colleagues, and to myself that i could not only teach English composition and literature, but that I could make the class fun and exciting. I formed friendships with my students that have enriched my life beyond measure. I still hear from some of them on occasion, and I was honored as the keynote graduation speaker in 1995, and 1997, my last year at the school.
What did i learn from the experience? Gratitude. I am deeply grateful for the obstacles that were placed in my path. I was forced to surmount them, I learned to go around them; sometimes it even felt that I tunneled under them! I grew enormously in my confidence to teach, which is essential in working with young people. I gained patience, and humility to avoid being self-righteous. I became part of the continuum of Africans and African Americans who, despite negative evaluations of themselves and their abilities to achieve or excel in areas outside of sports and entertainment, managed to maintain a healthy, loving regard of themselves and others to pass on to future generations.
Pride in my abilities was another result of that experience. I became a juggler and magician. I used my forum to sensitize my students to the contributions made by all cultures to the body of American literature. I juggled the course requirements with what I knew personally about the human condition; I made magic in showing students that the same concerns that appear in Antigone are similar to those in Like Water for Chocolate.
They learned that the classics are not limited to European literature, art, or music; they also include Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, and African works of art. Additionally, they learned that just because something “sounds” right, it is not necessarily superior to something that sounds foreign or unfamiliar. There seems to be an impression that the speech patterns of white America is the standard to which we are all held accountable. Many people of color have been, and are still being judged negatively because of the way they sound, rather than by the sense they make.
My experiences in neutralizing/neutering the unspoken, negative evaluations that i encountered helped me to encourage my students to not only work diligently to master the subject matter, but to also question the accepted standards; to develop their own “voice.”
It was extremely important that they understand that in mastering any material, they not only proved the doubters wrong, but more importantly, they would take control of themselves and eliminate fear of failure from their lives.
By having acquired competency in my subject area, I helped them recognize and embrace universality in great works of literature as disparate as Scarlet Letter, and Song of Solomon. They were not intimidated by a passage from William Faulkner, or Henry James. and while they did not breathlessly anticipate a writing assignment, they understood that with clear directions and expectations, they could step up to the plate. I saw myself as a friendly, but firm guide for young people. Ideally, my evaluations of them have proven to be good experiences that helped them to flourish.
The unspoken, negative evaluation of my ability to teach English proved to be a blessing in disguise; I encourage anyone who finds herself, or himself in a similar position, to stand fast and take action to turn the negative into a positive. (the 3rd installment will focus on my experiences teaching African History)