The classroom should be where “butterflies bloom” and children can teach more than you ever thought you had to learn. School can be real. It can be more than achieving a score on a test. School can be where we learn to understand ourselves and the world of people around us. It can be about dreams and where dreams are shaped into reality.
I was in planning period with my thoughts stuck on Brian. He always occupied my thoughts because he was reluctant to join in on classroom discussions and preferred to work alone. How can you learn a language if you don’t want to connect with your classmates? I wondered how I could tap into what was important to him. I was perplexed. However, on this day, it was not going to be about Brian after all. Aminta and Natania burst into my classroom saying, “Can we sit here?” I welcomed them in. They tearfully spoke with each other while I sat half wanting to reach out and half wanting to just give them time to talk. Then they told me.
It happened in their World History class. In an effort to encourage a class of rowdy students to work, the teacher offered a reward of donuts and juice. Sadly, he said, “If you don’t get it done, you can starve like Ethiopians!” They left class. Aminta and Natania were from Ethiopia. They told me they were crushed, embarrassed, shocked, and angry. We talked about their experiences living in Ethiopia and coming to the United States in seventh grade. They were always lonely. They always felt different and unwelcome. This “slip of the tongue” by their teacher was just another experience that doused the fire in their eyes.
By the end of our conversation, the girls had decided that they wanted to teach. They wanted to help their World History teacher understand their lives and their dreams. I felt blessed that this Freirian experience was taking place and I had somehow been invited. Before the bell rang, they had a plan and a sense of purpose. My planning period had become theirs.
The next day Aminta and Natania shared their family photos and stories about life in Ethiopia with their World History teacher. The girls shared how their lives were “not bad,” but they knew that others suffered. They told about the schools they attended and how hard their parents worked. They told about the cycle of drought and famine. They shared their dreams of becoming “important people” when they graduated from college. Each young teacher gave her student a flag of Ethiopia to put on his desk, but the true gift was intangible. In his mind the girls were different. They had taught him a precious lesson about the possibilities of learning when the teachers are the students.
I learned how to be a better teacher from Aminta and Natania 6 years ago. Their faces are still fresh in my mind as I work to see the individuals in my classes and their family members. I shared this experience at an advocacy summit held by the National Education Association in Austin, Texas. It amazed me just how much I still feel the lessons of this experience from so many years ago. And if I feel it, I am certain that Aminta and Natania feel it, too. I am confident that these girls are “important people” somewhere doing important things like teaching wherever they go, place to place. I thought of them again last year when a first grader could hardly contain his excitement as the butterflies we released “bloomed” and alighted flower to flower. He turned to me and said, “That’s life.”
And I think that matters.