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Life Lessons


Dignity doesn’t just mean always being stiff and composed. It means a belief in oneself, that one is worthy of the best. Dignity means that what I have to say is important, and I will say it when it’s important for me to say it. Dignity really means that I deserve the best treatment I can receive. --Maya Angelou


I’d spent most of dinner the night before and breakfast the next morning complaining about my first day at school, which consisted of fetching water and sharpening pencils. Everyone was sympathetic and encouraged me to give it a little more time – except Helen. She stood firm.


“If ye don’t like it, Liz, march yourself into tha office an’ tell ‘em, I doon’t want te doo this.”


But I was determined to make it work. I’d hoped the day before was special what with the inaugural soccer game and all. Today, we’d get back to it. I'd give it one more day...


Things were in full swing when I arrived. I’d met the German girl – let’s call her Irina – on

my way in.

“Are you ready for another day of hell?” she asked, as we stepped into the front room of the school where about 15 kids were running around, screaming and weaving in and out of desks.


Some came right over for hugs. Others circled around us, yelling “Hello! Hello!” in an attempt to capture our attention. One little girl, I’m guessing around two, was adamant about being held and stood at my feet, arms raised, snot running from nostrils to upper lip. I took her to the bathroom and went to work on her nose, while reminding myself it was going to be a good day, dammit.


Outside, the kids were scattered about doing their thing. Irina was sitting off to the side, looking bored while another volunteer sat upright as one of the older students braided her hair.


“Do we know what we’re doing today?” I asked, joining them.


Irina swept her arm in the direction of kids on swings, boys chasing girls, toddlers wandering about and said, “Teaching?”


I had no interest in standing around, waiting for things to happen, so I went looking for the teacher. For someone in charge of such a wild bunch, she moved slowly and had a laid back vibe. She also never raised her voice no matter how crazy the students got. It was fascinating.


I learned two things that morning. There were normally two teachers in charge, but one had to go and take some classes to keep up her certification. She wouldn't return until the following week. Second, there’d be no learning that day or any other day for that matter. The school year was ending in less than two weeks, and the kids were to put on a show. Our task for the rest of the week was to help make props for said show.


My mind went nuts throwing itself against my head like a fly trapped in a car as I processed her words. I was basically doing arts and crafts with 25 small people for the rest of my time at Na’ankuse.


Determination hadn’t left the building yet. If I was going to be trapped in this school, I might as well make the best of it, right? We needed to make boats – like ones children could sit in. I enlisted the help of one of the older girls and dragged a carton the size of a refrigerator out to the front of the school.


It’s important to know that I’ve got no art skills. Sure, I’m creative, but with words – not scissors. But I was going to make a damn boat if it killed me.


Irina joined me as I fiddled with the box.


“We have to make two boats,” I said.


Irina sighed loudly and looked around.


“Out of what? These boxes? Oh man, are they kidding? How are we going to do that? I don’t know how to make a boat. This is so stupid. I can’t believe I got stuck in this stupid school.”


I’d listened to Irina’s whining the day before with empathy and a let’s-make-the-best-of-it approach. That day, I was clinging to my own resolve and couldn’t muster up an ounce of additional energy to cheer her on.


“Why don’t you make one, and I make one?”


“But I don’t know how to make a boat. Do we have supplies? I mean this is so dumb.”


I know it's dumb, you whiny little bi--!


“Irina, you can either help me out here or go back inside and find something to do. But the quicker we get this done, the quicker we’ll be…done.


Not very eloquent, but I got my point across.


An hour later, we had two cardboard boats secured by staples and shoelaces. I was doubtful they’d make it through rehearsals, but I did my best, and that was all I could do.

I certainly preferred making stuff over pushing kids in swings all day long, but by the end of the day, I was seriously concerned about having to do more of the same for the rest of the week.


The thing about me is I know when something isn’t right. I can feel it in my body. It feels like climbing stairs in cement shoes. I couldn’t go back to school. I was 100% sure of that. But I spent that night tossing and turning as Camilla’s words were on loop in my head. “You’ll be ruining someone else’s experience if you decide to rejoin an already full group.”


The next morning, the thought of spending another full day of arts and crafts made me want to stay in bed. I dragged myself up and out, but I moved slowly. So much so, that Helen came to my tent to get me for breakfast, which never happened.


It took about ten seconds for her to pick up on my heavy energy. And when she asked what was wrong, the tears started flowing.


That’s another thing about me. If I ignore my instincts, the battle inside will produce emotion – lots of it. As we walked, I let it all spill out. I was miserable, but I didn’t want to quit. What about the kids? Not that I’d really bonded with any of them, but still…what kind of person quits on kids?


“Ah, fer fuck’s sake, Liz. It’s f-eye-n. Ye tried it and ye didn’t like it. And yer gonna put on yer big girl panties, go down there and tell ‘em yer done. My team isn’t full. Ya can joost join us.”


And that’s what I did. I wish I could say it had more big girl flare, but finally saying the words, “I can’t do this”, produced more tears. (Though, I think they were because I was so relieved more than anything else.)


When I’d told Sara, one of the volunteer coordinators about my school experience, she was super cool about it. She’d heard from others that there wasn’t much learning going on, so it didn’t come as a surprise to her. She was shocked, however, when I mentioned Camilla’s position on the matter.


As I joined Helen and her team, Camilla approached.


“Is there a Liz here?”


Word traveled fast, because the next thing I knew I was getting a full-on apology from Camilla. I was embarrassed that it had turn into such a big thing, and I think Helen got more out watching her apologize to me than I did.


Standing there, listening to Camilla’s awkward apology, I realized none of it had anything to do with her. I could make her the villain in all of it, but the truth was, I was so worried about what other people would think, I ignored my instincts. I let guilt and pride get in the way of simply saying, “I’ve made the wrong choice.”


Maybe I would have made a crappy teacher. Maybe I just don’t like kids enough to make things out of boxes. Or maybe I just wanted more time with the animals. In the end, I was starting to catch a glimpse of what this experience was teaching me, so I guess there was some learning going on after all.

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