Each Wednesday morning I travel to a foreign atmosphere, I am removed from my element, and I am forced to submerge myself into a little corner of the world better known as St. Mary’s. The mornings begin as most schools do; a tap on the microphone before the announcements are read, the pledge is said, lunch is ordered, and attendance is taken. I wait in the back of the room by the windows, and watch as (typical eighth graders would) the students drag their feet into their desks, shuffle around their papers, greet each other, and wait for their teacher to start the day.
Except unlike most schools, their teacher did not show up. No warning, no notification, just decided not to come. I stood by the windows in utter disbelief, just staring at the students, the students staring back at me, waiting for me to make my first move. There was silence, as devastating and loud as the silence of Malu and Alofa, and then there were questions that could not be answered, so they might as well have been left in silence. I did not know where their teacher was, why he had not shown up, why the substitute was not there yet, or what we were supposed to do.
After what would be considered homeroom the substitute for the day arrived, along with the principle who apologized for the delay and handed the “sub” a mediocre pile of papers and assignments to keep the students busy. The substitute then proceeded to look at me, then the pile of papers, and then back at me inquiring what she should give the students to work on. She then incompetently said, “We should probably do the math and science while you’re here ‘cause I don’t really know how to help them with that since I seem to have some trouble myself.”
Making a long story short, I compiled three lessons, one in chemistry, one in algebra and one in English that morning combined with simple games and activities I remembered my old teachers using in class. I worked with students individually when they were having trouble, and in the progression of the day learned their stories, their “secrets” beyond the classroom. I was forced to look through a new scope, a new pair of lenses and became mystified by their smiling faces. I could not imagine a world where your safe haven is a place where even your teachers abandon you, but that is their world. Their world. Not just every Wednesday, but every day. I aspire to have the strength that these eighth graders carry with them as casually as they drag their backpacks in each morning.
There are many connections of this particular encounter at St. Mary’s with Sia Figiel’s novel They Who Do Not Grieve. The secrets and silence of the students can be compared to the secrets and silence of each voice of the women in the novel. The burden of these secrets and the contrast of their lives to the lives of the privileged are also relevant. However, one quote in particular is aptly related when Figiel writes, “’don’t be too angry at the world. And don’t judge people outside for what you’ve seen in here, Apa. There’s still a lot of decent folk out there. Don’t close your eyes to that, is what I’m trying to say.’”
In conjunction with this quote, while I am in awe of my students, I am troubled by their burden, which is why my return to campus on Wednesday’s is at times frustrating. It is hard for me to transition from being so enveloped in their world, to the world of my roommates beginning their day. The world of Dunkin Doughnuts, JCrew, midterms, all-nighters and text messages just seems so trivial in comparison. It is as if I am moving from a hard reality into a dreamland, and like Malu it is difficult to separate one once you have been inside the other. I feel a pit in my stomach because they have no idea what I just experienced, what I just witnessed fourteen year olds go through. I get angry at their world, but in time I am able to step back and realize it is nothing to hold against them or myself, just because our world is different does not mean they or I are “bad people.” We just happen to be on the opposite side of the spectrum, but there is still concern, we are not indifferent.
Additionally, after reading this quote over and over, I realized that it was not solely related to preventing me from judging the people I interact with on campus after experiencing my encounters at St. Mary’s. In truth, it is more closely correlated with the students open arms to me. That after all that they have seen in their lives, it is fascinating that they are not angry at the world in the least even though they do not ignore the injustices. Better yet, as the clear outsider both economically and ethnically they do not judge me in response to what they face. They do not place blame, or point fingers. As children, my students still have faith in humanities common decency, and I believe Figiel’s major point is as we grow older, our greatest effort should be not to close our eyes to that fragile faith in humanity.