I was barely five years old – a clumsy and timid child of recent immigrants – gripping the hand of my grandmother as I led her up the classroom stairs. The teacher ushered us to her desk, where she extracted a pencil rendering of a flower vase from a stack of paper sheets.
‘Meaghan drew this; very good!’ she articulated slowly, pointing at the sketch while my grandmother feigned comprehension.
I remember this moment with extraordinary clarity because, I believe, this was the first moment that I felt a sense of pride and achievement as a student. My teacher had acknowledged my drawing, and, in the process, acknowledged me as an individual with distinct strengths, weaknesses, and characteristics. From then on, a passion for art and drawing became engrained within my identity, and I believe that this moment had a transformative effect upon my development as a student.
Leilani Doktor, a fellow student who led the after-school Drawing Class at Arusha School, wrote that: ‘In the end, the best part is when a student holds up their portrait and thinks, “This is me. I did this, and I’m proud of it.”’ The educational philosophy of Literacy Through Photography follows this intent by encouraging creativity and self-expression as a means of recognizing the value of each individual student and their distinctive contribution to the classroom community.
The activities and methods that we introduced to the students, teachers, and administrators over the past two months were incredibly diverse, ranging from reading photographs and self-portraits to charades and commerce games. What was comparable between these activities, however, was their ability to create a personalized experience for each student, thus connecting the academic curriculum to their daily lives and experiences.
All too often, children are taught that their value as a student is strictly dependent upon their degree of academic achievement. This is a conviction that is entrenched within national schooling systems worldwide, thus nurturing a generation of students who practice memorization and rote-retention more often than critical thinking and academic enquiry. LTP activities do not reward the mindless absorption of unquestionable facts; instead, they encourage students to be creative problem-solvers who are perceptive of the world around them and assertive about the value of their own voice and opinion.
These past two months have taught me that the most insightful and praiseworthy students are those who are curious, innovative, and perceptive. I now understand that achievement is not strictly a branch of academia, that student success cannot be accurately represented by traditional assessment methods, and that a child’s self-worth is all too often correlated with an unbudging red ink mark on a piece of paper.
‘To Miss Hanna.
Thank you for teaching us dance. Before your class, I did not think that I was special enough for people to look at me. I was so happy to hear everyone cheering for me during our dance.
I will not forget that feeling.’
In an educational environment that isolates the teacher as an agent of authority, discipline, and unquestionable knowledge, it is difficult for us to grasp the impact and impression that we made upon the students of Arusha School through this summer’s after-school programs.
It is difficult to ascertain just why the students of Arusha School left such a deep indent upon us. Some of us rediscovered a passion for a hobby that we had misplaced amongst the fast-paced commotion of college life. Some of us realized that we needed neither wealth nor fame nor power to make an impact upon the lives of others. Some experienced the sense of fulfillment that can only result from knowing that we contributed to something bigger than ourselves.
I watched the students of the Arusha School Theatre Club transform and blossom over a period of two months. What had started as a cluster of clumsy and meek children grew into a troupe of confident and creative artists who had developed a sense of unity and pride. A defining moment for me was watching the students bow before their peers after their first performance; fifteen minutes of script, blocking, and choreography had been memorized within three weeks and executed with humbling brilliance. The students ran backstage beaming and shrieking, their bodies flooded with the post-performance ecstasy and exhilaration that me and my collaborator, Jenny Sherman, could recognize all too easily.
Katie Hyde, our program director, mentioned that she had difficulty remembering the provisional teachers who came and went during her childhood years. Last Friday morning, when the students of Arusha School farewelled us with an emotional display of grief and gratitude, I still could not shake the feeling that the students were too young, too forgetful, and too carefree to truly comprehend the way in which they had touched and changed our lives.
Even if the students forget us, they will not forget the accomplishments and experiences that we sought to provide them with: the contentment and fulfillment as you look upon a piece of artwork you completed, the sensation of your heart thumping against your ribcage as you stood upon a lighted stage, the rush of adrenaline as you strike a football to the symphony of your classmates cheering your name. We hope we’ve offered these students a moment of pride. It may have been fleeting, undisclosed and intangible, but it is the most valuable, rewarding, and transformative gift that one could give to any student.
I am two hours away from Hong Kong as I sit next to a man named Dario. He has high, angular cheekbones and a curly brown mass that frames his temples. He surreptitiously claims that he works in the ‘modeling-slash-acting industry’ and boasts that he has travelled to twenty-something countries.
‘You should visit Africa,’ I say.
‘Isn’t it a bit…’ he pauses discretely, ‘…messy there?’
‘You’d be pleasantly surprised.’
‘I’d rather not take the risk,’ he replies.
My eyes narrow until I realized that I shared this very same perspective before I embarked on my trip to Tanzania. I always envisaged Africa as a war-torn confine for the impoverished, malnourished, and corrupt. I amalgamated its individual nations into one blank, vapid mass; embellished CNN reports and Hollywood blockbusters taught me that Africa was bountiful in nothing but need.
I eventually discovered that this popular depiction of Africa was, in fact, a projection of the first world’s own fears and prejudices. I realized that my original conception of ‘poverty’ was skewed; whilst statistics such as Tanzania’s GDP and employment rate paints a paltry picture, this nation certainly is not impoverished. Never before have I been immersed within a culture that abounds in such limitless amounts of resourcefulness, compassion, selflessness, and human spirit.
The 2012 DukeEngage team will remember Tanzania as a nation of white sand, crystalline waters, untamed fauna, and pallid mountain peaks. We will remember the humbling warmth and generosity offered by all its inhabitants, be it the unwavering patience and compassion of Pelle (the local LTP leader), the shopkeepers who greeted us at every street corner with a singsong reverberation of ‘Karibu!’, or the students who absorbed our teaching with curiosity, respect and enthusiasm.
In Swahili, there is no direct translation for the expression of ‘missing’ someone. Instead, when Tanzanians grant their farewells and adieus, they say: ‘nitakukumbuka:’ I will remember you. This is a fitting cultural appropriation; whilst ‘missing’ evokes the notions of yearning, grief, and loss, ‘remembering’ asserts that you have been endowed with memories and impressions that you can always recall with fondness and warmth. Whilst our two-month visit was momentary, the insights, experiences, and relationships that it has provided us with will last a lifetime.