Less than a week after I first visited the shelter—armed with 12 textbooks, 12 notebooks, 12 pencils and butterflies in my stomach—I tentatively knocked on the door of the shelter. I heard feet shuffling back and forth, giggling, and children’s whispers. Ali and Aziz opened the door, but I could see three of the girls (Kareema, Narzia, and Sabreea), teetering with excitement at the edge of the landing.
I was so nervous! I hadn’t taught in over a year—what if I had forgotten how to teach well? What if I didn’t reach these children? What if I let them down? They were so excited, running circles around me, peeking into my bag of school supplies, tugging on my shirtsleeve. They pulled me along, down the stairs, into a small, but well-lit room in the basement. There was a chair for me to sit on and a white board—but that was all. No desks or chairs for them, no pencils, no paper, no books. At that moment, I thought to myself, “If nothing else, at least I brought them materials they can use, even after I leave.”
The children arranged themselves on the floor, the six girls in the first “row” and the six boys in the back “row.” As I handed out the books and notebooks, crayons and pencils, their eyes lit up, the whispering transformed into full-blown conversation and laughter. In my limited and broken Dari, I quieted them down and pantomimed opening a notebook. It took just over an hour to get through the 26 letters of the English alphabet. There was a great deal of confusion over “v” and “w,” and also “c” and “k,” and no one seemed able to remember the letter “q”—but overall, it was one of the most wonderful teaching “moments” I’ve ever experienced. The children sat, cross-legged or perched on their knees, nearly toppling over with enthusiasm. No matter the task or their ability-level, the children scrawled on the lined paper with great alacrity and then eagerly held their notebooks up for my approval. Some shouted out answers, all smiled when called upon—even when they didn’t know the answer.
Not once during that hour did it occur to me that these children, aged 5 to 13, had never sat in a “real” (i.e. formal) classroom before. Not once did it occur to me that these children had not been socialized by no one other than one another. Not once did it occur to me that every single one of these children no longer had a father, no longer could see their extended family, and no longer could visit their birthplace. During that one hour, they were simply good-hearted, enthusiastic students who desperately wanted to learn and/or garner a smile or a “besyar khub” (very good) from their new teacher. During that one hour, “Afghanistan” faded into the background a little.
Towards the end of the hour, (I can’t believe I didn’t notice it sooner!!) I realized that several of the mothers were sitting right outside the entryway, mouthing the alphabet and “drawing” out the letters with their pointer finger on the carpet. I smiled at them and winked (though I’m not sure if they understand the meaning of that facial gesture, at least as I meant it).
As I erased the board and collected my things, none of the children moved. Though they spoke only in Dari (of which I have only limited understanding), it became clear that they were asking one another, “It’s over already? Why is it over? She is leaving? Now? Why is she leaving?” I smiled and told them, in Dari, that I would see them in two days. Both the children and their mothers shook my hand, over and over again, as I ascended the stairs. The eldest boy, who speaks rather good English, asked me, “Don’t you want to give us work to do before the next class?” I was a little shocked, I must say. I told him to tell the other children to write out the alphabet twice in their notebooks (in our next class, I would discover that most of the children wrote out the entire alphabet more than 5 times).
I left the shelter—sweating, worn out, and smiling. I leaned my head against the pane of the car window and thought about girl students in Oruj’s schools in Wardak and Nangrahar. Are they as enthusiastic as these children? I can only assume, from the stories I’ve heard from Sadiqa and her father, that they are. My only hope is that the work I’ve done this summer—the grant writing, the outreach work, the networking, the organizational development, the meetings, and conferences—though all done from an office in Kabul, will help sustain that enthusiasm the female students in Wardak and Nangrahar have shown for learning.
Posted By Alison Long (Afghanistan)
Posted Aug 6th, 2006