Admitting

Emily Hess - Senegal


April 4, 2011

As I carefully write out the date on the top of the blackboard on a cool afternoon, kids are filing in, shaking my hand and greeting me with “good afternoon” and “how are you, today?” and the like. And as the usual bustle of murmurs and laughter dies down, I step back. I look at the date and see that it’s Wednesday, March 23rd. I close my eyes.

I’m suddenly standing in front of the lunch table at the hostel in Dakar, day two. This is the day that the Senegal fellows are going to tell me what is written on the small slip of paper on my back. I can’t see it, but on this slip of paper my responsibility and life for the next 7 months is written in black ink. They answer “Yes” to my question about whether or not the apprenticeship slip of paper is education. I am more than overwhelmed and definitely not prepared in the least bit for that answer. I was praying for health care and had been a whole two weeks in a row beforehand. I’m angry and I’m thinking, “How is this happening? I don’t know how to teach kids! I don’t know anything about education! I can’t possibly do this!”

I have another flashback, eyes still closed – I’m walking to my homestay in Mermoz with Gus Ruchman in October. I’m this close to screaming at him for telling me to calm down about my apprenticeship. We’re leaving for our permanent residences in a few days and I just can’t handle it. I start to cry. I remember saying that I didn’t want to mess up a year of education for an entire class of students and that I can’t possibly do this. “Education should not be an experiment!” I tell him.

One last flashback occurs before I open my eyes again. It’s November 3rd and I’m stepping in front of a class full of faces I don’t know. But I’m quick to realize something- I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid even for a second. We open the English Club meeting with “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands”. I don’t sing in front of people, it makes me nervous, but I am doing it anyways and I’m not nervous at all and I realize that I had been wrong before this very moment.

When I open my eyes I turn to my English Club with a smile. It’s March 23rd and my students are getting ready to rehearse their opening day dialogue. While I watch them, I keep smiling, not just because I realize that they are speaking English and working hard and coming to the club and learning, but because I’m learning just as much as them every step of the way. I clap at their rehearsal when they finish and high five anyone within arm’s length. The director of the school who is sitting next to me nods in approval and says, “I’m not going to lie, I’m very impressed.” One of my students comes up to me and asks me in English, “Did we do a good job? Thank you, Emily.”

That night I write in my journal.

When I look down at the page it reads, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy about being wrong.”

Emily Hess