I was left alone with more than seventy of them. Seventy small, squirming Senegalese schoolchildren. My co-teacher, and most of the other teachers at the preschool where I work had departed for Dakar to buy Christmas gifts for their students. That left me, Tata Therese, one other teacher and a crippled bodyguard facing four classes and about two hundred students. At any given time that constitutes about twenty-five untied shoes, fifteen snot icicles, ten toileting accidents, and five criers– not to mention the kids who seem fascinated by the mechanics of the `toobab’(white person); testing out the elasticity of my skin, toying with my hair and ,sometimes, inexplicably, stroking my toes.
They are good kids who often break their cookies in half to share with me and sweep the floor during recess. But leaving me defenseless with seventy Wolof-speaking five-year olds and no lesson plan was not a fair fight. I was facing a grand phalanx and knew it was a rout.
At their best my Senegalese students break their cookies in half for me, but at their worst shoes fly, pants get ripped, it is hard to distinguish whose limbs are whose. They walk up to the front of the room, arms ringed with teeth-marks as if mistaken for corn on the cob. A circle of kids forms around me slapping, slinging Wolof words at me rapid-fire. They point, so I know who is guilty. They pull me by the hand until I face the pint-sized perpetrator. It was him; it was her. Who, really, is guilty here?
When trying to teach a Christmas song to the kids fails, when a child refuses to sit in time out, when five boys are piled like football players at the end of a dirty play, it is tempting to aim my pointer finger accusingly at the children. They are wild. They are the problem. But when the other maitresse returns to the class to check in just long enough greet their tiny heads with the tip of a small tree branch my heart still quickens sometimes. It must be the teacher then who is guilty, for leaving the young children to sit squished together, like cattle, for hours, rotting in their own boredom while she chats with her tailor or decorates the room for Christmas. She is guilty for hardening the students with the tail end of a cell phone charger or tree branch or a book, to the point that students will request that I hit their recalcitrant classmates. A cycle is created: After recess each day, I collect a pile of tree branches from the students that they have used to mime their teacher, turning the switch on each other.
But when I watch her heave a sigh and repeat the universal Senegalese expression of bottomless exasperation:“Lay, lay, lay, laay” or break character for a moment, demonstrating a dance for the kids, I know that she is only playing by the rules of preschool when she uses the switch: eat or be eaten. Maybe, then, it is the French doners who are culpable, for putting their money towards desks and chalkboards when the real problem is that the school is woefully understaffed. The French benefactors wander from class to class watching automatons of children recite poems and songs in clarion unision “Nous allons tres bien. Comment allez vous?”the children greet the French who will depart after an hour or two with benevolent, satisfied smiles.
I was left alone with more than seventy of them and I stood there searching for the guilty party, the casus belli. A preschooler tugs my sleeve, points and pulls me towards the offender. But the landing spot of my swiveling pointer-finger is irrelevant; identifying the perpetrator is not going to solve anything.
What might be a start is that my co-teacher hasn’t hit a child for about a week after a conversation we had about corporal punishment. She’s agreed to try out a system of positive rewards in our classroom. I made a poster and crown to recognize the best behaved student each day and already other teachers have requested them.
I know this small change is no panacea. I know that at any moment my co-teacher could step outside the class, and snap a branch off a tree. I have moments myself when my flight or fight instinct kicks in and I have to turn away from the chaos, to remind myself to breath, that this is only preschool. But thinking of the best side of the students saves me. Sometimes when I am walking around Mbour they shout hello to me from where they play in the streets, chalky dirt settled into their skin like a dusting of cinnamon spice. When I am teaching and my back is turned, or when gravity bends my lips downwards, I will hear a group of kids start up the song I taught them in French, “Toujours hygiene et propertie partout”, shining me their most irresistible jack-o-lantern smiles. And what can I do but shine back.