The Last One to Believe

Erin Lang - Senegal


March 18, 2011

What I now see for the first time is the mechanism by which fear destroys intelligence, the way it affects a child’s whole way of thinking about, and dealing with life.  So we have two problems, not one: to stop children from being afraid, and then to break them of the bad habits into which their fears have driven them .                               -John Holt in How Children Fail


As I stepped out of the library to get my usual coffee for the morning, I heard an unusual amount of screaming coming from the classroom next door to me.  Naturally, I rushed over to see what was going on and discovered two things.  First off, the teacher was absent…again; and second, there were two girls on the floor fighting…again.  I ran over and picked the girls off the ground, using each hand to keep them separated once they were standing.  When I asked what was going on, the class informed me that Ndeye, the rebel of the class, had stolen Aida’s necklaces, and when Aida tried to take them back, Ndeye started a fight.  I was annoyed but not surprised that this was the case, for there have been many times where I have caught her slipping my chalk into her bag after class, trying to run off with a book from the library, or taking my new pens that I was so hoping the students wouldn’t discover.  As I was attempting to get Aida to calm down, a teacher came into the room and asked me what was going on.  When I told her what happened, she pulled out the black whip that the teachers use on their students, and told me to deal with her.  After insisting on letting the director handle the situation, I attempted to get Ndeye to leave the classroom.  She refused to leave, and teacher and I had to literally drag her out of the classroom.  The director found out about the behavior and said he would handle the situation.  I didn’t hear a word about it afterwards.

Let me take you back a little bit.  My first week at Sébi-Route, Ndeye was one of my first students.  Strangely enough, she had the best attendance, but she was the furthest behind in the class.  When I took the time to really look and observe Ndeye’s behavior, I noticed it was less than stellar.  She was always talking when I turned around, intimidating a classmate, or trying to make someone laugh instead of paying attention.  I had to ask at least five times in the first forty-five minutes for her to be quiet.  She was quick to anger and tremendously disrespectful.  The teachers hated her, and her parents had passed away a few years ago, so the girl had literally no support system.  Her teacher said Ndeye’s lack of progress in school was due to laziness, and that she never could get her to concentrate or understand anything that was going on.  There, in brief, is a description of a teacher’s worst nightmare. .. the rebel child who will stop at nothing to get whatever it is that she wants.  The teachers tell me to leave her behind, because she’ll never go anywhere with her education, thus the work I would put in would be a waste of my time.

This is where I disagree.  First off, it is likely that Ndeye has some type of learning disorder or, due to the way she performs in class.  This is not laziness; it is a legitimate medical issue.  It also does not mean that the girl is stupid or incapable of succeeding in academics.  Aside from that, the girl is all of nine years old and has lost both of her parents already.  That in itself is enough to explain a lot of the issues the girl has.  But the teachers don’t have any pity on the girl, and say that by now she should be capable of moving on.  My question though, is how can she move on?  She’s scared to death of her life.  She has no way to express herself at home, she has no friends at school, and every time the girl messes up in class, she gets hit.  If I were her, I would be scared to death too.

I recently read a book called Why Children Fail by John Holt, which explains how fear links to failure in children.  I realized right after how true his ideas stand and how I can see exactly what he is talking about as he explains this argument.  Like many other children, Ndeye’s fear is destroying her intelligence.  Her perspective of life and her horrible fear of failing are the things that are actually causing her to fail.  The girl has formulated these strategies of defense that to the outside world look ridiculous and irrational, but to her, they are completely normal and logical.  Ndeye’s behavior with her classmates is a scream for help.  As Holt says in his book:  If you can’t make someone like you, it is something to be able to make them afraid of you.

As I realized this, I asked myself several questions about the girl, and what method of approach I should take in regards to her academics.  Should I throw her out completely?  Or should I take her in and make it an effort to not let the girl fail.  She has a good heart.  Maybe she just needs someone to give her a large push to get going again.

I went and told her teacher my decision this morning.  She wasn’t happy.  She said that if I kept Ndeye in class, it would not be fair to the rest of the students.  I told her the rules would not be lifted off of her.  The girl has to learn accountability and responsibility eventually.  But I am not going to let her go, because I honestly believe that once everyone stops believing in her, it is then that she will stop believing in herself.  I know this because I have been in situations where I was at the grace of other people, and if they had not believed in me, I would not be where I am today.  She’ll come around eventually.  This is one child I refuse to let fail.

Erin Lang