Walking the Walk (and Living Up to My Stickers)

Emily Hanna - Senegal

February 17, 2012

It’s 7:50am and nearly time for me to leave the house. I take one last glance in the mirror and survey my outfit for the day; black leggings, dusty pink tank top, faded denim shirt, and a loosely knotted cotton scarf are hardly professional, serious, or teacherly attire, but they’re the best I can do under the circumstances. I scrape my overlong hair into a bun (so I’m not tempted to flick it around) and jab my lucky enamel flower earrings into my ears. No talismans or charms can take the place of hard work and preparation…but a little extra boost can’t hurt, especially today. Today, you see, is my first real day of work for my capstone project, the culmination of my time in Senegal, an endeavor for which I’ve been preparing for months. Today, I will teach my very first Family Planning and Reproductive Health class at a nearby high school.

Though I’ve always believed that quality health education is an integral part of a person’s – and a society’s – development, I never considered it a main focus until volunteering at the Gates Foundation’s International Conference on Family Planning back in December. That remarkable congregation of enthusiastic, dedicated experts awakened within me an overwhelming desire to do something, anything, within the realm of public health. It occurred to me that a capstone involving family planning could harmoniously combine my two preexisting commitments here: teaching at a school and working for the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect campaign. So with a lot of research and negotiation, and a tiny bit of nepotism (my host mother is extremely well-connected,) I was able to partner with a nearby lycée and establish my very own Classe de la Santé Reproductive et Planification Familiale, adding my specialized lessons to the curriculum of a preexisting health class. For two hours every Wednesday and Friday, I’ll be allowed a classroom, a chalkboard, and fifty adolescent pupils. I’ve planned my lesson. I’ve looked up every French vocabulary word I could possibly need. Now all that’s left to do is…actually teach.

Pre-Senegal, I would always stop at Starbucks for a little caffeine courage before any big event. This morning, I’m substituting a $3 grande soy latte with a flimsy plastic cup of strong, sugary café Touba, purchased from a roadside cart for the incredible sum of 50 FCFA (approximately 10¢ USD.) Clutching my coffee, I stride purposefully towards the entrance of the Papa Djibril Diouf Complexe Scholaire, passing several of my new students along the way. It’s still difficult for me to comprehend that I’m technically in charge of these hulking, exceedingly tall seventeen-and-eighteen-year-old boys. Are they going to take me seriously? Will these kids – basically my peers – have any respect for a five-foot-tall tubab girl, clutching her notebook, stumbling over her French? The nearer the start of my class draws, the less confident I’m becoming.

I’m somewhat of an idealist. This trait, combined with my tendency to take on a lot of large scale responsibilities at one time, has often led to a discrepancy between what I hope to accomplish versus what is actually feasible. I’m starting to worry that my visions of engaging, round-table discussions, lively, candid debates, and transforming the teen population of Sebikotane into keen ambassadors of public health and gender equality are unrealistic. I’m afraid the kids won’t speak up in class, rendering my participation-based lesson plans totally useless. Will my gamble pay off? Is this just another case of me biting off more than I can chew? What if, what if…

Now I’m waiting for my co-teacher to finish his portion of the class, which covers more general health-related topics. As he draws diagrams of arteries on the board and expounds on the fascinating properties of glucose, I take out my journal to review my lesson plan one last time. The large stickers on the cover, souvenirs from the Family Planning conference, bear slogans that are more applicable today than ever. Go to the People! Health is a Human Right! Teach Sexual and Reproductive Health to Reduce Violence Against Girls. Act Together Now! I felt so righteous and progressive slapping them on the front of my Moleskine back in December – now that there’s less than twenty minutes until I actually go to the people, teach reproductive health, etc., that gung-ho smugness has evaporated. But going through my notes, (pre-translated to French, for maximum efficiency) I’m reminded that my preparation is solid and that I actually do have some experience with this kind of thing. Maybe I can do this. And even if I fall flat on my face, at least I’ll have failed while trying to do something good. At least I’ll learn from my mistakes.

It’s 9:00am. Showtime.

One hour later, and, I’m pleased to report, all that melodramatic inquietude amounted to nothing. The class went well. Yes, I made a few mistakes while writing on the board in French, and okay, I had to turn the homework into an in-class activity to fill time, but overall? A resounding success. I collect papers and dismiss the class (like a real, grown-up teacher!) The students listened and worked hard. They were interested in what I had to say. My mind is already buzzing with ideas for the next lesson: there’s this activity I want to try, maybe we should move the desks into a circle formation, is it possible to get a projector in here?

The ice has been broken, and I’m feeling capable and confident once more. Perhaps this isn’t just another case of an impossible undertaking. Maybe this time around, my dreams will actually match up with my reality.

Emily Hanna