Lily writes in again with her final Summer Institute blog post. Thanks so much, Lily, for your hard work during the Summer Institute and for all you've done for SHOFCO and KSG.
This is my final post (for this year), so I’d just like to say thank you to everyone who dedicated their time to reading about my incredible adventure.
Our last week began just as every other week had before. We left for the school early Monday morning, everyone returning from their sick days. The younger girls had no idea our time was running short and the older girls had no more than sneaky suspicions. It was only Monday. My morning lesson was co-taught by Aaron, a rising sophomore at CU Boulder. Sitting on the playground one morning, the two of us found that the playground had numerous unused tires. In the spirit of using what you’ve got, we decided our next lesson would be nothing other than tire bowling. The girls would build towers of tires (say that 5 times fast) then use one giant tire to try to knock down the other girls’ tire towers. We split the girls into two teams, had them create team names and compete to knock the tires down. HUGE SUCCESS. We were given older girls, and as they created their towers, they formulated strategies, discussed architectural techniques and tested their towers before presenting them to the other team. Oh, the team rivalries that ensued! If I’ve learned one thing from working with kids (taught me by my brother, Lee) it’s that asking them to create team names is a brilliant way to get them into an activity. The first-graders, one of the groups we had, eagerly presented their team names.
Aaron’s team proclaimed themselves The Flying Shining Princesses!
My team proclaimed ourselves The Flying Princesses!
And so the game began. The girls lined up and took turns rolling the tire into the other team’s tower. Now being the brilliant girls that they are, they created towers that did not budge, and so Aaron and I were forced to set some ground rules, e.g., your tower must be at least eight tires high. This worked slightly, but the towers still stood after numerous rounds. Finally, Elizabeth (from my team) was up at the plate. I saw a look in her eye. She moved the tire into the right position and calculated what the correct trajectory would be if she angled it a certain way. Then, with a mighty push, she rolled the tire into the Flying Shining Princesses’ tower and—CRASH!-- eight tires came tumbling down. The Flying Princesses erupted into cheers. They hugged, danced, screamed, ran around, and taunted. I, of course, joined in the celebration. Then I saw Elizabeth standing there smugly. I walked up to her to give her a high five, and she said to me:
Congratulations Elizabeth on producing my favorite quote of the Summer Institute and for becoming the hero of The Flying Princesses.
And so it went, and tire bowling became my favorite lesson, despite the sunburn that made itself at home on my neck.
Back in the world of Pre-K, without the Chapin teachers literacy hour morphed into migraine hour; I grasped any book I could find that would settle the girls down. We found a Dr. Seuss dinosaur book in which The Cat in the Hat presented different dinosaurs to a group of very Dr. Seuss-y looking children. The instant I showed the girls the cover, the class fell silent. I saw fear in the children’s eyes. I made an executive decision to talk about the pictures instead of reading the words, opening the door to a scintillating conversation about dinosaurs, cats with hats, and children wearing bizarre outfits.
-Girls, this is an apatosaurus.
-Teacha, this animal is a copy cat.
-Teacha! This animal is copying giraffe. Its neck is copying.
-Actually this animal came first! Really the giraffe is copying the apatosaurus.
-*gasp* Teacha...giraffe is...copying?
I see the sadness on their faces. Their beloved giraffe is a fraud? I try to recover.
- No, but it’s okay! The apatosaurus is dead now! The giraffe is okay!
The sadness switches to confusion. I change the page.
- Girls look! It’s a T-Rex!
Vianca shields her eyes and orders:
-Teacha take this snake away from me!
We move to simpler terms.
-Okay girls! This T-Rex is a bad guy! He eats other animals. This triceratops is a good guy! He eats trees!
The girls grew concerned about the fate of the Seussian boy and girl who appeared on every page.
-Teacha...T-Rex Snake eat girls?
Not wanting to get into evolution just then, I lied.
That settled them down, so I continued with my valuable lesson in which I described dinosaurs as either good guys or eaters of small children. I knew something had gone horribly wrong but couldn't look back.
We figured the more we did, the less time we would have to think about our impending departure. But it truly never left our minds. On Thursday afternoon, during a weather lesson with the younger girls, all I could think of while talking about sunny weather, windy weather, rainy weather, and it sort of looks like rain but it’s white and falls slowly from the sky mostly up country and it’s like the ice you see in drinks weather, was about how this was my last class of girls and how much I would miss their beautiful beautiful faces.
And then BOOM it was Friday. The last Friday. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN SO QUICKLY?
Each homeroom was asked to prepare a song, poem, or performance for the final assembly. The girls’ families were invited. We spent Friday morning with our homerooms practicing, and our 15 Pre-K girls nailed an adorable two-song compilation, including Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me.” Think of something adorable. Now multiply that by 1000. That is what these girls looked like. (Here is a video of their performance in the Great Hall).
Some of the teachers helped set up the Great Hall, and when we finally entered it in the afternoon, the girls’ art hung from every wall and from the ceiling. As the girls entered, they looked around in awe. But I’ve left out the best part.
One of the full-time Pre-K teachers, Teacher Rita, decided it was NECESSARY to begin the final assembly with a fashion show starring all 40 of the Pre-K girls who’d been instructed to bring their Sunday best. As lunch ended, 40 Pre-K girls crowded into one of the classrooms and several teachers began changing them into their outfits. I saw floral outfits I’m sure my Mom would have loved 40 years ago. I saw some denim suits. I saw some tiny ball gowns.
Then Teacher Rita made the decision to put eyeshadow on 40 Pre-K girls. A giant line formed that weaved around the classroom as the girls, all in their Sunday best, waited for some shimmer. As I watched the girls admire themselves and each other, all I could think of was the oft-used adjective here: “shining.” You are a shining girl. You are a smart shining girl. You shine like a star.
It’s absolutely true.
As we counted down the minutes until the start of the final assembly, I didn’t want to let my girls go. Saying goodbye last year was one of the saddest and most painful experiences I’ve ever had, and the luck that brought me back to SHOFCO this year brought me right back to these final moments. When is the next time I’ll see my little girls? Will they still be little?
My thoughts were cut short as word went out that the families were ready and waiting, the girls were all seated, and it was time to line up the Pre-K students for their grand entrance.
And THEN...it started. If you watch no other video I’ve linked (sorry I got technologically fancy in the end) WATCH THIS ONE.
I cannot describe it. You must watch. Sorry for the quality, but not really.
Why can't I catwalk like them?
The rest of the assembly passed flawlessly. Each homeroom had a different performance, each one wonderful and fun. The families all looked excited to be there and some even cried. I knew my own tears were not far off, but I held off until the very end. The volunteers decided it was necessary to present the girls with a poem in special KSG fashion. A few of us earlier in the week wrote the poem and presented it to the rest of the volunteers. We practiced several times, and finally Friday afternoon we presented it to the girls. Queue tears.
The end of the Summer Institute was finally here, and I heard the girls begin to sing that horrible, horrible song.
The girls flooded towards us, and we spent the next ten minutes clutching them, crying with them, promising to visit, giving final words about how truly shining and smart they were. The pain I felt from last year was back. The hole where these beautiful girls belonged now reopened in my heart.
The girls departed and the teachers adjourned to the playground for sodas and a few last stories. Fortunately we did not yet have to say goodbye to the SHOFCO Youth. Unfortunately that farewell was only hours away. Sitting on the roof together, we cheered up a little, laughed, told stories, and noted the cluelessness of some of the youngest children.
-Teacha you are crying. Are your eyes paining? Did someone beat you?
(looks to other crying Pre-K girl)
TEACHA. Did Elizabeth beat you?
I’ve gotten word from Alix and Nathan that some of the Pre-K girls even six days later are still confused. They ask where the teachers are, and the answer does not ease the confusion.
Anyway, we all went home that afternoon emotionally exhausted. It did not feel real yet. We showered and got ready for our final dinner, the closing ceremony for the volunteers. I’ll give you one guess as to where we went for dinner.
Yep. You got it.
The 30 of us sat a long table outside where we talked and mingled. We ate our fill and then the speeches began. Maybe it’s part of Kenyan culture, or maybe some people had a little too much of the tej wine, but EVERY SINGLE PERSON was REQUIRED to give a speech. For my readers who know me, you know I do not do well in these situations. I don’t like talking to groups of people. My heart starts racing, I shake a little, I sweat. For those who REALLY know me, you know that the fear runs so deep that for the longest time (and my mom will argue is still the case), I can’t even talk to people on the phone whom I don’t know. My mom makes calls to Delta, Verizon, and my school when there’s a question or issue. I’m not proud, but it’s who I am.
Anyway, I stood to give me speech, and I clocked in at 45 seconds. I don’t remember what I said, but when a friend told me later, it rang true. I had said that although last year sent me home filled with excitement and pride, this year I don’t really know why I’m being sent home at all.
These girls are everything. They are my motivation to finish my final year of school and hop back on two 8-hour flights to Kenya. Why can’t I be with them forever and watch them grow up and continue to succeed? I already watched from afar for a year. I’ll have to do that again for another year, but why must I continue after that? Can’t I take an active role? These girls are really everything. But there is more.
The SHOFCO Youth are such a wonderful, spirited group of young people that sometimes go overlooked. They should never be overlooked. They were incredible with the girls, and the girls adored them. They were welcoming to us, ready to make friends. They brought us in and made us feel at home in their group and in their lives. They shared all of our feelings of love and attachment to the girls and to each other. Some of the quieter young women, with whom I’d had less contact shed tears at our final dinner. I cried at our final dinner, too. Twice. Not sorry.
Saying goodbye to them felt almost worse. Our relationships were much more complicated than our roles as teachers of little girls. They are our friends now and saying goodbye to friends, perhaps indefinitely, is heart-wrenching. And it wasn’t only the SHOFCO Youth. It was the great and inspiring American volunteers, too. It’s a guarantee I’ll see the Oberlin girls again, but what about everyone else? It’s easier to see them, but we can’t recreate what we just experienced together.
Why am I listening to Adele right now? Tears are coming again.
I think this blog is also drawing to an end. But first I must make a much-needed shout out to two of the most incredible people I’ve ever met: Alix and Nathan. The two of them, for their second year in a row (third for Nathan) put together a program that (I can now say after looking behind the curtain) is logistically ridiculous. The number of things they had to do in order to make this summer perfect is incalculable. Thank you so much for everything, really, but specifically for helping me help you (casual Jerry Maguire paraphrasing) If you hadn’t have brought me back, I would feel none of the drive and inspiration I feel now. Not many people can say they put together a program that changed so many people’s lives.
So now you find me sitting in an empty apartment in New York City visiting friends before flying home, and I feel so torn. I’m happy to see friends. I’m excited to finally go back to Atlanta to see my family, but I’m also so devastated by the loss of my everyday life at KSG. Facebook can only go so far in connecting people. And so I’m back where I started when I first wrote this blog. Here I am again, just looking at pictures, watching videos, and endlessly leafing through love letters.
[Are you an undergraduate student interested in participating in the 2014 Summer Institute program? Great! Send an email to Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll notify you with important information and deadlines as next Summer approaches!]