Monday, February 21, 2011

A 99 Valentine's And Six Months Down

Valentine's Day marked 99 days until I arrive home.
Today marks 10 days until my six month anniversary with Ghana.

Unbelievable, isn't it? The last time I counted there were 185 days! I know 99 days is a long time, but only being in the double digits makes it seem like so little! It brings up that familiar panicky feeling of "Where is the time going?!?" As I sat down to write this post, I paused to take a look around my room and said out loud, "I've been living here for half a year." Didn't really believe myself though.

When I think back on all the things I've done in Ghana- my first weekend at Agbamevorza, those first loooong days at Good Shepherd before school had even started, my adventures with Julia, leaving VARAS, going to Egypt with my brother- it seems reasonable to think almost six months have gone by since I stepped on that plane in Detroit.
But in my day to day life? No way! I'm comfortable enough in Aflao to feel at home, and sometimes fed up enough with some of the cultural challenges to even think I've been here too long. However time is flying by without my knowledge and certainly without my permission. One of the last things my Dad told me when we said goodbye at the airport was "Days will crawl, months will fly." Of all the things I was told to expect when coming to live in Africa for nine months, that's been by far the most accurate.
Not much else was, to be honest. My friend's mom told me that showing your bare legs was probably going to be scandalous but women walking around topless would be no big deal, and THAT has certainly rang true, but otherwise... How could anyone- probably least of all myself- have known was I was getting into?

Last weekend I spent time with some Peace Corp volunteers. I love my Germans/Dane dearly, but it's nice to get my American fix occasionally. They got it into their heads that we should jump off the large, modern bridge that stretches across the gorgeous Volta River about 200m upstream from the little resort where we stayed. The fact that idiot foreigners do this periodically and that the river is about 30 feet deep was comforting enough to get me on to the bridge. Seeing two of the braver ones jump successfully was encouraging enough to get me over the railing.... That was when I had the realization that I was about to voluntarily leap four stories into a crocodile-infested (ok, ok that's me being melodramatic. crocodile-inhabited, and most of them are small) river in the middle-of-no-where Ghana and started hugging the support pole and saying things that would make my Dad laugh and my Mom cry. When all four of us were spaced out on the beam, one of the guys started counting. I don't remember peeling my arms off the pole, but I do remember telling myself "Katherine, listen here: when he says three, just jump. No, no, just lean. Let gravity do the rest. He says three, you tilt forward a little bit and whatever happens next is purely coincidence and entirely out of your control and therefore not your fault when you have to explain your paralysis to your mom, ok?"
Shutting down your survival instincts is a fascinating process.
I honestly don't remember initiating my legs to move when he finally got to three; all I remember is having time to think "Wow, I've been falling for a really long time..." before I hit the water. I came up screaming bloody murder (with a wicked bruise stretching the entire length of the back of my left thigh for the next week to prove why. Apparently I flailed...) and with a huge adrenaline rush.
Yet even though I escaped- relatively- unscathed, had great fun doing it despite my terror, and plan to milk this story far past what it's worth in terms of bragging rights... no way jose you could get me to do it again. Actually, looking back, I'm completely baffled how I got the guts to do it in the first place. All I know is I was scared out of my mind, so how I was able to get myself to jump anyway is just beyond me. If he'd counted to five instead of three, if I'd had just two more seconds to think about it, I'm pretty sure I might've chickened out.
Even if you could've looked into the future and told me, "You'll be fine; you'll just get a bruise, but it'll be a lot of fun and a great memory" I think fear would've gotten the best of me.

In a lot of ways, that's how I feel about coming to Ghana too. I think it's for the best that I didn't know there was even the possibility that I was coming here until such a short time before I actually left. If I'd had six months or more to plan and dream and worry and anticipate and imagine...I'm not sure I would've had the guts to go through with it. As it is the short time I did have almost did me in. If I'd had just two more months to think about it, I'm pretty sure I might've chickened out.

The big difference is, I would still jump all over again.

If you could've looked into the future and told me, "This is how many nights you won't be able to sleep because you'll be so homesick. This is how many times you're going to cry. This is the number of days you'll dread having to face your class again. This is how many times you would kill for a sandwich from Panera." etc, I'd still be here.
Granted I would've packed a heck of a lot more nonperishable comfort food and cried a lot harder when I left, but I still would've gone.
Especially if you also could have told me how many times my jaw would drop in amazement and how many days my kids would make me speechless with pride and how many moments I would gloat to myself about the cool things I've gotten to see and do.

One... Two... Three... Just lean.

Half a year down and a quarter to go!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

a sentence begins with a Capital Letter

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

I want my kids to understand the why's and not just the what's, but some things can only be learned through brute force memorization. For example, ever tried to find a pattern, some basic logic to help explain the seemingly nonexistent rules of past tense grammar in English? I have and it's not pretty. The regular verbs (the ones that just take on -ed) are few and far between. The best I could do was group like verbs- thought/bought/brought and kept/slept/swept- to make our verb chants more poetic and thus more memorable. Sometimes it sucks to only have whatever excuse for a textbook I carry around in my head.

One of our daily repeated drills goes,
"A sentence begins with a-"
"and ends with a-"

My aunt, my godmother and an elementary teacher in Missouri, gave me one of the highest compliments I've received in quite a while:
She called me a real teacher.
Not a high school graduate doing volunteer work, but a real teacher. Imagine that! I feel like Pinocchio with the strings snipped :)
Her simple affirmation made me take a second look at the work I'm doing in Ghana. I mean, I've always known that what I'm doing is absolutely worthwhile, but sometimes...being worthwhile doesn't necessarily mean it always feels worth it. I feel like I've been walking around in a smog of negativity and burnt-out-ness lately, ever since it really sank in that I can't do it all. I can't save the world or fix the system or even- and most discouragingly- seem to fight the system. I also seem to be the last person to have this realization that I am not Superman.
....But if I'm a real teacher, then maybe I don't have to be Superman after all.
I know I've made a difference in these kids' lives. And I'm hoping it's a difference that goes beyond the fact that they can spell "puddle" and identify the future tense now. I know I will probably never feel like I've done enough, but I hope that sometimes I will be able to shut up my inner perfectionist long enough to take a step back and let myself bask in my kids' achievements...and perhaps even acknowledge my own contributions to them. Sure, I still get assignments where the only capital letter is the the 'b' in football or the 'y' in happy or there's a full page of writing without a period in sight, but they're making great improvements overall.
My inner perfectionist will only stay muted for so long though. Sigh. There is always more to be done.

After all, according to Jackline a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a kitten.

Butterfly Effect

I'm not usually much of a poet, but some of my Dad's words of wisdom sparked some inspiration when I hit a particularly low point the other week.

"It has been said something as small as the flutter of a butterfly's wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world." - Chaos Theory

if only it was as simple as
struggle: emerge: fly away
struggle to be
your own adult
your own
to be
but unravel my cocoon and you will not get threads of silk
rather the threads of a story
inside is no monarch or moth- though i do chase moonbeams
instead you will find a girl
wrapped in nine months of exotic accents and fiery food
with a tribal heartbeat hip-life cannot match
whose fingerprints speak in Ewe
inside the girl, perhaps, the butterfly
struggle: emerge: fly away
the pattern will be bolder the longer it sets
the etchings in the wings deeper
black commas near the bottom for the children
stuck on pause
two indrawn breaths someone forgot to release
22 featherlight strokes across the back in every hue
mirages that shift a little every day
"you're a gift to them"
from someone too big and unimagineable to name
but here they call him Mawu
there will be scarlet for the dust
intertwined with the ancient green of the baobabs
gray for the hissing ocean
homesickness tattooed in royal blue at the joint
the hint of a milky way
where nostalgia has bleached the edges white
and black
of course
a living Kente cloth from the master weaver himself
struggle: emerge: fly away
they heard africa
i heard a siren call
they said impossible
i said impractical
watch me spin a new future from the tangled web
of what i always promised would someday be
watch me write a new law of cause and effect
my effect
the flutter of a single butterfly's wing
but the typhoon will rage in me.