Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Roll Call

After a few weeks here, it’s time I officially introduced you to my kids. Watch out; if I do this right you’ll be just as in love with them as I am. But you can’t have them; they’re my kids.

My class is known collectively as the “kinders.” I worked with the same age group last year, but those kids are now first graders. At first I missed my original group terribly. Nobody is as clever as Johnny, as silly as Elias, as compassionate as Chola, as gentle as Theresa, as motherly as Queenie, or as precocious as Ernest. And I was right – nobody can replace my first graders. But it turns out there is room in my heart for many children after all.

When the kids gather in front of me every weekday morning for school, the attendance list includes six in total: Moriah, Jennifer, Janet, Beauty, Sandra, and Henry. I’ll introduce you to each. 


Moriah is the youngest of the crew. She is a year younger than the others, but she’s too old to be with the next group of kids beneath her, so she was added to my class. When we first began school, she had a bad habit of starting to moan and cry and was incapable of telling me why she was upset. I still don’t know why that happened, and it happened frequently, but it seems to have cleared up. I suspect she was afraid and confused. At first I was very concerned that she wouldn’t be able to keep up, but this little girl has surprised me with her resourcefulness. She pays attention in class and follows the lessons well, better than some of the older kids. She is very affectionate and is always begging to be hugged or kissed. If I’m sitting, she will come and lay her head in my lap so I can stroke her wiry hair. She has a pretty bad lisp and can’t pronounce “s” at all, so we’re working on that. Most of the time, I can barely understand a word she says, but she does love to talk and tell stories. Unfortunately, she earned the nickname of “Gorilla” as a baby, and it stuck. She’s totally got David wrapped around her finger, and it’s easy to see why, with those big ears and that round little face. 

Jennifer is like a little doll. She was found by Tom five years ago, lying next to her mother’s swollen body on the floor of her family’s hut, starving to death while relatives looked on, expecting the child to die. Tom swept her away and the Morrows nursed her back to health. Now she is a bouncing, bubbling ball of energy that never sits still or stops giggling. And what a giggle that kid has. It’s the cutest laugh of any kid on the planet. She loves to be swung in the air and tickled. She’s not as mature as the other kids and, like Moriah, she is behind academically, but she is a fast learner. She hasn’t quite nailed the letter R yet so she always calls me “Auntie Sawah” in her adorable, high-pitched voice. I’m okay with that. 

Slender Janet is identical to the picture of her mother that I found in her file. She is very quiet. Last year, I almost never saw her smile, laugh, or even speak. She is still a fairly solemn kid, but her individuality has really begun to shine through. She is one of my brightest students. Math and English both come easily to her. However, she is not easy to discipline. If she gets in trouble, she immediately shuts down and assumes the typical “Zambian stare.” Nothing and no one can persuade her to speak or obey at that point. These standoffs can last a long time and she won’t smile for the rest of the day. But I really don’t mind too much. The altercations are indicative of her recently discovered iron will, a will that she did not seem to possess this time last year, and a will that is delightful to watch blossom. 

Beauty is the only child in the orphanage to have a sibling who also resides here. She and her little brother Peter look very similar, but their personalities are fairly different. Whereas Peter swaggers around with confidence and buoyant energy, Beauty can careen into a room with a commanding demeanor and suddenly turn diffident at the blink of an eye (or at the removal of a smiley face.) She is also one of my stronger students. When class ends, she always comes to me begging to continue with school. She is bigger than the other girls and possesses leadership qualities that are often lacking in children raised in Zambian culture, especially in Zambian girls. 

Sandra’s is an interesting case. She struggles daily in class. She has an incredibly difficult time focusing, listening, and obeying. She does better during one-on-one tutoring times, and she’s a smart kid, but her behavior is bizarre and is unprecedented in any child I’ve ever worked with. I fully believe that she has some kind of learning disorder and might possibly be ADD. Horrific traumatic childhood experiences have stunted her emotional and psychological development. She doesn’t connect easily with anyone. She constantly babbles to herself, either under her breath or with shrill screeches. I know that if I say that I think something is amiss because of her strange behavior, anyone who has ever worked with children will just shrug their shoulders and say that some kids are just strange. I know this; trust me, I know. I am aware that I am not qualified to make any calls. I still think something’s not quite right. I believe that she will eventually catch up to the other kids her age, but right now she is in a difficult place.

However, Sandra is still a delightful child. She loves to play and have fun, and is always smiling. She and Janet are very attached to each other. Sandra often leaves her tutoring time muttering that she must find Janet. I look forward to watching her overcome her past and grow into the intelligent, capable, and talented young woman she is capable of being. 

That leaves just Henry. Of course, no one could describe Henry as “just Henry.” Last year, I couldn’t stand Henry. He hit me and yanked my hair. He was a bully and was constantly pushing the other kids (mostly the girls) around. He never obeyed anyone. He was a nightmare. Meg disagreed and insisted that she had a soft spot for the kid, but I thought her affections to be misplaced. After all, he’d never smacked her in the head with a toy truck or yanked out a chunk of her hair.

However, my relationship with Henry has completely changed this year. I can’t help but love the little guy. Out of all my kinders, my soft spot for him runs the deepest. He really is a great kid. He wants so much to be like the older boys in the first grade – Johnny, Elias, and Chola – but he isn’t quite old enough to join their esteemed ranks yet. He is very much the leader of my little group, the class clown and the best student. The little guy will be reading on his own in no time.

He is also a huge cuddlebug, and he’s my favorite kinder to snuggle with. When I am sitting on the porch of the house, sipping Rooibos tea and reading, it is Henry who comes to curl up in my lap. It is Henry who reaches up for a hug every time. It is Henry who kisses my hand like a chivalrous little knight every time before he leaves me. It is Henry who calls across the courtyard, “Auntie Sarah, I like you!” to which I always respond, “I love you, Henry.” This always causes him to immediately amend his first display of affection and shout back, “Auntie Sarah, I love you?” Henry also struggles with his Rs, so whenever I call him “sweetheart” he looks at me questioningly and repeats, “Sweet hot?” in his raspy voice.

Of course, he still gets into trouble. If I gave out class superlatives, he would earn “Most Likely to Lose All of His Smiley Faces,” or possibly “Most Likely to Wear Auntie Sarah Out with an Endless Tirade of Questions or a Really Long, Dull, and Incomprehensible Story.” But little Henry, with those big eyes and those tiny hands, has managed to wiggle his way into his own special place in my heart.

Fortunately, my heart has enough room for all of my kids. Each one is a blessing, a delight, and a joy. I am looking forward to spending the rest of the summer teaching them, playing with them, and loving them. Leaving them will be beyond difficult.

You can see now why I came back.

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