I’m standing before a class of about forty sixth-graders, their laser eyes drilling boreholes into the back of my head while I write on the chalkboard.

“Does anyone remember our theme for this term?”

A pause. Silence.

“Anyone? We talked about it last week. Actually … we talk about it every week. I write it up here first thing when we start. It starts with the letter ‘C’.”

Continued, prolonged, impenetrable silence. Somewhere, perhaps 40 miles away, a butterfly lands on a leaf. The crash is deafening.

I glance at my watch. 57 minutes to go. I listlessly scratch “COMMUNICATION” across the top of the board in pale yellow chalk. A thought flickers through my head: Now that’s what I’d call ironic.

I once had an anthropology professor who was unflinchingly brilliant, excessively accomplished, and endlessly fascinating – yet had an ungodly difficult time getting his students motivated to do anything in class. One day, he was lobbing softball questions at the assembled group, yet failing to get a single response out of anyone. Finally, the chalk fell from his grip, he buried his face in his hands, and he moaned: “For God’s sake, say something. Name a country in Africa. Just ONE. Any one.”

His T.A. helpfully chimed in, “South Africa!” The noise my professor made in response is, in my mind, precisely the same noise a rhinoceros makes when it’s struck by a bullet and collapses to die.

After class, two friends and I would adjourn to a café near campus and discuss the material. Inevitably, we’d also discuss the teacher. Nibbling cocoa-dipped espresso beans and licking latte foam from the rims of chipped mugs of mocha, we’d wax philosophical about the situation, patting each other on the back for our trite pedagogical plans. “Pop quizzes,” one of us would toss in, as though it were a totally new concept. “Keep everyone on their toes – THEN they’ll read the material.” “What about positive reinforcement?” another of us would add offhandedly. “Reward participatory students for their efforts. Create a safe learning space.” The brilliance of our ideas was so great that its radiance created a skin cancer hazard for surrounding tables, we had no doubt. It’s easy to think you’re hot stuff when you’re 21 and finishing a degree at an elite liberal arts college. You’re ambitious. You’re determined. You’re also kind of an obnoxious smart-ass.

The truth is that teaching is hard. It’s especially hard when you’re coming from a dramatically different educational system. In Kenya, students take national standardized exams, and the classroom emphasis is to cram as much memorized knowledge into their brains as possible from an early age in the hopes that some of it will a) stick and b) appear on the aforementioned exams. There are definite pros and cons to this approach, just as there are both pros and cons to the more wiffly, hippie liberal arts discussion paradigm of having a chat among equals.

The net result is that I devote a lot of energy to trying to get students to think critically and creatively. I break them up into groups. A lot. I assign them puzzles. I make them pass messages to each other without talking. I ask for volunteers. I get them out of their seats and running around the room. Sometimes, we even roleplay. My co-teacher thinks it’s all great, but the students vary in their reactions from shy curiosity to undisguised horror. They then craft their classroom participation accordingly.

There are few experiences in life more awkward than asking a group of five or six students to read a sentence aloud and having all of them bury their heads in their arms or stare silently at their shoes for five minutes. If I sit very still, she won’t see me and will have to go away… mzungu visual acuity is based on movement, right? It’s even more uncomfortable when, not ten minutes before, you heard them confidently reading the sentences aloud to each other with flawless precision and brainstorming perfect responses. YOU know they can. THEY know they can. So why the sudden disconnect? Cultural differences? Shyness? Or is it really all just paying down the karmic debt from those coffee house commentaries of yesteryear? If I ever run across that teacher again, I owe him a drink, I think to myself. A nice Tusker. Or an Appletini. Or one of each.

Of course, it teaches you to really value those rare, miraculous occasions when the shyest, quietest girl in the class raises her hand about an inch, then confidently rattles off a complex answer that knocks your socks off. It also helps to remember that even if they won’t make eye contact now, you DID hear them discussing the material earlier, so at the very least you have their brains working. And every week, they get a tiny bit bolder. A tiny bit more receptive. Slowly by slowly. Step by step. Hatua kwa hatuta.