A new school term is well under way – and I have not been an active participant, at least not to the degree I once was. It’s all part of my transition plan, plotted long ago, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find myself feeling a bit wistful as I walk past the schoolyards of the places I used to teach. (Wistful at age twenty-four. God, I AM a spittle-inducingly insufferable one, am I not?) I’ve never identified myself as a “kid person”: my friend, a mother of two, once dropped her youngest in my lap and hustled off somewhere, and I literally had to call a friend of mine who babysits often and say, “SHIT, WHAT DO I DO!?!?!” Nonetheless, I did grow very fond of my pupils. Most of them, anyway.

Already, I think often of my students. I wonder how they’re doing. If they’re applying what they learned, or indeed, if they learned anything at all. I’ve touched on some of the trials, triumphs, and charmingly hilarious moments of what I have done, and even now, there’s an element of “Holy Jeezums – I did *that*?” Despite not being a kid person and having no real desire to be a teacher, working in classrooms has been one of the most rewarding parts of my Peace Corps experience. I’m going to miss the students who graduated in December, as well as those who, for whatever reason (here’s one) are unable to return next term.

In Peace Corps, there are a lot of days you collapse into bed thinking “WHAT EXACTLY did I do today to justify my expense to the American taxpayer? My greatest accomplishments were courageously consuming an overripe mango after dropping it in the sand, and explaining to my neighbor’s husband that no, not all American women in ‘this place California’ look like Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends. How in the hell did he get a pirated DVD copy of The Girls Next Door anyway??” And then you get eaten by a centipede the size of a pool noodle and it stops mattering anymore. No, wait. That’s not it … OH RIGHT! AND THEN you remember your greatest little victories. They aren’t all “building a library out of recycled bottles”-big, but can be small and personal and infinitely moving. At least, that’s how I feel about this one …

A few terms ago, I taught a shy young woman in one of my Life Skills classes. For the purposes of this story, we’ll call her Pendo. Her grades were never exceptional, but she was polite and quiet, so I appreciated her presence. One day, as part of a larger lesson about defining how we want to be treated by others, I gave the kids a “fun” assignment: I asked them to make a list of ten things they liked about themselves. Everyone got a clean sheet of white printer paper (a rare luxury) and a handful of markers to work with, leading to noise and excitement levels more appropriate for an Oprah’s Favorite Things special than an announcement of classwork. Once the kerfuffle died down slightly, I circulated through the class, cooing over peoples’ decorated pages and complimenting them on their skills. The lists were diverse, but each was interesting. Some wrote traits, like “I am honest” or “I am a nice girl.” Others described talents, such as “I am good at herding the animals” and “I always help to care for my baby sister.” One adorably wheedled for extra points by writing, “I AM THE BEST AT LIKING OUR TEACHER MADAM MEGAN.” But when I got to Pendo, I saw her page was mostly blank. She’d drawn some colorful flowers around the border and made a neat list of numbers 1-10, but only one had anything written by it. Number one simply read, “My sister sings good.”

At first I thought it might be a language issue. In classrooms, I’m required to teach predominantly in English, although a number of my students have difficulty with it. I knelt beside her seat and carefully re-explained the assignment in Swahili. She steadfastly avoided my gaze. With prompting, she told me quietly that she simply wasn’t that good at things. She couldn’t think of anything to list.

(Heart: **BREAKS**.)

I gently told her that simply wasn’t true. I reiterated how much of a joy it was to have her in class, how I’d liked her previous assignments, how she was never late or disruptive, how neat her handwriting on all her homework was. We then talked about her life: what did she like? Who were her friends? How did she spend the weekends?

After about ten minutes, I had to attend to the other students – some of the boys were using my inattention to sow havoc in the opposite corner of the room. At the end of the class, everyone who wanted to was permitted to share, while those who felt shy were not pressured. Everyone got a round of applause, and I dismissed the class. While the other students raucously stampeded out into the yard, Pendo stopped to show me her list. It now had ten full items, including “I am good in school” and “I am good at saying my prayers.” She was proud of it, and promised me she would hang it near her sleeping mat so she could look at it each day, morning and evening.

As she crossed the threshold into the light of the schoolyard, I realized it was the first time I’d seen her smile since I started teaching.

It’s not a grand victory. It probably won’t change Pendo’s life or get her through school. It’s not something I’m going to win a pedagogical award for, or have a Lifetime movie made about. It’s not even something I did myself so much as what I inspired a student to do on her own. Personally, it’s more humbling than empowering. But it’s one of my favorite moments, and one I conjure often on melancholy days.

In his seminal work The Prophet, Khalil Gibran has this to tell us about the role of the educator:

“Then said a teacher, ‘Speak to us of teaching.’
And he said:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom,
but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space,
but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure,
but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man
lends not its wings to another man.”