“Exit strategies are hard.” – Some American administrator in Iraq—probably
Walking into my director’s office to discuss the need to inform students about my upcoming departure and the dates and time therein, makes me feel like I’m having a divorce. This is doubly true for things like my future visitation rights. I need to leave my school, but I also want to be able to see my girls again. It sort of gives me perspective on split families that use their kids as leverage against each other. I don’t want to be completely out of their lives from now on. I don’t want it to be a fight to have contact with my students. I need them, but I think they need me too. I really believe that when you invest in someone, and you pay a lot of attention to them, and you make them feel special, you’ve made a commitment to them. You can’t just up and peace out without any warning or else it’s a huge betrayal of trust.
The majority of my girls come from very forward thinking, wealthy, and emancipated families, but that doesn’t change the fact that they still come from East Africa. This means almost none of them get the kind of care and attention they need. They’ve never had someone who is genuinely interested in how they’re feeling. They’ve never had someone who really wants to hear what they have to say.
This is where my strengths are. I’m not a teacher. I’m not particularly good at giving or taking instruction, but I do listen rather well, and I do effectively communicate sincerity. The goal is to make the girls feel comfortable talking about themselves. I can’t imagine what a 16 year old in America would do if they were never allowed to express themselves, but it would probably look like some variety of strange new phenomenon in cranial explosions. It’s not fair to the adolescents here that no one feels like it’s worthwhile to just check in and say: “How are you feeling?”
I take time for individual students based on how they’re acting. If a very social person has started to isolate herself, I spend time with her. If a normally excellent student gets poor grades, we talk. If a student is trying to hide that they are emotionally disturbed about something I don’t just ignore her, I ask about the problem. For example, last night I left the dining hall planning on promptly returning to my room, crawling into my bed, and proceeding to feel like dying until I passed out. I’ve been pretty ill for the better part of this last week. Behind me a student was walking up to study hall early and sniffling. I stopped.
Me: Clenie? What’s wrong?
Clenie: Wrong? Nothing.
Me: Are you sick?
Clenie: No, I’m not sick.
Me: You don’t have a cold or anything?
Clenie: (sniffles) No teacher, I’m not sick.
I stopped and grabbed her hand and just looked at her for a second.
Me: Clenie…? Are you sad?
She rubbed her eyes with her other hand and nodded.
Clenie: Teacher! Entrepreneurship is very difficult!
I nodded. “Yeah. It is pretty tough. I think we should go look at your notes. How about that?”
It doesn’t take much to show you care about someone. It really only takes a few minutes of your time. It took me less than 20 minutes to read her notes, understand what the problems were, and help her grasp the topic. Ironically, the topic was “effective communication in business environments” and the notes were not even remotely communicated effectively. She needed some basic clarification of ambiguous pronouns and vocabulary. She needed a big sister to sit down and help her with her homework. That’s where I’ve been excelling at this job. That’s when I feel the best about myself and what I’m doing.
I don’t want to send the wrong message when I leave, and I don’t want it to be a shock or a surprise. I don’t want it to feel like I’m abandoning anyone. I want it to feel like I’m making a natural step forward in my life. It should carry the same sentiment as a family member who leaves for college. It should make sense to a teenager. It should motivate her. The action shouldn’t seem awkward, or sad, or malicious in any way. That’s what I want, but that’s not what I’m sure I’ll get. I don’t foresee a smooth transition. I see a fight. I see a lot of hurtful words and feeling being exchanged, leaving the girls ready to turn inward again because their trust has been broken by the people who are supposed to be caring about them and for them. It’s kind of a diplomatic disaster and I’m not sure how to put it on the right track.
Maybe if I’m lucky, my APCD will be here tomorrow and this will be slightly less of an ordeal than I’m imagining. Or maybe my Director will prove to be a lot less interested in controlling every aspect of the school, and be sympathetic my needing to focus on my own life and needs. In either case… Exit strategies are hard.