The beauty of I and the power of We

This is a guest blog post from Chris Flaherty, a teacher from Boston Arts Academy who is visiting Maranyundo Girls School along with teacher Dara Bayer, and two students, Kamiya Parkin and Ja’Hari Ortega. Check out their video!

 

“Psst…Chelsea.”

The girl sitting next to me reflexively opens up the top of her desk and lifts out a well-worn book. She watches carefully until the teacher turns her back, and slides the book across the aisle.

“Murakoze.” With a quick Rwandan thank you, the book recipient hides a sneaky smile and opens the book under the desk. A glimpse of the cover reveals that it’s the new Harry Potter book.

“Is it good?” I ask.

She turns completely in her seat.

“You haven’t read it?” she responds incredulously.

18 years earlier…

I slide into my fourth grade desk with dirty sambas and the ubiquitous bowl cut. Yet today is different. I have finally gotten it.

“Julie, look. ” I whispered low enough to not draw the teacher’s attention.

“What, Chris?” she responded without disguising her impatience.

I pulled a new book out of my worn hand-me-down backpack.
“It’s a new book. Everybody says it’s awesome. Want to read it during lunch?”

“What’s it called?”

“Harry Potter.”

Today, Kamiya and Ja’hari led a full hour-long session to a class of 20 girls here at the Maranyundo school. The theme of the lesson was the beauty of the individual and the power of the collective.

First, our students had the girls explore the different elements of their identity. Students shared out things such as their love gospel, basketball, or importance of being the first-born.

Then using text from the play “Our Town”, Ja’hari and a student volunteer constructed two adjacent two different identity maps. (See picture)

Starting with their name and adding layers of concentric circles around, they made a map of their hometown address. Name, street, town, city, state, country. Finally, Hillary from Kigali and Ja’Hari from Boston, constructed one large circle encapsulating both of their individual circles – and labeled it earth.

“Ahhhhh.” The girls coo triumphantly after realizing the point of these maps.

At this point Ja’hari and Kamiya opened up a circle and began to discuss questions such as:

-Why are our individual differences important?
-What do you want your individual legacy to be on your family? Your community?
-Why do you think it matters that we are from the same earth?

The responses were beautiful, insightful, heart-wrenching, and at-times funny. I will share just a few, even though many more of their responses and faces are imprinted in my memory. The girls were thoughtful, honest, and generous.

“Lets assume that we were all the same. It would be boring. There would be no one to learn from. If I can sing, and she could sing, and she could sing, that’s fine, but there would be no one to dance.”

“The business man needs the farmer just as the farmer needs the business man.”

“In Rwanda, psychologists are not good [valued]. I want to be a psychologist because I think it is very important, but my family says I will not get customers. I think I will because it is very important.”

I have been continually impressed by the richness of sharing that has taken place in just a few days. The connection between our students and the girls of Maranyundo has been awe-inspiring. From dance circles to library conversations to public speaking clubs to more formal classroom conversations, the girls have opened their school and hearts to us visitors from BAA. The differences between our cultures are beautiful and funny. The girls are innocently confused that we are all from Boston despite the diversity of our individual appearance. Dara and I have experienced our gentle reprimands as we try to walk around with tea or food. Yet despite differences small and large, it is the similarity of the human experience that has proved the most remarkable.

Under the one big circle of earth, the commonalities – the importance of family, future dreams, and Chris Brown – far exceed the differences. The girls want to know about issues of race and college early decision. They ask “Do you like my country?”, “Is your school free?”, “Am I beautiful?”

I’ll never forget the girl who with poetic eloquence summed it up perfectly.

“Though in war, countries fight countries, they are fighting for nothing because we are from the same earth.”

Same earth. Same people. Same Harry Potter loving tribe.