Not your average school…

There are ten empty pizza boxes stacked up in the kitchen. Every cup is dirty and in the kitchen sink, and the living room is littered with crumbs and pizza crust. There is no more water, soda, or even mango juice left in the fridge. It’s obvious: teenagers have been here.

For months, my 11th grade female students have wanted to have a movie night and sleepover at my apartment. Somehow the boys also got invited (for the movie part), and last night I ended up with a living room full of 11th graders, spending their Friday night at their English teacher’s apartment.

Our beautiful school campus.
Our beautiful school campus.

It’s something that never in a million years would happen at a public school in America. But this isn’t a public school. And it’s not in America. I teach at an international school in Uganda. The differences in atmosphere and relationships are astronomical.

In December, a co-worker of mine posted this on Facebook: “I went to a birthday dinner this evening. The birthday girl was turning fifteen, and seemed completely unfazed that most of her guests were her teachers. International schools have a different dynamic, that’s for sure!

It’s so true- the dynamics of an international school are unique beyond compare.

The high school I teach at is small. There are 17 freshmen, 14 sophomores, 8 juniors and 10 seniors. Our relationships with these kids are anything but ordinary. Teachers don’t just see students Monday through Friday between the hours of 8 and 3. We hang out together after school, we go to the zoo over Christmas break, we plan trips to Jinja over Easter weekend, we have kids over for dinner, they get ready for school banquets at our homes. That’s just how it is here.

One of my girls said last night at the sleepover, “I would never hang out with my teachers in my home country, but it’s different here. We’re like a family.”

Most of my students are international, so their parents here are very busy doing mission work or working for NGOs. It’s why our roles as teachers are that much more important in their lives. We’re the ones at their ball games, school performances, and spending time with them outside of school. It’s where we fit in to God’s plan.

I think a lot of my elementary-teacher friends think I’m crazy. They see the amount of time secondary teachers spend with their students and just don’t get it. But the things our kids go through in this stage of life are so intense. It’s impossible not to get close to kids when classes are so small and especially at a Christian school, where your discussions often involve matters of faith and spirituality.

IMG_20130814_142112I don’t mind if people look at me funny  because I’d rather spend time with my students than some adults. God didn’t send me here to spend all my time with people my own age. He sent me here to be a light for Him for my students. He sent me here to give advice to my girls who are crying over boys or problems at home. He sent me here to talk to the boys about their future plans and how to properly treat a girl. God sent my secondary-teacher co-workers to do the same things. It’s really a beautiful thing we have going here!

In less than two months I’ll leave this beautiful country and head back to America, but I’ll never forget what I’ve experienced here. I’m leaving this place with what I feel like are now dozens of little brothers and sisters from all over the world. They’ve certainly changed my life. I pray that by the time I leave, I’ll have done the same for at least one of them.

“Different…” she said.

We were sitting on the ground in the Zambian sun when the precious little girl sitting next to me lightly ran her fingers across the top of my hand. She was a student at Lifesong for Orphans, and while her first language was Bemba, she did know some English.

After touching my hand, she put her hand next to mine, and with her other hand she IMG_3013touched hers and then touched mine.

“Different…” she said, pointing at my pale white skin next to her dark skin.

It was one word that said so much to me. “Different.” Maybe that’s a good way to describe my mission trip to Zambia. The terrain was different. The food was different. Our skin tones were different. The list of ways things were different was practically endless.

Our first morning at Lifesong for Orphans I knew we’d be attending a school assembly. When we think of a school assembly, we usually picture an auditorium or a gym. I knew that wouldn’t be the case at Lifesong, but I was still a little surprised to see Monday’s assembly take place in the dirt area between two mango trees.

Assemblies in Zambia… different.

IMG_3391The morning assembly held more power than any assembly I went to in elementary school in Ohio. Children from the baby class up to the 8th grade sang praises to God, sang the Zambian national anthem, and even heard a short message from a pastor. It was the perfect way to start off their week. It was perfect for our team, too.

Praising God at school… different.

I don’t have any pictures of that first assembly. The couple who runs the organization in Zambia has started asking teams to not take pictures on the first day or two of their time at Lifesong. I’ll admit, I was a little annoyed. That is, until I was there and was able to 100% focus on the beautiful life in front of me and not worry about capturing it on film. I now think it is something all mission teams should do- take a few days to just experience the new world around you. I do think photos are important so we can return to the states and be advocates for these amazing people, but pictures can be taken later.

No pictures for days on a mission trip… different.

Janeth and I were in charge of the Bible story each afternoon when we did Bible School with grades 1-3. One day we had some extra time with a group before they moved on to crafts, so we decided to play a game of “Follow the Leader.” Janeth was at the front of the line, and the eager second graders lined up behind her. For as long as Janeth walked in a straight line, all was well. But as she started to get fancy and curve out of a straight line, the kids went nuts! All of a sudden there were about 10 kids in front of the “leader,” running around wherever they wanted to. It was pretty hilarious, and needless to say, we didn’t attempt “Follow the Leader” again.

Childhood games in Zambia… different.

Our final morning at Lifesong we took all the pictures we wanted. The students held their Friday assembly in the same place as the Monday assembly, and they once again blew us away with their singing and sharing. Their songs in Bemba and in English were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. There was one song in particular that really got to me. It was in Bemba, so I didn’t understand the words, but I didn’t have to. They were praising God, and that was obvious.IMG_3403

Despite the fact that their assembly was in dirt, they were praising God.

Despite the fact that they have lost parents and siblings to disease, they were praising God.

Despite the fact that their only meals that day might be the two they have at school, they were praising God.

The God they were celebrating and praising… NOT different.

Although worlds apart, although we play our games differently and hold school assemblies differently, although our skin is different… we are so much alike in that we’re all worshipers of the same great God.

The little girl who noticed our skin was different will probably see a lot of mission teams come in and out of Lifesong for as long as she is a student there. Their skin will be different, as will their clothes and accents. But I hope that as she grows older she will notice what is the same- that we’re all God’s children, and He loves us all despite the differences that separate us.

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Enjoy some of these videos from the last day’s assembly:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW_CgoEkKgM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CU54NeX-Llk

The “Bully” and the “Bullied”

I’ve written about this before on my Facebook page (weird- I just noticed it was exactly one year ago to the day), but I’ve updated it and would like to share it again, as it is something that really gets me worked up. It’s not the typical “anti-bullying” post:

There once was a girl growing up in small-town Ohio. She was teased a lot for multiple reasons. Nowadays you would say she was “bullied.”

There was an instance in fourth grade where after the school play she couldn’t get out of her cheerleading costume and got back to class late. The entire class laughed at her because one of the mean girls told everyone that the girl was so fat that she was stuck in her costume. She went home and cried.

This girl did not feel very good about herself. She wasn’t pretty and popular. The popular girls actually made fun of her a lot. One time she decorated a t-shirt with puffy paint and wrote “GUESS” on it, convinced that the cool girls would think it was a real GUESS shirt (GUESS was THE brand in the late 80’s, early 90’s). The mean girls made fun of her and ridiculed her for wearing it.

Fast forward to Junior High, where things were the worst. The poor girl developed a chest earlier than some of her classmates. While a large chest might make you popular in high school and the rest of life, it is not a good thing in Junior High. Boys called the girl “Puffs,” because they thought she stuffed her bra. They would approach her and say their noses were running and they knew she had tissues. Also, in 7th grade, this girl was madly in love with a super popular boy in her class. To make a long story short, this boy said she was fat. She was nowhere near fat, but felt that way because of what he said. She was destroyed.

Fast forward again and the girl is in high school. It was freshman year and her family had just moved. She started a new school, and on the first day, someone put a tack on her chair. She sat on it, felt a stinging in her butt, stood up, and pulled out a tack. She was even bleeding a little bit. Such humiliation.

This girl didn’t tell anyone about the bullying. She didn’t tell her parents, her teachers, anyone! Why? Because she KNEW HOW TO DEAL WITH IT. How do I know? All of the above things happened to me. Never once did I consider myself “bullied.” It’s called kids being jerks, and that’s just life. I remember one of the worst “bullying” incidents I suffered was on the bus ride home from school. Some of the mean girls said I wasn’t cool enough to even know the words to “Ice Ice Baby.” I thought I did- but I completely messed them up. They laughed at me. Their laughing echoes in my head to this day when I hear Ice Ice Baby. (kidding)

Now, I will say this, physical violence is a different story. If a child/teenager is being physically harassed, it is definitely bullying and unacceptable. I know words can hurt just as much, if not worse than physical violence, but with today’s definition of “bullying,” I think almost all of us could claim we were “bullied” at one time or another, and we all got through it.

So what’s the solution to all this “bullying” and kids killing themselves over it? Yes, it’s a tragedy. But it’s not just a tragedy that kids are so mean and can say such hurtful things, but it’s a tragedy that kids aren’t taught the proper way to deal with those situations.  Self-image is not on any state test, so it’s something teachers and guidance counselors can’t spend time on, no matter how much they want to.

Kids (which includes teens), also need to learn about the finality of suicide and what it does to the people around them. Killing yourself doesn’t make a statement. It’s final. There’s no “last laugh” when you kill yourself. If parents aren’t teaching their kids this, and the school isn’t allowed to take time to teach this, clearly a kid might think suicide is a natural solution to being made fun of, and the media only make it worse. It’s almost like kids think they are being a martyr for bullying and that their gesture is a good thing.

Are kids really getting that much worse, or are our kids becoming too sensitive, too babied, too sheltered? They are being raised in this society to always point the finger- change other people, but not yourself. You HAVE to change yourself if you’re being “bullied” and you can’t take it anymore. The number one thing you can do is learn to love yourself, to know that everyone, EVERYONE has been “bullied” in some way or another in their lifetime, and that the tough times pass. There’s not always something you can do about other people, but there’s always something you can do about your reactions to how people treat you.

What happens to these kids who are “bullied”, once they leave school? Do “bullies” not exist in the adult world? Of course they do! And if you’re overly sensitive and can’t handle it, you still won’t be able to deal with it as an adult. Problem is, you can’t run to mommy and daddy and expect them to do anything about it. Someone in your life will always be a jerk. That’s just life.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s terrible that kids are killing themselves over “bullying.” I think it’s tragic, and I think something DOES have to be done, but not JUST with the bullies, but with those who are being bullied. There are two problems in the whole “bullying” situation in this country- the bullies and bullied. Both need examined and fixed, if that’s even possible. Bullies may never stop bullying, but we can teach our kids that suicide is NOT an option, that they ARE loved, and that life DOES get better.

Never once in any of the above situations did I feel like I was being “bullied.” To me, bullying was only in movies when kids beat up other kids for their lunch money. I felt like being teased was just a part of life. And it was, and I have turned out just fine. Now that the media is on this “bullying” frenzy, EVERYONE thinks they’re being “bullied.” And given how society is now defining “bullying”… I’m pretty sure ALL kids could say they are being bullied right now in one way or another. We’ve got to teach them how to deal with it before we lose anymore lives.

Note: All photographs are from from stock.xchng.