June 29th 2010: I left Washington, DC with a one way ticket to Ghana.
I arrived in Accra with one foot in a flip flop and the other in a smelly, disintegrating protective “boot,” which was strapped to my foot after I inadvertently kicked a tree stump some three weeks prior. I say inadvertently because the the tree stump was hiding under a beach ball.
A month before the stump broke my toe, a co-worker ripped open the bridge of my nose with his elbow. 5 stitches, a broken nose and 2 black eyes. As a middle school teacher in Washington, DC, this injury was unsurprising, but I would have sooner expected it to come from breaking up a fight between students, not from a co-worker. For the record, Mr. N and I were not fighting.
The incident happened during a match of beach ball volleyball, teachers vs. students.
My mangled face concerned my students. You see, at some point during my second year of teaching, a rumor started that Mr. N was my father. We both appreciated the entertainment value in this and instead of denying the rumors, we did what we could to confirm them. Despite the fact that we looked nothing alike and Mr. N was not visibly old enough to be my father, the entire 6th grade became convinced that I was his son. This was understandable in the context of our school. Many of our students had young parents, step moms, and step dads. In their eyes, Mr. N as my father was a plausible scenario.
A significant number of students were not at school the day Mr. N broke my nose. Fridays often had low attendance and this was towards the end of the year, after standardized testing – DC and so many other school districts put a worthless stamp on the closing weeks of the school year when they spend all their energy hyping standardized tests and then hold those tests in April.
On Monday, my face was a mess. My principal actually questioned why I came to work. The students, many of whom were not at school on Friday, wanted to know what happened. When asked, I deferred to a student that witnessed the incident.
Their explanation was accurate, if a bit incomplete: his father hit him.
This information spread through the middle school in a matter of 15 minutes or so. By lunchtime, concerned former students in the high school had heard the news and were coming by my classroom to inspect the damage. During my 5th period class, Aishanna, one of my beloved 8th graders, asked me if I had called Child Protective Services yet.
These were the kids I had to say goodbye to when I left for travels of indefinite length. I miss them.
Teaching more or less consumed me for three years. Our contract required us to be in the building from 7AM to 5PM, but the school day was longer than that. At 6AM, you are reviewing your lesson, anticipating scenarios – what will you do when Artavia asks to go to the bathroom during the most important part of your lesson? At 5PM you might be just getting around to making parent phone calls or copying hand outs for the next day.
This is to say nothing of the classroom itself. According to this article, teachers have to make 250 major decisions every day. That number seems reasonable to me. A 50 minute class period teaching 25 students, some of whom are emotionally disturbed, English Language Learners, and/or virtually illiterate, is exhausting on every level. The few times that I went to work with a hangover undoubtedly took years off my life. Teaching is hard. If I ever hear someone disrespect the teaching profession, I will probably punch them in the throat.
My first year was disastrous. If it weren’t for a few well timed mental health days (in the teaching profession, a day off to rest your brain and soul), one of which came on the heels of a violent fight in my classroom, I may have quit.
By my third year, I had a functioning classroom and I saw some level of success with all of my sections. Even my nightmare post-lunch period got it together in the end. I was a better teacher. More consistent, proactive and patient. And while teaching was still an act of psychological warfare, I had a greater appreciation of the layered bond that existed between me and my students.
Middle school kids can be real shitheads, but at the end of the day, I liked them, and they mostly liked me.
Despite my progress, I was exhausted and stressed. Some days simply didn’t work out. We were understaffed. Some substitute teachers refused to work at our school because of the chaos that ensued when they stepped in front of a class. The larger system was broken. Band-aids, rather than real solutions, were constantly applied. After a while, all that mattered was making it to Friday, with its promise of a cathartic post-work happy hour (if you’ve been to a teacher happy hour, you know what I’m talking about).
I wanted a break longer than summer vacation. Enter one way ticket to Accra, Ghana.
When I arrived in Accra, my first priority was finding matching footwear. I could have bought the one dollar plastic flip flops, but remembering an incident 5 years earlier, I decided to get something more durable: $3.50 flip flops. Undoubtedly produced in China, most likely as a knock off of a reputable brand, they are the same flip flops that are on my feet now, a year later.
They were on my feet for six months in West Africa last year. They were on my very cold feet when I returned home in December. They were on my feet in Arizona when I met Clyde the Camel.
When I returned to West Africa in May, they were the only shoes I brought with me.
In the past year, they have danced to hiplife, highlife, coupé-décalé, zouglou, Wassoulou, and Tuareg music. They’ve climbed escarpments in Dogon Country, waded through brackish lagoons in Cote d’Ivoire, and walked through the sandy streets of Timbuktu. Yes, my flip flops have actually been to Timbuktu and back.
They will be on my feet when I take the 40 hour bus back to Dakar. They will be on my feet when I land in DC. (Inshallah)
What will I do when I get there?
That part of the story remains unclear. Teaching is important work. I felt guilty leaving it behind. But the past year has revitalized me. It has helped me realize previously unknown possibilities. I don’t keep many quotations in mind, but this is one of them: “self-realization is the greatest contribution you can make to society” (find it in The Snow Leopard). That line refers to more spiritual pursuits, but you can translate the sentiment.
I don’t know what exactly I will be doing a few months from now. I don’t know whether my somewhat nomadic life is going to continue. I do know that I will be doing something that excites me.
As for my flip flops, the end is near. The soles have thinned, the straps are beginning to fail. It will soon be time to buy a new pair.
Or maybe it’s just time for a few repairs.