21: Glory

21: Glory

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers


A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.

~William Arthur Ward

Before volunteering to teach in Tanzania, I bought a travel guide to help prepare me for my journey. I learned the pronunciation of basic greetings in Swahili and facts about the town I would be teaching in.

I thought I was prepared, but then I stepped into my first classroom. My Form IV students, the equivalent of high-school seniors, stared at me as I walked through the door. They saw a smiling, white, twenty-seven-year-old, blond woman eager to teach them biology and English. As I introduced myself, nine out of the ten students continued to stare at me, but one student smiled. That student was Glory.

Back in Maine, I prided myself on quickly learning my students’ names. I would come up with mnemonics to help. Tyler, his shirt is neon orange, it hurts my head and makes me want Tylenol. Cam, he has Justin Bieber hair, Justin Bieber used a camcorder to record himself singing. It was silly, but it worked. In my Form IV class, as the students said their names — Floriana, Lily, Nipaely, Innocent, Sarah, Ummy, Alphonce, Lillian, Eva, and Glory — I quickly realized that wordplay would not work. All of my students had the same shaved haircut, similar skin color, brown eyes, and the same blue-and-white uniform. I only learned Glory’s name on the first day because her constant smile and deep-set dimples made her face glow in a “glorious” way.

In the United States, students had a range of personalities. Here, the students blended in with one another. It wasn’t just their matching haircuts and uniforms. It was how they acted in the classroom. Much of their school experience was focused on passing their end-of-year exams. My Form IV students were constantly reminded of the pressure they were under. While their class had ten students, my Form III class (juniors) had twenty students. My Form II class (sophomores) had thirty-five students, and my Form I class (freshmen) was hot and crowded, with almost fifty students in one small classroom. The class sizes were so different because, in Tanzania, only the students who are the most apt and able to pay tuition advance to the next grade level.

After two weeks of struggling to connect with my students, I realized that I had to find a balance between what they needed as students and who I needed to be as a teacher. I was not just in Tanzania to teach biology and English; I wanted my students to learn from me, and I wanted to learn from them.

One day, I went shopping in the village and saw stationery. I purchased every package and came up with a plan to help build a connection with my students. I gave out pieces of stationery and told my Form IV students that their homework was to write me a letter that answered various prompts. Some prompts asked about their families, others about what occupation they would like to have or what school topics interested them. Their letters were due on Friday, and I would write each of them a letter in response by Monday. Week after week, we would repeat this assignment.

Through these letters, I became like a diary to my students. I learned that Alphonce wanted to be a journalist and that Ummy’s faith in God was the driving force in her life. I also learned that Glory, who always had a smile, was mourning the loss of her mother. She wrote about how much she missed her mom and that she believed someday she’d see her again in heaven. As students opened up to me, I incorporated their interests into my lessons. Despite these efforts, I still couldn’t get my students, who had poured their fears and dreams out to me on paper, to ask questions or take part in class discussions. I was constantly frustrated by my inability to inspire these students in the way that I had hoped to.

Then, one day, everything changed. I wish I could say that I had planned this lesson, but I hadn’t. We were learning about genetics, and I had called Glory up in front of the class simply because she was my friendliest student. In retrospect, my blue eyes would have been a perfect device for our lesson about dominant and recessive traits. Instead, we focused on Glory.

I drew a Punnett square on the blackboard with bright white chalk. Glory nervously smiled, revealing her deep-set dimples. I told the class that because dimples are dominant, I knew the odds were that one of Glory’s parents had dimples. I stood at the board, ready to plot out uppercase and lowercase D’s. Without thinking, I asked Glory if one of her parents had dimples.

Glory’s eyes welled up with tears as she softly said, “My mother had dimples.”

The class, which had already been quiet, became totally silent. My mind flashed to the letters she had written me. For weeks, she wrote about her loss and her grief. In my letters back, I tried to comfort her and tell her how proud her mom would be of the person she was growing up to be.

Glory wiped her tears and looked at the chart on the chalkboard.

I silently begged for her answer to my next question to be “no.” I asked, “Does your father have dimples, too?”

Glory shook her head, indicating that he did not.

I put down the chalk and stood close to her. I continued speaking, not as a science teacher, but as someone who truly cared about my student.

“Glory, you have your mother’s dimples. That means every time you smile, your mom is with you.”

She looked at me, scrutinizing my face for any trace of dishonesty, but wanting to believe. I nodded as tears filled both of our eyes. Glory smiled, then reached up and felt her dimples.

“Really?” she asked.

“Yes. And someday your children may have those dimples, too.”

She continued to touch her cheeks.

I spoke slowly to make sure Glory would understand what I was saying. “Even though your mom is gone, she will always be with you, not only in your memories and the person you are, but in those dimples.”

Still touching her face, Glory began to weep. Her best friend, Eva, rose from her desk and hugged her tightly. As they returned to their seats, I stood in front of the class, trying to wrap my brain around what had happened and to decide if or how I should proceed with the lesson. Perhaps it was to help Glory not feel like everyone was looking at her, or maybe they were curious about the topic, but one hand rose in the air, then another. Students began to ask questions about dominant and recessive traits.

Even though I had been waiting for weeks for my students to ask questions, I don’t remember what was said in the moments that followed. But what I will never forget is Glory wiping away her tears, then looking up to the ceiling and smiling. She put a hand to each dimple and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she looked at me and smiled.

~Katie Coppens

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