74: The Village

74: The Village

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Village

I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. Then I realized, I am somebody.

~Author Unknown

Maryan’s math teacher approached me a few days after school started and asked, “What is the plan to help Maryan learn math?”

“What do you mean?” This was a question I had never been asked in all of my years as a school counselor.

“Well, her lack of English is not the problem; she simply has zero math skills.” He stared at me and waited for an answer. I attempted to grasp what he was saying.

I checked with our district office and got the bad news. There were no math services for ESL students. Somehow, I was now responsible for providing remedial services for math deficiencies for an ESL student.

Maryan was a refugee from Somalia. She had escaped with her sister and brother-in-law. Her mother and other siblings were still in Somalia. Maryan was the age of a high-school sophomore but had never received any formal education. She had only been taught enough language skills in her native language to read sections of the Koran.

She had never been allowed to read anything else or learn any other skills — like math. According to her teacher, she did not even know the concept of counting or how to write numerals. She could not graduate until she could pass both Algebra and Geometry. We had our work cut out for us.

If Maryan was going to have a chance at creating a promising life in America, she needed a high-school diploma. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work to make a plan.

First, I needed to meet Maryan. I invited her to my office and I was stunned when she entered. She was regal. She stood tall, covered from head to toe in the traditional Somali dress for women. Her face shone round and bright, the beautiful fabric of the headdress framing her glowing face. The smile that captured me became a symbol of Maryan’s attitude, resourcefulness, and genuine excitement to be alive and allowed to learn.

This young woman displayed a self-confidence and eagerness to succeed like I had never seen before. She truly understood that learning is a great privilege. Maryan told me through broken language and gestures that she wanted to be a nurse. She was willing to do whatever she could to learn math.

My second step was to speak with her math teacher. He was a bit skeptical about Maryan catching up in math when she could not even count! However, he was willing to give it a try. Our plan was for one-on-one tutoring to work with Maryan at her level during his math class time. In other words, he would provide the materials, but I had to find the tutors.

This took me to step three of the plan — the tutors. Public schools and teachers are stretched as thin and far as possible. So, my idea was to turn to the kids! I contacted several gifted students who I knew had an interest in helping and possibly teaching, and who were available during the last period of the day. We came up with a schedule for the tutors. Within one week, we all worked together to have Maryan learning math at her level.

For most of my life, I had known the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But now I truly saw the proverb in action. The gifted students began to teach Maryan the most basic of math skills — the meaning of math symbols and how to count. One day, I slipped into the room to find Maryan and two gifted students watching Sesame Street DVDs. They were counting with “The Count,” and laughter filled the room. Laughter truly is an international language.

The tutors began to work on addition flash cards with Maryan and before we knew it they were working on multiplication and division flash cards. Maryan was excelling. Her sharp mind and positive attitude made teaching her a joy.

By Christmas, the tutors were ready to start working basic math problems with Maryan. The math teacher provided harder and harder problems, and by the end of the school year Maryan was ready to tackle Pre-Algebra during summer school. By the beginning of the school year, she was ready to tackle Algebra — making A’s for each semester. During Maryan’s senior year, she took Geometry — making A’s and B’s for each semester. Maryan graduated on time, having learned English and math among all of the other required classes and subjects. She packed twelve years of learning into three.

As Maryan walked across the stage at graduation, I could not help but feel joy and pride. We all felt like we had been a part of something very special. Together, we helped this beautiful, poised child grow into a successful student. She was ready to go to the next level of learning, and in fact she enrolled in community college in the fall with a focus on pre-nursing.

It took a village to get her ready to soar — a team of teachers, fellow students and, yes, a school counselor. I had almost choked when I was told it would be up to me to provide Maryan with remedial math help. However, I found that by sharing the load, it was not heavy. With all of us working together, it had not been a burden at all. It had been a joy, as a village, to work with this young, motivated Somali immigrant and put her on her chosen path to helping others.

~Gwyn Schneck

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