Teacher Teresa

About two years ago I stumbled upon a well-guarded family secret; one that would change the course of my life forever. Know the destiny-altering kind? Realizing you’re not from earth, have superhuman powers and your parents are not your biological parents? It wasn’t that kind. It also wasn’t really a secret. It was an interesting fact about my childhood that came up in a conversation with the folks.

When I joined Standard One, unlike other kids my age, I could hardly read or write. “UIikuwa unaimba tu (You were just singing),” said daddy dearest.

Apparently, the academic standards of the kindergarten I attended had deteriorated greatly by the time I enrolled. Not sure what we spent our time doing but it seems that we weren’t inclined towards a great many scholarly pursuits. After two years of pre-school, when it was time for this reluctant, singing little girl to join a primary school, I could not join my older sister in the public school she was attending at the time. The unforgiving public school system would probably have had me repeat Pre-Unit. I would have been that kid. That poor soul that has to put up with looks of scorn and pity whenever marked exam papers wer distributed in a class, in order of performance (worst practice ever!).

Probably what made my pre-school to primary school transition so difficult. I have since changed my point of view.

 

A private school was the next best option. I sat for an interview. The details are fuzzy but I’m told that I wrote my name and little else on the paper. This may come as a big surprise but I did not pass this interview. This was where she came in.

We only knew her as Teacher Teresa. Large in stature, she had this matronly look to her. She was kind and understanding but also firm and no-nonsense in equal measure. When she peered at you over a pair of spectacles resting on the bridge of her nose, you would want to sit up straight and focus on your carrying and borrowing math problems, that life-changing stuff we were dealing with in Standard One.

Teacher Teresa decided that this timid, tiny almost 6-year-old kid could join 1 North with the rest. She knew I had failed the test and was aware of my challenges yet, without asking my parents for anything in return, coached me privately till I caught up with the rest.

Among the memories of my early academic years, Teacher Teresa really stands out. I feel that I, to a large extent, owe part of who I am today to her selfless act those many years ago. You can imagine how excited I was to find out that she is the headmistress of a school near where I live. A couple of days ago when I had the day off, I called her. I got her contacts from my parents, who have kept in touch with her over the years.

“Of course I remember you!” she said after my long ‘you may not remember me but…’ introduction. I was smiling from ear-to-ear over the phone. It was past midday when I made my way to the school.

“I’m here to see Mrs. Obare,” I said to a young teacher walking hand-in-hand with a little girl.

“First office on the right when you enter the building,” she said.

There was a small plaque written ‘Headmistress’ on the door frame. I approached the entrance to her open office cautiously. I felt like a student as I stood there, a small gift for her in hand. She was on the phone but flashed me a huge grin and gestured for me to come in.

She looked almost like I remembered her when she taught me in 1 North. She also had this stately look to her; that refined quality acquired only from years of sharpening life experiences. That look that seems to say, ‘been there, done that, sold the t-shirt on OLX’. It seemed like a lifetime ago when I last saw her.

“I taught her in Standard One,” she said to a teacher seated across her scribbling in a large notebook.

I smiled. We both started saying how long it had been since we last saw each other. It’s not really enough to say ‘I’ve been well’ when someone you last saw when you were six asks how you’ve been, is it? When the teacher left, I took her seat across Teacher Teresa and regaled her with a classic look-how-well-I-turned-out story. Twenty years condensed into five minutes.

She left the school when I was in Standard Three and has been at this one since then. Turns out I wasn’t the only problem child she took in. She’s helped many children over the years. Now that she holds an administrative position at the school, she doesn’t get to be in the classroom as much as she’d like. She misses teaching. She stands in for teachers at her school from time to time and also moderates exams. The school has, in recent times, at the request of parents who wanted their children to stay on after pre-school, started a primary school that goes up to Standard Three. Her heart for the little ones won’t relent.

I dedicate this post to all the Teacher Teresas out there. To you who could have very easily given up or said NO because of the insurmountable task ahead. To you who struggled and went out of your way to better someone’s life. I celebrate you.

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Never accept reality as an end

I dug for it intently. There was no shovel involved. I was neither exerting myself nor bent over next to a mound of earth. There were no drops of sweat to wipe off my brow and no dirt under my fingernails. I was in bed leaning against a pillow, laptop on lap, phone in hand. It was a dig synonymous with the times. A digital dig? Possibly.

I sat for an obscene amount of time, head bent in cell phone prayer, stalking scrolling through an Instagram feed. Oh how I scrolled. I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled some more. I’ll know it when I see it, I kept saying. My long-suffering thumb bore the brunt of my obsessive search. Rats! I couldn’t find it even after scrolling down to the first ever post.

I resumed my work. I looked for it twice more, unsuccessfully. The day was almost over when I finally found it. What helped me know where to look was remembering the period I first saw it and why it appealed to me so much. It was an excerpt from Khaya Dlanga’s journal when he was 20.

“I believe this to be true for anyone who wants to achieve anything in life: never accept reality as an end. If we only ever face reality as an end; if we only ever face and accept our current difficulties, our reality, then we are doomed. It is imperative that I live inside my head, a world that is not realistic. By that I mean believing in a truth that isn’t yet. But a truth that nonetheless which I will create in the future. One must face reality and the facts, but even more important is pointing out the reality that WILL BE to yourself. When someone says, ‘Face reality,’ they are telling you to forget your dream and what you know you want to do with every single fiber of your being, they are telling you to forget that you know you can do it even though it’s damn hard at the time. I choose to answer in the following manner, ‘Yes, I will, but I choose to face, to create the future reality that I want, not the one you want me to.’ And refuse to subject myself to the narrow present reality.”

Rather deep for a 20-year-old ey? I certainly was not brimming with this kind of wisdom at 20. I digress. Khaya Dlanga is easily one of the most interesting people I follow on Instagram. He’s a senior executive at Coca-Cola South Africa. Never met him. That’s about all I know about the man. He mentioned, when he posted this excerpt from his journal, that when he wrote it he was “going through an intensely difficult period (including being homeless for a few months).” The tough times, he said, lasted a few years.

What helped me remember where to look for the quote was that when I first saw it (about five months ago), I was struggling with several uncertainties. Also, the World Cup had recently come to an end (and my team lost, sigh) which meant that it had to be sometime around the end of July. For most of last year and more so towards my graduation in August, I had been wondering whether my choice for a master’s degree was a prudent decision. Please refer to my previous post for context. What would I do with this seemingly obscure qualification once I graduated? Where would I work in this area of study that was so poorly understood even by those in the mental health field in Kenya? I was also pretty broke, with zero savings and paying for a huge part of my school fees with a loan from my parents. Would I even find work that I could make a decent living from?

In addition, I was working (and still working) with individuals who have literally had the rug pulled out from under them in the most brutal of ways – refugees. After experiencing the tragedies of war, here they were, impoverished and living with a great deal of uncertainty in a land that is growing increasingly hostile towards them. How difficult it must be for them to look beyond their reality! I was struggling to look beyond their reality.

Khaya’s (I think we should be on a first name basis by now) quote speaks of a quality I greatly admire  – a stubborn resolve to keep on despite the odds. It speaks of hope. It also speaks of something so dear to me; something I feel I cannot live without. Something without which, it is impossible to please God biblically speaking (Hebrews 11:6) – faith. Never accept reality as an end. My reality is quite different now. I will refer you to my previous post yet again for context. I should stop here before I get on a pulpit and break into song. My intention was to share a quote that I have returned to again and again and why it moved me. I’d love to hear yours.