We woke up at the crack of dawn this morning to go to school. It felt just like it did as a child. I was filled with anticipation and hope and sleep as we headed to “our” first day of school. I pictured a few dedicated children gathered around a dedicated teacher in a small tent or handcrafted hut. Imagine my surprise to see almost 2000 children standing in the schoolyard with many others, carrying old and well loved books, streaming in to join them.I should have known there would be so many students because EVERYONE we have met has mentioned education and a love of books and study. I guess I just thought it would be nearly impossible for so many children with such little food, clothing and decent sleeping conditions to attend school regularly. Foolish me, because they were all there and it turns out that there are even THREE more schools.The children stood in a giant square, arranged by age and grade. When we arrived they were all quiet and organized as a teacher spoke from the middle.They tried a hard as they could to be “good” and stay in a straight line while listening to the morning instructions. These were not the children we’d met over the past few days who yelled,’ Okay, okay, okay!” and ran gleefully everywhere we went each time we visited. They were disciplined and clearly committed to their academic day. Of course, the excitement of visitors was quite the temptation and many peeked down the line to see Gabriel or myself. They’d send a sly wave down the line or whisper, ” Ca Va?” as we passed their section. I’d smile and put my finger to my lips to keep them from getting ” in trouble.” They’d giggle and hold their school books with torn pages proudly for us to see. The youngest ones struggled valiantly to stay focused and they actually succeeded. I remembered how fun it was to have visitors stop by our classrooms as children to break up the monotony of the routine. These children, however, were excited about sharing their love of school not in breaking
up the daily routine. I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of children and the saddened to hear the cacophony of coughs echoing in the desert air. They broke into a song that obviously began each day and they sang out loud and filled with pride as they greeted the day and us with their song.It turns out that the song is all about turning back to Sudan and going home.
We spoke to the headmaster as the children filed into their classrooms. He had been a teacher back in Sudan. He spoke to us about the overcrowded classrooms and need for teacher’s manuals and student workbooks. Gabriel asked what made the children here love studying so much and he seemed confused by such question. It is second nature to cherish education for the Sudanese and the fact that there is no high school here clearly is disheartening. As we listened to the headmaster, I started to notice that individual children would step outside the classroom to empty their lungs or nose in the sand without even the aid of a tissue. At first, I thought it was the exception but I soon realized that MANY of these children were dealing with some sort of respiratory problem that was clearly interfering with their school day. This fact was later confirmed by a Doctor from an NGO in the camp. Had most of us been in the shape these children were in our parents would have kept us home sick. Had that been the case here however, this school would have been nearly empty. I went from classroom to classroom and watched as these teachers taught geography, mathematics, arabic and science. The children listened attentively and scribbled down notes. They all snapped their fingers and raised there hands to answer questions. I remembered the thrill of knowing the answer and hoping with all of my heart that the teacher would call on me. Now add a camera into the mix and the hope that more books will arrive soon and you have some very eager children. Several times I started to feel awful about the cramped condition of these classrooms but then I’d look into these bright and shining faces and realize that education had taken root in the most barren of places. I saw that they hardly noticed the overcrowding and instead treasured the simple fact that they were there at all. I worried about the spreading of the respiratory infections and skin diseases but they did not seem to let any of that stand
in the way of learning. The use of songs as a teaching tool was a true lesson in using creativity to inspire and educate. They all sang with joy and as the song settled to a close the coughs would flare up again with children climbing over each other to relieve their overfilled lungs once again. Some of the older students supervised the younger ones as they took tests while the teacher went off to attend to another class. The teachers were eager for us to come and film in their classrooms with a well deserved sense of pride in their work and accomplishment. So many times I have thought that if I were in this situation I might just sit down in the sand and give up. Not the people of Darfur! I learned more at ” school” today then I did in all my years of education in beautiful buildings with clean clothes, a full belly and healthy body. I learned about the true value of education and endurance. These are a people of fierce determination and gentle grace.
Went we got home from school, I took an after school nap, my first since we’ve arrives. We usually work until 2 or 3 am and there is little time to nap with all there is to do here in order to complete these 14 days. I dreamt about my friend Amy Ireton from grade school. In my slumber I was at her house after school and we were having treats like crackers and cookies and snacks. I awoke and realized that I was grown and the children of Darfur did not go home to crackers or cookies and snacks. They went home to a tent to eat the same food they eat EVERYDAY and even that, only at dinner if they were lucky. I realized I’d fallen asleep because this kind of education is exhausting and inspiring just like the very best and most difficult days of school in my youth.