Lasting Impressions

            I hate to be as presumptuous as to think that I know what impressions from this trip will last, because deep down, I know that I haven’t the foggiest idea of which things will prove to be useful and/or reinforced back in the States. I can, however, give you some idea of the things that I find most important or most touching for the time that I’m sitting at Café Mambo, sipping a Ndovu beer, and wishing that I weren’t boarding a plane tomorrow morning to leave this country for what I hope proves not to be the last time.

            Truth be told, I’ve made too good of friends in this city, in this country, to just pick up and leave like that. Part of me wants to be childish and say it isn’t fair that we all have to go, because I just don’t want to! I’m not ready to say goodbye to Tanzania yet. More to the point, the circumstances here were special, and they have allowed me to make very close friends with some people who I don’t think I otherwise could have grown close to. Every person on this trip, at some point, has wriggled their way into my heart, and I don’t really want for all of us to leave just yet. I have made quite possibly two of the best friends I’ll have (at least two of the best people I’ve had the privilege to meet) and I hope they think as much of me as I do of them. But even if they don’t, that’s okay, because I have loved all of the (many, many) moments I’ve got to spend with them over the course of this month. I suppose one of the things that I’ll take away from this trip is that – the friends I’ve made. They’re wonderful, and I love them.

            In point of fact, I was grossly under-prepared for this trip, and for all of the stressors it would press in upon me. For the past four years – or so – I walked around the campus at Grand Valley calling myself a Mathematics and Physics teacher, and not knowing what the second half of that meant. I know how to teach math, but when it came to physics, I definitely had strong points and weak points. The weak points, particularly, were glaringly weak. Once I arrived in Tanzania, however, and walked into Engarenarok Lutheran Tetra Secondary School, I was the expert and I was expected to be the expert in physics as well as mathematics. So when I decided to take on the Physics Form III students (equivalent to junior level physics) and found out I would be teaching Optics (a subject I haven’t studied in six years, and one in which I have never excelled), I simply had to. I brushed up and taught it to the best of my ability. Mirrors, lenses, reflection, refraction, microscopes, telescopes, projectors, and the human eye – I taught them all after reading up on them and researching them in a panicked hurry in order not to look a fool and to prepare my students for their exams and life. If I’m being honest, it was daunting, even terrifying, to sit and lesson plan optics lessons when I knew that I was just as fresh to the material as they would be, but it pushed me to become a more well-rounded and better teacher, and it helped me to rediscover some of the physics topics I had previously discarded, giving me an opportunity to fall in love with my subjects all over again.

            The last thing I am making a point of writing down is just how under-resourced these schools are and, as a result, how grateful the students and staff are for us. It’s like when we walked into the building, they got really excited. They thought (and think) the world of us, and it’s very humbling. I can’t help thinking, “I’m nothing special. I’m just a guy who loves kids and wants to teach them for a career.” And apparently that’s a huge deal. The students, too, can’t get enough of these mzungu teachers standing in front of them and teaching them about math and – in my case – physics. And the resources I have to work with are as follows: an outdated, type-o-riddled book, a blackboard, a few pieces of broken chalk, and my imagination. That’s it. It’s a tall order, but one that I was up for. I suppose that the students and teachers here think that’s impressive, and I guess objectively it is, but for me, it was as simple as that: I had to teach x and y, and I could use a and b, and we had to make it happen. Nothing special. But they loved us for it. They loved us so much, and it was such a humbling experience. I will miss the challenge and reward of teaching in such communities. That is perhaps one of the most important things to take away from this trip.

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