Over the past couple weeks I have seen more acts of compassion and heard more words of encouragement then I have at any point during my work in Tanzania. Thank you to everyone. The outpouring of support and love has absolutely spurred me on and kept me going during one of the hardest points of my stay in Tanzania. Malaria is no joke. Teaching with malaria is also no joke. Outside of a day and a half where I was suffering from malaria and the flu concurrently, I simply could not find a reason not to teach my classes. Every morning and night I had new messages of support from home from my friends or family and all day long I had the help of the children to keep me going.
Their ability to empathize with me was incredible from the moment of the “I have malaria again”, class responds “ooooohhhhh noooo, soooorrryy” to the everyday lessons for weeks. I have never had such quiet classes in my entire life. They all sat, at attention, silently and even began to police their friends who would talk during class with reminders of “don’t disturb Mr. Terry, he is sick”. It kept me laughing all week and most importantly kept me in the classroom. As soon as I had finished my classes for the day I would drag my feet home, plop down on bed and sleep for four or five hours until dinner. I would then wake up, eat and go back to sleep until the next day. You cannot imagine the physical exhaustion of malaria until you experience it, and even now looking back on it, it seems unreal. The weeks have been a bit of blur to be honest but I definitely still had my highlight. It started on the Monday after my birthday with the simplest of gestures.
Siggy, a student in P4 had asked his parents for money, went to the store and bought a Birthday card. He had every child in P4 sign it without me having any idea. In the afternoon I was already exhausted, dragging a bit and mentally drained when I entered the P4 class for their second English lesson. Siggy stood up, walked to the front of the class with the card in hand and I asked him “what’s up Siggy? What do you need?” I will never forget his words, “Mr. Terry this card is for you. We were in P1 for your birthday too. We are now old and we are getting old together. We are happy you are here with us.” Siggy said this as he looked at me, then at the ground, and then back at me. I noticed he was tearing up. He understood his words and could see that they were impacting me and I could see that he meant them. I then stared at the ground, teared up, looked at the card, and then at all the children. Some of the children avoided making eye contact, and others just stared back with soft smiles. They were all looking at me and waiting for me to talk, while I searched for the right words. So I told them the truth “This is my favorite card, ever. I love you all more than you will ever know.” Then Lidia broke the silence and the tension with a loud “We love you too!” which made everyone laugh and thankfully moved our class along.
That moment, the thought he had in buying the card, getting everyone to sign it but most of all his words will always stay with me. I realized my responsibility as a teacher, an adult and a leader of children is to sometimes do what is most difficult in a given moment. We have made it so hard in our world to open our hearts. Everything from fear of rejection to social anxiety to peer pressure has conditioned us not to share our thoughts and feelings. We routinely joke about or call attention to displays of love in our media and call it “corny”. We “play it cool” around others rather than share our thoughts. Most egregiously we allow others to pass in and out of our lives without telling them how they make us feel. As a result we close up, share less and less, and become less honest. For four years I have told these children I love them, care for them and that they are special to me. I know they will close up significantly, and some already take considerable effort to ‘crack’ their exterior. There are many forces in their worlds far stronger than me. I have learned that I can control my own example. Even though they are getting older and begin to close up themselves I will still tell them how special they are. How they made a sick man feel better and helped me through malaria. I will still try to make them smile everyday whenever I can. I will still tell them I love them. So that there will still be at least one very sensitive young boy, with a whole lot of love, who knows it is ok to open his heart, even when he grows up to be a man.