October 18, 2007


Sometimes I say to myself, “Gee, I’ve got a great job. Every day I can play with children.” And it’s true. The pre-school children at Itipini are an ever-present part of my day and for someone like me, who has always enjoyed the joy and vitality that children bring to their surroundings, there’s a lot to love about what I get to do on a daily basis.

But I’ve been surprised lately that I’m experiencing a fair bit of frustration in my interactions with the children and only a very small bit of it is due to the language barrier. The major part of my frustration centres on dealing with hordes of children who are desperate from some part of me. When I wander over to where they are (or they come find me), I am besieged by children doing anything to get my attention. This ranges from the cute and endearing, like shouting my name, singing whatever song I’ve just been teaching, mimicking me playing the guitar, or smiling shyly at me, to the aggravating and painful, like hitting me, jumping on me, using my shirt to scale me like a rock face, and, my least favourite, tugging my hair, sometimes so hard it jerks my head back. (They make pre-school children tough and strong here.)

It is understandable to me that these children want attention from a grown-up figure. Many are so thoroughly ignored by their parents, relatives, and anyone and everyone else that they’re desperate for anything they can get. And I really sympathize with them. They have been given so little to begin with and if I can build them up a little bit just by spending time with them I want to. But it’s hard to do that when there are 20 or 30 children swarming around you. What I want is to see them in groups of two or three at a time and get to know them that way.

The situation probably isn’t helped by the fact that I’ve developed several “favourites.” I have plenty of experience as a camp counselor and know that playing favourites is just a recipe for disaster. But there are a handful of children who are so gifted and talented and capable and amazing – and it all shines right through their circumstances – that it’s impossible not to want to get to know them better. So when I seek those four or five out, the other children clamber around and want a little piece of what the four or five are getting.

My frustration with this situation has been building lately. I’ve learned the Xhosa word for “stop” (“ima”) and try to use it when my hair is pulled or I’m punched particularly hard. But when I try to speak to one particular child about their behaviour in my “stern voice” (something that has always been more comical than effective for me), they just laugh and smile and ignore me so happy to finally be getting the very attention they crave. And in the meantime five other children are punching and tugging at me.

In all of this, though, I try to keep in mind that the children are not the ones I need to be directing my aggravation at. There are larger targets, like the parents and the broader community and the economic circumstances, that are the real source of my frustration.


Anonymous said...

Jessie, i know you're working so hard at all you do. I am sorry to hear of your problem. The next worse thing you could do now is completely ignore the ones you were favoring. Mabye you could organize a library times and different activitie times so you could give attention to all of them. Hope you work it out-the best of luck at that. With love, R.M.S