April 11, 2008

You’ve Got Mail

My high-school English students have become pen-pals with the second-grade class in Charleston, South Carolina that has been assiduously following this blog (Hi guys!). The thought of a bunch of too-old high-school students with young babies struggling through an inadequate school partnering up with some precocious young privately-educated elementary school students always makes me laugh and think about the multiplicity of ways reconciliation comes into our life.

In any event, a batch of letters arrived not long ago and I shared them with my students at a recent meeting. The circumstances of the meeting were unusual in that it was in the midst of a term break and my main goal in meeting with them was to get on the same page about when we would re-start our “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” reading after my short break and to determine a good time to go out and buy some school supplies for the new term. For reasons that defy my explanation, a prayer meeting of revival-esque proportions was going on in Itipini at the time so we were meeting outside the library on a very public bench.

I pulled out the letters, hoping for at least a glimmer of excitement or anticipation in the eyes of the students. I got nothing. (By the way, they all had jobs for the term break – informal and very poorly-paid, of course – and all had negotiated a way of getting off work to come to this meeting. But I imagine they were all eager to get back and keep earning money.) But they dutifully began opening the letters and started reading.

As they began reading, a look of slightly startled wonder came across their face as they realized each had a letter – with an official postmark and stamp all the way from the U.S. – that was addressed to each one of them. I doubt they had ever before received something like that. I wish I could adequately describe how Luleka’s tone of voice shifted just on the first line. “Dear Luleka Sikilongo” began as a slow monotone that rapidly ascended into an excited and shocked exclamation that concluded with a sigh of satisfaction and a glance around to see if there was anyone else to share the letter with.

It turns out there was. Because we were outside, we pretty soon had a whole crowd of young mothers – none of whom are in school – crowding around wanting to see what all the fuss was about. Before I knew it, I had a whole crowd of women all reading the same couple letters over and over again and admiring the photos the students had included of themselves. I had been planning on having each student read her letter out loud and then explaining what it said but I quickly realized that was unnecessary because they were already doing that with each other and everyone was reading everyone else’s letters. I just kept silent and reached for my camera.

The pair on the far right are my favourite in this picture.

Next week, we’ll write back in hopes of squeezing in another round of letters before the school year ends in the northern hemisphere.