Monday, November 9, 2009

Eleven Dreamers

Like many of her classmates, Atupele Mwezewina dreams of becoming a doctor. To achieve this lofty goal in Malawi is not an easy task. On her senior examinations, she must score top marks in mathematics, biology, physical science, and English, the four most difficult subjects, and that is just so that she can have a chance to enter the medical track at university. In order to achieve the highest marks, a student must be able to study and read the textbooks on their own. As Atupele writes, “We must try ourselves because teachers are not there to teach us everything.” However, textbooks, at $15 each, are far outside of the means of most students’ families. To aid students like Atupele, whose ambitions exceed the limited resources of their families, I have decided to offer a book scholarship each year to one form three student who shows the most scholastic enthusiasm and aptitude. The scholarship is a set of textbooks, one from each subject that the student will take in their fourth year. Our school only has a single copy of most of the textbooks necessary for senior level studies, so a student who owns their own books will be able to excel despite the limitations of the school’s resources.

However, I didn’t want to just give the the books to the smartest student. I wanted to reward someone who is motivated as well as talented. So, in order to enter the scholarship competition, students had to write an essay about their career goals and how they plan to achieve them. And that is how I learned that Atupele wants to be a doctor. Eleven students entered the competition this year. Here are their aspirations.

Chrispin Mwenyefeza wants to be a doctor. Specifically, he wants to be a doctor of the heart. Chrispin is one of my quieter students and also one of the most studious. He is very serious and during class he is always crouched over his math exercises, precisely writing out solutions with the aid of a straight-edge. However, he is also one of the most generous students; I frequently see him giving up his own study time to explain the work to others who are at the bottom of the class. His mother once told him that poverty is a result of a lack education and I can tell that he takes this seriously. To study hard and educate himself out of poverty, or, to fail school and live with nothing, Chrispin believes that the choice is his.

Chikumbutso Genti also wants to be a doctor. Once, when he was a young boy, a man died at the hospital where he was visiting a relative because there were not enough doctors at the hospital to take care of all of the patients. From that moment he decided that he wanted to become a doctor. Chikumbutso is angry with the doctors who are educated in Malawi and then “run away” to other countries where the salaries are better. His role models are those people who involve themselves in health activities here in Malawi; he wants to be like them, working to make his country a better place to live.

My most brilliant student, unsurprisingly, also has ambitions of becoming a doctor but I didn’t learn this from his scholarship essay. Since the beginning of the school year, Morris Katunga has covered his exercise books and signed all of his tests with his self-proclaimed title, Dr. Katunga, so that I and his classmates should have no doubts about his future aspirations. And I believe that he is one of the few smart enough to achieve them. However, he has no patience for the sluggish pace of lessons necessitated by the abilities of his fellow classmates. He slouches at his desk, front and center, as I explain, for the fifth time, how to solve for x, only rousing himself to shout out the answer several seconds before anyone else has even digested the problem. Morris is the typical genius, excited by challenges, bored by repetition, and frustrated when things do not go his way. However, his quirks and quickness have made it a pleasure to work with him this year. Like many of his peers, Morris is strongly religious. In his essay, he prays to God for success in his future, and throughout the year I’ve found various scribblings along the lines of ‘God is great’ in his exercise books. Most amusing to me is the recent spate of ‘Dr. Potok’s that I have found in place of his usual name, and ‘Shalom’s written at the end of exercises and tests. I think Morris got a hold of Chaim Potok’s book, My Name is Asher Lev, which describes the life of a Hassidic Jewish painter, and has decided to switch religions, despite the fact that after I leave, there will be no Jews in Malawi. Regardless, I have no doubt that Morris will continue to read, and think, and try out as many ideas as he can lay his hands on.

A close second behind Morris, is Ellaton Siyabu who is also quite brilliant. But, unlike Morris, Ellaton studies hard to maintain his spot at the top of the class. Ellaton does not always get the correct answer with the first guess, and sometimes even gives a stammering and long-winded explanation in front of the entire class which turns out to be entirely wrong. However, whenever he does make a mistake, he labors to correct it and never makes the same error again. It just shows that he truly believes that “the worst in life is not to fall down, but failing to rise up”. Ellaton wants to rise up to become a doctor because he feels that by saving lives he will be working as God’s instrument. He does not think there are enough doctors in Malawi and believes that the career will give him personal dignity and honor.

Several of my students want to study accounting. Otis Wataya wants to be an accountant because he likes the responsibility of being entrusted with a company’s money. He writes that, “Success does not come on a silver platter, but it needs hardworking and perseverance.” From his work this year I can tell that he means it. He has worked his way from being an above average student, to one who is consistently among the top five, and he has done it without losing his easy-going attitude and circle of friends. In fact, he has motivated his friends to work harder so that, whenever I go over to his group to tell them to quiet down, I find that they are loudly discussing the math work that I have given them. What more could a teacher ask for?

Hannah Chikomo also wants to be an accountant. She chose the career when she was 14 because she admired her sister who is an accountant. Hannah is one of my most hard-working female students, and because of this she is always among the top three students. In a class where most of the girls perform below average, it is impressive that she has avoided the stereotypes and relationships which prevent girls from excelling in school. For a relatively young student, Hannah is very mature- her relationships with her fellow classmates, male and female, are more professional than playful and I rarely have to repeat myself to her. She is quick to understand and, once she has done so, immediately turns to explain what I have said to others who are still gazing at me in confusion. Hannah has set as her role model all women who are leaders in their communities, including Malawi’s vice president, Joyce Banda. When she sees these powerful women achieving and sees the acceptance of these women into society, she knows that she will accomplish her goals.

My newest student has dreams of attending college and studying accounting because he believes that accounting is a career which could allow him to see the world. When I first saw Chawezi Msumba on my list of book scholarship applicants I thought, “Who on earth is that?” In the same pattern of enrollment that has been occurring all year, Chaawezi joined the class a bit late, in the 4th-to-last week of the final term of the school year to be exact. And somehow he is expected to know all that we have covered in the past year and take his final exams in two weeks. Luckily, he is smart. In his essay, Chawezi attributes his success in school to hard work and abstinence from boy/girl relationships (because sex doesn’t mix with school). He encourages his peers to do the same, saying that this is the only way that Malawi can halt the AIDS pandemic and become successful. Chawezi likes Obama’s three-word slogan, and both he and I believe that it certainly applies to him.

Collins Gawani wants to be a journalist. As a writer, he is talented and creative in a way that very few Malawians are. As a student in other subjects such as math and science, he is slow and has difficulty with problem solving. It is an interesting combination, and I am always perplexed after hearing one of his articulate and interesting news broadcasts during a morning assembly, to find him, later that day, unable to follow my instructions in math class. Collins wants to attend the Polytechnic in Blantyre and study Mass and Media Communication. He knows that in order to become a journalist he must read lots of different books and study hard. He knows that he needs to improve his grades. However, he encounters difficulties when he is discourage by family and friends who do not want to support him; he lists food and school shoes as two examples where he would like to be better supported. I often see him in the staff room at the end of the lunch hour, looking for any leftover food. I imagine it is difficult to concentrate on math problems on an empty stomach. But, despite these problems, Collins tries hard and is optimistic that his future is bright.

Mutisunge Mwineya also feels like his family and friends are discouraging him from his goals. Almost every day after school, Mutisunge apprentices himself to an auto mechanic because he dreams of becoming an engineer. His friends tell him that he can’t serve two masters at once, but he knows that in order to become an engineer he must also go to school. His father used to encourage him, but he died when Mutisunge was 12, so now he must keep that encouragement in his heart as he studies science at Gracious each day and works in the garage every evening.

James Hoya is a talented ultimate Frisbee player who sings with a beautiful baritone in his church choir. He is generous with what he has, offering up his own exercise books as a prize for a Frisbee game, and he is polite and respectful when seeking out what he does not have. I have come to know James (known as Hoya by his friends) this year, through his visits by the house to ask for help with math and download pictures from his toy-digital camera. He has accompanied Jesse and I on a visit to his church, translating the Chichewa Bible and explaining the hymns, and he worked with Jesse to film a video of his church choir singing a few songs. What I did not know, before reading his scholarship essay, was that he wants to become a dentist. Unfortunately, in Malawi only the most academically gifted have a chance to enter the medical profession, and James is quite below average. He works hard in class; I can tell that he is in school because he wants to learn. He even does alright on some of the exercises. But, when it comes time for a test, he completely bombs, scoring little above a zero. It seems that he has a learning disability which prevents him from translating the thoughts in his head to written words on a page. And here, where all performance is evaluated by written exams, that is a severe impediment to success. James truly wants to help people; that is why he wants to be a dentist. Although I do not think he can manage this, I do believe that his friendly personality and moral character will lead him to a life helping his fellow Malawians.

So, who did we give the scholarship to? The goal of the scholarship was to provide the books to the person who would make the best use of them and who would, by having the books, be able to improve from above average to excellence on their senior level exams. After a long debate, the form masters (teachers in charge of form 3), deputy principal, principal, and I decided to award the books to Atupele. She is not the smartest, though she frequently scores among the top 5. She is not the most well-behaved, since I am constantly reminding her to stop chatting with those around her. And, she is not the most serious; she maintains a playful attitude, but still respects her teachers. However, she loves learning and even approaches the principal asking to borrow books. She loves to share her knowledge; I have several times caught her in a spare classroom giving math lessons to slower students, in English. She is quick and knows how to use resources which are provided to her. She is a female who is achieving, when her other peers are turning to dating and giving in to the cultural misconception that girls are not as good in school as boys. For these reasons, we chose to use Atupele as a role model and provide her with the tools she needs to excel. I am looking forward to seeing her succeed.