Little hands hold mine on either side of me, swinging my arms wildly and looking up with big grins. They have me wrapped around their little fingers. I walk them back to their class and gather my things to start teaching mine.
Today we’re reading a story about a boy with a secret place in the woods, hidden inside the hollow of a big Cottonwood tree, deep in the forest. I pass out paper and colored pencils, asking my students to close their eyes and draw a picture of their own secret place. I tell them it can be anywhere- a ship in the middle of the ocean, up high on the mountaintop, in a castle, or on the moon. They get to work drawing pictures of space, islands in the sea, and underground boxes, proudly showing me their artwork.
I sit quietly as I watch them drawing, until the noise next door catches my attention. Through the makeshift chalkboard wall, I can see a teacher yelling and shouting at the younger students, shoving them to the front of the room where they huddle together in fear. “Shut up! No. You, shut up!” He yells.
I keep staring knowing, but dreading what will happen next. He hands his cane, a long thin piece of wood, to a young girl and brings the students forward, one by one. “Hit them like this!” he instructs. “Harder, harder! Kill him!” He laughs with a sneer. The kids are laughing and crying, not sure if this is a nightmare or just a big game.
I glance back at my students seated quietly, drawing of magical places far away.
Safe places, secret places. Places where learning and beating have nothing to do with each other. Places where they can be kids again.
How can the world contain it all? How can there be so much joy and happiness coexisting with pain and ugliness? How could anyone look at the faces of these beautiful children and think of harming them? I feel helpless and indignant. After a few minutes I excuse myself from my classroom and ask to speak to the teacher. “Please stop,” I beg. “Can’t you discipline them in another way? They’re just children! How would you like it if I came over here and caned YOU?”
He nods in agreement and we return to our respective classes. I listen in and I can hear him lecturing his students on why he thinks it’s necessary to cane them. He is defending his position, exerting control, saving face. Brainwashing.
I know my protest has only earned the students a few moments of reprieve, that nothing has changed, that the abuse will go on when I’m gone.
Every day I hear mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, students and friends, echoing the same phrase over and over, “I will beat you! I will beat you!” Sometimes it’s a joke, sometimes it’s just a warning, more often than not it’s a reality. Like brushing your teeth every morning, it’s just something that you do here. It’s ingrained in the culture, accepted and dismissed without much thought.
Every day in my classroom I try to counteract this culture of abuse by repeating the word “respect” over and over. More often than not grammar lessons and reading classes turn into lessons on “how to love your neighbor.” I try to give extra time and attention to the quiet ones, the ones with bruises on their cheeks, with pain in their eyes. I snuggle them and I hold them in my arms, I smile and laugh with them. Some days, most days it doesn’t feel enough.
My heart breaks open on days like this. Days when I see a sick child diagnosed with a “spiritual issue” when she’s found seizing, instead of being taken immediately to the closest clinic. Days when I see a young boy try desperately to stretch shoes that are several sizes too small onto his little sister’s feet. Days when I watch the other students mouth the answers to a boy in class who is so far behind he’ll probably never catch up, hoping to spare him the cane.
So I hold and I smile. I repeat the words “respect” and “love” until I feel my voice will go hoarse and the tears will overflow.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how to teach my students that abuse is not normal or okay when they know a very different reality. I don’t know how to rationalize the inequality, the unfairness of it all. I don’t know how to make up the difference.
What I do know, is that God is good. God is good and we were created in His image, and so we have this goodness inside of us. This goodness, this Love is more powerful than hate. It’s lighter than darkness, it’s sweeter than pain.
I can’t correct the systems of power and oppression in place that allow teachers to beat their students. I can’t undo all of the hurt that’s been caused, the dreams that have been crushed, the childhood robbed of innocence.
I am just one obruni, here for a short time. But I can be the obruni who doesn’t cane her students. I can be the obruni that loves and encourages instead of yelling and shouting. I can show them there IS another way. And I can stand up for them. I can use my voice to speak for them when theirs is quivering in fear. I can be their safe place.
I can refuse to let hatred build a place within my own heart for the teacher with the cane. I can choose compassion. I can choose love.
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.