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Just a Girl

February 4, 2013

Liberian Students

In November I started working with eight students on applications for EARTH University.  I knew I couldn’t handle it the same way I did last year when half of Sanniquellie chased me begging to apply so I quietly called my five top boys and three top girls to my house.  I explained the scholarship and started working with them on essays.

The boys were excited and eager and each came to my house at least once a week for advice and revisions.  We talked about Costa Rica, travel, and honorable leadership.  I loaned them books and paid for them to attend computer school.

The girls, in sharp contrast, seemed mistrustful, like they suspected a bait and switch.  But I wasn’t dissuaded.  I arranged for their own computer school through the local US AID office and gently prodded them to participate more in my class.  All three are extremely bright, fine mathematicians, and would be prepared for college if given the opportunity.  I knew EARTH really wanted to find talented girls so I secretly pinned high hopes on them.

Then my favorite failed in three subjects second period and landed on the academic warning list.  I discovered they all had children, ranging in ages from one to six, and the youngest of my girls was 23.  They’d been afraid I’d find out, but there was no more hiding when we finally did the application forms on Saturday.  When they told me I smiled encouragingly and told them what to write on the lines, but my heart sank.

When a female student is discovered with “big belly” she is put out of class and must attend night school until she delivers.  Each of my girls had been forced to sit down from school because of her children—that’s why they were older than the boys.  Last week the administration checked all the classrooms for big bellies and at least four girls were put out of my 12th grade.  Second semester of her senior year, six months away from her national exams, she’s cast off to join the other second-class students at the second-class extension school.  Last year 42 students from the extension school sat for WAEC.  About 15 passed.  In my regular 12th grade class 86 sat for WAEC and about 70 passed.

The injustice made me stomp my foot in class and knock the desks.  “Where is Gloria?” I asked last Friday.  “I haven’t seen her since Monday.”  They all twittered and one of the boys piped up, “Night school, Ms. RB.  Gloria has big belly!”  I laughed and called them crazy.  “Gloria? Gloria does not have big belly.  That girl knows better.”  But they all nodded and yelled, “It’s truth!  It’s truth!”

It’s truth.

One of my strong, fiery, clever girls stumbled on the last turn just as the finish line approached.  I hadn’t selected her for the scholarship because she’s been acting strange the past few months.  Now it all makes sense: She was hiding a pregnancy.

Last year I allowed everyone to apply for the scholarship because I said I couldn’t ‘play god’ and decide who did or didn’t deserve an opportunity.  This year I knew I had to make some choices, if only for my own sanity.  These choices have weighed on my heart heavily each day I enter class and joke and laugh with the 92 students I didn’t choose.  When I was in high school I was always the one they didn’t choose and I remember the bitterness of that injustice.  Soon they will find out I passed them over and I don’t know what I’ll say.

There is a quiet girl at the back of my 12A class who is sharp as a whip.  She races through her problems and smiles patiently until I come to check.  What really makes her stand out, though, is that I don’t know her.  She wasn’t at Central High last year like 95% of the other students.  The only way for a new student to enter in 12th grade is to come from the night school.  …but the other night school students struggle to read.  How is Angeline simplifying radicals to perfection in half the time as the boys?

My heart went out to her and today I let it take hold.  I pulled her aside at recess.  I wanted her to apply.  I wanted to help her change her life.  “How old are you?” I asked ushering her into the deserted classroom.  She paused then looked right at me, “I’m 30.”  My heart sank.  You have to be under 25 to apply to EARTH.  “What do you want to do after graduation?” I asked trying to hide my shock.  “Medicine,” she said.  “I want to be a nurse.”  I patted her on the back with a smile and a heavy heart, “And you will, girl.  You’re a fine student, really.  Tell me if I can ever do anything to help you.”

What does a girl have to do around here?  You can’t go to school when you’re pregnant but you can’t be a woman until you’ve born children.  And to not be a woman… chaaaa!  That’s not good-o.  “Then what am I?”  I ask them sometimes.  “I’m not married.  I haven’t born any children.  Am I a small girl?  Am I irresponsible?”  They just laugh.  “Noooo!  You’re different.”

But why, my girls?  Why?  Why can’t you have the encouragement, opportunity, and future I received and you deserve?  Thank you mom and dad, thank you Bryn Mawr, for giving me this life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. blondie permalink
    February 4, 2013 2:49 pm

    They have many boundaries to break down and you are helping show them perserverance. Sometimes to find the way, they may have to reach far away. If they can’t go to EARTH, is there somewhere else or does it mean if they are over 25, graduating high school is the end of the road for them??

  2. Andrea Penn permalink
    February 4, 2013 4:22 pm

    It is heartbreaking to read that a female isn’t a ‘woman’ until she has a child but then is forced to have no chance as at an education because she’s held back. How such prejudices and ignorance can still exist is terrible. We have no idea how blessed we are until we see that our lives would be vastly different if we we just born on another continent. You are a ray of hope to those girls…miss you and sending you love, friend.

  3. Candace Schulz permalink
    February 8, 2013 7:15 pm

    I am seriously crying…

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