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Dear LR-4

March 18, 2013

Henry and Jonathan

In June the fourth group of 2-year Volunteers, LR-4, will arrive.  Today I dedicate my post to them and their earnest preparations.

Dear LR-4,

Hi!  How are you?  I know we haven’t met yet, but I’ve been thinking about you a lot.  See, I know exactly what you’re going through and I want to tell you it’s going to be all right.  More than all right, really.  You see the same thing happened to me just about two years ago…

I had been sitting on my porch for a week waiting for the UPS man to bring my invitation package.  I’d been Googling and reading and trying to guess what Peace Corps was planning for me.  When the brown truck finally stopped I said, “I’m sorry but can I hug you?” then made the patient man wait while I opened the heavy envelope.

LIBERIA.  SECONDARY MATH TEACHER.

I was confused.  I had always thought I’d accept with a smile and without hesitation.  But teaching… in Liberia…?  I read every scrap of paper in the envelope.  I read everything I could find online.  I lay awake for three nights trying to reconcile my head with my heart.  This was no small thing.

See, LR-4, I had a math major but I hadn’t used it in five years.  I wasn’t a teacher.  I’d worked in television.  I’d worked at a non-profit theater.  I’d worked in a gym. My math was so rusty I kept multiplication flash cards on my nightstand just to be ready if someone tried to quiz me.  (Which they do when you say you’re a math major!)  In fact, when I applied for grad school I scored below average in math.  LR-4, I was such a hot mess I hadn’t even been out of the country.  I thought about all of this and I was scared!

I was scared of what people said about Liberia and I was scared that what I could offer just wasn’t enough.  Then on the third night my heart said, “Listen, what if we can?”  My head snatched at the air for a response, but my heart continued, “What if we can change just one life?”

Then we must go.  We must try.

Two years later I can’t believe I ever questioned coming to Liberia or being a teacher.    (I am even extending for a third year.)  I know everything seems stacked against you.  I know the problems seem too big and too plenty.  But I remind you: What if we can?  It is so easy to change someone’s life.  And, really, it will also change your own.

I won’t lie to you.  This is Extreme teaching (yes, capital E extreme).  My classes each have 50 to 100 students and we don’t have enough books or desks.  Most of my students have families and some are the same age as me or older.  They come to school tired and hungry, without pens and paper.  But they come.  And they come because they want a better future.  They come because they believe they can be better.

See, I don’t think of myself as a math teacher, although I spend a lot of time doing math.  I think of myself first and foremost as just a teacher, or perhaps a life coach.  My job is to help my students find the strength to move forward and to believe that they can move forward.  My job is to be someone they can trust and go to for help with anything.  The most important things you teach your students will most likely happen by accident and have nothing to do with your subject area.  You never know who is watching, who is listening, and who is growing.

Last year several of my seniors had a program for me before they left for teacher training college.  We had spent every Sunday afternoon doing math together.  But what did they talk about in their speeches?  “I can see the way Ms. RB treats people,” George said, “and it has changed the way I treat people.”

Math opened the door for those conversations and those interactions.  Content is very important—and I teach a lot of it—but it is also a great vehicle for bigger messages and lessons.  Many of my students have found confidence and motivation through mastering advanced concepts.  Two years ago I stood in front of them and nervously taught the order of operations.  Now these same students are literally cheering as they solve logarithms, radicals and binomial expansions.  “Ms. RB, we are really doing math now!” They have struggled and persevered and dared to dream for more.

What does Ma Ellen say?  “If your dreams don’t scare you they aren’t big enough”?  Last year I had a dream and my students had a dream and today one of them is studying at EARTH University in Costa Rica on a full scholarship.  I thought it was impossible.  They thought it was impossible.  But we all looked at each other and said, well, what if we can?

So, LR-4, that’s my question for you.  What if you can?  What if you too can do what everyone says is impossible?  I had no special training or preparation before walking into a Liberian classroom.  There is no secret ingredient.  There is just you.  If you care, if you believe in your students and yourself, that is more than enough.

Have a safe journey in June.  We’ll keep the rice warm for you.

RB

PS Want to know what I said last year?  Read Dear LR-3.

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