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Just Like You

May 17, 2014

 

Sprinting to the end of the semester I have gotten completely lost in field trips, stacks of paper, and a thousand loose ends. I’ve lost some of my perspective and as everything is turning into a blurred mess and I’ve forgotten that I’m here for more than just a job.

My people, do you know that we can change the world? We underestimate each other, but most of all we underestimate ourselves.

Three years ago I was packing to move to Liberia and I was a mess in every possible sense. At 27 I was trying to sell my possessions and separate my life from entangled and painful situations. I’d left a job and a relationship and plenty of people told me it was a mistake, boldly but also silently with their eyes.

The night before I left, my mother stayed up all night helping me pack and in the morning everyone cried as I boarded the airplane. Whatever happened we all knew nothing would ever be the same. But change came faster than I expected. The simple act of taking that first step toward the airplane released strength I never knew I had. Walking through the airport I looked at myself in a mirror and, honestly, did a double take. “That can’t be me! People like me don’t move to Africa. We spin our wheels in Middle America and save up for one big hurrah when we’re 60. Do I know this woman?”

But I came here and I’m still here and I’m staying here.

I cried a lot my first few weeks (including the first time I met with my boss—sorry, Vince!). I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing and I didn’t understand how I could offer anything that wouldn’t seem trite and idiotic. Truth be told, it felt like too much and I wanted to leave. But I kept thinking about what Oprah says: “When you know better you do better.” Now that I had been here and I knew how my brothers and sisters were living I had to do something. At least I had to try.

What if I had been born in Liberia instead of America? Life is a total crapshoot and I happened to get incredibly lucky. It’s one thing to sit down in America and know that but it’s another thing entirely to see that. To see brilliant students who struggle to read and write because they didn’t have a decent school to attend, to see people get sick or die because they can’t access basic medical care.

Liberians feel ‘just like’ Americans and the more time I spent with my host family and my students the more I agreed. But not because of our countries’ intertwined history—because we are all just people trying to lead safe, fulfilling lives alongside the people we love.

At the end of my pre-service training I was labeled “Most Likely to Adopt the Liberian Lifestyle” and, really, at the time I was offended. I was always on the outskirts of my training group and I felt subtly mocked for not being American enough. As if that was why I moved to Liberia… to exhibit my American-ness…

The label turned out to be pretty spot on, though.

Last weekend I threw myself a late birthday party (I had to attend a funeral on my rightful birthday) and it was mostly Liberians with just a handful of Americans. My sewing teacher stood up and made a speech that almost brought me to tears. “I’ve worked with a lot of people of RB’s color. I can say this is the first time I’ve been invited to a gathering like this as a guest and not a cook or decorator.”

When I meet other expats here the talk is always slanted “us and them” and it always makes me uncomfortable. For me there has only ever been… us… human beings.

That’s why I love this new song from Takun J and Famus. It’s about a deaf school that recently opened in Monrovia, but listen to the words and it’s about so much more.

If you can talk with your hands
And listen with your eyes
Then you will really realize that
I’m just like you-o
I’m just like you

No I can’t hear
But I can see
What I see is that you don’t see me
You might not understand the movement of my hands
But you need to understand I still got a plan
I got a dream
I want to be seen
I will be seen
And dreams come true
And not just for you

So I challenge you: when you know better, do better. As you move through this world, listen with your eyes and dare to see what we’re all too ashamed to say. When you realize you can do more, start talking, start doing, with your hands. You’ll probably be amazed at the solutions you can find and the beautiful things you build if you can just start.

Sometimes it’s all a matter of changing perspective.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert Dahl permalink
    May 18, 2014 12:19 am

    MY DEAR GRANDDAUGHTER, SO FAR AWAY BUT VERY CLOSE IN Y HEART AND THOUGHTS.EVERY DAY. YOU SAY SO MUCH IN THE WORDS YOU PEN.WILL READ SEVERAL TIMES AND MAKE A COPY OF POETRY. THEN,ACTION,RIGHT…LOVINGLY FROM GRANDMA IN MN.

  2. May 18, 2014 5:28 am

    Reblogged this on channess and commented:
    I love this perspective… I’m just like you! :]

  3. Candace permalink
    May 18, 2014 5:55 pm

    Loved it! Going to pass it on to a friend who teaches at a deaf school in Fulton. Let’s leave our differences behind and work together to make it a better world. Pass it on!

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