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Counting Character

December 24, 2013

Saye Kakata

About ten days ago I made my first trip back to the States.  I had just three goals: hug my mom, take the GMAT, and buy a lot of books.  Now that I’ve done the first two, I’ve focused in on the third.  Since October I’ve been trolling Amazon and refining the list of books I hope will fit in my return luggage—books for my students, books for my colleagues, and, most difficult to narrow down, books for myself.

A lot of Peace Corps Volunteers talk about missing food.  I just missed books.  I know of exactly two real bookstores in Liberia and they sell exclusively textbooks.  Longman bookstore is new and exciting and I love it, but the truth is most book sales happen out of wheelbarrows on sidewalks and in markets.  As a result, it is easier to find books about the dangers of late marriage than about current trends in educational theory and policy.

So I loaded up my ‘wheel’ on Amazon and boxes started trickling in last week.  The first book I picked up and devoured was How Children Succeed by Paul Tough.  While the stories and research are not necessarily surprising, Tough validates a lot of what I’ve experienced personally and professionally.  See, it turns out, character counts.

Now this is where I should pause and thank my mother, give her an apology, and probably give her at least one more hug.  She let me try anything I wanted to when I was growing up.  Then when I failed (which happened a lot) she consoled me, told me I was building character—which she claimed was more valuable—and sent me back out.  At the time I hated these ‘loser speeches’ and yelled on at least one occasion that I had enough character and I just wanted to win.

Research across neuroscience, psychology, and education is increasingly showing, however, that she was exactly right.  Failing repeatedly but having the persistence and grit to keep trying are turning out to be some of the most valuable traits we can instill in children.  In fact, surprising or not, students who exhibit these character traits dramatically outpace peers with higher test scores in just about every indicator of success you measure.  They’re happier.  They’re physically healthier.  They make more money.

Of course, all of this makes me think of my students in Liberia.  They are the most gritty, persistent, and resilient people I have ever met.  Yet on paper their stats and scores couldn’t be more dismal.  Even the best students fail at least one class during high school, score the equivalent of a B- average, and barely pass the national exam, if they pass at all on the first try.   (Read The Opportunity Gap to see how I feel about the WAEC.)  So why have I bothered to help them complete more than 100 scholarship applications over the past three years?

Because character counts.

The students aren’t bad—the education they’re (not) receiving is bad.  There has always been something about Liberian students that inspires and confuses me.  In art history it’s the kind of thing we’d call the sublime, something wonderful and awe inspiring but wholly unexplainable and unquantifiable.  According to Tough, that’s what educators call character in students.  It’s the crazy thing that makes them go to school everyday even though the teacher doesn’t.  It makes them save and sacrifice to graduate even though they haven’t seen a diploma help anyone else they know.  Tough says that even if the diploma they end up with isn’t as sparkly and their test scores aren’t as high, they graduate with something their more ‘successful’ peers lack—the more important knowledge that they “climbed the mountain.”

Working with my students it is frustrating how often scholarships focus so much on the numbers that they miss the mountain.  Last year Ashesi University decided to award no scholarships to Liberia (even though they had ten) because none of the applicants earned the desired score on the national exam.  My student George missed it by two points.  He’s currently a primary school teacher and, while I know he’s a damn good one, I know that isn’t why he climbed the mountain.  So, just like my mother, I dusted him off and sent him back out to try again.  In a few months we’ll know if the mountain made it into the picture this time.

It will be a long time before Liberia is known for academic excellence and high test scores.  But in the meantime, I firmly believe Liberian students can succeed anyway.  The system isn’t teaching much math or English, but it is developing persistence, self-reliance, and an enviable amount of grit that, if given the opportunity, will carry them to the top of any mountain.

The wonderful and exciting thing about character is that it can be shaped and developed.  The debate continues on how malleable IQ is, but there is no question that character can be shaped long into middle and high school.  The even better part?  Strong character is a better indicator of long-term success than any test scores.

So, Peace Corps teachers of Liberia, and teachers everywhere, keep hope.  Even when students are floundering and seem to be failing they might actually be developing the skills they need most.

Character is power.

– Booker T. Washington

Life at EARTH

December 18, 2013


I gave my camera to my son, Newton, when he left for Costa Rica in September.  This week he finally sent me some pictures from EARTH University and, like any proud parent, I want to show everyone.  (Newton, I hope you don’t mind!)  He is just finishing the Spanish program and the heavy lifting starts with the new semester next month.  Thank you for the hard work!



December 5, 2013


This week I am honored to be published on Bryn Mawr’s blog about the history of women’s education.  You can read my essay on the importance of women’s colleges here:

Women’s Colleges “More Important Than Ever in an Increasingly Global World”.

Young Librarians

December 5, 2013

Learning how to find Library of Congress numbers inside books.

While Americans were throwing elbows in celebration of Black Friday, in Liberia I was throwing a library workshop.  A few weeks ago I received a call from the head librarian at Cuttington.  The conversation can be summarized as: Help!  I’m a sucker for people who can admit they don’t know everything so when he asked me to hold a workshop I said, “tell me when.”

I’ve been writing a lot about my soil science class, but the truth is that is barely half my job.  The rest of it revolves around the resource room at the College of Agriculture.  In my ‘free time’ I’m charged with keeping it organized and running smoothly.  So when I’m not in class or on the field I’m sitting at a desk processing annual reports from NGOs and animal science textbooks discarded from American libraries.

We have just over 1,000 books and when I arrived things were pretty upside down.  For inventory, I was given one sheet that basically said “1,000 books, 3 air conditioners, 15 laptops.”  I found myself sitting at my desk staring at piles of books and wondering “is this horticulture, plant science or botany?  …or crop science??”  Neither an agriculturist nor a librarian I was pretty lost.  For the sake of my sanity something drastic had to be done.

Enter the Library of Congress.  One fateful day my boss gave me a box of new books and, as I was trying to decide if they were about food security, agricultural economics, or gender I made a discovery.  The library of congress call number is printed inside the cover of many books! 

About a third of the library’s books had been labeled with call numbers, but I had no idea where they came from or, really, what they meant.  I couldn’t even use them to organize the books because most books didn’t have call numbers.  Well the day I saw a call number inside a book was the day I decided to label and catalog all the books.  (It’s probably a day my assistant wishes he’d quit his previously cushy job.)

I spent weeks scouring the internet for call numbers and printing tiny labels.  I trained my volunteers how to read the numbers and properly shelve the books.  I trained the students NOT to just chunk books on the shelf when they finished reading.  “I beg you leave it on the table.  Really.  I will pack it for you.  REALLY.

Well, word of this made it up to the main library and when the new librarian took over he wanted to talk to me.  I came to his office and suddenly all my problems seemed small.  Books were stacked everywhere.  Old books.  New books.  An old paper catalog that had been ransacked during the war.


He asked me to hold the workshop on a national holiday (my day off) but I agreed because it was the only time the library would be closed and all staff members could participate.  I was skeptical, though, whether they would agree to come on their day off.

To my delight, I showed up Friday morning and so did almost everyone else.  I’d written a fifteen-page pamphlet and we walked through it, talking about how to understand call numbers, use them to shelve books, and assign them to unlabeled books.  I opened the workshop by telling them I was a mathematician, not a librarian, and I had learned everything I was about to teach them since coming to Cuttington.  “I say that to make you feel strong,” I said.  “If I can learn this you can learn this.”  Several of the older people coughed and raised their eyebrows, but by the end they were clapping and thanking me.  They even asked me to go to Kakata and repeat the workshop at the junior college.

It never ceases to amaze me the twists and turns life will take when you let go of the wheel.  Who knew there was a job that involved soil science and library science and that they would employ me?  I am grateful for all the people along the way who have agreed to let me try.

Dare to Dream

November 23, 2013

Grace and George2

It’s uncharacteristically cool and rainy and for the first time in weeks I have a pass to sleep as late as I want.  Instead, at 5:00am I’m hungry and sneezing and staring wide-eyed at my ceiling, thinking about washing clothes.  (Man, I need to do that.)

The past three weeks have been intensely busy and I can’t believe we’re facing down the end of November already.  About three weeks ago I decided to get back in the scholarship ‘business’ and have had hardly two unoccupied minutes since.  Those of you who know me know my river of guilt runs deep and strong.

This year I was determined to sit down.  I would help other people and I would give advice to their students but I didn’t want to edit essays or correct forms.  I thought if I said “no” to everyone the unilateral fairness of it would cancel my guilt over the injustice.  But the voice in my gut kept saying, first at a whisper then at a shout, “…what if we can?”

Some of my favorite students from Sanniquellie tapped into my brain waves and reached for their phones just as it hit an all-time high.  The calls and texts went something like this: “I worry my education has been a waste.”  “I don’t want to die a poor farmer.”  “Please help me look for a scholarship.  I will do anything and go anywhere.”


Often, the only way out of the fire is straight through.  If I didn’t do something, if I didn’t at least try, it was always going to haunt me.  I pictured my best and brightest students ten years in the future.  What if I returned and saw them still selling scratch cards and changing money, the lucky ones maybe driving for NGOs?  The answer was clear.  Even if everyone got rejected at least we’d know we tried.  At least we would have allowed ourselves to dream.

One of my favorite Liberian sayings is, “Your delay is not your denial.”  It might not happen today.  It still might not happen tomorrow.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  I often remind my students (and myself) that when I was in high school I applied to eight colleges and was only accepted to two.  Before Peace Corps took me I applied to a dozen international fellowships and jobs that each sent rejections.  I tell my students, who are so sure I have magic powers, about being rejected by Teach for America.  The form email said something to the effect of, “Thanks for your interest, but we need people who are capable of overcoming stress and adversity.”

Sometimes “no” is just fate’s way of saying, “Wait small.  Something bigger is coming.”  There is a big difference between being at a dead end and being at a dead end with a plan.  Even if you don’t have the map, you know there is something better out there—you just have to find it.

My hope is that even if we hit another wall my kids will remember the path, remember how to read the signs, and remember they deserve more.  Next time I might not be here to guide them because I’m trying to take my own next step.  I’ve been rejected from grad school two times before, but this year I’m trying again.  I want to study business and education and open a real high school in Liberia.

How do you like them applies, Teach for America?

With all of this rolling around in my head I called two of my students who graduated in 2012.  Neither has been able to attend college and both have become teachers.  I knew they had solid papers and solid stories and if anyone deserved it, damn it, it was Grace and George.  Last Saturday they got in a car and came to Cuttington.  We talked about life, dreams, and change for Liberia.  They made butt-prints in my new couch, ate all my food, and wrote through almost an entire ream of paper.  I taught them about microwaves, ice cream, and showers (“Ms. RB, your water is embarrassing me!  It won’t stop flashing on me when I take bath!”)

They are both applying to programs in secondary education, George for earth science and Grace for geography.  I never so much as suggested it, but you can imagine how happy it makes me.  With a bachelor’s degree they qualify to become principals and administrators.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.

When asked to write about a time she overcame a challenge, Grace surprised me by writing about her rejection from Ashesi in September.  (Based on WAEC results they decided to award none of the ten scholarships they had allotted for Liberia.)  She hit a dead end and took it to be the only path!  A challenge, I told her, is something you go over, under, or through.  It is something that stands in your way but you are so determined and strong you get past anyway.  An hour later she handed me an essay about leaving school for several years because a teacher tried to exploit her when she was 15.

That’s a challenge.

Today they’re back in Sanniquellie gathering signatures and recommendations for the final stretch.  I pray that for at least one of them this race will end and the next one will begin.  Just keep moving forward, kids.

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Color Matters?

November 3, 2013

In the color lab

Every Friday Dr. Tappa and I try to do a soil science lab.  This week it was color.  As an art history major I was thankful to (almost) have something to contribute.  Rather than fumble around and look for answers I could simply say, “Check your hue.  The sample has small more red than that,” then direct them toward the window.  They had about 30 minutes to classify six samples and, as usual, I worried it would be too much.

Not a chance!  These kids are getting really serious.  They huddled in their groups, conferring in hushed voices and pointing animatedly at different chips.  They called me over to check once consensus was reached or when they needed a tie-breaking vote.  Other than that they were entirely focused.  Coming from a school where labs were never even attempted it never ceases to amaze me when we pull one off.

After class most of us went back to the field to continue work on the farm.  Last week they broke their ground.  This week they needed to do their layout and make their beds.  I wanted to plant, but (Liberian) Thanksgiving break is coming and so is dry season.  Without them on campus to haul water the seedlings could die.

So we wait.

In the meantime, though, everyone is getting into the work.  And I’m so proud of the girls!  Last week I was worried they’d hold a grudge and never forgive me.  This week they came dressed to work and threw themselves into it with little complaint, although it probably doesn’t hurt that I bring water and my radio for them.

Leekplay continues to be a champion and I couldn’t help smiling when I heard her tell off some boys, “Go!  We want our area to be the best!  See our teacher right here with us?  Where is your teacher?  We don’t need you!”  One of them took the measuring tape right out of Naomi’s hand and pushed her aside, “You can’t do that.”  I just smacked him and took it back.  “Of course she can!  And you can’t do that!”  She smiled at me over her shoulder.

That girl has really surprised me.  The first time she ever spoke to me a month ago the conversation went exactly like this:

“Sis RB, my attendance!”

“Yep.  You were late.  Absent.”

(grumbling) “But I have another class!”

“So does Prince.  He got here.  See?  Present.”

(louder grumbling) “But I’m a girl!”

“So you can’t get to class on time?”

She just nodded, “Exactly.”

“When I see you on the field I’ll consider your attendance.”

The next day she showed up to the farm in a short purple dress, gold chains, and strappy sandals.  I found her sitting on a log and watching several boys work the field.  “See?  I’m here!” she yelled.  I gave her a thumbs-up.  “Beautiful.  Now, Edward, give her the hoe.”  Intense scowling followed by half-hearted working until I turned my back.

After that she started coming to class on time but continued to dodge fieldwork.  So Thursday I scheduled a special time for just her and another girl.  “Don’t worry!  I saved some just for you.”  I put on my boots and the three of us went down on the field.  They were different women!  With no men around they threw themselves into the work and sang along with the music.  Naomi was still dressed inappropriately, but acknowledged it and laughed about it.  “Sis RB, I’ll be flashing today!  My junction is coming out!”  (‘Junction’ is Liberian English for coin slot.)  “No problem,” I said, “no one is looking!”

Two days later she was back to help finish the job, the two of us some of the last people to leave.

I am so proud of the way they stepped up to my challenge and the progress we made in just one short week.  But what did my colleague say when he passed my Friday girls working?  He yelled at them for how they were dressed (this week in lapas instead of clubbing clothes—a big improvement by my standards).  Then one of the teaching assistants yelled at me across the field about Naomi.  “You better put someone with her.  That girl is laaaazy!”  I replied that she was my iron lady and the rest of the morning she proved it to be true.

You know the funny thing about soil color and appearance?  It gives you very little information about the properties and behaviors of that soil.  Maybe some things aren’t always what they appear…

Women’s Work

October 27, 2013

"Stop taking pictures, Ms. RB, and get back to work.  We're vexed with you!"

Yesterday my young soil scientists broke ground on our ‘farm.’  It’s just eight plots allotted to our section, but I love calling it the farm and telling people that’s where I’m going.  I made groups of three and, following my usual procedure; I made six groups of boys and two groups of girls.  I have heard too much nonsense, from both men and women, about gender roles and I’ve made it my mission to get my girls out of the box.

I knew they’d be pissed, but I thought when I joined them they’d forgive me and we’d get along.  Nope.  Just pissed.  Even the boys were pissed.  “Ms. RB, you don’t understand the system.  It should be two boys in each group and one girl.  We can’t really expect the girls to do much.  …they’re girls!”  These are the same kind of guys who a few weeks ago vehemently argued with a member of the Rutgers’ gender team.  “I can clear the field faster so it belongs to me!”  “The Bible says God made me first so it’s my duty to dominate her.”

I wish those weren’t real quotes from my colleagues.

I thought if we had two plots we could point to as “women’s work” the girls would feel proud and the men would feel subtlety put in their place.  I held my ground, literally chasing the boys out of the plot when they insisted we needed help.  I know everyone will eventually forgive me, but only time will tell if they learn more than that I’m a jerk.

This morning the second wave of students came to work and my favorite girl, Leekplay, showed up.  She has really started to spark the past few weeks and I’m so proud of her.  Last weekend she asked to meet me on Saturday to research in the library and I was like “Are you serious?  What time??”  She was supposed to work with two other girls today, but neither of them showed up.  I just smiled and picked up my shovel.  “Let’s go girl.  “

Oh god, I assigned us the worst plot.  (If I was a real soil scientist maybe I would have realized that sooner.)  Before she came I had been working with several of the boys and their soil was soft and easy to dig.  Ours, just fifty feet away, was rocky and full of gnarly roots.  We were both struggling but she never once complained.  She never once said, “Ms. RB, go bring a boy over here.”  She never once said, “This is gender inequality.”  In fact, I heard her yell across the field at some smart ass, “Shut up!  I told you I’m an independent woman!”

In Wednesday’s kickball game she dove face first into third base and scored multiple times.  She’s an animal.  I just want her to realize she can also be a real leader and role model for the other young women around her.  For now I’m just excited she’s started raising her hand in class.

While we were working today another boy from our class came over and insisted we needed his help.  “Really, Ms. RB.  It’s ok if they want a woman president, but men will always dominate.  It’s God’s will.”  And he was serious!  Not even pretending it was a joke!  I looked at him and I said with as much self control as I could find (because I like him), “Emmanuel, I am a woman and I am your teacher and I’m telling you that you’re wrong.  Stop it or go from here.”  He just shrugged and I’m sure he didn’t care, but I wanted Leekplay to see that, yes, we can stand up to ignorance.

UN Women launched an ad campaign recently that reminds us how much ignorance really remains out there.  If you haven’t seen it please check it out here.  Then do something for a girl, any girl anywhere, to help her find her voice and her strength.

Women’s work can (and should) be anything.

Intro to Soil Science

October 19, 2013

Tomato Seedlings

This semester I am teaching Introduction to Geology, Soil Science, and Environmental Science.  Surprised?  Me too.  I’ve never had a course in any of those things.  In fact, my degree is in math, art history, and film studies.  Not knowing how to do something has never stopped me from trying, though, so when they handed me a book I smiled and promised to do my best.

I spent the month before school frantically studying.  See, the book, written by one of my co-workers, was way over my head.  So I found a high school earth science book and poured over it all day every day.  I wandered around campus in the evening looking at rocks and poking at dirt.  Students are like animals (it sounds terrible but it’s true).  They can smell fear and at the slightest break in confidence they pounce.  Embarrassing you in always more interesting than class… unless you put in the work to have an interesting class.

If I didn’t have two years of teaching experience under my belt I would never have the balls for this, but it’s happening.  In fact, it’s going really well.  Of course, I suffer from regular pre-class jitters but I know all the tricks to own the room and skirt really hard (good!) questions.  I’ve managed to stay one step ahead of them all semester and I am proud to see them making progress.  (Note to fellow teachers: they whisper, “she’s so clever!” every day I take attendance and know everyone’s name.  What do they think if you don’t know their names…?  No one says it but it’s true.)

This week the terrain shifted.  We finished geology and moved to soil science.  I hadn’t had time to prepare anything.  I’d been living off the notes I took before school opened.  It was like rounding a bend and realizing I forgot to build the bridge.  What choice did I have?  I grabbed what I could find and… built a bridge.

Did you know that soil forms when rocks break down?  It is a ridiculously obvious thing I never thought about.  See, the rocks around a field can give you a good idea about the composition of your soil and its prospects for crop growth.  So all the crappy rocks we have here are giving us crappy soil and all the rain that falls is leaching out the few nutrients that are there.  That’s not great news for our young agriculturists.

I told them it was important to manage soil and we talked about erosion.  In fact, I assigned them to visit me in the library and watch a Bill Nye video about erosion.  (At this point I could act out that show from memory!)  I told them it takes 26 years to make 1cm of soil.  But just one heavy rainfall in Liberia can erode 1in of poorly managed soil.  One of the oldest, quietest guys in the class shook his head and raised his hand.  “Sis RB, this is so concerning.  Please teach us what to do.”

I’m trying.

There are two sections of the class.  I am teaching one and Dr. Tappa, another one of the contract faculty (an actual soil scientist), is teaching the other.  He suggested we do a soil texture lab this week and I agreed because, well, I always agree with him.  What do I know, after all?  I usually attend his class right before I teach mine to fill in any last minute gaps and to keep our sections in sync.  Friday, however, I was showing Bill Nye until just moments before class.  I rushed in just as he was starting and we had no time to talk.  He raced through the lab and my jitters went into hyper-gear.  Three of my students have become so serious they come to his section and my section so they were watching and would know if I went crazy and started making things up.

I growled my jitters to the corner of my mind and asked the boys to help me carry the equipment next door.  I wrote my notes on the board and started going through the demonstrations.  Stuff was coming out of my mouth!  Like real soil science sounding stuff!  I forced them all to come up and get a handful of soil (a few of the girls shrank back but no one hides from me) and by the end of class they were running around proudly showing each other their muddy hands.  We started an impromptu chant of “Rough or smooth?” and they all left smiling.

Thank god.

The other place I’m in over my head is the farm.  Last week Dr. Tappa suggested we tell them to come on Saturday morning for practical work.  I agreed because, like I said, he’s driving.  I showed up with my boots and my clipboard and the answers to none of their questions.  “Sis RB, will you come see how I laid out my plot?  Are my walkways deep enough?”  Great question… for someone else.  I kept sending them to Dr. Tappa and whispering to him, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” every chance I got.  He just smiled and said it motivated them to see me.

Right now our freshmen are helping the seniors plant for their thesis work.  Next week we’re going to break ground on our own plot.  That’s right, my class is going to have its own small farm.  I just smiled at Dr. Tappa and promised we’d do our best.

It’s worked so far.

Let’s Learn Together

October 6, 2013


Surrounded by money and resources, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about my hard working children in Sanniquellie.  They deserve the opportunity to be at Cuttington with me, but instead they’re fighting to get security jobs at UN and NGO houses.  What will happen to them?  I often wonder.  Will they make it?

The answer came last night and it was a unanimous YES WE CAN!

Jonathan was always a funny and light-hearted student, but he made good grades and asked insightful questions in class.  A few months ago I helped him attend a business workshop in Monrovia and apply for study in Ghana.  He came back from the workshop wearing a t-shirt that said “I will change the world” and I saw big changes immediately.  Over night I could tell he saw himself as a leader and someone who would make a difference.

Then the WAEC result came.  He passed in only two of the nine subjects, one of the worst scores I’ve ever seen.  I couldn’t believe it.  He couldn’t believe it.  Suddenly the train was off the tracks and he didn’t know what to do.  He called me on the verge of tears for days after the results telling me his future was ruined and there was nothing for him now.  I told him that was nonsense and reminded him “what doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you” (what we chanted before class everyday).  He registered to resit the exam and found an apprenticeship at one of the local computer/printing shops.  Again, there was hope.

He usually calls me several times a week, but we’ve both gotten busy lately.  Then he called Friday night.  “Ms. RB,” he said, “several of us need to talk to you.  Will you be available for a conference call tomorrow night?”  I’ve never heard of a conference call in Liberia, but I agreed and last night at 8:30 my phone rang again.

“Gentlemen, can we please observe silence?  Our mother is on the line.”  He called on each of the other five boys, calling in from around Liberia, to greet me.  Then he introduced the program.  “Ms. RB, welcome to Let’s Learn Together.  Our topic tonight is ‘Career and You.’  Many of us are struggling with what to do now that we’ve finished high school.  None of us wants to sit down so we are calling on you for help.  Each person will have the opportunity to tell you what career they are considering and ask for your advice pursuing it.”

This was one of the most brilliant things I had ever heard!

For the next hour they took turns telling me about their dreams and asking for my advice about scholarships and universities.  I told them to keep courage and to never stop trying.  “Giving up,” I said, “is the only way you will fail.”  I urged them to have regular study groups together, utilize library resources, and try by all means to learn computer skills.   I also told them about William Kamkwamba, a young man from Malawi who was forced to leave school in seventh grade because of money.  Using books he found in a US AID library he built a windmill to generate electricity for his family’s house, became a TED fellow, won a scholarship to African Leadership Academy, and is now a student at Dartmouth College.  All because he didn’t give up.

“We know it was very expensive for you because you are using Lonestar,” they said, referring to the high cost of cell phone calls in Liberia, “but we hope we can do this again.  We really feel like we’re back in the classroom with you.”  Absolutely.  They had each charged their battery and spent at least $1 worth of credit just to talk to me.  Not only was Jonathan full of hope again, he was organizing his classmates and encouraging them to keep their dreams alive.

I can think of nothing I’d rather do on a Saturday night.

No Labels

October 3, 2013

It’s funny how people use things to label, define, and package you not matter where you go in the world.  Yesterday I was trying to find food for lunch when I got accosted by a man with a few large Club beers in him.  It was pretty predictable… at first.

He smooched at me (an accepted way to getting people’s attention) and waved me over, “Come!”  I hate that so I waved dismissively and kept walking.  Persistent, as men often are, he came over once I sat down.

“Hey, babe.  Where are you from?”

He looked like a student so I was instantly annoyed.  “Excuse me,” I said, “but you don’t call professors ‘babe.’”

He ignored me and asked where I was from.  I told him I was American.

“Wow!  Which state?”


He clapped his hands while I continued to stare deadpan and wait for him to leave.

“Which part?”

I told him I was from Columbia.

“Shut up!  M-I-Z…!  I’m a Tiger!  Poli-Sci degree.”

I told him that was nice and again waited for him to leave.  It crossed my mind to ask him why he was a student at Cuttington University in Liberia if he had a degree from Mizzou, but I was more interested in my roasted meat and plantains.  He, however, wasn’t finished.

“Now be serious.  You aren’t really from Columbia.  Kansas City, right?  St. Louis?  No one is from Columbia.”

I shrugged and stuck with my story.

“Ok.  Ok.  You went to Rockbridge?” he asked.

I shook my head, “Hickman.”

He literally collapsed laughing, “You went to Hickman High School?  Are you sure?”

I continued to nod.

“Oooooh shiiiit!” he turned to his friends and pointed.  “Look, look!  This is a poor white woman!  She’s poor!  Wow, baby, what are you doing here?”

But he didn’t care.  He had established his place and my place and was done with me.  He laughed all the way back to his table and I could hear him continuing his chorus of, “She’s poor!  That white woman is poor!”

It was the most confused I’ve been in a long time.  Since moving to Cuttington I have struggled with being seen as “rich and white” before being seen as “RB.”  Everything is about money and what can you do for me?  And suddenly I was being laughed at for going to a poor public high school eleven years ago… by a citizen of one of the world’s poorest countries.

At least none of them asked me for money… or my phone number…

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