Today, our lessons at Fatima went beautifully and productively.
Vedant, Denise, Caroline, and I drove over, listening to “Waving Flag” by K’naan (which has, unfortunately, been modified into a trite World Cup theme song) along the way for inspiration. At Fatima, Caroline and Denise went to meet with the head teacher to discuss scheduling issues. Vedant and I conducted a theater class.
The night before, we had put a lot of thought into devising ways to overcome the students’ self-consciousness, which has been an impediment to past lessons. Especially for the boys, coolness means unwillingness to participate, sometimes crossing the border into outright mockery. The students are often too preoccupied with the impressions of their classmates to throw themselves into exercises with the unrestraint that theater requires.
We worked out a lesson that went like this: first, we had the form a group on one side of the schoolyard. One person went in front of the group and did five jumping jacks (an arbitrary, mildly embarrassing activity), while the rest of his or her classmates booed. That person would then cross the school yard and cheer for the successive jumpers. This meant that the booing crowd was getting smaller and smaller and the cheering crowd growing until, finally, everyone was cheering. The students were, indeed, shy to jumping jack in front of their classmates, but they enjoyed the competition of booers and cheerers, and eventually everyone filtered across the schoolyard. The exercise served its purpose of re-contextualizing peer reactions. The mockery and approval were not part of a perilous social system; they were part of a theater exercise, and that was the environment we wanted.
Next, we had the students form a circle and spend two minutes each thinking of a story about his or her childhood, imagining the environment as vividly as possible. Many of them did not put much effort into the imagining, but the next exercise forced them to consider details. We had some students tell their stories, then cast classmates as the people involved. Students were not allowed to play themselves. The best-acted story came from Jason, one of the most combative boys. He told of how he once jumped over the school wall to escape, was caught by his teacher and brought to an administrator for punishment. Kevin, an incredibly sharp and charming kid, played Jason excellently. When brought before the administrator, he shuffled his feet and avoided eye contact in the way typical of a guilty child.
Once we finished with the past, we had students look into the future and tell us where they imagine themselves in ten years. Isabelle told us she will be a beautician living in France—a normal dream of glamour. We then had her “direct” a short sketch with three other girls, one playing her, one an assistant, and one a customer. They got so into the creation that they asked for extra time, which we granted, and they produced a great skit with some unexpected subtlety of acting. The girl playing the client walked with great beauty-parlor-client glitziness. The reason we started with the childhood and future is that both can be described with fanciful detachment and consequently don’t elicit self-consciousness.
Our final activity was the most important and proved to be the most meaningful for the students. We had them each write down a memory that is still affecting for them. A memory that is happy, painful, embarrassing—whatever—to think about—that evokes strong emotion. They then handed what they had written down anonymously. They spent much longer than we expected on this activity. One girl wouldn’t stop writing until we told her we had to leave. When they left the class, I saw that they were in the sort of daze that comes after a period of intense self-reflection.
I intend the final show that the students put on to be a series of vignettes, adapted from these memories with music, dancing, and original-poetry-reading interspersed. Today’s lesson was valuable because, yes, it gave them a bit of practice acting out stories, and, yes, it made them more at ease standing in front of a group, but, most importantly, it stripped away their self-consciousness to make them feel comfortable reflecting onto paper. We have read some of their memories, which are too sad and sacrosanct to be reproduced here. All the students decided that they would stick with the show until the end. And Vedant and I were ecstatic that this project, beset by obstacles more difficult than logistics—obstacles built into the social system of a group of teenagers, might go as far as we had hoped.
When we finished theater, we found out that the local volunteers with whom we have been working expected us to teach an English class that morning, due to a logistical misunderstanding, which has since been resolved. Vedant and I whipped up an impromptu lesson plan that worked great. First we had them imagine their walks home and describe them in detail in English; then we wrote original raps, for which we provided rhyming words and they filled in the rest of the line; and, to end the class, we played and translated “Waving Flag,” a song that we all love. The whole day went great and we drove home full of optimism, but that optimism sits within the context of the disadvantage and hardship that we have glimpsed at Fatima.