By Lindsay McKinnon
I just have to brag about how amazing our kiddos are. They did something really good.
When I approached Mr. Lamas and the 5th grade teachers about my idea for creating Pen Pal relationships between North Cross students and 5th graders on the other side of the ocean, they were all about it. I was on my way to Zimbabwe and looking forward to sharing my experience and building bridges between youth in both of these drastically different countries. The process of it all was quite amazing and continues to teach me - and our students and teachers - some of the biggest, most essential life lessons.
Thirty-three 5th graders from North Cross School worked diligently on their letters to peers they have never met, in a country they have never been to, nor did they know much about. This is no small task, yet we asked them, and they rose to the occasion. Reading these letters on the day long airplane ride warmed my soul. I fell in love with our students all over again.
“Dear Zimbabwean Student…”
“Dear Zimbabwean Student…”
“Dear Zimbabwean Student…”
When I arrived in Zim and began working with the children, we were mostly working with the preschoolers. I kept the letters safely tucked into my backpack, keeping them as close as my passport and personal treasures. 4, 5 and 6 year olds gathered in circles outside, sitting under the shade of trees and eager to welcome us, to reach out and press the palms of their hands against ours. Singing with them, reading to them, playing “Duck, Duck, Goose,” and helping them with their English vocabulary through movement was such an interesting experience. And then it hit me… These kids don’t have PAPER… 144 preschool students shared one classroom that was built for 30 - no desks, no cubbies, no backpacks. Instead, they sat under trees outside, and they had no paper. They learned the alphabet and their numbers by assigning different dance moves to each, and, when called upon, would stand up to present their “action” to the class. They did not have paper, yet they had their bodies and they had their imaginations, and sticks they could trace in the dirt. Certainly, they had the desire to learn.
But they did not have paper…
I let go of the anxieties that slowly crept into my being and decided that I would be guided to the exact right thing, in the exact right moment. And of course, I was.
Finally on the last day there, I was given time with the 5th graders. FINALLY, I could share these beautifully written letters from our students to theirs.
Their faces lit up when I walked into their classroom. No decorations. Six, sometimes eight, uniformed students sat around weather worn wooden picnic tables, shoulder to shoulder. Eleven tables crammed within four, chalk board covered walls. So, if you are following the math, nearly eighty-eight 5th grade students in one classroom with one teacher.
And no paper.
Instead, these students wrote on smaller chalk boards they shared with one another. Which also meant - they had no pens or pencils. I felt so embarrassed, and my internal critic started rolling. Why did I not think about that ahead of time? My heart sank when I realized that here I am, with my elementary American assumptions, standing in front of students who are meeting me for the first time, and hanging on every word. I took a deep breath, and as I introduced myself and shared with them that I had a special delivery from students in the United States, I remembered the journal in my backpack. I passed out each letter and they immediately poured over them. I have never seen such focussed enthusiasm. Meanwhile, I ripped pages from my personal journals and placed them on tables so they could write back with pencils and pens I scraped together from my friends who were also on the retreat.
As I sat next to each child, I read out loud the letters our kiddos had written. To my amazement, the Zim kids could read the letters perfectly and followed along with me. A few asked questions about how to write a letter back, and it hit me again. This sea of beautiful faces I was in the midst of - not one single one of them had ever RECEIVED a letter before, and the first letter they received was from Patrick’s friends at North Cross School. I choked back tears and continued to help one child at a time as they took pencil in hand.
It was challenging to say the least. I was not given a huge chunk of time with these students and I felt rushed. Yet sitting beside these kids calmed me. They had the patience of saints.
They were so… Grateful…
Although English is the national language in Zimbabwe, their native tongue is Shona. In fact, in addition to their Shona names at birth, each child had an English name as well, such as Blessing, Prosper, Truth or Precious. They were named after values and
attributes their parents wanted them to embody. Responding to these letters was like asking our children to write letters in Spanish to students in Argentina whom they had never met; they were writing in their second language. And, of course, the Zim students rose to the challenge. They raised their hands, they asked for help, they struggled through it and were happy to do so. They kept their letters as absolute treasures, and indeed they are.
Reading through the stack of papers brought me so much joy. Upon returning to Roanoke, sharing the letters with our 5th graders at North Cross was an honor I will always treasure. Watching their hands fly up to the ceiling as I asked, “who loves to receive hand written letters, and when was the last time you received one?” With great enthusiasm, they remembered birthday cards and notes from family at camp, as well as Christmas cards and Valentines, and even notes from the Tooth Fairy. Their faces shifted as new knowledge sank in… “The kids in Zimbabwe have never received a letter before, until they got yours. How awesome is THAT? That’s what YOU did.”
Tom and I are leading another retreat to Zimbabwe at the end of this school year, May 19-26. You are welcome to come with us! I know our students are looking forward to yet another opportunity to exchange letters, and feel the impact of something so small, yet so meaningful. It’s a good day at North Cross School when you know you are making a difference in the world.