For 42 minutes, 40-60 students squeeze into a classroom in what feels like 70+-degree heat, sitting three, sometimes four, to a desk. Each student is assigned a number that they receive in classes and the digits consequently become their identity. Some teachers knew students name, but of course, these students were the brightest, smartest and most talkative in classes. The quieter ones, like what I am in classes, fall behind and they usually don’t get called on. Depending on the class, they can sit in a cluster of 5, where one smart “gobez” student sits with not so gobez students or they could be in rows, with every other row sitting a gobez student. The teacher spews numbers during roll call to confirm that student one, two, and three are present. Forty-two is absent; some students explain that she is sick. Five and eleven stroll in five minutes late and quickly find their seat.
Yet, beyond the apparent numbers, there are Semira and Abaynesh sitting quietly in their seats in my first year of teaching. I focused my attention on them throughout my two years (encouraging each individual to be leaders in my summer Camp GLOW (girls leading our world) because I knew that both had such potential. When each of them spoke, I became stunned with a grin on my face because they were usually right. Abaynesh, the quieter of the two, smiles sheepishly while looking down at her lap when she responds and gets the right answer. Semira raises her hand and I have to tell her to speak up a bit.
Sitting in the other rows, eager to answer each question, literally jumping out of their desks are gobez boys who I often have to remind to raise their hands when answering a question. Beyond them are their much quieter classmates, both male and female trading red and blue pens with rulers to make sure that their exercise books are pretty and concise. With a more careful eye, you see the true intricacies of my 11th grade English class.
Silence is expected when copying the lesson, but there are always some whispers. Protractor and rulers rotate around the room filled with perfectionists. Semira waits for me after class and asks how she can continue practicing her English. I tell her with a smile on my face “Semira, I love when I hear you talk! You are so smart and you’re usually right. And when you’re not, I’m very proud of the fact that you try. I want you to keep practicing speaking up in my class, and more importantly, I want you to practice speaking louder.” Following that, she always spoke up a few times in class, each time with a little more confidence.
Abaynesh absolutely took my breath away in both summer camps that she helped me. She has the grace and beauty of a princess, coming into herself and finding herself as a queen. She writes a phenomenal poem during camp that I asked her to share and as her voice quivers, she looks at me and I smile. She gets through her poem about leadership, most specifically why women need to be leaders and why she’s one, and I go over to her to fist bump her (my sign for “you did an amazing job”) and a hug.
Eletu, one of the smartest students in class, but due to a sickness in a family member, had to miss a few classes. Genetu and Banchayehu with their strong sisterly bond who tried in class, both of whom had infectious laughs. Tebibu with his soft demeanor but strong and fast like a cheetah. Amanuel with his tall lanky body, but beautiful smile. Ashenafi with his desire and want to learn who would come over my house to borrow books. These are the faces I have imprinted in my mind.
It’s the tiny, infinite details, like protractors, rulers and swagger that often go unnoticed in a sea of students. But in the end, these wonderful, amazing, extraordinary students help remind that even with an assigned number, your identity consists of much, much more. We embrace it.