On Spiderman and his Brother

Our tent was renovated and transformed by kind volunteers over the weekend. The wooden pallet floor was stabilised, windows were cut into the sides and clear plastic sheets have been hung over the holes to keep most of the rain outside. We were donated desks and chairs from a kind Belgian school and a chimney and wood burner now sit proudly in the middle of the tent.

The effect has been astounding.

For the first time it was warmer inside than out and the children now sit on proper chairs and work on desks, in a ‘real’ classroom environment. No more kneeling in the damp mud to lean on a rickety pew, no more little feet slipping through the wonky pallets, no more sitting in semi darkness or by the blustery entrance to get the last bit of daylight. Many of our students came to us in the morning, without us calling or collecting them in the usual walking bus manner. They were so excited and keen to be in their new school that we had a full room. They were so proud to sit in the space available for them. They beamed. They studied. They learnt. The school was always an important place to them, and to us, but this week they behaved differently and teaching was instantly easier.

Some of the older teenage boys who had started to skip some our lessons of late, preferring the company of men and sitting around campfires elsewhere in the camp, returned to school. Keen to get back on track with their maths, they worked so hard. One proudly showed us an air bed he had been gifted by an aid worker and then happily got on with his long multiplication.

We had a few issues with lighting the small rusty burner at first. All the wood we had available to burn was damp, as was the paper that we tightly twisted into homemade fire lighters. Our fire smouldered, slowly but with such hope. I watched as my colleague gently blew on the glowing ashes, steadily coaxing the sparks and flames. The fire grew, gained confidence and burst to life. The students smiled as widely as we did, watching with glee. It was a truly magical moment.

Okay, so it isn’t entirely without issues, having a new heating solution comes with new things to consider. A fire in the classroom warms cold fingers and feet, but it is also a dangerous distraction for some of the students.

Whilst Spiderman arrived bright and early, took off his new smart duffel coat (I so miss the old red and blue one), sat himself on a proper chair and tapped the seat of the one next to him, indicating that he was ready to learn and that I should therefore take a seat quickly, his older brother was hypnotised by the dancing yellow flames. He grinned at them, then us, eyes all aglow, gaze transfixed, as the fire flickered and crackled. He took great interest, showing another teacher how to properly relight the fire when the flames started to subside and fade. It goes against everything you know as a teacher, as an adult, to allow an 8 year old boy anywhere near a fire, but he was sensible and careful and closely supervised. He is an expert in this, no doubt helping his family to stay warm, at home, as one of his daily chores. His behaviour during the day was better than usual and he clearly felt important, helpful, needed. We, do however, now need a constant fire monitor; a teacher or volunteer reading buddy to sit on a bench by the burner, doing 1:1 and keeping the little hands away from potential danger.

Desks. Desks are great. What an invention. Pens and books stay on them most of the time, they double up as whiteboards and we can clean them easily with wipes when they get grubby or wet, which they still do. I’ve never before been glad to have tables to work on, we take them for granted in our carpeted, concrete classrooms in England but they are really a wonderful thing. The kids love sitting at them. In pairs, groups, working hard. Words don’t quite explain how proud I felt to teach these children, this week, in this tent.

Whilst the beginning of my week has been so positive and such brilliant changes continue to happen to both the environment and to our students who increasingly improve their knowledge and skills, there have been other moments that serve as stark reminders of the conditions that our students are living in.

Two more of our brightest teenage girls have left the camp, their tent left abandoned, their missed presence in class leaving a gap in our little school too. We were told through the camp grapevine that they had apparently made it across to England, but sadly we will never know whether this is true. They could, in reality, be anywhere. No one will contact us to pass on their school work or write a report. They just vanish, leaving us to wonder.

The other moment that reminded me of the worrying gravity of the situation was when a 6 year old girl was carried into school, barefooted, by her dad. Her little pink toes wiggled in the cold air. My eyes wide, I asked her dad where her wellies were, and he told us they were dirty and so he had thrown them away -but was off to get her some more. He plonked her down on one of the new chairs. Whilst we were happy to have her in school, we had an issue- she was just sat there on her chair, feet hanging above the grubby floor, unable to get up or out without being carried. Whilst grabbing some new resources, changing activity, to move on the lads I was teaching, I noticed her feet were no longer bare. She quietly brought her cold toes to the attention of a colleague, who in a moment of kindness and desperation had improvised in order to protect her small shaking feet. A pair of cream woollen mittens, all we could muster, made a makeshift pair of thick socks, pulled over her heels and up her ankles. The mittens enveloped her feet; the parts made for grown up thumbs stuck out, empty and flat, at awkward angles. It was a heartbreakingly ridiculous sight. It sounds cliched, but I really didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Like the incomplete, spray painted, alphabet in our first little tent, these are the things that serve as stark reminders of the conditions that we must now adapt our teaching and practice to. I smiled although my eyes let my true feelings show, gulping quietly whilst looking at my colleague and we exchanged our sad smiles and hollow, quiet, knowing, half laughs. Our pretty, chubby faced, curly haired student didn’t moan though, not once. She was grateful and just quietly, happily, carried on carefully tracing the shapes of letters, on her laminated worksheet.

There are loads of children’s wellies arriving regularly in camp, too many in fact, they lie discarded in the puddles and mud and clay, piles of them, with wasted sleeping bags and unwanted clothes too, so without doubt she will be sorted again by now. The shivering, wiggling, visible toes would only have been short lived. Thankfully.

Natalie Scott is a qualified English teacher, currently teaching in a school in Hertfordshire. To read more from her reflections on teaching and education go to https://nataliehscott.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter @nataliehscott

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