Walking home from Emanuel’s house after an early dinner, I asked why he wanted to study astronomy in university.
“I want to go to Mars,” he said before diving into his fascination with the universe’s birth and theories about what happens next.
Mars! How did we get to Mars?
Were you alone?
During a class break, Emanuel and Mintesnot stopped by the pre-K room to review the schedule for an upcoming training on sexual harassment (part two a three-part training focused on youth becoming community leaders).
Before the two went to their next class, Emanuel asked, “Would you like to come to my family’s house for dinner?” The two said they were concerned the new kid in town spent Fasika weekend alone.
Accepting invites is an incredible way, if not the best way, to discover more about your neighbors and friends. Inside the comfort of their own homes, people kick off their shoes, lean back in their chairs and ask, “How are you – really?”
“They’re afraid to try”
The greatest struggle for Emanuel’s dad, a grade 9 English teacher, isn’t class size management, but encouraging students to speak up.
Classrooms large enough to seat 40-50 students squish 85 students at a time. With such a large number of students packed into a class, you’d assume a reasonable amount – say anywhere between 20 and 40 – actively participate in class, asking and responding to questions ba inglezana (in English).
Emanuel’s dad, sitting on the couch adjacent to me, said only a handful of students, maybe 10 at most, pop their hands into the air to participate in discussion while the others sit and listen.
“They’re afraid to try,” he said.
It’s not that students don’t want to participate, he said. They live in a culture where the smartest, the brightest, the most likely to succeed speak English and those who don’t speak with the same fluency feel discouraged and embarrassed to try in their presence, opting instead for silence.
His reflection echoes other educators’ observations. Those fortunate enough to grow up in families where parents speak some amount of English teach their children basic words and sayings throughout childhood so that they enter the classrooms feeling and believing that they can succeed.
Sound like a place you know?
Are we going to Mars, yet?
Not all students are afraid. Some are quiet, and with time, they open up.
When Emanuel first came to a youth development club meeting last October, he didn’t say a word unless he was asked to answer a question. In written assignments, though, his ideas flourished. He didn’t just understand the English language, he commanded it.
One afternoon, I asked if any students wanted to share their assignment with the group. They didn’t have to disclose any details about their writing, but they were asked to reflect on the writing process, who they chose to interview, what questions they chose to ask, why they identified that person as a role model.
I asked Emanuel, the only boy to hand in the assignment, to share his reflections. At the time, he spoke in a whisper, but he did share.
Fast forward to April, where he facilitates training sessions for peers.
That’s the same student who kept his confidence close to his heart, who, six months ago, if I asked what he wanted to study, either would have deflected with an “I don’t know,” or said “medicine.”
Today, with time, with trust, he doesn’t skip a beat when he hears the, “What does your son want to study in university?” question. He belts out, “Astronomy.” He wasn’t even a member of the conversation. His dad and I were talking, but he heard his name, his future, and he had his own idea and he wanted to make it known.
Let’s go to Mars.
Post-script: A promotional video anyone who lived in the Southeast a decade ago would recognize
About eight years ago, the University of Florida had a promotional video it aired during football games. The cameras open to an empty street, a young woman exiting a car and promptly walking past a man who tells her, “Go write the great American novel.”
“Go start a Fortune 500 company,” she replies.
Cut to a waiting room, where a doctor passes a girl no older than 10 reading a magazine in the waiting room.
“Go to Mars,” he tells her.
“Go Gators!” she squeals.
I’d be lying if I said my alma mater didn’t cross my mind the second Emanuel said, “I want to go to Mars.”
I didn’t watch the video before transcribing the dialogue, but I’m 99 percent sure it’s right. (The woman on the street might have spoken to the man first, but the dialogue content is accurate.) YouTube it if you want, if you’ve got the Internet availability to do so. (I don’t.)
That was a great campaign video. UF, bring it back.