(For this blog entry, it felt right to change my student’s name. In other words, Sangay, is not my student’s name, it’s a fake name I created to conceal her identity.)
Sangay’s grandma looked similar to most of the elder village women I’ve seen walking from fields carrying on their arching backs an oversized woven basket usually loaded with potatoes or buckwheat. Like most of the elder Bhutanese, she beamed the essence of traditional with her full-pleaded kira, doma stained, withering teeth and inch long shimmering, white hair. Her golden face was cracked with deep lines running in every direction from years of working in the fields along strong, mountain winds and powerful sunrays. Although her fragile body was shriveling up with the passing of time, she comfortably sat on the cement in the school courtyard next to me eager to hear what I had to say.
It was a beautiful summer day and I was passing out midyear report cards to parents. However, out of all the parent’s or guardians, I had been dreading to meet Sangay’s grandma the most because it’s never easy to tell someone that their child is miserably failing. I held Sangay’s report card in my hands ready to give a well thought out speech to inform her that Sangay had failed my English class as well as several other subjects; she got last position in her class; she was several years below grade level.
So before I began to deliver the bad news, I gently smiled at Sangay’s grandma trying to emanate a warm feeling and I felt slightly relieved when she smiled back at me. As my friend translated my every word to the grandmother, I started off by saying something positive about my student, “Sangay is a very sweet and respectful girl. She tries her best in the class and I’m so happy to have her as my student…”
Instantly, the grandmother lit up and rocked back and forth while putting her two hands together as though she was praising me. She had cut me off from continuing as she rambled on in Bumthang’s local language, Bumthap. This only made me more nervous to see that I made her extremely happy because I hadn’t got to the bad part yet, which I became worried would shatter her now radiating joy.
Then with knots tightening in my stomach, my friend translated the grandmother’s words to me: “Thank you so much for saying such nice things about my granddaughter. All I wanted to hear is that she is a good and sweet girl. That’s all I could ever ask for. Everyday she comes home from school and talks about you. Then in the morning, she wakes up and say’s that she has to go to school to see her Miss. She tells us that you are kind and good to her and all of the students …”
I was surprised to hear this because it never occurred to me that Sangay would go home and talk about me in such a positive manner because Sangay didn’t speak fluent English and she was very quiet, which made it difficult for me to converse with her. Additionally, Sangay rarely did her homework and I would often frown while keeping her during interval so she could finish. While reflecting and looking at the grandma’s happy face, I started to question myself if I had done enough to help Sangay and I started to feel guilty as well as unworthy of her praise. Nevertheless, I sadly forced a smile while nodding.
Then I continued, “Despite her best efforts in the classroom, she is failing, but I think that Sangay would improve more if she did her homework, which will give her extra practice so she can become a better reader and writer. I know that she can do the work, if she just tries. So if you can encourage her to do her homework and practice reading in the evening that may help her in the long run.”
The grandmother wasn’t angry or too bothered upon hearing that Sangay was failing and I was startled when my friend translated her words, “We know that Sangay is big and dumb, but her mom and me thought that if we kept sending her to school she would learn something. So we thought that if she could learn a little bit then that would be better than nothing. But we know that she is dumb, so we have been thinking of pulling her out of school to work at home with us. It is only her mom and I in the house. We can’t help her with her homework because we have never been to school so we don’t speak the national language or English. We can’t read or write so there’s no way to help Sangay. I think that’s why she doesn’t do her homework. I’m sorry that she’s not doing her homework.”
My heart dropped in my stomach at the thought of Sangay dropping out of school in the fifth grade and I felt horrible that I wasn’t aware of the extent of Sangay not having the support at home with her schoolwork. So without thinking, my emotions took over and words of embellishment came flying out of my mouth at 100 mph, “Oh no, please don’t take Sangay out of school. Even though she failed, she has improved so much in English. She raises her hand to give answers and she even speaks in front of the class. If she stays in school, she will only get better and better. She’s not dumb; she’s very smart. She just needs a little more help because Dzongkha and English are not her first language. She can do it! I know she can! I am going to help her more! Just please keep her in school, pleaseeeeee. Ok?”
My embellishment and pleading worked because Sangay’s grandmother became even happier than before and she took my hands into her hands thanking me over and over again for being so kind to her granddaughter. Then she agreed to keep her in school for at least the rest of the year. Afterwards, I asked her to sign the report card, but she stated that she didn’t know how to sign her own name. So she asked for an inkpad to give her thumbprint instead of a signature. As I watched her cover her thumb in blue ink and smear it next to the parent signature, I realized that I would never look at Sangay in the same way again; Sangay was the first from her family to go to school; to make it to fifth grade; to learn her national language and English; Sangay was making history; she was smart.
That day I went on my two-week summer break and all I could think about was how I was going to help Sangay improve when I got back. My conversation with her grandmother replayed over and over in my head and her words “she’s big and dumb” haunted me. Sangay was tall and beautifully curved, but she was definitely not dumb. Although I had exaggerated Sangay’s improvement to persuade her grandmother to keep her in school, I had meant what I said about how she was smart and just needed more help.
So when school returned from summer break, I zeroed in on Sangay not only with more kindness, but also with extra help. I made a point to smile more at her and say, “Good morning Sangay. How are you my dear?” When the students wrote independently, I spent a few extra minutes helping her. During library period, I had her read to me and I encouraged her seat partner to help her more. Sometimes I also kept her after school to help her with her writing. Then, the first day she didn’t do her homework, instead of frowning, I kneeled next to her seat and I asked her in my softest voice from the bottom of my heart, “Sangay, will you please do your homework tonight? I promised your grandma that I would help you. If you just try, you will become better at English. Please Sangay, I want you to improve, but you have to try.”
And for the first time, I believed her when she actually looked me in the eyes while bobbing her head from side to side answering, “Yes Miss!”
Sure enough, the next morning she showed me her homework and I was so thrilled that I dismissed the numerous errors while jumping in the air proudly waving it around. I cheered, “Wow! Sangay thank you so much for doing your homework. This is great! Will you do your homework tomorrow too? I’m so happy!”
The whole class was shocked to see that Sangay did her homework as well as to see how excited it made me that my enthusiasm was contagious and all her peers also encouraged her to do her homework. Day by day, she continuously did her homework while I gave her a few more minutes of my time here and there. She also started to surprise me by often bringing me some vegetables from her garden: a half-eaten cucumber, potatoes and mushrooms. Every time she gave me some vegetables, I gave her a big thank you hug and she would blush.
Slowly, she started to transform and one day it was evident that something magical had happened to Sangay; everything that I had embellished to her grandmother, strangely came true. She actually started to raise her hand in class to share her sentences out loud and she started volunteering to read in front of the class. I found that she loved reading fairy tale books and I liked watching her help her little buddy read during reading period-she was a mini-teacher to a younger student. Additionally, when it was time for presentations, she spoke with confidence despite a few errors. The students looked at me and said, “Wow, what happened to her, she’s changed.” The class even voted her as most improved and she gleamed when I took her for ice cream as an award. Finally, I started to feel worthy of her praise.
It’s the end of the year now and Sangay may still not be the class topper, but regardless of what position she placed in my class, she is my shinning star. As I leave Sangay this year, I leave not in vain that she isn’t quiet up to grade level, however, I leave incredibly happy knowing that she has improved, she has a new love for reading and she now has the confidence to continue making history in her family. Go Sangay!
if you ever read this, then you have figured out that “Sangay” is youJ. I love you and I’m very proud of you. You are sweet and smart: a great combination! Thank you for giving me new perspectives on teaching and on life. I hope we meet again.