The Truth of Who I Am

"Only the truth of who you are, if realized, will set you free." -Eckhart Tolle

Slap Some Sense Into Me

on April 6, 2013

When I was seven years old I learned a lesson that has shaped what I do today. It was a very valuable lesson and I learned it in an instant. My first experience of primary (elementary) school was in a rural school in Mzumbe, Tanzania. At the time we lived there, Mzumbe was a small town with mostly Tanzanians and a few expatriates (AKA foreigners/aliens/wazungu/wahindi). My siblings and I were all born in Tanzania and had Tanzanian citizenship. However, true belonging was never an option no matter what. This was an accepted fact by native Tanzanians and expatriates alike and there were not hard feelings and even deep friendships. All the other expatriates in Mzumbe chose to send their kids to a private school, but not my parents. They seemed determined to have us get the full experience of our home town. My parents saw no reason to pay for us to go to a private school when the local school was free. So we attended a very rural school. Being THE ONLY kids who were not native Tanzanian, we were a curious sight to many of our school mates who were rarely, if ever, around anyone who was not like them. Our hair, for one, raised a lot of interest and often got touched or pulled or played with on a daily basis.

I have several memories of the 2 years I attended Shule Ya Msingi Mzumbe (translates to Primary School Mzumbe). Can’t say that most of them are fond memories as I spent most of my time there a little afraid of the teachers, confused because I did not speak Kiswahili fluently, and extremely shy because that was just a part of my little Rhina self. I was extremely and painfully shy and school was not a happy place for me when I was little. I would much rather have been home with my mother or hiding behind her sari in public.

Little 7 year-old self feeling very stylish.

Little 7 year-old self feeling very stylish.

Every morning, holding on tightly to one of my older siblings’ hands, I walked to the local primary school, hoe in hand on days it would be needed in the field. Yes, we planted maize and cotton, picked it, shucked the maize and ground it throughout the school year. Tanzania was a socialist country at the time and all local schools were preparing students to sustain themselves and their communities. At the end of each term, enough maize was boiled for the entire school and we got to stand in a long line and pick one cob when we got to the humongous pot sitting on the stones with a fire lit under it. We had no electricity nor running water at the school. Our one shared toilet was a tiny brick room sitting atop a deep, deep hole in the ground. I peed as little as possible while at school for fear of falling into the hole I could look into. At random times in the school year, a medical van would pull up and everyone was lined up for vaccinations whether they wanted them or not. I vaguely remember someone walking up and pulling me out of the line once and telling the nurse I didn’t need to get the vaccination because I’d probably had one already. First thing every morning, the entire school, from grade 1-7 gathered outside in straight lines, sang the national anthem, announcements were made by the headmaster and those who were tardy to school were called to the front, asked to lean over and obediently received their “back” lashes for being late to school. Unfortunately for Henry, my oldest brother, when I was called up a couple of times the headmaster looked at me and declared I was too little so could Henry come up to the front and take the lashes for me. He did. We still laugh about this but I’m never quite convinced he thinks it was that hilarious. Once, there was a big commotion at the school because a group of Masai came and camped out in the middle of the school yard, cows and all, because a group of kids who attended the school had insulted some of their kids on the way to school. One of the elders had insisted on speaking to the headmaster to get an apology. Of course, the kids responsible got their lashes and all went back to normal. Never a dull moment for a timid little girl like me.

The quality of education was by no stretch of the imagination stellar in any way. Teachers talked at us from the front of the class pretty loudly, wrote our names on the board for lashes when we were caught off task, and instilled a deep fear of school and authority in us. I vividly remember getting to school late one morning, running into class crying after receiving my lashes and then having my teacher yell at me and hit my knuckles with the edge of a ruler because I wasn’t writing my word problems small enough to line up on the paper to create a neat little math equation on the end. I was six at the time. Everything was taught in Kiswahili and English was taught as a second language. Needless to say, when it was time for tests and the teacher was in the classroom writing out the test questions on the blackboard, classmates would lift me up to see the questions and ask me to tell them the answers. I often obliged because I was too afraid and too timid to speak up for myself, particularly since most of my classmates had started school much older than I had.

This is how I remember as the inside of my classrooms at Shule Ya Msingi Mzumbe.

This is how I remember the inside of my classroom looking like at Shule Ya Msingi Mzumbe.

So it was at the end of a term after we had our grades for each subject posted outside our classrooms for everyone to see that I learned the lesson I never forgot. I was in our living room with my Daddy and we were talking about how I’d done alright at school. I then shared what I thought was a brainwave of a thought. I said to my dad, in an unusually confident tone, “Daddy, I don’t understand why the other students don’t do well at school. We have the same teachers, the same books, the same pencils and time in school. So why don’t they do as well as I do?” Laugh away. Or cringe if you will. It’s embarrassing to share this publicly, but…the truth of who I am, right?

Well, I was not at all prepared for what happened next. My father (can’t call him Daddy in this sentence) spun around and slapped me on my face and said, “Rhina, don’t you EVER say such a thing again! Those kids don’t have the same things you have. Look around you at the books in our house and the fact that we read to you and take you places and do things with you to help you learn about things. Do you know what they do? They go home and cook dinner for their families and wash their clothes and then, if they can afford it, light a candle to help them see in the dark when they clean up. Everything is NOT exactly the same!”

It was not typical of my father to lose it like that. I must have hit a nerve. His line of work was rural development so he knew some things and cared about why things were the way they were. He often spent weeks at a time in the field with his students. He had compassion and a deeper understanding of how people lived there.

I was silent. My face was hot. I felt so silly and embarrassed to have thought such a thought. How could I have imagined that it was all the same and that my privileges were givens? Suddenly everything was very clear to me. You could say my Daddy slapped some sense into me that day and I have not forgotten it. It was the difference between equality and equity. Getting the “same” things in school did not mean that we were getting what we needed to succeed in school. Our mere presence in a classroom with a teacher was no guarantee for success. It wasn’t that I had it better or they had it worse. We had it different. And what made the difference in school success was simply that I had the things that “matched” what schooling was about and my parents, because they were first generation college graduates, knew what I needed to succeed in school and provided me those opportunities. What they had was exactly what they needed to succeed in life but it was not the things that matched what school was about.

This truth remains the same to this day. I attempt to teach this truth to my college kids… er…students who are teachers or wanna-be teachers. In my work with teachers, I want them to get this first – that there are no deficits. There are no holes to fill. It’s not because kids are lacking in something that they don’t succeed in school. It’s not because their families are broken or because their parents don’t care about them or school. (And, incidentally, if their parents really didn’t care about them, isn’t it then crucial that YOU do). No, it’s not that they are deficit. All children are born whole. All children are born complete. All children are born curious and equipped to learn about their world. To learn how to survive and communicate and connect and play and seek joy and love. All children have this natural instinct. We are wired this way. All of us. When it comes to school success, what matters is the match between what we, as a society, have decided is what we value in school and your everyday life experiences. Basically, how much of the school-valued stuff do you get at home? Because many children’s ‘home selves’ don’t match school well, they struggle to succeed in school, while for others, it’s a smooth transition. There’s a plethora of professor knowledge I could delve into but I did not envision professor talk in telling my truths. I can humbly admit that could be boring for some and sometimes requires that you add some unnecessary but impressive layers of 4-syllable words and references, i.e. culturally responsive pedagogy, critical pedagogy, culturally relevant teaching, cultural synchronicity, etc., etc., etc. There – that was my plug. Done.

I learned a valuable lesson at age 7 and have spent the time between then and now exploring it and mulling it over and practicing it and trying to find ways to teach my students that lesson. Slapping that sense into them seems inappropriate, so I tell them the story sometimes and tell them often that they must be the bridges. They must create those bridges for the families who are filled with so much valuable knowledge that happens not to match well with school knowledge. After all, it was not those families that chose what to value in school and how to teach it to their children. But in order for them to succeed in the dominant society, they must double up and learn both – their home knowledge as well as the school knowledge.

Truthfully yours,



10 responses to “Slap Some Sense Into Me

  1. Yes you are awesome! Amazing story! You are a very natural writer! Love your blog!

  2. Bridges. Yes, bridges are beautiful. You are too, Rhina. I appreciate this share and your reflection so much. It leaves me reflecting too.

  3. So I’ve read every entry on your blog so far (and have really been enjoying them by the way) but this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to respond and by respond I mean ask if you would mind if I use excerpts of this with my students. As they prepare for middle school I think it will really help them to understand more about why they are where they are academically and how to get where they are going. I think the way you explained the difference between equity and equality was so ingenious yet simple that even my 10/11yr olds will get it.

    • justrhina says:

      Syrita! I love that you’re reading my blogs! Share away! I love when I can say things in ways 10 year-olds can understand. It’s really all we need. I also think it’s great that you’re thinking about your students this way. They are lucky to have you for a teacher.

  4. Mari Roberts says:

    Wouldnt it be nice if we could write journal articles that say just this . . .
    “impressive layers of 4-syllable words and references, i.e. culturally responsive pedagogy, critical pedagogy, culturally relevant teaching, cultural synchronicity, etc., etc., etc. There – that was my plug. Done.”

    Dr Kimmy is right. You ARE awesome!!

  5. Right now all I can say is YOU ARE AWESOME!!!

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