Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Faces of Youth

Here in Pader, I spend part of my time teaching at a vocational school operated by Friends of Orphans (FRO) for vulnerable youth. To be admitted to the center, a young person must be a formerly abducted youth (a child soldier or child bride of the LRA), a war orphan, disabled, an AIDS orphan, and/or a child-headed household. Many of my students qualify in more than one way, with the majority once belonging by will or force to the Lord’s Resistance Army.

I cannot picture a single soldier amongst the boys who are kind, courteous, and quick to help me in the classroom. The girls, many of whom leave at lunchtime to feed their children, seem like any other teenage girls, except more responsible and wise to the value and privilege of obtaining an education after having it denied to them for much of their lives.

The classroom can be a distracting place. Several times a day, chickens chase each other across the cement floors, squawking loudly; the wet season’s rains cause a deafening cacophony of sound as water tumults the metal roof, impeding instruction; and intermittent power means I often must teach in dim light, using my lively imagination to come up with adapted lesson plans.

I teach Computers, English and Debate to the vocational school students, and am shocked by some of the stories that surface in our storytelling practice. During free writing exercises, I provide students with simple prompts, like “Tell me about your weekend,” which often result in responses that leave me heart-wrenched for days to come.

One timid teenage girl shared that over the weekend, she was faced with deciding how best to support her 12-year old sister who was raped by a man in the village. My job as an English teacher—to correct the grammar of the stories shared in my class—suddenly seemed trivial as my humanity compelled me to inquire about the steps taken to ensure the health, counseling, and legal support of this young girl.

In the smiling faces of the students, I can tell how deeply they appreciate their educations, the security within the gates of the FRO rehabilitation center, and the healing they are able to experience here. In the furrows of their brows and serious, aged eyes, I am reminded of the cruelty these brave youth faced during wartime and continue to face as they struggle to survive in Pader.

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