“Put yourself into life and never lose your openness, your childish enthusiasm throughout the journey that is life, and things will come your way.” That was said by the Italian film director Federico Fellini decades ago, but sprung to my mind earlier today as I observed a classroom of first graders approaching a small box of worn crayons with what can only be described as pure awe.
Our team was at a remote and struggling rural primary school, teaching lessons centered on the names of different types of animals and the sounds they make. The children began by reading a book together with big, bold pictures of familiar animals, stopping to role play the animals’ sounds and behaviors at the end of each page; a process which they came to love more than I can begin to explain. Normally, they are lectured to for hours on end and are trained to memorize words and phrases without ever being afforded the opportunity to explore the depths of each of those concepts.
At the end of the first page, the boldest girl in an otherwise timid class volunteered to come to the board and write the word ‘hen’. What followed seemed to take her a bit by surprise. Vicky, the Program Leader of Nuru’s Education Team, was the facilitator in this particular class. She asked if the girl knew what sound a hen makes. The girl nodded slowly and deliberately, surely wondering what her affirmation would bring. Vicky then leaned over and whispered to her. After several moments of hesitation and encouragement, she quietly began to flap make-believe wings, peck her head out exaggeratedly, and cluck her way back to her desk. The other students giggled and eyed each other nervously, but Vicky offered an impressed grin, a big clap, and a load of praise for a job well done. Could the rest of the class also become hens, she asked? Silence followed, as the other students tried to gauge if she was serious. Then slowly, a few came around with a mumbled cluck over here, a little flap of the wings over there. Before long, we had a classroom full of clucking, pecking, fluttering chickens. And that was just page one.
Later, the children were asked to practice writing the names of the animals and the noises they make and then to draw them. In most schools here, children are all taught to draw objects like birds or trees in a very exact and specific way. Any variation from the prescribed method is met with harsh feedback and often a swift smack to the hands. As a survival mechanism, the creativity these children possess fades and is replaced with strict adherence to repetition. As Vicky walked around the room, she encouraged the children to be free and to draw these animals from their own memories and imagination. Then, she set the box of crayons on an unoccupied desk in the middle of the room and told them to choose one at a time to color their drawings. I got to share in a piece of the joy as the students slowly approached the tattered box of crayons as though it were a chest of precious gems, handling the colors with great care despite their obvious excitement and pausing often in the midst of coloring just to hold the little wax-wonders up to the light, turning them gently between their fingers and contemplating them with a level of interest and enthusiasm that is difficult to muster toward much in the world once childhood has passed.
Being a part of this program continually causes me to reflect with gratitude on the importance of a good education and the excellence of the education system that I experienced growing up. Undoubtedly, there are failings and room for improvement, but all things considered, I received a top-notch education, complete with an encouraging and supportive learning environment, dynamic and engaging lessons, an abundance of resources and learning materials, and creative teachers who made me believe I could do or be anything. There were so many crayons, and not just crayons but markers, colored pencils, finger paints, watercolors, and glitter glue that I must’ve lost that initial fascination with crayons fairly quickly. Today, thanks to these children, that fascination was reinstated. I sat in the back of the classroom watching a group of children who were, for once, being encouraged to be creative, to love and enjoy the experience of learning, and experience the simple joy of coloring outside the lines.