For 120 minutes, 76 students squeeze into a classroom in 85-degree heat, sitting three, sometimes four, to a desk. Each student is assigned a number and the digits consequently become their identity. The teacher spews numbers during role call to confirm that student one, two, and three are present. Sixty-four is absent; some students explain that she is sick. Twenty-five and 26 stroll in five minutes late and quickly find their seat. The unwieldy wind slams the metal window every eight minutes or so – its rhythmic repetition no longer serving a distraction. Despite the wind outside, the degrees continue to rise inside. As the classroom overflows its capacity, you can imagine the mercury rising: 86, 87, 88… and the students use their large straw brims of their hats to fan themselves.
Yet, beyond the apparent numbers, there is Flanderie and Marie Ella sitting in the front row, eager to answer each question, literally jumping out of their desks. Beyond them are their quirky classmates, trading red, blue, and black pens with each other as they meticulously color-code their copybooks. With a more careful eye, you see the true intricacies of my 6eme English class.
They shuffle into class, some wearing flip flops, many without. Estelline slides her sandals off her feet as soon as she sits down, getting comfortable. She pulls her copybooks from the wide pockets of her blouse and begins to write the date. She is calm and conducts herself with poise. Lambo struts into the room with the sleeves of his blue school blouse ripped off, the ends frayed. He wears a flat-rimmed hat with the word ‘SWAGGER’ embroidered across the front. He tries to be the tough guy, but the twinkle in his eyes gives him away. He offers to erase the board eager to help, though soon admits that he is too short to reach the top of the blackboard. His apology is barely intelligible as he speaks with his tongue curled and pressed to the roof of his mouth. The class giggles. Despite his hopes of being the tough guy, he couldn’t be further from it. He is our class clown.
Silence is expected when copying the lesson, but there are always some whispers. Saphir-Soa taps Ursula on the back, asking to borrow her blue pen. Ursula pulls the pen out of her pencil case: a recycled spaghetti bag. Protractors and rulers rotate around the room filled with perfectionists. In the furthest corner, Mahatsiaro waits for other students to finish copying the lesson. He rips thin strips of paper from his copybook, curls them and pushes them to his upper lip and chin. They stick to his sweat and he boasts his new facial hair. Across the room, Damy’s eyes dart from the chalkboard to his notes, deep in concentration. Two blue pen caps protrude from his nostrils. The corners of his mouth slightly curl as he sees his teacher smirking, but returns to copying the lesson with a straight face. Claudia self-checks her exercise with the answers posted on the board. With each correct answer she does a small dance in her seat, waving each arm from side to side. She isn’t bragging. She is genuinely proud of herself. With every correct answer, she is becoming better at English. Vola doesn’t always get the right answer, but often asks for help. As the class does corrections, she has a piece of white chalk in her hand that she uses as ‘white-out.’ Next to her is Francine. She opens her right hand to accept the chalk from the teacher. She opens her hand, forgetting about the giant cricket perched her palm. She laughs quietly, quickly transfers the insect to her other hand and makes her way to the chalkboard.
It’s the tiny, infinite details, like spaghetti-bag pencil cases, protractors and swagger that often go unnoticed in a sea of students. But in the 6eme English class, pen caps up your nose serves as a reminder that even with an assigned number, your identity consists of much, much more. We embrace it.