It’s the stereotypical story, and all too common, of the young adult in the third world nation.
A young girl, coming from a broken home but with enough intelligence for a bright future, meets a boy. He, also smart, skips school and runs with the wrong crowd. Soon she is pregnant and both of their futures are much dimmer. They drop out of school and live at home, stretching family support as much as possible and understanding that their dreams of being different than the rest have now collapsed.
You want it to have a happy ending, but it often doesn’t. Instead the ending is riddled with poverty, disease and, eventually, death. Or so they tell you.
A few weeks earlier I noticed that two of my Form B students – the equivalent of 9th grade – stopped coming to school. The boy is an occasional attendee as it is and far too influenced by his bad-behaving friends. He has a new girlfriend each week along with an excuse for his unfinished homework. He could be smart, but he doesn’t want to be.
The girl is a double orphan, living with another family. She is quiet, yet smart. Her family situation and intelligence earned a government scholarship until she completes the final year of high school. A few journal assignments revealed that her home life is not very good and she may be depressed.
After a few absences I asked others in the class why they were no longer attending Married, they said. And then I asked the question that I already knew the answer to: “Is she with child?” I said, making the outline of pregnant belly with my hand.
It hit me hard. This girl needed to be in school. She wants to be a nurse. She deserves a good life. She isn’t ready to be a mother, but is any 18 year old? The other teachers assured me this happens often, but that didn’t make me feel better. Those other girls are someone else’s student. She is mine. What could I’ve done to prevent this? Did I fail her?
Sure, that’s putting too much pressure on myself, but I came here to do something. Maybe I couldn’t prevent it, but I could at least attempt to help in the aftermath.
The principal told me that the parents had been called – the guardian for the girl – and were told that the students should still continue with school. But because our school is a church school, the two teenagers should marry and present a certificate of that marriage. The principal encouraged them to do a traditional marriage over a church one because it takes less time and money. The church one, she said, could come later.
The students still didn’t come to school and other students said that they had not officially married, in either the traditional or church sense.
I decided I should talk to them and asked a few students, who live in the same village, to accompany me there. One day after school we walked the 40-minutes to their small village. I was nervous. Who am I to intervene in their personal life and was nervous they would not appreciate the unexpected house call.
The girl now lives with the boy and his grandfather and sister (his mother works elsewhere and sends money home). The boy was at a neighbor’s when we arrived but saw us coming and greeted us at the door. He was a bit shocked to see me. I said I came to visit him and the girl.
The girl came out of a small hut near the main house. Her appearance threw me off. Instead of the usual school uniform, she was wearing a sweater, pants, blanket wrapped around her waist and a headscarf. She seemed older. Another teacher later told me that this is the attire of married women and her dress is indication of her change in relationship status.
“We miss you,” I began. My hands were shaking, but I told myself I couldn’t let the thoughts of what was happening stop me from doing it.
I told them that it didn’t matter why they are not in school, but they need to come back. Their futures depended on it. It was a bit awkward because my two escorts were there and the students were nervous to talk about it in front of them knowing it would be the next day’s gossip.
Seeing their hesitation, I pulled the girl aside.
“Are you with child?” I asked.
“Yes, Madame,” she said diverting eyes downward.
“Why have you stopped coming to school?”
“Because it is my first and the other students will laugh at me.”
“Yes, they probably will. But that will stop after a few days. However, you having an education will make your child’s life better. To be a good mother, you need to go to school.”
“Yes,” she said quietly.
I then told her that she could come to me if she needed any help. I would even go to the clinic with her.
They were still uneasy with my presence so I said goodbye and hoped that I would see them soon. On Monday, they promised.
They didn’t come Monday, or the next day or the next day. A full week elapsed and I was positive that they had decided to drop out.
Today was the first day of exams and, although I didn’t need to be there because it was not my day to oversee the test taking, I came to school anyway to finish up preparing my tests and work on a few Peace Corps projects. I was returning from the toilet as the students started to make their way from their classrooms to the testing area.
“Hello, Madame” he said with a giant smile.
At first I failed to recognize my greeter, then I saw him. It was the boy. I leaped to give him a hug, screaming, “You are here!”
“Yes, I am here.”
I then asked if the girl was here and he pointed to her. I ran across the school grounds, yelling in delight. The other students started to laugh but pointed her out to me. I gave her a hug.
“I am so happy you are here,” I said.
Typically shy, she said a quiet, “yes” behind a soft smile.
I walked back to the teacher’s room and had to hold back the tears. They came back.
Another teacher told me they arrived yesterday, but I was attending to work in Maseru so did not meet them. They presented a letter of marriage and, although not signed, the principal accepted it and said they could write their exams.
I have no idea if my visit did anything to persuade them but I don’t care. All I care is that they came back. They wanted to finish their schooling and they are. Their story is different and the potential for their happy ending still glows.
In this job of ups and downs, frustration and uselessness, these are the moments that keep pushing your forward. In every essence, they are hope.