Part of my teaching load includes six hours of Life Skills, three to Form B and three to Form A.
I am no expert at life, but teaching about peer pressure, good decisions and life goals didn’t seem that difficult, even fun. But, when I got into the classroom, I realized how wrong I was.
My friend Nathan, who taught Math and Sciences in Lesotho, said Life Skills was the hardest class he taught. Although very sweet people, the Basotho aren’t emotional people and have a hard time talking about feelings and personal encounters.
I started light, with goals and good decision-making. I knew that eventually I needed to cover HIV, teen pregnancy and STDs but I wanted to create an open, sharing environment. I was raised as a good Catholic and even saying sex makes me feel guilty, so I too had to work up to that point.
Even on these easier topics, the subject matter was difficult for my students to understand. The language barrier only made it worse, me not having the words to relay in a way they can understand and them not having the words to properly express to themselves. These topics are completely unprecedented and outside of any other class they’ve had.* I failed at nearly every attempt at creating a free discussion.
Eventually, even though the class environment was more shut off then I preferred, I needed to move on to HIV. I plan to spend nearly the entire term talking about every facet of this disease because of its devastation on Lesotho – nearly one in four are infected with HIV/AIDs. I had to get over my reserves and made all the students scream “sex,” “vagina,” “penis,” “condom” and other related terms so that we would get over the uncomfort of using them. I created a question jar so they could anonymously seek advice. They remained unresponsive.
Slowly, I began to crack the shell. I explained different modes of transfer along with ways that you can’t get HIV. I defined sexual terms that I am not sure I ever uttered to another person before. I acted confident and calm, as if I do this all the time. It worked.
After a discussion on STDs, the questions began to pour in. Do I have to tell someone I have an STD? Can’t I just go to a traditional doctor to cure HIV? If I tell her I have HIV, she won’t love me anymore. Do they have the same medicine in America as Lesotho? Sex workers have the best jobs.
Some questions were hard to answer and we even argued about why you should tell your partner you have an STD or HIV. I am not sure I convinced them of the healthy behavior, but it go the ideas flowing, after months of struggling to get them to say anything. We talked for 20 minutes. It was a breakthrough.
HIV is not just something they hear about; it impacts their lives. Many of them have lost family because of this disease or may be infected themselves. They have to learn to protect themselves and education is the only way. But me just spitting out white person knowledge is not going to change behaviors. They have to get there on their own and peer discussion is one of the strongest tools to do so.
I don’t fear this topic anymore. In fact, I embrace it.
*The Lesotho Ministry of Education has recently required that all primary and secondary schools teach Life Skills and developed a curriculum to teach it. Many skills still have yet to adapt because they do not have teachers trained or willing to do it. Although my school has the books created by the MOE, I rarely use them. They are based on the idea the students have had Life Skills classes for years and, although they include practical knowledge, I find drug and alcohol abuse more valuable than who to send a letter to if you want a passport.