*Originally written on 7/15/2012
The matatu continuously smashed into rock after rock as each attempt to dodge the next pothole failed as miserably as the previous. I was sitting the very back of the small van taxi, my sweaty skin sticking to the plastic seat covering. I took my sunglasses off briefly to see that they were covered in the red Ugandan dust that I have grown so accustomed. It was this same red dust which had layered itself on my body throughout the summer, giving me a false sense of a tan. I started to put my glasses back on to protect my eyes as much as I could from red particles flying through our windows when we hit another bump and I bounced off the seat sending my head to slamming into the roof. Unfortunately, being the third matatu in a caravan of four meant that we were receiving the extra dust kick-up from the two in front of us and our driver had even less time to react to the deteriorating dirt road. Suddenly, the van swerved to dodge a giant hole in the road, and the hog that was soaking in the muddy contents of the hole. I looked up at my friend Becca whose face matched the green color of her pants. We were only 10 minutes into our six hour ride to Murchison Falls National Park. This was going to be one long, bumpy ride.
Sometimes in life we must face a challenging, bumpy road. For some of us, we may spend our entire lives traveling down a road that is hardly paved. I remember during my first year teaching I questioned my choice of profession on a regular basis. I was back in my hometown of Muncie, Indiana, which all of my close friends had moved away from. I was living at my parents’ house teaching at a school where overall the view of education was one that did not prioritize learning. At school I was breaking up fights on a regular basis, begging my students to bring as little as a pencil to class, dodging desks which were thrown in my direction, having parents threaten me and call me inappropriate names in front of the entire main office, along with many other ordeals. The attempt to make learning relevant to students who were more worried about if they would eat dinner that night was one of the most taxing experiences of my life. I was stressed out and suffering through self-diagnosed depression. It was one of the toughest, most challenging years of my life, but the hardest situation was not dealing with work; it was at home.
On top of dealing with everything going on at work during my first year teaching, I had an equally depressing life at home: My little sister was off at university; my big sister lived in St. Louis, Missouri; my mom was working and living during the weekdays in Lafayette, Indiana. With those three away from Muncie, it left me living at home alone with my stepfather. In January of 2011, he started chemotherapy for his leukemia. If you have ever been around someone who is undertaking Chemo, it is not an easy thing to watch. Initially, the hospital had given Dad too much of a dosage and it nearly killed him. There was about a two month stretch that I would come home from work praying that I would find my dad still breathing. These challenges created one heck of a bumpy road to be traveling down fresh out of college. I was not sure I was strong enough to handle it.
I needed a change of perspective; I needed to find strength but I did not know where to look. So I turned to those very reasons why I was feeling depressed in order to find strength: My students and my stepfather. My dad was struggling for life on a daily basis, and there I was feeling sorry for myself, which was completely unacceptable. I decided to turn that bumpy road into more than simply dodging the rocks and running from the potholes. I poured everything I had into those final few months of teaching my students instead of feeling sorry that I had to go to work again the next day. I was definitely not the best teacher in the building (not even close), and looking back on it there are a million things I would do differently; but I cared about those kids and their future, and when they realized that fact, we made major progressions. It was actually that group of students that inspired me to travel to Uganda to teach this summer.
I moved to Denver, Colorado after my first year teaching and I took a job with Littleton Public Schools. I hardly knew anyone in Colorado, and I had never visited the state before I flew there for my job interview. The change of scenery allowed for me to grow more independent and I enjoyed my second year teaching immensely. I will however, never forget my first year as a teacher, or those students who helped shape me into who I am today. I even went back over Thanksgiving break and visited my old students. To my surprise, even the students who I thought hated me greeted me with excitement, smiles, and hugs. The kiddos of Wilson M.S. (who are all now in high school) will always have a special place in my heart, and it is because of the bumps and bruises we suffered together along the way.
As our matatu pulled in to Murchison Falls National Park the next morning, the sun was rising over the savanna it was a deep orange color which was literally full of life. The sun illuminated the most beautiful views of life I had ever seen: Miles of sprawling grassland with Joshua Trees and palms providing shade for the vast array of animals — water buffaloes gazelles, elephants, giraffes, warthogs, baboons, hippos, etc. After sitting on top of the matatu van for several hours driving through the park, we went to the edge of the Victoria Nile and did a three hour boat tour. On the boat we saw many colorful species of birds, hippos, Nile crocs, snakes and some more of the animals I mentioned above. The boat took us to see Murchison Falls, one of the most powerful waterfalls in East Africa. These falls were named by Sir Samuel Baker, the British explorer who is commemorated in the name of the school where I teach in Gulu.
The beauty and experience of the safari is something I will never forget. As I was sitting on top of the matatu with Isaac, Sarah, Becca, Dana and Kristine, watching a herd of gazelles hop effortlessly through the grass, it hit me: I will never forget this memory or these people; I will forever be bound in a beautiful way to this group of teachers – We all traveled a different road to get here, each with its own bumps and roadblocks, but the beauty of the end result was worth it in many ways. — I am making memories for you, Dad.
In life we will all face bumps in the road or get caught in a lightning storm with no end in sight. The key is to find strength, both in yourself and those around you. Persevere, be resilient, and find the beauty in every storm. As we pulled out of Murchison Falls National Park, we immediately smashed into several potholes. I turned around to see the sun setting below the horizon of the savanna; I looked towards the front of the matatu and saw the girls, and Isaac, singing, laughing, and smiling. We were about to endure that same rocky road that brought us to Murchison…I smiled, ready to embraced the journey.