1 a short piece of non-fictional writing done as a school or college exercise; essay.¹ 2 of four discrete forms: narrative, descriptive, factual, argumentative. 3 allocated 20% of the English mark for Junior Certificate Leveled students combined with 30% for Literature and 50% for Grammar. 4 also known as the class with much marking. 5 the bane of Basotho teachers and therefore generously donated to Grinnell Corps Fellows. 6 the exposition of all possible grammatical troubles in the English language. 7 a key to the lives of the St. Rodrigue girls.
On my first day at St. Rodrigue High School, I encountered the legendary Sea of Blue, consisting of our 500 some girls standing with their sun-bleached blue dresses, slightly darker, primary blued sweaters, and eagerly upturned faces. They opened their melodious voices to the hymns of God, multiple parts abound, and I thought to myself, “I am in love!”.
Each morning I get to appreciate their cohesive radiance from this tamed distance: the teachers stand in the front of the hall, on the stage, peering down at the entire school population as they recite their Hail Mary's, National Anthem of Lesotho, Biblical passage, and, my long awaited hymn. We call this Assembly. But since that initial love-struck moment, I have attempted to learn more particulars about that Sea of Blue, about each drop, in her little blue uniform.
The girls love the uniform. It gives them the opportunity to look nice each and every day. Black shoes, black socks (white for Sundays), dress, sweater, shaved head, and often, a clear-white plastic rosary that looks like it should glow in the dark, peeking out from their necks. Looking clean and put together is important to the Basotho, and these girls get a prescribed way of accomplishing that. With the uniform, all are beautiful. All are equal. This is great on the social front, but is the biggest contributor to the Sea of Blue Effect. The variant factor: their faces.
Conception of PROJECT FLASHCARD! Face and name. Face and name to composition. Matching names to faces and faces to thoughts.
I created an elaborate reading comprehension class exercise in order to take portraits of each of my Composition students, as I did not want to waste a day of classes or create school chaos. Due to the allocation of only 20% of the English mark, Composition classes only are given two classes per week. There is no time to be wasted. “Time is money” as the girls say. As I pulled each student out into the light of the passage, we took her photograph, she wrote her name, and I phonetically wrote it again for myself. Result: a photo flashcard for each girl. All of them excited to participate so that “I will know them” and so that they can see their portrait, something not easy to obtain around here. Once printed, I showed the girls their faces. One of them came up to me afterwards and said, " 'M'e Rachel, did you see my face, how beautiful?”. My heart sang.
The compositions can be found in The Notebook. The notebooks are delivered to my desk by the class prefect in a stack about 2 feet tall first thing on the assigned morning. The notebooks aren't skinny, and with about 44 or so from each class, they really pile up, giving the staff room the effect of a sky-scraped city. The notebooks get tattered, used from year to year and subject to subject. Covered with old newspapers and maize meal plastics. Sometimes you see a hip young women or living room furniture set adorning the covers of these compositions. Wrapping paper from any occasion. Metallic in color and texture. Surnames and first names written 20 times in different handwriting. Doodles and collections of stickers they have been given for doing well on exams. Yes, lest we forget, in many ways, these are indeed your typical adolescent girls.
Reading the Composition. The things they say and the things that they don't say. The things they cross out and the things that they keep. Sometimes they write the things they want you to hear, the things that are known to be good. They are even encouraged to exaggerate, in order to make their compositions more interesting. But deep down in there, there are glimmers of truth, and undeniable references to Basotho culture and the inner thoughts of each specific girl.
As I read the compositions, grammatical changes are addressed, comments written, and marks assigned. But also, information is gleaned and pieces of knowledge added to the back of each girl's photograph. Where do they live? What do they think? What do they see? And what do they believe is important to tell me? In this way, I can keep track of each drop of blue, and some of the things that they teach me.
(Click the picture above of the St. Rodrigue student to launch an image gallery of three of Rachel's students and samples of their compositions)