We continue our series of stories from teachers who spent their summer using their Atlanta Fund for Teachers grant (through the Atlanta Education Fund). Next up: Beverly Easterling, teacher at Kennedy Middle School. Ms. Easterling used her grant for a trip to South Africa, where she studied racial reconciliation. She titled her essay “Seeking Wealth in Poverty,” and it’s clear she earned a wealth of knowledge on her trip. Read about her experiences after the jump.
“I like to think of the Fund for Teachers program as a huge ring of keys — each individual key opening a door in my life that otherwise would have been locked. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d have the opportunity to travel to Africa to study racial reconciliation and restorative justice. The shelves of my bookcase at home are buckling under the weight of my collection on these topics, and although I’ve benefited from these readings (and so has Amazon.com), nothing can compare to actually tasting, seeing, hearing, and learning from the African culture. This grant provided an opportunity for me to not only grow personally, but it also greatly impacted my productivity and passion for my community and classroom in the inner-city of Atlanta.
“My journey began in a township in South Africa called Mamelodi (pictured above). The effects of apartheid here are like aftershocks from a destructive earthquake that never seem to go away. A village of about 1 million, it has a growing mass of informal ‘settlements’ — the politically correct term for squatter camps or slums. Seas of families have built their own shacks out of sheets of discarded metal and plastic. Hunger, sickness, mental illness and unemployment reign in this community. Generational poverty and its byproducts are held in place due to the impoverished curriculum found in schools and the grossly unequal treatment the black Africans were subjected to during apartheid.
“Despite the hopelessness of this situation, I witnessed the coexistence of sorrow and joy for the first time in my life in Mamelodi. I heard stories from people who have experienced insurmountable pain due solely to the color of their skin. Where I expected bitterness and anger I found peaceful, forgiving people. Where there was poverty, I saw a wealth of spirit. This wasn’t circumstantial joy. This was my-happiness-isn’t-determined-by-what-I-have kind of joy. It was the kind of joy that can only stem from putting others before your own self.
“Doors opened — doors to tin shacks where I got to know the faces behind poverty. I got to listen to stories from people who survived decades of racial discrimination, and I was invited to join intimate family dinners where I was welcomed and humbled to be a guest. I had the chance to do some research at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I also got the opportunity to volunteer with a feeding ministry. Serving alongside the local Africans was a powerful experience. I also was introduced to Zimbabwean refugees who told of their recent escape, two months prior, by swimming through alligator-infested rivers, holding their babies above their heads.
“Story after story left me speechless, but it wasn’t just their surviving these trials that astonished me. I spent time in the home of two blind grandmothers — also known as ‘Go-Gos’ — cleaning and hearing their stories. A man named Jonas took me in, and his wife was kind enough to try to teach me how to cook … it didn’t go over very well! With them, and with another man named Nkele, I heard themes of hope and forgiveness threaded through each account.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote about Nelson Mandela’s unjust 27 years in prison. Upon Nelson’s release, Archbishop Tutu found a man regal in dignity. Nelson Mandela emerged from prison not spewing words of hatred and revenge. He amazed us all by his heroic embodiment of reconciliation and forgiveness.’ This same attitude was in many whom I met in Africa. Those unemployed (and there were many) sought out ways to care for their neighbors. Their hands were not found idle in working for the redemption of their families and neighborhoods.
“More doors opened. On the way to Swaziland, I went on a safari. We drove for hours across the natural habitat of lions, elephants and giraffes. The beauty of the landscape is indescribable. But to be honest, throughout the entire safari I was riddled with feelings of being unworthy of the experience. I couldn’t help but yearn for my students to see what I was seeing. In that moment, I was reminded why I teach. I teach so the Animal Planet network won’t be the only access my kids have to seeing how big the world is outside of Vine City. I teach so they will have the opportunity and power to change their community for the better. I teach so that horrific injustices like apartheid will stay exactly where they belong — in a museum. I teach so they will have keys to millions of doors.
“Swaziland was the last stop. At the time, it seemed that doors were closing. The agencies I had contacted prior to leaving the states now seemed impossible to get in touch with. After a few days of frustration and disappointment, I found that although doors were closing, other doors, much better doors, were being unlocked.
“I had the privilege of spending a week in Bulembu, Swaziland. This village is an excellent example of thoughtful community development and restoration. Much like Vine City, it once was viewed as hopeless. There are more than 400 orphans in this small mountain village, and over the next decade they plan to have more than 2,000. It is predicted, that without rigorous interventions, the Swazi people will cease to exist by 2050 due to HIV/AIDS. In addition, 78 percent of the Swazi people are below the poverty line — earning less than $1 a day. Despite the innumerable difficulties that face the people of Bulembu, they work with excellence that is driven by the hope that the social fabric of Africa can and will be transformed.
I remind myself of their determination on days when the task ahead seems too daunting. On days when the abandoned houses, crime and statistics of urban communities seem so bleak, I’m comforted by the African’s joy. My time in Africa restored my hope that communities like Vine City can be transformed. It fueled my passion for true racial reconciliation, and sparked my interest to pursue how the restorative-justice model could be used in Atlanta Public Schools. This trip gave me new lenses through which to see my neighborhood and school. I’m encouraged to know that locked doors won’t stay locked — and if they do, together we can kick them open.”