Your quiet disposition, small frame, and hugely curious eyes caught my attention first. You would walk timidly through the door into my corner of a classroom, almost holding your finger to your lips as if whispering sshhhhhh while your brown eyes searched for unspoken permission to enter. You came with the curious masses in the beginning, stepping aside as the bigger, more outgoing students won the prize of participating in Miss Wright’s puzzles, books, coloring, or games. When another student came in, you scooted over on your already small chair, making room for another person to sit and participate in whatever was going on at the small table for that moment.
Then my novelty wore off. The masses stopped coming, learning quickly that I am a firm and strict (albeit equally kind and silly) teacher. Some were offended that I would not grant them permission for certain activities on certain days. Others bored easily of the same books over and over or lost interest when the bracelet thread ran out. But you stayed. You continued to walk quietly and respectfully into that corner, touching things gently and practically whispering permission, taking care of and respecting that which was not yours. Your toma, Rhianna McCarty, and you enjoyed solving the cardboard puzzles together, personalities begging for praise at a collaborative job well done. Your tiny hands eagerly reached for the fallen Uno or Old Maid card without hesitation, even if you were not the culprit who dropped it. You never left my sacredly organized space without making sure things were back in order and put neatly away. The way you treated your friends, peers, and surroundings caught my attention next, proving the age-old mantra that actions speak louder than words.
I did not work directly with you, pulling you out of class to improve your reading skills or because your teacher simply needed a break from behavior. You are a smart girl, as the Jamaicans say. You came to me on your own merit and on your own time, leaving play time outside to the birds. I cannot recall a single time that you complained or shrugged your shoulders when I said no to a certain activity, unlike many other students, perfectly content to simply be and enjoy. Your naturally agreeable, trusting nature had a calming effect in the midst of an unpredictably noisy and chaotic environment.
And then you stole my heart. You, Miss Rianna, made every suffering through Jamaica and Peace Corps worth enduring through. You may never know, but you certainly let me know. Tears brim my eyes as I write and remember this, a story that I shared with one or two Jamaicans while still on island, and a story that has become the answer to What was Peace Corps/Jamaica like?.
I was weeks away from departing Jamaica as the local Peace Corps Volunteer. Apathy had set in as I worked to complete paperwork, wrap up projects, and prepare my house and classroom for the volunteer following me. My head was full of and focused on the boy and potential relationship I had recently started investing in. A teacher’s yelling broke me out of a said trance one morning before school started, and I eventually rose from my table to see what the commotion was about. There you stood, quiet and wide-eyed as the teacher scolded and kissed her teeth at the boy who tore your uniform clear across the back. Having taken on more than my assigned role of Literacy Intervention Specialist (what PCV ever doesn’t?), I offered to sew your uniform back together.
I placed my tin of sprinkle (sparkle) crayons and haphazardly torn pieces of scrap paper on the table in front of you as you sat in your blouse and shorts. After a few quiet moments I looked across the table at you, creatively coloring away.
“You know you’re a pretty girl, Rianna?” I inquired, attempting to redeem the moment for what I grew to care about most in the students’ lives: character.
you replied, barely glancing up from your paper that now contained 2nd-grade sketches of two girls and the words I love you on it.
After another set of quiet moments I asked,
“What makes a girl pretty, Rianna?”
And without a second of hesitation, you replied,
I was speechless. Thoughts ran through my head faster than I could process them to exit my mouth.
She is thinking critically!
Who are her parents?
I want to go meet them and praise them and learn what they are doing differently and right.
What a wise, wise girl at such a young age.
She is more beautiful than I ever imagined.
Eventually, I managed to mutter out,
“That’s exactly right! Who taught you that, Rianna?”
And, again, without skipping a beat, you looked up through your long lashes and said with the most confidence I ever witnessed in your being: