September 10, 2002


She hid behind me and I had to grab her arm and make her follow me inside the classroom. A brief flashback to my early school days reminded me how terrifying the first day of school was. This was Julien's first day ever. She was embarrased and scared. She had no idea what to expect; she doesn't even know how to hold a pen or pencil correctly. I assured her that there was another young girl in the class and that we were all here together, not to worry.

It had taken me 10 months to get her on this bench this Thursday evening in August. Months spent watching her work all day carrying water from the well and helping her sister prepare food roadside had made my heart sink. She was one of the fe w young girls in the village who could speak French, which she learned on the streets of Abidjan years ago. She had spunk and I knew, given the opportunity, she could make something of herself.

Her mother lives in a village on the other side of the country, her father could care less what she does, her older sister (educated) resents the fact that she's living in a village, and it's rumored that Julien satisfies the calls of men at night. This, collectively, makes up the life of Julien, who couldn't be more than 13 years old. Knowing Julien's education would depend on her own motivation and commitment, I stayed in the background, only offering opportunity as bait for her to take when she was ready.

Julien came over today to say hello. She's the only person who confidently enters my house through the prohibited side door without knocking, only shouting "Ma-dame!". This is a clear indication of her personality - she demands what she wants and doesn't mess around. As always, I asked her if she planned on going to the night class tonight and, as always, she said yes. Unfortunately, she never turns up at my house at 8pm. But tonight, she came over at 7:45pm. Surprised and unprepared, I quickly changed clothes and grabbed an unused notebook and pen, which I had bought ages ago in anticipation of this very day. I showed her how to sharpen a pencil and to write with a pen and together we walked down the barely-lit road to the dilapidated mud school house. As she stood behind me while they looked for the keys to unlock the door, I could feel her arm touching mine and her breat, fast and heavy, on my shoulder. She was clenching the pen and pencil without mercy and had nervously rolled up her notebook. Julien was about to take the biggest, scariest step of her life, one that could change the course of it and open a multitude of doors.

Five minutes into her first class, the other young girl walked in and sat down. I noticed out of the corner of my eye Julien's relief and she relaxed, no longer hovering next to me.

As I write this, I'm watching Julien draw circles on the chalkboard, the basis of learning to write the alphabet. Hearing her repeat the first six letters of the alphabet sent chills up my spine and my heart smiled bigger than the size of an African family. She is courageous and I am proud of her. I feel like a parent dropping their kid off at school for the first time. It will take much pulling and prodding to keep me from accompanying and comforting her these first few days, and I can relate to new parents the world over. I'm hoping there'll be many more stories like Julien's to tell after we create the literacy classes in surrounding villages. But if Julien's is the only one, I'd still proudly consider my job done.

"You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try".
-- Beverly Sills