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The Impact a Visit to War-Stricken Sierra Leone Had on English Teacher Jessica Berg

Climbing into a van, Jessica Berg and her students get ready to go to town for supplies. “The goal going over is to teach, and I think, in a way, I got taught the most,” Berg said.

Submitted by Jessica Berg

Climbing into a van, Jessica Berg and her students get ready to go to town for supplies. “The goal going over is to teach, and I think, in a way, I got taught the most,” Berg said.

Sanjana Raghavan and Maryam Majid

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“I think travel is one of those things to broaden our horizons a little bit, get out of our bubble here. Sierra Leone was definitely at the top of the list of life-changing experiences.

When I was in grad school, I had a professor who worked with a non-profit organization helping children worldwide. She was telling us we wouldn’t have class for two weeks because she was going on this trip and when she got back, she elaborated and showed us pictures and stuff. I was really interested, so I went up to her and asked if she ever took students or other people who wanted to go and I did [get to go].

It was amazing, I don’t know how else to put that. It was scary at times, but well worth it- working with the kids. [The trip] opened my eyes, [it was] just a different way at looking at things. I lived in this area, went to school in this area and everything, so I got to see some other parts of the world. I loved the kids there, and it was awesome. It’s something I really do think about every day. When I have a bad day, I’m like, ‘Okay, I don’t really have anything to complain about’.

Because the Civil War lasted for so many years, a lot of the students were behind in schooling, like there were kids around 18-19 years old who had a fourth grade reading level, and they have tests that they have to pass over there as well to progress to the next grade, so the goal of the teachers and missionaries is to help them catch up and reinforce skills

All of the students were war orphans. They had lost their parents or families in the war. Some were very willing to tell their story and what happened to them, some were pretty young when these things happened and don’t necessarily remember. Just came one day and their parents weren’t there anymore. And there’s this one girl, she was about 14-15 years old, around that age. She had been over there for many years and she just did not talk. She was in my particular class, in my group of students, and I asked the people in charge what was going on and why the girl wasn’t talking. And he told me that when the girl was first brought to the orphanage, she was screaming and crying and kicking, and then she just enclosed herself and hadn’t really talked to anyone over the past few years.

So one day the students took us out for a tour in their village where they lived. It’s a very common practice in Sierra Leone for people walking down the streets just to hold hands. So like you would see two grown men walking down the street holding hands as a sign of friendship. So I was walking with her and we’re holding hands- and being from America we had to drink different water. And it was pretty hot, you know, it’s Africa- and I offered her some of my water and I wasn’t really thinking. It was just hot and we were walking around and I guess because [the water] was different, special water, she took it as a sign of something nice.

And then there was this other time where I was the first white person a child saw and he cried.”

— Jessica Berg

And so on the way back, she started talking to me. And I-I tried not to act surprised, I tried to just act normal, but when we got back I called the headmaster. He told me, ‘You’re the first person she’s ever talked to’. So it was just one of those moments where, I don’t know, maybe I did make a small change in one person’s experience. It was like a bond which we then had for the rest of the time I was there. It wasn’t like she was super talkative, but she did actually speak, and that was a memorable moment. And then there was this other time where I was the first white person a child saw and he cried. (laughs) You know, there’s always two sides to the story.

You can’t change everything in the world, but it makes you feel like you can change something and you have a relationship. To me, education is one of the most important things, so being able to do that in some small ways, I think it’s important that connection gets made.

The goal going over is to teach, and I think, in a way, I got taught the most. It was a weird paradox. Yeah, we read a book together and taught them some English, but they taught me more about life and what is actually of value. There’s little kids over there, too and we brought an activity over there for them to make bracelets, something for them, and at the end of the trip, they gave the bracelets to us. They have nothing, they’re in a very poor country, and they wanted to give us something. That was the biggest take-away for me. We’re in a very materialistic society and it’s like, okay, but the things I have that really matter are really my friends and family. That’s what’s really important because they lost their family, and they’re still willing to give and they still have passion. They’ve been through so much and that to me was the biggest lesson. That’s what I think about in moments when I’m stuck in traffic and it’s like, ‘Okay, you’re being stupid. This is the least of anyone’s worries. I get home ten minutes later, so what?’ That’s something that’s carried on five, six years later after the fact.

I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but (the trip) impacted what I teach and how I teach and what I think is important. You know, in AP Lang, we have to pass the AP Test, and the SOLs, and you guys have to apply to colleges, and I have to teach you guys that, but I really think there’s something bigger outside of a multiple choice test. Bringing aspects of that whenever I can is always my goal, to make everyone see the world beyond the classroom and even beyond English.

Not everyone’s going to go on to be an English major, but to find a way to connect these ideas- maybe not everyone can go to Africa or travel but you can read things, and you can read other people’s stories and make that connection to bring the world in. So we’re not indifferent and so we’re not ignorant. When I went and saw these things, it really made things different. It felt like you could change some small aspect of the world, and that’s what I always focus on with lessons, and bringing something in from the world.

I want my students to know that I genuinely care. At the end of the day, I want my students to get something out of it, and not necessarily just how to use a semicolon. I hope there’s a connection that we make or I give you throughout the year that you carry on beyond eleventh grade, beyond high school. And just knowing that’s my ultimate goal.

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