By Dr. Christopher D. Stonebanks
I do not think there was a single year of my elementary or high school experience where a teacher did not publicly exclaim, “You are the worst behaved class I have ever taught!” Reflecting on that annual experience years later, I am pretty sure these comparisons are fairly common, and I’m also fairly certain that there must be some group out there that was “the best class ever!” … maybe that was the class of 1987; who knows.
I can remember as students we were certainly aware of this ranking, and depending on circumstance, either took great pride or mortification on being at one end of the spectrum or the other. I suspect it’s still pretty common, because as a carryover, university students often jokingly ask me “Sir, aren’t we the best group you ever taught!”, to which I usually respond with equal sarcasm, “Never mind other groups, teaching your class ranks ahead of the birth of my children and the day I got married, combined!” Praxis Malawi learners are no different, even if the course they are taking are outside of the formal walls of academia, they still like asking questions about past groups.
Well, let me clarify: they typically do not ask if they are “the best group”, as every cohort has shown a deep appreciation that their work is an extension of prior efforts. Everyone has always demonstrated great respect and interest for what has been done in the past. Each group has pushed the vision of Praxis Malawi forward a little bit, and that struggle has always been acknowledged. Rather, when they ask about past groups, it’s more like, “What’s the worst thing that a past student has done in Malawi?” or “What does it take to actually get sent back home?” I imagine that every student that participates in Praxis Malawi creates wonderful experiences in their heads even before they arrive in Malawi, but I am sure they also imagine failure as well. On the positive, there’s the secret romanticized and stereotyped hope that a village thanks you profusely for your presence and maybe you get the Sub-Sahara African version of a Kevin Costner movie and get a new name (that’s not going to happen). On the negative, a Chief expressing that their village committee took a vote, and “that thing you did was so bad, we just want you out of here!” After all, the course outline for Praxis Malawi clearly states that each student must meet the expectations set in the University Student Code of Conduct, with the penalty of being sent home. Holy smokes! What does it really take to be asked to leave a country!?
My guess is that are a myriad of images and scenarios that play in most of our minds of what could go tremendously wrong regarding behavior in sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe an attempt at riding a hippopotamus on Lake Malawi, organizing a coup to become village chief, or perhaps starting a Fight Club are all ridiculous scenarios playing out in our minds long before Malarone induced nightmares can make them worse. When my eldest daughter, Roxy, was in Malawi last year, she had a vivid dream that a little girl from the village followed her home; had she pulled a Madonna and simply taken the child from her village? Was that wrong to take a child home with me? Is that something that would get me kicked out of a country? Is kidnapping frowned upon?
When I am asked about past groups and how they fared on the “conduct while representing the University” front, my usual response centers on questioning whether or not the student is genuinely concerned of prior history, or if they are trying to figure out the limit of risky experience and conduct to create some sort of legal defense. I wonder if I am going to be faced with appeals such as “Sir, the course outline didn’t say that I wasn’t allowed to take home a Green Mamba in my carry-on” or, “Before you say that I acted inappropriately, maybe you should have clarified more than once that starting a crocodile wrestling side show was frowned upon”. Sure, they want to take some risks and create some memories, and who can blame them. But, I am mindful that my responsibility is to repeatedly tell them not to run with scissors.
So far this group should be proud to say that they rank with all the others as an amazing group of students who actively and collaboratively want to work with the Chilanga community. They’re no class of 1987 mind you, but they are pretty darned good!