Finding Sarah, NYC-Bamako Girl

posted in: Blog, CV STEM 2015 | 0

Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 27, 2015

My daughter, Sarah Brooks, is the Educational Coordinator for the Colonie de Vacances STEM in Mali this summer. As the teacher of Computer Science, I have had the extraordinary joy of working with my daughter professionally the last two weeks of the Colonie de Vacances.

Sarah is living my dream of adolescence. I grew up in New Jersey and as a budding intellectual in my teens I dreamed of seeking fame and fortune one day in the Big Apple. I came out to California to go to Deep Springs College and Berkeley and have, with the exception of some years spent in Europe, Boston, and Idaho, found whatever measure of fame and fortune was to be my lot there. Sarah grew up in San Francisco and wanted to go to school in the east. She spent her first winters in Ithaca, New York at Ithaca College, a cold and snowy place. After completing her degree she decided she was going to make it in the Big Apple and she has been living my dream ever since.

Sarah has the toughest job in New York City. I know that is a big claim, but I make with total confidence in its veracity. She is a public school teacher, specializing in special needs kids. She has worked with children with Downs’ Syndrome and with autism but her current class is categorized as emotionally disabled, ED in teacher lingo. These are kids that have normal intelligence but have suffered severe traumatic events in their lives and have extreme behavioral problems such as violent outbursts. Sarah’s school is the last stop in the public school system before institutionalization. She’s, quite possibly, their last chance to have a future which will include integration into society, a job, and a good quality of life.

After a mere two weeks of being a classroom teacher I’ll be more than happy to go back to working 12 hour days in Silicon Valley, grateful to have, by comparison to teaching, such a low-stress, easy job. And that’s teaching eager students who are there during summer vacation because they want to learn more, who shake my hand at the beginning of the day and say “Bonjour, monsieur”, who raise their hands and are dying to be called on, and who stand up by the side of their desks when they give an answer. The stories Sarah has told me about the violent outbursts of her students, events which occur on a daily basis, are frightening, difficult to believe, and even difficult to hear. The damage that has been done to these young children is heartbreaking.

Though early in her career, Sarah is already a highly regarded, recognized, awarded teacher known for her ability to produce miracles in her classroom. When iNERDE made the decision to increase the size of our Mali campus by 4X and to hire and train a teaching staff composed of Malian teachers and Empowerment Agents that would be unfamiliar with the iNERDE curriculum we recognized that we would need an Educational Coordinator. The Educational Coordinator serves, above all, as a resource for the teachers, helping to familiarize them with iNERDE’s hands-on pedagogical style and with our STEM curriculum. The Educational Coordinator is basically responsible for putting the concept of iNERDE into execution, dealing with the many, many glitches that are encountered along the way, resolving them, and keeping the teaching staff on course. This year we brought a foreigner to Mali for this job because we didn’t have the possibility to train a Malian far enough in advance; in future years this will very likely be a position held by a local educator.

I knew Sarah was the perfect candidate for the job given her experience. I passed on her resume and recused myself from the selection process. In addition to her teaching experience Sarah speaks French fluently having received a bilingual, French-English education and she has prior experience studying and working in Africa (Kenya). My colleagues agreed that she was, indeed, the perfect candidate and she was invited to join iNERDE.

When I arrived in Bamako, Sarah had already been there more than three weeks and had become as much a Bamako girl as she is a New York City girl. In addition to the 120 kids and 12 teachers, I met a lot of people, extended family, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, school administrators, journalists, staff, and on and on. I’m not at all familiar with Malian names, I generally catch the first syllable and one or two syllables at random after that. Sarah had done an impressive job of getting to know a lot of people and, most importantly, remembering everyone’s name. She’s my who ‘s who cheat sheet. More importantly, she has gotten to know all of the teachers very well and was able to get me quickly integrated into the teaching team in each class so that we could work together to deliver the computer science lessons. During the day I don’t see Sarah much, she is always dashing about somewhere on the campus, helping a teacher, filling in for someone, solving an organizational problem. She’s adapted very well to working in Mali, understanding and respecting the way of doing things here, and contributing very positively to the work environment. The Colonie de Vacances is running and running well, the glitches nothing but glitches that are quickly solved. A lot of people are responsible for making that happen but Sarah plays no small part in it.

Sarah likes to walk around our neighborhood, Faladié, in the evening. Taking a stroll isn’t very much practiced here, it isn’t that great an idea in some respects because there are few sidewalks and a lot of crazy motorcycle traffic on the roads. Still, it’s a New York City thing, perhaps, so Sarah is happy to have her father here to stroll with. We’ve taken to speaking French together much of the time, even when we are alone together. It is remarkable, strolling in Faladié with my daughter, talking in French about the Colonie, our work together, iNERDE, the vision we share for what we hope to accomplish in Mali, we talk about the kids, of course, our favorite subject, how so many of the kids here inspire us. May every father be as proud as I am of the amazing, beautiful, brilliant, compassionate, capable, courageous woman my daughter has become.