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Lord, Teach Me to Pray


Editor’s Note: Missioner Janice Smullen reflects on the challenges of her first few months teaching in a primary school in Kingston, Jamaica, and how she has altered her mindset to fit these challenges.

Prayer isn’t so much about making something happen, but asking how I may accomplish my best within what is happening. St. Francis Primary School, grades pre-K through 6, serves male and female students of varying economic backgrounds. I help in a pre-K class of 27 students, mostly girls.  

The teacher that I work with tells me that the students could not write their names when they arrived in September and did not know the alphabet.  I met the students in March and saw the typical variety of skills:  some were writing neatly, some still mixed up letters, some knew some of the phonetic sounds, some could read simple sentences.  

My service time there has taught me how my mindset can make, or break, my day there. I really, really try to shed my American expectations but I am continually frustrated that the teacher doesn’t have supplies for her impromptu plans, that the teacher just leaves the room at several times during the day, that there is only 1 or 2 small erasers to share during writing, and that clean up supplies (rags, mops or broom), when needed, have to be searched for between 2 or 3 rooms.

Many times I am confused (by lack of any schedule) and frustrated (by constant chatter and students out of their seat and running or hitting). The problems that I, idealistically, wanted to fix, had their roots many months and years before I arrived there.  There were times when I couldn’t even understand that the child was asking if he “could go urinate,”  and I seldom understood the complaints, through the tears, of the wrong that had just occurred while I was not watching.

My mind told me that my days were wasted.  When I was working on completing my quarterly report to FMS, though, I realized that some important moments had occurred.

I am thankful that I have been able to help Bon Ton learn to confidently write his name.  I have helped Zhanelle master writing her letters on a straight line.  Shaneish, the quietest girl in the class will now approach me and ask for help.  Giovanni, the hyperactive boy that continually refused to follow my directions and would try to strike out at me or grab my glasses, will now come over for a hug once in awhile.

I have been able to read a story and have most of the class listen.  I know that they, when the mood or thought strikes them, are thankful that I am there.

One day I brought a lot of new crayons to class and one day I brought popcorn for their lunch time.  In each case, I sang this (Raffi) song:  

                                      “It’s mine, but you can have some.  

                                      With you I’d like to share it.

                                      ‘Cuz if I share it with you

                                      You’ll have some, too”

Singing this and distributing the crayons happened first…  In the following 2 weeks, the teacher had begun just giving out 3 crayons to each student and we reinforced the idea of sharing the crayons within the group at their tables.  Two weeks later, as I was giving out the popcorn, as I came to Dennell,  I heard her singing the song!

Community, commitment, charism, and culture can all be rolled into my constant prayer to be present and exhibit peaceful behavior.  During the first days and weeks, it was very easy for me to get sucked into the prevalent practice of shouting, derision, and physically putting someone into their chair or the corner.  And I didn’t like myself doing that.  

Continually, readings in the Franciscan prayer book and my readings in  a book containing original writings of Francis kept telling me that Peace IS the path. One day one of the boys actually told me that he didn’t like me putting him into his seat.  The next day that I was in class, I got down to his eye level (on my knees!)  and apologized to him.  He listened and we hugged.  

Each day after that, I really, really tried to set my mind to be gentle; to get on their level and talk to them about the problem, and to continually remind them that hands are for helping, not hitting. (Pearls from MJ and LFFP!)

One day, the teacher reprimanded a student and the entire class started chanting “Shame on you!  Shame on you!” I firmly asked the class to stop that and think about the fact that we all make mistakes.

 On another day, one of the girls incorrectly wrote “01” on the board when she was asked to write “10”.  As soon as the first child shouted out, “Put the ‘1’ first”, with the definite tone of “You’re stupid”,  I interrupted and exclaimed, “Yes, that is right!  Thank you for helping her!”  

I will be remembered as the white lady with the blue eyes and the smooth skin and hair.  I will remember them as the class that taught me to show PEACE.

Reflection Question: When it seems like you’re not making a difference or are wasting your time, look harder. What are some of the powerful moments you’ve experienced when you pushed past these thoughts of inadequacy?

Janice has been granted the fruits of a family vocation and many community volunteer experiences during the past 40 years. Each experience has helped to build her faith in God's unending and unconditional love. She has been a CCD teacher, doula, ESL instructor, retreat facilitator, and mentor to refugee families. Now, Janice is grateful for the freedom and health and the opportunity to continue service and growth overseas. She lived most recently in Greensboro, NC, and loves to garden, sew, read, hike, and do yoga. Janice has been in Kingston, Jamaica since March 2016.