BRISTOL — Amidst filling out college applications, going on campus visits and completing routine homework assignments, Mount Abraham Union High School senior Rosie Nelson also finds time each week to Skype with the students and faculty of the New Life School in Ghana.
Nelson, 18, on her second trip to Ghana, volunteered at the school for 11 weeks this past summer, during which time she and her 22-year-old German roommate Christina Rohmann worked together to eliminate the practice of caning from the school’s bylaws after witnessing it firsthand.
“If a kid was late for school, they’d get one lash on their backs,” said Nelson, who resides in Bristol with her parents, Elizabeth and Joe Nelson.
For each additional minute that a student was absent, one more lash was tacked on.
“For an hour they’d get 60 lashes,” Nelson said. “It was mind boggling to watch and it crushed my heart.”
At the time, Nelson was teaching in a first-grade class at the small school in Cape Coast, Ghana, where kids, she said, are often late to class. Generally, she said, Ghana has a laid-back system.
“It’s very relaxed,” she said. “Teachers can be two hours late and there’s no consequence. But here (in the U.S.) if you were two hours late, you’d be fired from your job if you didn’t have a legitimate reason.”
After three weeks at the school, Nelson and Rohmann, her roommate, decided to do something to ban what they saw as a hypocritical form of punishment.
“We were like, OK, this is enough. We can’t deal with watching this anymore with these kids being punished,” she said.
The two joined up with a friend who happened to be a lawyer, and got the chief of the Cape Coast tribe on their side.
“We took it to court and at first they said, ‘This is our system.’ And we said, ‘No. If you want to be standing out among all schools, then have a liberal view and kind view on how to treat children. You can’t be doing this.’”
For over a month, the two girls attended more than 10, two-hour hearings at which they spoke out against the system. They drafted a new set of regulations that would ban caning at the New Life School, and six weeks later, it was passed by the local legislature.
“It was something that I never thought I could do, but then once the lawyer offered us help, I knew that we’d have a better chance of passing it,” Nelson said.
Once the new set of regulations was passed and caning was banned from the school, administrators hired an American teacher to run a series of training sessions designed to show teachers new means of discipline.
According to Nelson, there was some resistance in the beginning. Two teachers were fired from the school after they were caught caning students, and others were hesitant to alter their ways of controlling their classes of 40 or more students.
“I feel extremely bad that the school has fewer teachers, but they are working on hiring three more teachers, two American, so that will be really good for their system, and one Ghanaian teacher,” Nelson said.
Nelson, who has kept in touch via Skype video conferencing with both the teachers and students since she left on Sept. 1, said the school has continued to embrace the change, and as a result, has improved in several ways.
“I Skype with the whole school and most of the teachers who are there are crying with how happy they are with the caning ban being passed,” Nelson said. “And their school seemed more lively and upbeat. The school really changed as a whole.”
Each week, Nelson also tries to catch up with one of her former students, 8-year-old Tallulah.
“There was this one girl I worked with, her name was Tallulah, and she really believed in what I was doing,” she said. “She had been beaten when she was younger, and she really believed in what Christina and I were doing. She needed some relief in order to be able to go to school and be happy where she was.”
Since the caning ban went into effect, Nelson reports that Tallulah is doing much better.
“She wasn’t happy before, but now, I talk to her on the phone maybe once weekly, and she says she’s very happy,” Nelson said.
But not all of the students were as eager to see caning to go by the wayside.
“Some of the children believed heavily in caning,” Nelson said. “They believed that their country couldn’t change as a whole, or even their school.”
And there are still larger issues at the school that have yet to be tackled, according to Nelson.
“The average class size was too big for kids to get the proper attention,” she said. “There’s not as much teacher interaction with the kids and there’s lots more textbook learning (than in the U.S.). Teachers expect less of you. Here in America, they expect more. Also, here in America, if kids need help after school, they can go and get help. There you just can’t. There’s not as much one-on-one help. Not as much attention for learning disabilities.”
THIRD TRIP PLANNED
But Nelson, who plans to enroll in a pre-med program in college next year, already knows that she will be going back. She first fell for the country when she, her father and her cousin traveled there with a group from the Gailer School in Middlebury last February. The three worked at the Trinity Yard School, run by New Haven native Rory Jackson.
On March 23, 2011, Nelson will make her third trip to Ghana, during which she will return to the New Life School.
And in a few years, once she’s made it through medical school, Nelson may even make the move permanent.
“I can imagine maybe living there after med school,” she said. “I’d probably work in a local hospital.”
Cape Coast, she said, is about the geographic size of Burlington, though it has more people. Despite the cuisine, which she described as “really good,” and the overall friendly demeanor of the Ghanaians, the country does not attract many tourists.
“I didn’t see another American for the whole 11 weeks while I was there,” she said. “I feel like I came back with a little bit of an accent because I didn’t hear an American accent very much, only on the phone.”
And though she’s only been back in Vermont for a little more than three months, Nelson cannot wait to get back to her friends at the New Life School.
“I really miss Ghana,” she said. “I’m not a winter person at all, and I really want to go back. It was really rewarding to feel like I belonged somewhere else. Not that I don’t belong in Vermont, but it’s another, second home. And I know that the school wants me back because I talk to them every week and see how things are going.”
Though back at home in Bristol, Nelson remains invested in the New Life School and the people she met there, and said she is just glad she was able to make a difference.
“My roommate was 22 and I’m 18, and I didn’t know that at such a young age that we could make such a big change,” she said. “I just feel a big sense of relief for them.”
Tamara Hilmes is at email@example.com.