March 10, 2010

Teen learns life lesson in Uganda

— Consider this fair warning to any teacher at Portland High School who might break the ice this week by asking students, ''How did you spend your summer?''

Tate Gale has a story to tell.

While most of his peers were busy squeezing all the fun they could out of their soggy vacation, Tate spent four long weeks in a classroom crammed with 90-plus kids his own age.

The classroom was in northern Uganda.

Tate was the teacher.

The kids called him ''sir.''

Tate is 14.

''I loved it,'' he said with a disarming smile Thursday morning, his first day of high school. ''It was really satisfying for me.''

It all started last winter, when Tate's parents, Jon and Nori Gale, got a call from Dana Stinson, a classmate from Colby College who works for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Gulu, Uganda.

Stinson's brainstorm: Send Tate over for the summer to work as a volunteer.

Uganda? A country that just a few years ago was battling the insurgent Lord's Resistance Army in the very region Stinson was stationed?

A 14-year-old boy who'd never flown anywhere alone, let alone to Africa?

''I had to put all of that in a box,'' Nori Gale admitted this week. ''I really did.''

But after Stinson assured the Gales that the region is now stable and that she'd keep a close eye on their son, Nori said, ''we decided there's no way we're not going to let him go.''

So, on July 6, off Tate went. Stinson met him in Uganda's capital, Kampala, which they left the next morning for the six-hour trip over ''the worst roads you've ever seen'' to Gulu, near the Sudanese border.

Along the way, Tate stared wide-eyed at the African landscape, at the baboons feasting on mounds of garbage, at the first of many men he would see walking along roadsides with machine guns

''It was crazy,'' he said. ''I thought, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?'''

Good question.

The morning after they arrived in Gulu -- Tate stayed in Stinson's guest room in a home owned by the U.S. Agency for International Development -- Stinson brought her young charge to the town's primary school and introduced him to the principal.

Come back on Monday at 7:30 a.m., the principal told him.

''Walking up to the school, I didn't really know what I was going to be doing. Cleaning bathrooms? Who knows?'' Tate recalled.

Stinson had told him that maybe, by the end of his five-week stay, he might teach a class or two.

''But that's not really how it worked out,'' Tate said.

He'd no sooner arrived at the school that Monday when a senior teacher sized him up -- Tate is tall for his age -- and asked, ''So, do you want to teach English or science?''

Say what?

Swallowing his panic, Tate replied, ''Well, probably English -- because I know it better.''

''I was scared out of my mind,'' he said. ''Then they sat me down with another English teacher who kind of showed me the ropes.''

So much for his formal training. Two hours later, armed with only a textbook, his poise and his good looks, Tate was escorted to a classroom where it quickly became clear to him that not one of the 90 or so pupils -- all between the ages of 13 and 15 -- had ever laid eyes on a white teacher.

What's more, he said, ''I didn't know anything about teaching other than sitting in a classroom myself. The first class was a nightmare for sure.''

But he forged ahead -- and it got better each day. (After he heard one student softly saying, ''Repeat, sir, repeat,'' Tate realized he was talking too fast and, much to the class' relief, shifted into a lower gear.)

And get this. Not one of the kids, all of whom assumed he was at least in college and training to be a teacher, gave him an ounce of guff.

''The mode of discipline there is caning -- they use it on these kids from when they're very young,'' Tate said. ''As a result, the kids are forever terrified of the teacher. The school was very well disciplined.''

Meaning Tate never had to raise his voice, let alone a stick. Not that he would have anyway.

''I've always found there's a couple different kinds of teachers,'' he said. ''There's the teachers who gain respect by everyone being scared of them. And there's the other kind of teachers, who kids just like. I became the other kind.''

And the more time ''Mr. Tate Gale'' spent with his students -- eating maize-flour-and-water paste with beans each day for lunch, inventing a hybrid game of rugby-football with his own American football after the school's only cricket bat broke -- the more he himself learned.

He learned that every last one of the kids was related to someone who, in the past few years, had been killed by war. He learned that survival in Uganda isn't just another reality show -- it actually is about staying alive. He learned that living in ''100 percent poverty'' can change one's view of what's really important.

''They all seemed to be so happy, despite everything,'' Tate said. ''People here, we have so much but they're just content with what they have, content with surviving.''

He also learned what floats a teacher's boat.

''I loved it when I was making a point or showing the kids something and I could see they understood the importance of it,'' he said. ''It's one of the most satisfying things I've ever experienced.''

It wasn't until his final day that Tate finally told the kids that he isn't in college, isn't studying to be a teacher and is, in fact, a 14-year-old kid just like them.

No matter. As he packed up that day, Tate found a letter on his desk from one of the students -- he has no idea which one.

''Thank you for coming,'' it said. ''And please come back.''

''I'll remember that for sure,'' he said with a smile.

Tate returned home to Portland two weeks ago, just in time for high school football practice. He wore his football jersey to school Thursday and looked like just another ninth-grader making the quantum leap from King Middle School to Portland High School.

Freshman butterflies? Are you kidding?

''If you're friendly and you're confident,'' Tate said, ''you'll be fine.''

Class dismissed.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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