Everything about our entrance process is geared toward making students turn and run in terror. I know that may not sound very inclusive or missional, but terror, dread and hyperventilation is the aim. First, we give them a test that includes a great deal of deduction, reasoning skills, and frankly, information that they have never seen before. Then, we ask for teacher recommendations from their current teachers. Finally, we put our students through the most difficult part of all, an interview in English–their second language. In the interview, we try our best to banish all ideas of fun and food by emphasizing the hard work, long hours, and intensity. Some children quit the process on the spot. Others, hear every word, lift their chins and say, “I will try! I cannot promise I will succeed, but I will try.” Even more rare are the students who look at us and say, “I have been waiting for something like this,” and then begin to interview us.
When I talk to people about how hard it is to get into my program, they typically criticize me, smirk, or begin a lecture on God’s love. I have even had missionaries come to South Africa and get angry with me because of the structure and rules that make the boundaries of our program. The underlying idea behind all of these comments is the same: Nicole, this is too hard for these students. Give them a break. You don’t have to be this mean. Most of the time, I don’t respond. Why? The response is simple: I’m not being mean. I am being kind. Our program is by far the hardest academic training that these students will ever go through. When we get them, they typically cannot subtract properly or underline the main idea in a paragraph. As a matter of fact, few even know what a main idea is. They all have beautiful penmanship but cannot compose a sentence. Coming to our program with its expectations, academic rigor, long hours, and reduced breaks will be overwhelming. Generally, the first year of the program, students feel that they are going to drown. It takes more than intelligence to overcome that feeling. It takes a special blend of grit, intelligence and industry that few people have. For a sixth grader to work hard enough to go from a third grade education to a sixth grade education in a year or two is not easy. You have to be an overcomer, and that is what my students are.
Our students come to our program with little knowledge and end up going back to their primary school classrooms to teach both students and teachers the concepts that they are learning with us. Our students are chosen to represent the district at science consortiums and are given positions of leadership once they arrive. Our students debate other schools in their second language and win. Our students face a drunken community, jealous friends, and abusive caretakers and are still determined to win. They are praised for their hard work, promoted for their leadership, and admired for their endurance. They simply will overcome.
Every year, we cut our students’ break times short. We have so much work to cover that several extended breaks get in the way of progress. So, we usually take a bit of break time for instruction. One year right before our “working break,” I was dismayed to hear that one of our student’s mother died over the weekend. I was devastated for her. Her mother was her only caretaker and her death was sudden. Two days later, with her aunts trailing, this student appeared at the Learning Center door. I thought, “What is she doing here?” I looked at her, asked her if she was okay, and hugged her. Then, she said, Ma’am, I am here to work. Even I thought, “Work! Your mother just died.” But, I said, “Great! We missed you yesterday, get started.” I, then, walked outside to speak privately with her aunts. They claimed that she insisted on coming. She said that she could not afford to miss any work and wanted to come.
In the face of such grief and devastation, this student chose to learn. She later told me that she loved her mother, but her mother knew that being a part of this program was going to help her succeed in life. She did not want to disappoint her. Our students make choices like these every day. Some prevail, others fail, but we know what it takes to be an overcomer. Each of our students has something to overcome, we just help them know that they can. We are building leaders, but more than that, we are raising overcomers!