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Trina's Journey and Crayon Story

In this video, Trina Harlow, book editor and film co-director, shares an experience that became a catalyst for future work in the refugee and newcomer field (additional video not in the documentary film):


So the experience that actually led me to wanting to become a teacher was almost an out of body experience. I was standing in a rural school with a very limited resources. It was obvious the school did not have the resources that the nice suburban school had. My oldest son started kindergarten and as I stood there looking around the school, I just knew literally in less than one second, I knew that my background and my career and my skills, I knew that I could contribute a lot to that school environment and I also noticed the children – it was a low SCA school. It had a high dropout rate in the state I worked in. There were a lot of issues in the school and I just knew that I – the experiences I'd had in my life to that point – could help me be a teacher for that school district and that began my quest to become certified as a teacher. And that was a long time ago and I've never looked back. I've loved being a teacher every single day. It was the best career move I could have possibly made.

I had an experience in Uganda that really changed who I am as a human being and a teacher. I was asked not to bring school supplies because of reasons important to the school. It just wasn't a good idea for us to bring in all kinds of supplies. But feeling like I needed to take something with me I took a big gallon bag of crayons and some coloring sheets and I took some cuts of fabric that I could wrap around children and make costumes out of or something. I showed it to the headmaster when I arrived my first morning and he told me it was okay that I use those things but each day when I left the school he wanted me to carry them in a real visible place so that the children saw me leaving the building and getting in our van with those supplies carrying them.

And so we had a great time but one day when I used the crayons something happened that I'm never going to forget. I took one crayon out of the bag and I held it up and I heard this, it was a heavenly sound. I really can't describe the sound except to say it sounded like a choir of angels all singing in harmony all at the exact same second and it startled me and I turned and looked at the interpreter and I said, "What. What's that. What are they excited about?" And she says to me, "They have never seen this beautiful thing you hold in your hand." That's exactly what she said. And I realized that I'm in this room with two hundred and forty three kids that have not seen a crayon and I had brought this huge bag of crayons. I thought I'd brought enough for every kid in the classroom to have several, but I barely had enough for every child to have one crayon so they all got their crayon. They got a coloring sheet. I could tell they had never colored before. And I explained to them that they could trade colors with each other, like this child has red, and this one has blue. Color a little bit with your blue crayon and then you can trade with someone. Because I realize they didn't even know that these might produce different colors. It's an instrument they haven't seen before and they've been coloring for a little while. When these two little girls walked up to me and one of them had her arm tightly around the other one. They were little, maybe seven years old and the little girl looked up at me with her friend and her friend was just crying just tears streaming down her face and she had her hands clutched in a tight little ball and I was wanting the children to have a good experience with me, so I was really concerned for the little girl and I turned and looked at the interpreter, just please tell me what's wrong. And she talks to the little girl for a little bit. The little girl opens her hand and the interpreter says she has broken this beautiful thing and I looked down in her hand and her single crayon had just snapped in half. And I remember that exact moment, being so relieved that that's all that had happened, was that the crayon had broken. Honestly it was like a this is good. I'm glad that's all that happened at that moment. And I explained to the interpreter, who told the child this is normal. They break all the time. And that little girl was cradling that crayon in her hand like it was a newborn baby bird that had fallen out of its nest in a tree. And she looks down at her hand. I'm never going to forget it. She looks down at her hand and looks at the broken crayon. And she just shakes her head in disbelief like it can't be okay to break this crayon.

Fast forward a couple weeks later, I'm in my classroom where I taught in the United States and it was the very first day of school. I had jet lag. I was tired, I wasn't feeling too good after my trip and I had worked really hard to get my classroom ready and get all ready for school – you know that frenzied, busy time that teachers have right before school starts. And I had cut some six by six inch paper and I had the children do a simple little exercise about their summer just as a way to kind of develop new relationships. I had twelve hundred and fifty students a week and there was no way to really get to know all of my students because I had so many but this was the first thing I did with them. I wanted it to be something relational. Tell me about you. Tell me about what you did this summer and I noticed crayons were rolling off the table and falling on the floor and a student got up to go get a Kleenex and stepped on one and smashed it into thousands of pieces and just kept walking. And it happened in slow motion for me, but I saw these crayons just fall. I know they were falling fast but it seemed like they were just slowly flying through the air and falling to the table and I froze in my tracks and I stopped and I reached down and I picked up every single crayon on the floor. I picked up the tiniest little shards and I cradled them in my hand like that little girl cradled that one crayon that had just snapped in half and was entirely usable. I cradled them in my hand. I think students must have seen me doing it. I noticed the room got really quiet and I was standing there and I asked all my students to listen and I told them about a little girl in Uganda who had no school supplies and who cried because she had broken the one crayon she'd been given. And it opened a dialogue for me with my students to help them understand that life is different in different places.

Yes, as human beings we are very similar. We have many more similarities than differences, but my students had a lot of resources. They had a lot of opportunities. They had a beautiful air conditioned school building with running water. They had four thousand dollars worth of art supplies in just that one room in the school. And I used that opportunity to help my students begin to have a broader lens, a broader view of the world and know that children everywhere don't have the same life they have. And that story has become a part of my teaching since that day. I've told every class I've ever taught that story and something really interesting happened to me a couple weeks ago. A teacher in our area that was hosting one of my student teachers sent me a wonderful email and wanted me to know that one of my student teachers had told the Ugandan crayons story. And so it really means a lot to me now, teaching future teachers to know that that experience I had in that overcrowded rural classroom in Uganda with no school supplies is living on past me now.

Journey to Refuge ebook cover

Download the eBook at New Prairie Press

Published April 2019

Recommended Citation: Harlow, Trina D., "Journey to Refuge: Understanding Refugees, Exploring Trauma, and Best Practices for Newcomers and Schools" (2019). NPP eBooks. 26. https://newprairiepress.org/ebooks/26

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

See the full Refuge in the Heartland documentary

For more information about the eBook or film, please contact Dr. Trina Harlow, Book Editor and Film Co-Director, at drtrinaharlow@gmail.com.