One of the things you learn very quickly when you're in the process of an international adoption is that much we take for granted in the United States runs a bit differently in other countries. Electricity, for instance, isn't always a guarantee for many reasons, and so communication via email or even telephone can be quite difficult. That's especially true during certain periods of the year. In Ethiopia, during the height of the rainy season (roughly August through late September/early October), the courts actually close down. It's just too hard to do business, to get around to where people need to be and to be assured that the lights will be on when they do get to work. For Americans, this can be incredibly frustrating; for Ethiopians, it's an inconvenience that is just part of daily life. Not good, not bad, just a feature of what you have to do.
And that's pretty much the premise of Rain School by James Rumford, the notion of working around the seasons in order to get things done. The book takes place in Chad, where Rumford and his wife were stationed while in the Peace Corps. The storyline was inspired by Rumford's encounter of the ruins of a primary school in one village, a school made from mud that was destroyed during the rainy season. The experience fixed itself in Rumford's mind, and years later he used it as inspiration for a bold and evocative picture book.
So too goes the story of Rain School, where incoming students learn that the first lesson is one of construction, as they must assemble their own school building from the ground up. Working together, the younger students learn how to make mud bricks, drying them in the sun until they are ready to be used in the construction. Built around a simple wooden frame, the school also features mud desks, wood stools, and a simple thatched roof. Once the school is assembled, the students gather inside to begin. They find that the learning process is accomplished in much the same way, by first acquiring the building blocks to literacy (learning to recognize and write letters), and then gradually adding to that structure through the other lessons the teacher shares.
At the end "(t)he students' minds are fat with knowledge", and the teacher is bursting with pride. Not much longer, the rains come, and the school the students worked so hard on is reduced to nothing. But the school has served its purpose for that year, as the lessons are carried forward by the students into the next year of learning - and building - the Rain School.
This is a sensitive, deftly written title, one that celebrates the ingenuity of individuals to accomplish their goals. Rumford clearly has great admiration for the Chadian people, which comes through in this story of perserverance. Let's be honest, many of us would give up, wouldn't we? But the ability of the citizens to recognize the value of education is clear, and even the youngest student is willing to work hard to build the school because the payoff is great. I love the students' enthusiasm, particularly Thomas, a new student at the beginning of the book who by the end is a "big brother", anxious to teach others what he learned the year before. And I love that this is a story where no one swoops in to save the day, but where the residents of the village take on all the work themselves.
Rain School is an excellent look at what learning is like in other countries, but at its heart, it's about community and the strength of everyone pulling together as a group. Pair with books like The Weber Street Wonder Work Crew by Maxwell Newhouse or Rent Party Jazz by William Miller for other looks at community and the power of togetherness.
Rain School by James Rumford, published by Houghton Mifflin
Sample: "Thomas arrives at the schoolyard, but there are no classrooms. There are no desks / It doesn't matter. There is a teacher. 'We will build our school,' she says. 'This is the first lesson.'"
Bonus: fascinating interview with James Rumford from Paper Tigers