Written by Courtney Bohlman
Have you ever felt that you were meant for greatness? Let me promise you something, you are. Not only are you meant for greatness but you are this already. That is the most important piece to realize. It is not about the accomplishments you achieve or the books that you write—that is not what makes you great. It is who you are while doing these things. When you make the choice to come from your heart, then every act you do, every breath you take, is important. It is life changing. It is you.
I recently had the privilege to come to Riverdell and connect with the beauty of the land and people who live and work there. While there I had the chance to present a half day talk, along with a few interviews, on Education and the impact that I made while teaching in Ghana. Education and children are my passion. Having years of education myself, earning multiple degrees, I know the importance of it–along with the limitations. I strive to create a better education system for the people of this world and I plan to do just that, one school at a time. I am excited to have the chance to share a part of my story with all of you today. To share this entire story would be difficult and long but I will do my best to sum up the most important parts.
This is the story of one girl, who lead with her heart, and helped change the world of many—by being exactly who she is.
At the age of 29 I had a deep experience that led me to Africa. I had spent years traveling the world, but I was traveling for me. I wanted to find myself, make connections, learn traditions, study ancient practices, visit holy sites. It was all for me. Even though along the way I was impacting and connecting with others, the trips were self-concerned. Until Africa. I went to this powerful event called the Innovative Education Symposium and felt deeply moved by the wisdom I was hearing. People from all over the world were creating these incredible new platforms for education. It was thrilling and I spent the majority of the conference in tears, so deeply moved by the work these individuals were doing. I knew I had to do more. I reached out to some people, who knew some people, and connections were made. After that weekend I went home and started applying. I have always been a doer, an implementer. I have known my whole life that my gift was my heart. My gift is in the being. People always ask me why I have such close relationships with everyone, why I don’t have any enemies or strained relationships. It is because I genuinely care for the people in my world. It is not an act and people feel that. It took me awhile to understand, but I finally know that is my gift. My presence is life changing. The important realization is that EVERYONE’s is, you just have to connect to that piece within yourself.
Knowing this, I realized that my change would come through the being within the action. Through me actually being there for the children and people of the world that needed love and support. At this point, my heart was set on Africa. Little did I know about the journey I was about to set forth upon.
I wanted to help and be of service. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to show these children that they mattered and they were loved. Everyone around me was feeling nervous and frightened because of the limiting perspective that we receive about Africa. However not an ounce of me was scared. I knew this was the right path but I did not realize how right. I did not realize the weight and size of the task I was about to take on.
All I knew was that I was coming to a school, inside of a refugee camp, to help teach the children, along with the teachers. Sounds easy enough, I have been a teacher all of my adult life. I knew there would be some challenges, I knew there would be some language barriers, I knew there would be different beliefs that may create some separation. However even in the “knowing” I really had no idea. I was about to change my life as I knew it and theirs.
I arrived at my school excited and eager to meet my students, share my gifts, and make connections. I walked in on day one and had never felt so much love. Every child in the school came up to me, touching my arms, my cheeks, holding my hands. They were hugging me, smiling, welcoming me into their school. They were so excited to see me, it felt like I was famous. I did not realize at the time that for many of these children I was only the first or second white person they had ever seen. To them I was incredibly special and unique. As we started speaking I realized that even though they spoke English, the language was very different from my own. It took me some time to be able to understand them through words, however I saw their hearts instantly. I have never had a group of children so thankful for me. Loving me from the moment they met me, without even knowing me. These children understood that we were all one. They also were so incredibly grateful that I chose them to be with.
The first hour of school, every morning, was spent in prayer. It was a beautiful sight to see. About 90 children singing to God, giving thanks for the gift of life. That is not something we see in America. We are so privileged that we take it for granted. We forget to say thank you because we have always had everything we need and want. We do not even realize that in the majority of the world, people do not have clean water or a meal to eat. Since we have received it every day of our lives, we forget to be grateful for it. These children have nothing and yet say thanks every morning for the simple gift of life. I learned a lot in that first hour, a deep life changing experience that taught me that life itself is the gift.
The first classroom I walked into will always be with me. We were only a few minutes into the class and the students were already disengaged. There was a boy in the center of the classroom trying his best to stay awake but struggling to keep his eyes open. His head was bobbing around a bit as he tried to focus on what the teacher was presenting. After about 10 minutes of class, the teacher finally noticed that this little boy was struggling to stay awake. He walked up behind the boy and hit him so hard in the back of the head that his head fell forward and hit the desk in front of him. To say I was devastated would be an understatement. What I had just witnessed went against everything that I stood for, everything that I knew was true. I was shattered. I was so overwhelmed and caught off guard that I could not even speak. My eyes filled with tears and I had to leave the classroom. What had I gotten myself into?
The next 3 days consisted of similar behaviors. Students getting smacked across the chest, hands, shoulders, ankles with dried sugar cane. Teachers pulling students around by their cheeks until they were weeping from the pain. Every time you walked past a children and made a sudden hand movement they would curl up their bodies, preparing to be hit. It was obvious that this was the only life they had ever known or experienced. This was normal and acceptable behavior in their worlds. From their teachers, siblings, parents, grandparents. I struggled to believe what my eyes were seeing. How could this still be happening in our world? Even more so, how could this be acceptable behavior? I understood that this was all they knew, the families, children, and teachers. They were not doing it to hurt the students, it was just the only form of discipline they had.
Every night for the first few days I cried as a I went to sleep, with the weight of the task I had taken on. Every single self-defeating thought passed through my mind. Who did I think I was to take this on? This is so much bigger than me. Why was I here? I am only one person; I can’t make a difference here. And on and on the thoughts went. By the time I went to sleep on day 3, I had become the smallest version of myself that I have ever been. I doubted everything I thought I was. I went to sleep with such a heavy heart that I was not sure if I was even meant to stay there another day.
Waking up on day 4, I felt like I was born anew. The heavy sadness that I had been carrying for days had started to lift. I felt a lightness in my heart and a determination in my soul. I realized that despite how hard it was going to be, I was there. I needed to do something. Even if they did not want what I had to offer, I had to try. What was the worst that happened? They asked me to leave? Well I was already considering it anyway so there was nothing stopping me.
It felt like I was floating as I walked into school that day. That was a day I will always remember because it was the day that I said yes to my greatness, to my power. It was the day I said yes to life.
The next few months went by more smoothly as I presented a different option to them. I did not force anything on them, I did not tell them they were wrong and I was right. No, I simply showed up fully in what I knew for myself as accurate and true. By witnessing me and the impact I was making with the children, they made the choice for themselves to try something new. Over the next 2 months the transition slowly took place. They would ask me for advice and tips on how to handle a situation differently. We would take turns teaching and sharing ideas and thoughts about each other’s styles. We co-created a healthy environment for the children to learn in.
When the time finally came for me to head home I prepared to lead my final workshop for the teachers. I went into it knowing full well that I would be sharing the honest truth with them. For months all I heard was “Well this is Africa, not America”. Yes, that was true but at the same time it did not have to be the way it currently was. As I began talking, life flowed through me more elegantly and clearly than I ever could have imagined. I simply reminded them that they were in Ghana due to violence and war—was that the answer? No it was not, so why would it be the answer for their students and children? I reminded them that in the United States we also used to hit our students and call them names, but we changed. We saw a different option and we took it. That is what I was doing for them, showing them a different option. It was up to them to choose it for themselves. If they wanted Africa to be different, then they had to be the ones to do it. They had to be the change to create the change.
That same teacher from day one that hit his student was the first person to stand up. He said to me, in front of the room of teachers and staff, “Ms. Courtney, I didn’t know there was a different option but I know now. I am telling you that I will never hit another one of my students again. I will never call them another name or use my words to break them down.” Within minutes every teacher and staff member in that room stood up and made that agreement. They were going to be the ones that changed Africa.
Change doesn’t always happen instantly. It takes patience and time. It takes choosing and wanting something different. This was only one school, however this one school had over 100 people at it that can speak to what took place. Not to mention that we are opening a second school at a Liberian refugee camp within Liberia later this year. If you are interested in helping to fund these schools and provide these children with clean drinking water, food, and school supplies, I have attached the gofund me link below. These teachers currently make between $16-$30 a month and $2 feeds a child lunch for a week. Honestly anything helps. Here is the Link: GFM: Matthew Cares Foundation
We can be the example that things can be different. If you know in your heart that you have something different to offer, please offer it. The world needs each of us to bring our gifts and create the world that we are meant to live in. We each have a piece to bring. Are you bringing yours?
Courtney Bohlman is an international educator of children and adults. Having taught at schools all over the world, she prides herself on teaching and educating from a compassion-based standpoint. Courtney has been working in school systems for more than 10 years, and as a teacher she has an innovative, expansive and heart-centered approach to teaching. She has two bachelor’s degrees—one in child development and another in sociology with a minor in youth studies and a minor in family violence prevention. She is currently working on completing her master’s degree in teaching and education with a focus on administration.
Courtney is one of the talented teachers, facilitators and coaches in Sunrise Ranch’s Full Self Emergence internship program; she also teaches and facilitates in the Primal Spirituality workshop series. Courtney is a certified yoga instructor in the styles of hatha, vinyasa, and restorative yoga. Having studied yoga in India, she feels it is important to bring the roots of the practice into her classes, which she has taught to children and adults in India, China, Ghana, Togo, Mexico and all over the United States. Understanding the importance of nurturing the physical form, she is also a certified Ayurveda therapist, having studied and worked at a local hospital in Tamil Nadu, India.