In January, I got an email from Ms. Cain at Cotting School in Lexington, MA. She had a class of 14-18 year old students with physical, behavioral and cognitive disabilities who picked Her Own Two Feet to read as a class and she said they were loving it. She was wondering if there was any way she could chat with Rebeka and me about our book some time. My knee jerk reaction was that sure, I would love to talk to her class, but connecting with Rebeka was too hard. With a seven hour time difference between Rwanda and Texas and spotty technology, not to mention that fact that Rebeka is in school and it would require asking Africa New Life staff in both Portland and Rwanda to help set it all up . . . it’s just something I don’t ever do.
But then I read the email again. This sounded like a pretty special group of students, and a pretty cool teacher. I googled the school, and wow. Part of their mission statement is to, “provide outreach services, nationally and internationally, to expand our commitment and expertise in the field of special education . . . enable students to realize their highest potential both during and after their enrollment.” I decided to ask the good people at Africa New Life and see what they said.
The phrase “chance comes once” is a big deal in our book.
It’s the idea that sometimes a chance comes along just once and you’ve got to take it, even if it’s hard. Rebeka had several of these “chance comes once” moments. Like when she had the chance to have surgery to straighten her clubbed feet, but it was hard. It meant leaving her family at the age of nine, and flying across the ocean to live with strangers (our family) for almost a year. The kids at Cotting School have had “chance comes once” moments, and my friends at ANL recognized this as one of those chance comes once moments, too. They said yes, and the wheels began to turn. Augustine, who helped me with interviews when Rebeka and I were writing the book, translating for Rebeka’s parents, arranged the details with Rebeka’s school and got the wheels rolling in Portland.
Sonni (pictured in the top left of our zoom screenshot) set up our call and was on at 5:30AM Portland time the morning of our virtual visit. We got a call from Augustine that the French president was in Rwanda, roads were blocked between Kigali and Kayonza and he was running a bit late that morning, but the headmaster had things under control and as I sat in my computer in Austin, Texas in my little zoom box, chatting with Sonni in her cozy little zoom box in Portland, talking to Augustine in his mobile zoom box driving down the road in Rwanda using his cell, all of a sudden the headmaster in Kayonza popped up in his zoom box, and then there was Rebeka, looking so spiffy in her new high school uniform with that same dazzling smile and sparkle in her eye.
My eyes got all welled up with tears but I kept my cool and shortly after, more and more zoom boxes popped up in Massachusetts as the students in Ms. Cain’s class came in, each on their own computers so they would all be able to interact well during our visit. They asked such good questions, both easy (“How old are you?”) and difficult (“Why couldn’t the doctors fix your arms?”), and Rebeka took them all in stride. It was awesome to hear from her again and see her interact with readers and talk about her story.
After about thirty minutes she had to get back to class, but I stayed on and shared some slides and we chatted a little more before saying goodbye.
I am so grateful for the opportunities to connect with students and share Rebeka’s story. I am a thousand, million, kajillion times grateful to Africa New Life for the hoops they jumped through to bring Rebeka onto our call with Ms. Cain’s class, all the way from Rwanda. And I am grateful for how this slide, with a quote taken from the book, never fails to recalibrate my day. One of the last things I do during an author visit is teach students how to say the word thank you in Kinyarwanda. It’s murakoze. I say murakoze to the people at ANL, to Ms. Cain and her students, and to the one who continues to bless this story.