Rick James, Gambles, & High School

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I’ve been planning out my life since I was in middle school. I wanted to be a musician and a journalist. After reading The Hot Zone, I briefly went into a period when I was certain that I would also add virologist to my many titles. Then, as I transitioned into high school that dream turned away from music and science, and towards storytelling. I wanted to be an author and after a year in college I knew that I wanted to obtain my PhD in Creative Writing and become a professor. I never imagined living abroad and teaching English in those plans because it always seemed unattainable. I’d never been able to afford study abroad in school and while my major was in the English department—creative writing degrees are much more about how to poetically break every rule of English than grammar and conjugation. However, during the summer of 2014 I decided to take a gamble and finish my application for Fulbright.

Gambles aren’t exactly my fortitudes and I wish I had a poetic reason for going through with it. My French was becoming dismal when I applied and for the past year all I had lived and breathed was my honors thesis. When I started this process I told myself that the reason I was applying to Fulbright was because it would be great practice for those pesky graduate school applications that were right around the corner. However, during July when I was rewriting personal statement essays between babysitting my cousin and working part-time, I realized that I needed this gamble because I’d done too many revisions on my life’s projection. I applied because I needed change. Fortunately, there’s nothing quite like 75 teenagers to help provide a new challenge.

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I work primarily at Athenee des Pagodes in Brussels, Belgium. I work under four different teachers and with students in their 5th and 6th year. I’m primarily in charge of their conversation skills. It’s my job to create lessons that are focused on getting the students to talk and express their ideas and opinions in English. I’ve done lessons about gender and Halloween, which naturally spark lots of excitement and participation, but I’ve been fortunate enough to bring in more complex topics to the table including immigration in the US, eating disorders, and history lessons of various racial minority groups in America. I had the personally pleasure of introducing Rick James to a group of sixteen year olds and breathing a sigh of relief in knowing that everyone has at least heard of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Being in Athenee brings a certain sense of déjà vu. I’ve never missed high school since and when I have to separate cliques in the classroom or struggle to make my way through hallways packed with kids, I instantly remember why. But I am so incredibly grateful to have been placed at this school with these children. They warm my heart in a way that I wasn’t expecting and their personalities are truly infectious. Sure, there are days that are incredibly long, when I’m certain that a few of my former teachers are conspiring with the powers above to create payback for my smart mouth as a kid, but those moments are brief and fleeting amongst the hours that I spend getting to help shape the mind and opinion of young people. I remember my high school experience. I never had woman of color as one of my teachers. I didn’t learn about gender identity or create commercials for an advertising unit. But what I didn’t have I can give to others, and hopefully inspire them to take gambles and travel outside of Belgium and teach others about all of the things that they hold dear. Or just spread the gospel about Rick James. After all, the more people who are touched by the power of 80s R&B the better.

– Nia Dickens
2015-2016 Fulbright Grantee to Belgium

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