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The Two-Year Old Teacher

It’s Me!



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My life is always full of the best experiences and moments that I just can’t wait to share. The following, by far, has to be the cutest and most humbling experience. Through it I learned a lot of about what age does not mean, a greater appreciation for patience, the importance of eradicating barriers, how we can teach and learn more when we don’t take life too seriously, and what it means to be open to receiving the help of others.  Oh! The cliché, “big things come in small packages” has never been so true!

Fatmata and Ms. Ali

Fatmata and Ms. Ali

Approximately 10 years ago, I encountered my first Fulani student, Fatmata Jarai Sall. Not only did she become one of my most beloved students, I have also become a part of her extended family, and she a part of mine.  Today, she is a 24-year-old wife and mother to two-year old toddler, Aissata Sall.  On a recent visit to their family in the Bronx this past weekend, I was asked to stay over so that I could babysit Aissata while Fatmata and her husband, Amadou (Sall), went to take care of some family business.

Fatmata and Sall left the house at 8 AM. I was up when they left but eventually surrendered to another phase of relaxation; and, I looked over to see that Aissata was still sound asleep on the bed beside me. In my usual morning routine, I checked my phone that had been buzzing throughout the morning, read the latest news, and proceeded to go into the living room.  Soon, Aissata woke up by crying, making her presence felt throughout the house. I grabbed her immediately while saying, “Hi Aissata!”  She sort of laughed at the way I half way sung her name as I took her into the living room with me.

The Salls

When I first wake up, I am only concerned with using the bathroom and eating breakfast. I knew the same would probably be true with Aissata. While walking into the kitchen, I asked her what she wanted, but then it dawned on me that Aissata didn’t speak very much English which explained why she tilted her head to about a 45 degree angle and just stared at me. You see, in her culture parents are very meticulous about making sure the younger generations can speak the language of their parents and ancestors. Rather than waiting to figure things out, I swung into I’m-familiar-with-this mode. I knew we both could understand the language of food.  After all, I have nieces, nephews, and cousins—all of whom I babysat as toddlers. I settled on some rice that her mother told me she loved and I scrambled an egg and scattered it on top. She ate it up!

Hours went by and she eventually became hungry again, but this time around, Aissata did not wait for me to discover what she wanted. She got off  the seat she had taken beside me, grabbed my hand and led me to the kitchen. Next she picked up a fluorescent green bowl and pointed to the shelf that

Ready To Learn?

Ready To Learn?

was above my head. As she pointed I cross-checked with her by touching different items that were on the shelf to see if I could get an affirmative answer and eventually, when I touched a bag of Honey Nut Cheerios, she responded with the biggest smile I had ever seen from her.  I grabbed the cereal and poured some into the bowl. Then, I went to the refrigerator to grab the milk, but she had already removed the orange juice and the water that sat in front of it so that I would not have to guess which milk she liked. So smart!

She sat eating in her high chair with a napkin in her lap to catch the fallen Cheerios. I just watched her eat. As she ate, she would make comments to me, all in Fulani, about her cereal. All I would say were things like, “Really” and “Oh Yeah?!”  She would then look at me and say, “Ms. Ali,” as if she were chastising me. We both laughed.

For the rest of the day, we continued with her taking me by the hand, leading me around the house and speaking to me in small Fulani sentences to engage me into her world, but more so that I could meet her needs. I never imagined that I would have a two-year old teacher; and I learned a great deal!  Never once did she become frustrated or impatient. Never once did she quit on me. The entire time, she showed me not to take my ignorance too seriously as she laughed at my bewilderment—when her parents

My Teacher

My Teacher

returned, I was still her student and her father, Amadou, remarked, “She is going to teach you Fulani, watch!”  If he only knew, she had been teaching me Fulani all day, and much, much more. I may not have sounded like Fulani was my native tongue when my lesson was done, but at least now I know that each of us has within the ability to break down whatever barriers exist that prevent us from moving forward when we take the problem by the hand.

So what my teacher was a two-year old–the lesson was invaluable.


  1. Rasheedah Mahdi-Mensah says:

    Simply beautiful! I laughed the entire time that I read this. This proves you are never too old to learn from a youngin!

  2. Andreas says:

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