One Epic Game of Mancala: Teaching in the Age of COVID-19

My husband and I just had an argument while putting air in the tires of our bike. Yes, that happened. Our daughter explained we have been around each other non-stop for too long. She may be right… or maybe my husband was simply in the wrong. Either way, our family — like yours, I’m assuming — is having difficulty with the stay-at-home orders.

Recently my family grew weary of sorting through cartoon polar-bear puzzle pieces and negotiating a Get-Out-of-Water Free card in that classic Capitalist boardgame Cat-opoly, so we did what any Zoom-fatigued family of five would do — we broke out the mancala. Wood, marble, hands. What could go wrong?

Let the stones fall where they may. While my twelve year old mopped the floor with us, I couldn’t help but see this simple stone and wood game of strategy as a fitting metaphor for life as a teacher in 2020.

Each of the tiny stones glimmer in their respective half-circle homes, a collection of periwinkle, seafoam, and white full of potential not unlike my students. In a sense, not unlike us all, so static and yet so ready to do, to gather, to grow.

As my hand scoops a few stones, I see the bright young eyes of my ninth graders appear on the screen, looking to me for kindness; as my fingers drop one stone in the next smooth crater, I sense the lessons I’ve prepared landing gently into my juniors’ fertile minds; as I listen to the echo of each stone jostling another, I hear the hopeful voices of my seniors preparing to carry their own stones away from high school, away from home.  

Perhaps the hand reaching in to scoop the marbles of our lives is that of God, Hashem. Perhaps we are each a glimmering smooth stone waiting to be lifted, transplanted, even transcended from where we are now. I imagine as I play mancala that each stone gathered and dropped is a piece of me given over generously to my students, but more importantly a piece of each of my students given over generously to me. And that is the joy.

For what did my God do for me but offer his Son to carry the weight of my sin on the cross? Not a piece of Him, not a mere stone chipped from his being, but Him in full. God incarnate — the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ dropped from the hand of God into my heart. My next move, my end goal if you will is to share that joy.

The end goal, however, of this game called mancala is to gather as many stones as possible, leaving your opponent marveling at your ability to swiftly gather-and-drop, gather-and-drop across the smooth wood. But that’s where the metaphor falls short.

Teaching is not about winning, for there really is no opponent (except maybe apathy, but that’s for a different article). And teaching during COVID-19 is certainly not about scooping up more for yourself while depleting your neighbor. It’s quite the opposite actually.

And that’s perhaps the most poignant lesson my students have taught me these strange months. We are truly stones being moved together and apart across the wooden board of life by the hand of a loving God. Some of us have gained the stone called perspective, some the stone of gratitude, some empathy, and many of us have lost stones of people who meant so much to us. And what can we do but keep playing?

After all, the word mancala is a derivative of the Arabic word naqala, meaning to move. And isn’t that just what we are all trying to do — to keep moving forward through this challenging time, and to do it together. Even if that means apologizing at the Arco air pump.

Baruch Hashem and Thank G-d.

Published by candicekelsey1

I was the nominally Catholic girl who loved helping my friends study for their B'not Mitzvah. I was the English major who obsessively read Holocaust literature. I was the law student who studied abroad in Jerusalem instead of Rome. I was the twenty-five year old who studied Judaism in order to know G-d. I was the thirty year old who unexpectedly met Jesus one magical summer midnight in a Tennessee living room. Now I'm a Christian English teacher at an Orthodox Jewish girls school. And I want to write about it...

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