Sitting together in a cozy Hamilton living room, Lisa Magurn and Mawa Samb sound like friends reunited after years of separation. They met only a few weeks ago, and in that short time, they already have changed each other's lives.
Magurn and Samb are part of the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program and will spend the school year teaching each other's high school classes--he in the French program at Loudoun County High School, she in Dakar, Senegal, in the English program at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.
Samb arrived in the United States at the beginning of August, and so the two have spent the month preparing each other for the different styles of education they will experience, calming each other's anxieties and sharing perspectives that they hope they will be able to share with their students.
Samb, 37, had a head start adjusting to his new home, having settled in with Jeffrey and Julie McKay, a Hamilton couple who live close to the Magurns. He said the experience already has been life altering.
Take, for example, his new-found hobby: Magurn's husband is teaching him to cook.
"The males [in Senegal] are forbidden to cook . . . the wife is supposed to do everything for the husband," he said. When he goes home, "I intend to change that," he said, adding he has apologized to his wife, who (in addition to cooking) holds down a full-time job at a French cellular telephone company.
Still, Samb worries that his new students will not understand that "different" is not necessarily "wrong." In his Muslim culture, for example, many men are polygamists. "For the time being, I'm not," Samb said, although his father is. But he said he hopes he will be able to explain the practical as well as the religious side of the custom. Until recently, the Senegalese were primarily farming families that wanted to increase the number of children to work in the fields. And when one wife dies, another can take over the care of the children.
From far away--from America--those traditions sound strange. "When you get closer, each thing has a reason," he said, Magurn nodding in agreement next to him.
But Samb has no intention of debating the merits of polygamy with his students any time soon--there are a million things he wants to share with them. But first, "I want to help them locate Senegal on a map," he said with a laugh. (It is about the size of South Dakota on the northwestern coast of Africa.) And he wants it understood that Africa is not completely primitive. He said he often has told Americans he would e-mail them, and "they say, 'What?' "
Magurn, 47, may have an easier time sharing her culture with the girls at Martin Luther King, who tend to embrace what they consider to be the hip and free American way of life. "I have to tell them to slow down," Samb said, referring to their sometimes naive admiration for all things American.
Magurn said she worries, though, about meeting expectations. She has heard, for example, that teachers in Senegal are frowned upon if they admit a mistake or don't know the answer to a student's question.
Not to worry, Samb assured her. "The teacher of English is everything," he said, and Magurn will have a hard time disillusioning the students and townspeople. In fact, he said, she may play many roles. Some people might ask her to help them get an American visa, for example.
Samb also has heard stories about expectations of teachers here. As he relayed what he had been told, Magurn shook her head.
When Samb told the Fulbright representatives he hoped to "integrate" into the culture, they interrupted him.
"They said don't talk about integration, talk about adjustment," he said. Magurn assured him that "integrate" is not always a controversial word.
Samb broached another topic. "They said in America, when you talk to a student, you have to have the door open because of sexual harassment [liability]," he said. He said that may make him afraid to be affectionate, or even play basketball, with his students.
Magurn winced slightly. "I'm a mother and I tend to hug," she said firmly, adding that Samb might have been "overprepared."
One of the biggest challenges facing each teacher is living without family. Magurn is leaving behind her husband, George, and two teenage sons, Tom and Anthony (not to mention a dog, four cats, a hedgehog and several other beloved pets); Samb, a wife, Oumy, and 4-year-old son, Gibson.
But Magurn's family is understanding. "The boys and I are going to just camp out," George Magurn said, seeking to reassure his wife. She said she is the type of mom who still pours the boys' cereal when they let her.
Samb said his wife and son have his seven brothers and two sisters to take care of them. He had no trouble persuading his wife to let him come:
"She wanted me to discover things," he said, "primarily to learn how to cook."
CAPTION: Mawa Samb, left, of Senegal, will teach French at Loudoun County High, while Lisa Magurn, a teacher at Loudoun County, will travel soon to Dakar, Senegal, to teach English.