Monday, March 17, 2008


I kind of fell in love with one of my students today.

Not in an inappropriate way, more of a maternal 'I just want to wrap you up in my arms and give you a huge hug' sort of thing.

It was after class and following another hectic discussion, this one revolving around condoms usage, or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof.

Ironically enough, this was the same student who a few short classes ago I had wanted to throttle for the things that were coming out of his mouth. Today however, I saw something different in him. A vulnerability, a sadness behind his eyes, that came with the reminder (which I think perhaps we as teachers and adults can sometimes forget), that he is, just a kid. A kid with a life that is far more difficult and challenging than anything I can even begin to imagine.

It is of no news to anyone that this is a country with exploding incidence of HIV, with women often the ones most at risk. There are many factors that play a role in this, not least of which is the power dynamic in many male/female relationships. Women are frequently voiceless when it comes to asserting their rights with their partners, even over their own bodies. Infidelity runs rampant, and condom use in and outside of the relationship is rare, regardless of the women’s’ wishes. It has been made clear to me by my students and in conversation with others who have had experiences working in township communities, that many men – in this instance and because it is my most direct experience, especially Xhosa men – do not like to use condoms. ‘It is not natural Miss,’ one boy told me. ‘God didn’t make condoms,’ said another.

But back to the falling in love.

After class ended and this young man along with a couple others stayed behind to continue speaking, he was telling me how he didn’t believe in condoms and he didn’t believe in God because God made HIV and HIV was killing his people. I asked him if we know that condoms can help us protect ourselves, then why wouldn’t we use them, regardless of who made them. He told me that men and women were made for making babies. That it was not right to try and stop that. He then went on to tell me that he wanted a kid. Right now. That all he wanted was to hold a baby in his arms. As he did this he cradled his arms and rocked them back and forth.

I looked at him and asked him who would take care of a baby. He said and his family would. I asked who would support him and the baby. Who would make the money to pay for the nappies and the food and the clothes? He said he would. He said he would get a job.

'But what about school?' I asked him.

'Aich Miss whatever for school. What is the point of going to school? Aside from you, teachers don’t even care if you’re there. All they do is get mad at you and pick on you.'

My heart was breaking. I asked him if he thought he tried when he was in class. If he actually came to school to learn and focus on getting an education, keeping in mind that this is one of the most disruptive students in the class.

He thought about this for a minute, then went on. 'What is the point Miss? I come to school but what do I learn? What good is it doing me? Am I going to go out and get a good job? No. I have to find other ways to earn money.'

It doesn’t take a genius to read into what he was saying. Other teachers have already told me that this young man is a gangster. I have asked students to tell me in their own words what it means to be a gangster.

'You are in a gang Miss. You fight other gangs, you rob people, and you stab people. You do whatever you need to do to make money,' they told me.

I didn’t ask him to confirm or deny what I had heard as I don’t really want to know.

He then told me that it would be so easy to rob a bank. Just one time. Just do it and get money and then be fine.

I asked him what made him think it would be so simple. That if it was so easy to do why everyone wasn’t robbing banks all the time. I asked him if he had thought about what the consequences for something like that could be. He said yes he had and he didn’t care. That it would be worth it if he got away with it. If he went to jail, if he got killed, it wouldn’t matter. That if that is what was supposed to happen that is what would happen. If he got killed then it was meant to be. Similar to what he said about if he got HIV. If he didn’t die of HIV he said, then he would die some other way.

Looking at his young face (on which I counted at least 8 visible scars), in his eyes – doe-like with long lashes – and the glaring lack of long term vision and belief in himself or any sort of future that was presenting itself to me in his words were indescribably tragic.

Perhaps the saddest part of this whole exchange was not only the feeling of helplessness I experienced in talking to him, (as of course I wanted to tell him believe in himself! That he could do anything he put his mind to! That Education is the answer! But I was afraid my voice would betray me and I didn’t want to lie to this young man against whom the odds are so greatly stacked), but the realization and acknowledgement that his story – and attitude – are not unique. That his lack of confidence and sense of despair about the future is rampant in these communities, and is I believe in large part responsible for the skyrocketing incidence of HIV, pregnancy, violence, substance abuse and drop out rates that we see every day.

So you see, while I am very aware that I am not going to change any of this during my time here, and that it may take generations for this country to rebuild itself and reinstill in its most marginalized people the important qualities of self-confidence and worth, in that moment all I wanted to do was gather this young man up in my arms and hug him tight. Granted I didn’t and granted even if I had it would have been hellishly awkward as he towers about a foot above me, but you get the idea.

Le sigh…

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Love hurts.

This afternoon I had a disturbing experience. In my Year 11 English class we have begun using the new textbooks provided and authored by a collaborative under the umbrella of the Western Cape Department of Education (WCDE) and a program called Zenex ( Published in 2007, the material and information within is quite relevant and uses a variety of ways to hit the WCDE-mandated learning targets.

Comme example, there may be a reading passage with follow up comprehension and vocabulary questions for the students to do individually and in pairs, as well as class discussion, oral presentation, take-home assignment and debate topics, among others.

The particular one that we were working on today was a story about a young couple – Sam and Sindiswa. Sam is a basketball player and Sindiswa a dancer. The passage traces the development of their relationship, through meeting and falling in love, to when Sam wants to take their relationship to a further physical level, and Sindiswa is not ready. As the story goes on, it comes to light that Sindiswa was raped when she was 13, and ever since then has had a difficult time trusting men. For her, dance is a way of getting her body back and rebuilding her self-confidence. Upon hearing this disclosure, Sam is respectful of her boundaries, offers his support and promises to be patient until she is ready.

The discussion questions that were tacked onto this narrative had to do with being in a relationship and expectations…what do learners look for in a relationship…what is important to them…from that I steered it into a bit of a talk on healthy v. unhealthy relationships as not only was I interested to hear the students' thoughts, but reminders on what is healthy and what is not (in a relationship) are in my opinion useful at any stage of life.

In talking about relationships, I was careful to use the word ‘partner’ rather than boyfriend and/or girlfriend, as I think the ambiguity is fairer, plus the fact that I am aware of at least two gay students in my class. I reminded them that relationships do not always constitute of a man and a woman, and that no one way is more right than another. Tricky ground that I was tiptoeing delicately on given that I am in a predominately Christian community, where religion and God are revered in the highest. To my surprise however, when I used the term partner they responded with the same chorus of ‘yesmiss’ that I have mentioned in earlier entries.

So we spoke about relationships, and what they look for in them…the women in the class saying things like ‘respect’ and ‘honesty’, while the men yelled ‘sex!’ and ‘big bums!’.

This then turned into a discussion on healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, and once again I was impressed at the maturity of some of their answers. They seemed to have a pretty good grasp on the most important elements of being in a healthy relationship.

Then we moved onto unhealthy relationships. The first thing anyone said when I asked what to them would constitute one, was abuse. And then, things got a little hectic.

“But miss,” asked one of my typically disruptive, rarely participating male students in absolute seriousness, “What if your girlfriend won’t listen to you? The only way to get her to listen is to hit her! To make her listen!” he said, while punching his hand to his palm [hard] for emphasis.

As my eyes widened in a combination of disbelief, shock, and confusion as to whether or not he was joking, the class erupted in laughter, high fives (between the men), and yelling.

“I’m sorry,” I asked, “are you being serious?”
“Yes miss! Yes I am! If all you do is talk she will never listen!” he responded.

Clearly the look of confusion on my face let them know that I was a bit lost, so he went on.

“Miss, it is part of our culture. We saw our mothers get beat by their husbands and boyfriends, so this is how we handle things. You only hit a girl because you love her. If she cheats on you, you have to make her afraid to do it again. If all you do is talk, she will never listen. You have to show her that you are in charge.”

My mind was racing. I had definitely not expected this, or the nodding of [male] heads that were agreeing with what this 16 year old student was saying.

Then the girls got involved.

“Miss, it is not part of our culture. The men think it is okay, and we know it is not, but then the women don’t leave. They don’t go to the police. So the men keep doing it.”

Torn between trying to remain objective as a teacher should and violently shaking some sense into these young men while attempting to stay in control of this rapidly exploding discussion, I drew on my own Grade 10 English experience through channeling Lord of the Flies. My pocket dictionary became our surrogate Conch shell, and it was only with this in hand that students were allowed to talk.

Unable to fight the urge, I asked the male students to explain to me how seeing their mothers get beaten made them think that it was okay for them to do the same. Why seeing them in pain wouldn’t make them want to be the kind of man who would never do such a thing (sidebar – it should be noted that it wasn’t all the males in the classroom that were agreeing with this student, although the fact that any of them were is disturbing nonetheless).

The girls asked the boys why they would want to stay with a girl who cheated on them…that if a girl did that, why would they want to be with her?

Then one of my male students asked me – “But miss, what if she is your only one? What if she has charmed you?”

“Charmed you?” I asked, “What do you mean, charmed you?”

“You know, bewitched.”


“Yes miss, bewitched. Sometimes girls go to the witch doctor and get them to mix a potion or put a spell on you that gets her into your head and makes it impossible for you to think of anything else.”


Now I know I’ve mentioned the importance of cultural sensitivity, and being culturally aware and respective, but come on. In the most delicate way, after acknowledging that I didn’t want to offend anyone, I let them know that I don’t know anything about witch doctors. That such a thing is not part of my culture, and difficult for me to wrap my head around.

What I was more concerned with at that point however, were the female students in the class. Time was running out and I could sense the bell was to soon ring. Further, it became clear after some time (and in the interest of being concise – HA! – what I have outlined above is but a snapshot of the conversation), that the majority of these young men were set in their views. That they honestly believed that it was okay to hit and beat their partner if she or he didn’t listen to them. That this was how they got respect, and completely acceptable relationship behavior.

I appealed to the women in the class and said that this was a huge, huge topic that clearly we did not have enough time to get properly into (and again, which I had not seen coming), but that I hoped that they knew and understood that no one has a right to hurt them...abuse them…violate them…in any way. That no matter what they did, they did not deserve to be abused. They nodded and listened but I couldn’t help but wonder how much it was resonating.

Returning to the staffroom, clearly shaken by what I had just experienced, I spoke with a colleague about what had just gone down in my class, and she confirmed what my students had said – that in this context, domestic [and the cycle of] violence in homes and relationships, is extremely common. That for the most part, there is a hectic patriarchy in the township communities, and that many women accept abuse as part of being in a relationship. Further, she substantiated something else my students had said which both saddened and shocked me even more.

When we were talking about being in a relationship versus not being in one, and what students who were not in a relationship liked about being uncommitted, I was given a range of responses, from ‘valuing my independence’, to ‘less stress and worry’, to ‘love is dangerous’. Thinking they meant it figuratively in that giving your heart to someone leaves you open for hurt, I asked them to explain.

“Well sometimes if you love someone, or love them too much, or love them too little, it can get you killed.” Said one.

“Killed?” I asked, “You mean like heartbroken?”

“No miss, killed for real”, he replied while making a gun out of his hands.

I asked my colleague about this and she said that yes, this was common as well. Sometimes if a woman wants to leave a man, he will kill her, kill her kids, then kill himself. Domestic disputes are often resolved not by the law, but with violence and often tragic outcomes. Of course, this is a worldwide problem that is hardly unique to Townships or Cape Town or even South Africa, but the ease and acceptance with which these young men spoke about such behavior was shockingly tragic and definitely not something to which I am accustomed.

Am now at somewhat of a crossroads on what to do about this, as next Thursday is the last day of term before the Easter break and we are very limited on time. That said, I can’t help but feel that a can of worms was opened today that are now all slowly slithering their way out. Have been contemplating taking a period to speak with the class, though only the girls (the males clearly need a talking to but perhaps that would better handled by a male teacher), and get their thoughts on all this. See where their heads are at and if they too feel that such behavior is acceptable in relationships. Gosh only knows what I could accomplish in only one period but I feel it negligent of me to not at least try, non?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Dr. Alex

Part of the Grade 10 Life Orientation curriculum is a unit on Puberty and Sex Education. 54 teenagers and early 20-somethings and me, talking about testicles and menstruation and ejaculation and sex and penis growth. Fun times! Before getting underway I gave the whole “It’s okay to giggle, but we’re all adults here so lets try and behave appropriately” schpeel. Then we dove in.

While some of them were aware of the changes that bodies go through during this period of physical maturation, for many of them I believe this was the first time someone had actually spoken about why and how these things happen. This class of 54 hormone-riddled young adults were silent as I spoke about semen and fertilization and conception and wet dreams and pubic hair. There were giggles of course, but for the most part they were well into it.

When talking about the widening of the hips that happens to women in preparation for carrying a child, one of the boys asked me if a woman’s hips didn’t widen a lot if it was bad or wrong. Clearly the most narrow-hipped woman in this class of gorgeous curvy African girls, I resisted the urge to yell “I sure hope not!”, and instead responded that no, it’s not bad or wrong. That there is no right or good way to be. Many things influence how we are shaped and look (even gave a very brief explanation of Genetics – Saf you would have been so proud!) That every woman (and man’s) body is different, and that is okay. No one is perfect and yet at the same time we are all perfect. Looking at their curious wide-eyed and impressionable young faces, I started to get a bit carried away in telling them how beautiful they all are but stopped myself before it got out of hand.

When the bell rang I told them that I would see them next week (as they only have Life Orientation twice a week). “Not until next week?!” a couple of them exclaimed. Awwww :)

Am unsure if it is my teaching or the prospect of talking about sex that has them engaged, but either way, I’ll take it.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

In short[s],

On Friday morning my alarm didn’t go off, and I awoke 5 minutes before my ride was to arrive. Warp speed in full effect, I got dressed, made my lunch and was out the door. As the planned going-away braai for one of the departing teachers was taking place straight after work that day, and also given that it was a Friday, I tugged on a pair of tailored knee-length denim shorts and didn’t think much of my clothing choice. Especially since the shorts were paired with a tank top and button down shirt.


The second I walked into the staffroom, I could tell that I had perhaps been a tad hasty in my assumption. All eyes were on me (and more specifically, my shorts). Smiling and taking my seat, I asked my table-mate colleague J. if my shorts were a problem. She laughed and said no, not a problem, its just that we are not used to seeing someone wearing them. Too casual? I asked. ‘Yes,’ came her one-word reply. O-kay.

And then I went to class.

If I had thought that the teachers were staring, I had another think coming. As I entered my year 11 English class, students immediately began buzzing and chatting, while clearly focused on my shorts. The lesson began something like this...

“Good Morning Comrades!” (this is how I always address them now)
“Good Morning Comrade!” came their hearty reply.
“How are we this fine Friday morning?”
“Fine thanks and you?” (and so on..)

I then introduced them to the notion of cultural sensitivity, and what it meant and entailed. Talked about the importance of recognizing that when you are someplace other than home, it is important to understand and respect the customs of that place. That just because things are done a certain way where you come from, one must not assume that this is the case wherever you go.

As a case in point I offered them two examples. One of which was my experience at the parent’s evening that I (and several of their parents), had attended a few nights prior. How the format had been quite different from what I was used to, and how surprised I was at the way the meeting concluded. That while ending with the singing of the National Anthem and a prayer was standard here, where I come from it is much different. They were very intrigued by this. What I stressed most was the fact that it is important to be sensitive to these cultural differences, and respect whatever practices may be the norm.

Then I mentioned my shorts.

“Another example of the importance of cultural sensitivity in practice,’’ I said, “is respecting what is seen as acceptable forms of dress. Some of you may have noticed that I am wearing shorts today.” They responded with wide grins and tittering laughter. I went on to tell them about the practice of casual Fridays, and my hurried foresight into dressing comfortably for the braai after work. “However,” I went on, “it has become obvious to me that this sort of dress is not seen as appropriate for work, right?” Nods and the common chorus response of “Yes miss.”

(On an aside, I must mention how cute this is. Students have a habit of constantly letting you know if and when they agree or get something you are saying with a “yes miss.” This can be in any context from when I am explaining something on the board, disciplining the class, in a one-on-one, talking to the class as part of a lesson, or even just prattling on about something or the other. I find this very endearing. Moving on.)

I went on to say how today’s clothing choice was a mistake and neglect of proper culturally sensitive behaviour on my part, and that I should not have assumed that just because it may have been okay for me to dress the same way at home, that it would be so here. Even on a small scale, when one is in someone else’s metaphoric home one must take care to be aware and respectful of the house rules.

Soo yea. In short, les shorts won’t be making another in-school appearance, although in some ways I am glad to have worn them, if only to prompt the brief in-class discussion that arose following the admission of my gaffe.

PS. it should be noted that none of the teachers or students made me feel bad about my shorts, in fact they were big fans and wanted to know where I had gotten them. When I flushed in embarrassment, at the Math HOD’s comment of: “Hey girl! Looking good! Are you going to the beach?” which was met with staffroom-wide laughter, I was quickly told not to worry and that it was not a big deal, just that it was not something they were used to. “Ndisafunda,” came my red-faced reply.