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 (
http://www.zenexfoundation.org.za). 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?

1 comment:

magda o said...

i'm so happy you started writing all this...