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.