Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Looking back

over the last three months of my time at Fezeka, more than anything I am astonished at how quickly the time has flown by. It seems like just yesterday I was visiting the school for the first time, being presented to the entire staff while nervous butterflies fluttered around in my stomach.

Now I am part of that same staff, and feel a sense of integration into the school culture in more ways than I thought possible in the beginning. Although the conditions of my S.A. Visa and the Western Cape Department of Education prohibit my assuming a full teaching schedule, and creates a distinction in the responsibilities between the other teachers and I which is beyond my control, in most every other way I do feel that I have been accepted into the Fezeka family.

This is not to say that the process has been a smooth one. There have and continue to be – shall we say – hiccups along the way. Hiccups which are primarily due to my need to understand and adjust to the ways in which the school culture differs from the Western North American environment in which I was educated. For example, the attitude towards punctuality to and attendance of classes – from both teachers and learners – was something I found difficult to understand at first. Simply put, it is a very lax. Attending and being punctual to class, while theoretically mandatory, weren’t.

I use the past tense as yesterday, the first day of classes after the Easter Break the faculty was joined by the new Principal of the school. Mr. B appears to be a keen disciplinarian who is well aware of the areas that Fezeka needs to work on. At the top of this list is the issue of punctuality and class attendance mentioned above. In addition, upon returning to school today, teachers were greeted with brand new timetables, which now include a 7-day cycle of classes as compared to the 10-day version that had been used for years. Start and finish times of classes have changed as well depending on the day of the week, and the school day has been extended. I am optimistic and about how these changes will go over, although nervous at the same time about how easy it will be to make these adjustments. Having school and lessons start and end at different times every day seems to be somewhat in opposition to the spirit of consistency that we are striving for but only time will tell.

As many of us had hoped, the new Principal appears forceful and first impressions demonstrate that he has strong leadership skills – something that if I may be so bold to say – Fezeka was sorely missing. Again however, only time will tell how this will pan out, although my initial intuitions are encouraging.

Since making the move to South Africa and Fezeka, I have been asked many times about what it is like to do so. What is Cape Town like? Is it dangerous? Are you scared? What it is like to teach in a township? How do the staff receive you? How do the students treat you? How does it feel to stand out because of the colour of your skin? What is the teaching like? Is it hard? And so on and so forth.

My answers, as they have been given time and time again go something like this:

It’s amazing. I feel so fortunate to be able to experience something like this. Cape Town is stunning…breathtaking…a city of many faces and endless contradictions.

It is dangerous, yes, but so is any big city. Fortunately I have not yet had any serious experiences with that side of it although I have several friends who have. As with any large metropolis, it is important to keep your wits about you and not let your guard down too much. I don’t go walking alone at night, and we always lock our front gate even if we are just running inside for a minute. I do not walk around Guguletu by myself even in the middle of the day and not even along the short distance on the large road that runs from Fezeka to the bus station, having been warned against doing so time and time again. ‘You are a target Sisi (sister),’ they tell me, ‘There is no need to tempt fate.’

Working in a Township school is quite different from any school I’ve been in before, for many of the reasons I have mentioned above and in earlier posts. At Fezeka both staff and students have received me very well, and seem genuinely happy that I am here and taking an interest in them and their community. They are eager to learn anything I have to offer, although I am often wracked with insecurity about whether or not I am doing a good job or if I am deserving of their interest. The novelty that I think I was when I first started is beginning to wear off for learners, but this was only to be expected. My skin colour has not been a major issue, although stares are common from passers-by, especially upon my commute to work with other teachers. I can usually count on one hand (that is if there are even any to count), number of other White faces I will see on the drive into school once we turn off the N2 and into Gugs. Whenever I take a taxi by myself in and around Cape Town, I will usually sit in the front seat next to the driver. More often than not the driver is Black, which garners endless stares from those who observe us and are not used to seeing a White woman and a Black man sitting side by side. On that note, it is worth mentioning how rarely I have seen interracial couples here in Cape Town. Before moving here and having a better understanding of the current state of race relations in this country and city, that they would be common. From my experience however, they are not.

The teaching itself is difficult but for reasons that are far beyond me, my students and the school itself. The hardest and most frustrating part of the whole thing is my forced acknowledgement of how much of a disadvantage my students are at because of the legacy of Apartheid. The damage that has been done will take – in my opinion – generations to undo. These students have been raised in a ‘Free’ and ‘Democratic’ South Africa, yet for every Rand that is spent on their Education, 5 is spent on educating a White child. My students share books…desks…sometimes even chairs. For many of them, their only exposure to English is in the 40 minutes a day I have with them, and the music and other forms of media they enjoy. As a result, for many of them, their reading, written (and sometimes spoken) grammar is very poor. At times I am overwhelmed with frustration at the difficulty they have understanding a verb or a concept or even a word that given other opportunities they would have learnt years ago. And yet, our hands are tied. Given such small slots of time with them, with such large classrooms and often inadequate resources, how much can one really accomplish? I refuse to adopt a defeatist attitude about anything, as this doesn’t help anyone and is not why I am here, but when people ask me ‘is it hard?’, this is what I tell them. Yes it is hard, but the most difficult part is how hard life is going to be for the majority of them.

No comments: