Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Yesterday the school’s choir left for two weeks in England. A trip sponsored by benefactors on that side of the world, they have gone to Salisbury and London to participate in a music festival and competition taking place at the end of the week.

75 students. 3 teachers. Hec-tic.

The days leading up to their departure, the entire school was abuzz with excitement. A day-by-day countdown to Heathrow was written on the board in the staffroom. For most of the students this would be their first time on an airplane, let alone an 11-hour flight to a different continent. For many, they might as well have been going to the moon. And for all, every member of staff included, the anticipation was difficult to contain.

Each student had to get passports issued for this trip. Everything went smoothly in this process aside from two students who do not have birth certificates. In order to get a passport in this country you need an identity document. To get an identity document you need a birth certificate.
No birth certificate = no identity document = no passport.

Cognizant of this issue months ago, [choir director and English HOD] P., along with the two British filmmakers
( who are making a documentary about P., the choir and the Salisbury adventure, embarked on what proved to be a frustratingly uphill battle with Home Affairs to get this problem rectified.

Countless trips to their offices, phone calls, emails, 2 newspaper articles published, favors being called in, weeks and weeks of headaches and stress and: nothing. Completely ludicrous amounts of red tape led to more red tape led to promises resulting in nothing. Those who could have made a difference in these boys getting passports did nothing. And worse still, none of them cared.

So yesterday, when the group of amped up and overly excited teenagers boarded the plane to Heathrow, those two boys were not among them. The Home Affairs department, for whom Fezeka choir has been asked to and diligently has performed on numerous occasions, denied these young men the experience of a lifetime. Because of bureaucratic bullshit. Completely heartbreaking and unfair.

The one hopefully saving grace to this fiasco is the effect that could materialize when the documentary is completed. Much of the interactions with Home Affairs were caught on tape, and the film will be released worldwide.

This travesty aside, for the other members of the choir, yesterday was the biggest day of their lives thus far.

In the staffroom there was singing and dancing. When each of the teachers who were going on the trip arrived, applause and cheers greeted their entry into the room. Before leaving Fezeka, the principal addressed the group who had gathered in the Science lab, and parents and community members offered words of encouragement, safe travel and prayer.

As we piled the students into the minibuses that would take them to the airport, the mood in the air was electric. Tearful parents telling me how their children were so wired that they hadn’t eaten or slept in days, students who weren’t travelling milling about giving high-fives and hugs to those that were, the entire scene being captured for posterity by our filmmaker friends. Finally we were on our way, a few students and suitcases that couldn’t fit in the buses piled into the back seat of my car.

If the scene at the school was electric, the scene at the airport was a lightening storm.

When our close to 100-strong (almost all staff plus a handful of parents went too), cavalcade rolled up to the international departures terminal at Cape Town Airport, suffice to say that we made quite an entrance. While I was inclined to suggest that they shared suitcase trolleys to as to minimize traffic, I decided not to deny them the full traveller experience, never mind the fact that it was difficult to move about the terminal due to the congestion the trolleys caused.

As I had planned on registering my car yesterday I had my passport in my bag, which proved extremely fortuitous as it allowed me through the gate they have at the airport that separates travellers from well-wishers. This enabled me to help get students organized with check-in, answer any last minute questions, store any liquids or sharp objects they had in their carry on until their return, try my best to alleviate any fears, and of course, snap a couple choice photos.

I stayed with them all the way until the last one was through the security checkpoint, hugging all of them and unable to wipe the smile off my face. Like an overbearing mother, I made them promise to take care of each other and not get separated, telling them we wanted them back the same way they were now, all the while holding back tears of happiness. Then they were through and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Have fun babies. The adventure of a lifetime awaits you on the other side…

Sunday, June 1, 2008

After the rain...

Friday past was the last day of classes before exams and the Winter break. To say the students were antsy is putting it mildly. By lunchtime the school was akin to a barnyard and it soon became clear that there would be no teaching that afternoon.

For the three weeks prior, a group of American students from Old Dominion University in Virginia had been visiting Fezeka and working on a number of initiatives to improve the work/play balance of the school. A group of bright young women, with little direction they hatched a number of innovative ideas during their time here.

One such idea was a merit award ceremony. Based on marks from the first term, they had certificates of excellence printed for students who had performed well in each subject area.

As the group was leaving two days later, an assembly was hastily planned for that afternoon so as to allow the visiting young women to be involved in the presentation of certificates.

Students were corralled into the part of the courtyard where assemblies are held. As they waited, a game of soccer got underway. I stood with my students and watched and cheered. Everywhere I looked I saw smiles, aside from the faces of the players, whose were more accurately involved in intense concentration. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. I felt happy.

Suddenly, as I have come to learn is common during South African winters, dark clouds moved in quickly and let forth a mighty downpour. Students screamed and headed for cover under the awnings that line the walkways outside the classrooms.

Then they began to sing.
And dance.
And laugh.

A back and forth banter took up between those under the awnings and those looking out the windows of the classrooms opposite. Those ensconced in the relative warmth and dry of the building began a cheer. I asked one of my students what they were saying. He told me they were taunting the ones outside in the rain about how nice and dry it was in the classrooms.

All the while, the sound equipment and speakers that had been set up for the assembly were sitting under a tiny ledge, protected from the rain but dangerously close to getting wet. When one of my students ventured out to collect them, the crowd erupted with cheers and applause.

Eventually the rain slowed to a drizzle and the boys once again took up their game of soccer. As I watched this brief scenario unfold, I soon became aware that I had had a smile on my face the entire time. Seeing these young people behave like kids – the kids that they are and yet rarely get a chance to be – playing in the rain and being silly was solely responsible for my smile. And for the feeling of warmth that stayed with me for the remainder of the day, despite the fact that both the hems of my trousers and shoes were soaked right through.