Friday, November 7, 2008

End of year rumination.

Friday November 7th, 2008, the last day of classes before final exams.

While the mood at the school was calmer than expected, there was an undeniable sense of anticipation in the air.

My first year Fezeka will soon come to an end. In the past 11 months I have borne witness to many new experiences and keenly observed a school culture which is in many ways foreign to those with which I am familiar.

It has been an interesting line to walk (tiptoe?), as being ‘the new [white] girl from Canada’ and in the interest of not wanting to ruffle too many feathers, more often than not I have remained silent when I see teacher practices and behaviors with which I disagree. This has not always been easy.

I have worked closely with hundreds of incredible, inspiring young people. Young people who live in environments that are often toxic, come from homes where they are paid little attention, are involved in activities or been subjected to experiences that no child (or adult for that matter), should ever be exposed to.

As mentioned in several writings over the past year, it is the strength and resilience of these adolescents and young adults that I find the most astonishing. Despite the constant hardships that are a part of many of their daily lives, I have difficulty remembering when I have ever heard any of them complain about their circumstances. Even once.

“Miss you have to be really careful when you’re in the townships. Don’t walk around by yourself. There are people that like to cut people’s eyes out to sell to other people. Miss you have beautiful eyes so you have to be really careful. They will cut your eyes out and leave you on the road.”

“My brother used to live with us but he had to go away. My sister found a big bag of Tik (crystal methamphetamine – a huge and rapidly growing problem amongst young people in the Cape Flats – see for further info) and lots of money under his bed and she threw him out. He tried to come home a bunch of times but she wouldn’t let him. I found out after that he was a really big gangster. Now he sends money to her but she won’t take it. I don’t see him very often. Sometimes he’ll come find me when I’m walking home from school. He’s always driving a fancy car and wearing designer clothes. Miss you know True Religion? And Hugo Boss? Yea. That’s what my brother wears. He’ll come find me and give me money and ask how me and my sister are doing. I don’t tell my her that I’ve seen him because then she’ll get mad and make me throw away the money that he gives me. Sometimes, when there’s fights with gangs, if they can’t find the guy they want they’ll take someone in their family. I miss him but its better that he doesn’t live with us anymore.”

“I used to live with my mom but then she sent me to live with my Stepfather’s brother. I didn’t like living with him because he wasn’t very nice. Then I went to live with my friend and her mother. Its better living with them even though her mother is sick (I later found out this friend’s mother has full blown AIDS). My mother keeps calling and saying she wants me to come back to the Eastern Cape to work in the fields with her and my younger sister. But I just want to go to school.” (15 year old student)

Laughter – not a search for sympathy or a handout – is generally what accompanies the snapshots from their lives they share with me. When they talk about how getting robbed, stabbed or even killed for as little as R2 (about $0.25CDN) is commonplace; about parents, siblings or relatives who have died – from illness or been killed in gang-related violence and car accidents; about their fathers hitting them in the face if they don’t clean the house; about friends who have dropped out of school because of drug addiction or pregnancy…they are not telling me to shock me or scare me. These are just simply part of their lives. More often than not I hold back tears and hugs for fear of overwhelming them, cognizant that the line between pity and compassion can sometimes be hard to interpret by someone who may have never felt the latter of the two.

But still they come to school. And they laugh. And [most of them] want to learn.

And, in light of these realities, I wind down the year feeling optimistic about next year at Fezeka. If these young people can continue to smile and laugh and try to learn, in the face of unbelievable adversity, how can I not?

Self-evaluation is customary at the conclusion of any undertaking. As I reflect and try to quantify what – if any – impact I have made during my first year here, admittedly I don’t think I am any more well-suited to answer that than I was when I arrived. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, in my soul and in my heart however that Fezeka has made an impact on me. I now have another year to see if I can return the favor. Who knows if I will.

But I’m certainly going to try.

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