Sunday, April 19, 2009

we are the world.

On Friday I got a phone call from a guy who works with the drama club from time to time. He told me that he had a group of American students with him and wanted to bring them to meet our Drama kids.

After school the 20-odd strong American contingent arrived, 18 students and about 5 adults from a small private drama school located close to Monterey Bay in California. All Juniors and Seniors, I would guess ranged in age from about 15-17 and were accompanied by two teachers, a photographer, a videographer, their South African contact, a Nigerian teacher with whom they were working, and my contact.

A very well-behaved group of teenagers, my first observation was on how smartly they were all dressed. Boys dressed in trousers, shirts and ties, girls in blouses and skirts. The group was overwhelmingly female and predominately Caucasian.

When school had let out our kids joined the group in my classroom. I suggested we move into a circle to better facilitate conversation. The American teacher then put them into groups that were mixed with students from both schools. Students spent some time chatting, learning about each other and finding common interests. When we returned to the circle the teacher asked them to volunteer some information about what they had learned. Tastes in music were quite similar, types of school that the two groups of students attended were not. The American school is apparently quite small, with only a couple of a hundred students, and is located in the middle of lush Californian forest. In contrast Fezeka has over 1100 learners is located in the middle of a township with no forests and very little greenery for miles.

The conversation was candid and warm, all students clearly happy to learn about a new culture. A drum was brought in and our students, with no hesitation began singing and dancing for the visitors. Initially our students were standing on one side of the class and the Americans on the other, but soon they were again in a circle. One by one our students went into the middle of the circle while the drum beat played and danced, then pulled various American students into the circle to dance with them. It was lovely.

The American students, having been in South Africa for the better part of 3 weeks, had been trying to learn the South African national anthem. They had succeeded in learning the first verse, which is no small feat. They asked our kids to sing with them, and our kids obliged. Afterwards, I told them that it was only fair that they now sing their national anthem for the Fezeka students. They decided against this because of its high pitch and instead opted to sing a song from Rent.

Afterwards the Fezeka students performed a couple of short drama pieces that they had written for the visitors. Again, I urged the Americans to reciprocate. As it turns out, a huge part of their school drama program is a 3 hour Indian play which they have been putting on for 30 years. When students arrive at the school in kindergarten they play a certain role in the production, and this role changes according to their age and grade. As it was such a long play, they decided to do a short piece from it that involved singing and dancing. Afterwards a very talented young man in the American group did some incredible break dancing, which blew everyone in the room away.

At the end of the shared time students sat in a circle and had the opportunity to say anything they wanted, many offered words of thanks and appreciation for having had the opportunity to share with each other, if only for a couple hours.

It was what one of the American students said that struck me the most and is the impetus for this blog entry. Reflecting on the time they had spent together, she told the Fezeka students how this had been her favorite experience of the whole trip. Before visiting Fezeka, the teacher had told me, the students had been to Kruger national part and seen the big 5; spent time visiting various tourist destinations and that very morning had had a private audience with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Yet, this experience had been her favorite. She then went on to say how inspired she had been by our kids and how confident and warm they had been when asked to perform. When the American students had sung and performed, many were giggling, looking at each other and blushing in shyness. Very few were confident enough to sing in their loudest voice.

By contrast, she continued, the South African students were unabashed in their singing, dancing, acting and friendliness. Almost all sang in their loudest voices, clapping and cheering others on while they did the same. They were not shy, reserved or apprehensive about getting up and dancing in front of strangers.

Her observation was quite astute and got me to thinking about the reasons for this. Obviously singing and dancing plays a prominent role in South African culture, but is that all? In the Western world, most children of privilege are raised to believe that they can do anything! The world is your oyster! You are capable! You have potential! From my experience, this is rarely the case with the students I teach and one would most certainly assume others from the townships. Yet it was the drama students from the private school in the woods who had a harder time performing in front of strangers than the economically deprived drama kids from the township.

It should be said that in no way am I trying to pass any sort of judgment here – all the students were incredible and talented and wonderful – merely that their differing levels of willingness to perform was an interesting notion to consider while speculating on the basis for these differences.

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