Thursday, June 18, 2009

Reconciling myself...

After the safety question, the second question I am usually asked when I tell people what I do is:

“Oh you teach in a township? Is it hard? It must be really hard…”

My answer, as previously mentioned, generally does not change and falls along the lines of recognizing and understanding how difficult the lives of my students and their social locations are, is hard. Teaching in a township is no harder than any other teaching job I have had in the past. The challenges that exist because of my students’ poor literacy skills are tied into the poverty into which they have been forced, that has equipped them with a sub-par primary education, giving them building blocks so weak that everything that comes next is shaky at best.

A close second to my beef with irresponsible teachers is my frustration at my inability to connect with more students, and recognizing those students whom I am unable to help. Students who are so far gone down the path of illiteracy, having been ushered through the school system despite being unable to read or spell. These students need intense, one-on-one tutoring if they are to even have a fighting chance at a decent job down the line. Unfortunately, nothing like that exists for them and as such, for all intents and purposes, they are lost.

It is only very recently that I have started to come to terms with the fact that I can’t help every student. I give all of me to the students I work with, whether they are in classes I teach or not. I love them and I will do anything for them. I only work with about 200 students out of 1100 enrolled. A year and a half and I have only just begun to accept that that is enough. It’s not ideal. But that’s okay.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

enabling the apathy.

President Zuma, in his recent state of the nation said the following:

“We reiterate our nonnegotiables. Teachers should be in school, in class, on time, teaching, with no neglect of duty and no abuse of pupils. The children should be in class, on time, learning, be respectful of their teachers and do their homework.”


If only it were that easy.

While it is encouraging to see the current administration taking an interest in the education system and the issue of teacher motivation and absenteeism, something tells me we are a long way from seeing a tangible difference in any of these areas. And I’m not talking about the students. They are the least of my worries.

A Western foreigner who has spent the last year and a half volunteer teaching at a school in the Cape Flats, my frustration with those of my colleagues who do not attend and/or teach their classes has perhaps been my one greatest challenge. Oftentimes I have observed teachers who shirk responsibility and seemingly feel no obligation towards their students. Little else infuriates me more. A further issue is how the other teachers – those who do honour their contractual obligations and actually attend and teach their lessons – too play a role in this blatant disregard for students’ best interests. While I have had discussions with many teachers on the subject of the negligent teachers and these teachers have been in agreement with my grievances, I have never once seen any of them criticize or come down on those who are guilty of these behaviours. In no way does it seem to interfere with their relationships with the delinquent teachers and more often than not when teachers are bunking class, there are at least one or two other teachers (who are legitimately free) joking around and passing time in the staffroom with them, in so doing passively condoning this despicable behaviour.

In France, those convicted of ‘Non-assistance a personne en danger’ are punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a 1000 euro fine. In North America, Good Samaritan laws similarly though to a less severe extent obligate people to assist those in need when they see or are aware of a crime being committed. Granted we are not talking of crimes of neglect, abuse and murder in the literal sense, but how about in the figurative? Neglect of their duty towards their students? Abuse of their power as adults in positions of authority over these kids and as such the kids are reluctant to challenge them or speak up about their teachers’ absenteeism? Murder of students’ intellectual potential? Sabotage of their futures? Are these not crimes?

Having never been one who is afraid to speak my mind, it has been – shall we say – challenging for me to keep quiet on how I feel about those teachers who are guilty of these offences. Always aware that I am an outsider who has managed to unintentionally rock the boat before, I am wary of speaking out against these teachers when none of my colleagues seem to feel this same need.

When I encourage those students who aren’t being taught to speak up for themselves – to tell their teacher that they want to be taught, to tell the principal that they demand to be taught, to start and circulate a petition – my urging is met with blank looks and nods. But nothing ever comes of it. The idea that they have rights in the educational machine escapes the majority of students, through no fault of their own. As if the challenges they face are not substantial enough in their own right.

Going into the exams that students began writing today, I feel confident that my students are as prepared for their English and Life Orientation exams as they individually can be for what will be required of them. I have done my best to ensure that this is the case. I cannot speak with the same confidence about the students of my colleagues. As of day before yesterday one such colleague had not taught one of the poems that will be on the exam, and when the opportunity to have the poem taught by someone else (visiting American University students who have no teaching experience) arose, my colleague jumped on it without a second thought. This is the same poem that I wrote about in a recent blog, upon which I spent several lessons and extension activities to permit a wider understanding and appreciation of the poem. Granted, my education and experience has equipped me with perhaps a weightier arsenal of teaching techniques. In acknowledgement of this I routinely share all resources, ideas and lesson plans that I seek out and create, with my colleagues, in so taking the burden of preparation off their shoulders. But it seldom makes a difference.

Earlier today I spoke with an Education without Borders colleague about these issues and why by contrast I seem to care about my students more than certain colleagues. I told him that I don’t think that it is fair to compare me to them, as our social location, education and experience differs so significantly. I am here volunteering because I want to and I have the resources to do so. I come from a loving family that has always supported me. I am fortunate to have had the freedom to travel. And I know at the end of the day, I am driving off the school property, out of Gugs, into Cape Town and my other life. Unlike so many of them, there is light all around me, not just darkness. I don’t spend my weekends at funerals or go home to children and unpaid bills.

The fact that not all my colleagues are keen to stay at school as late or be as available to students as I am doesn’t surprise or bother me. The fact that when some of them are at school, if they even attend school, that the level of investment is still so clearly imbalanced? That bothers me.

Schools are designed to do more than indoctrinate students with academic knowledge; many important social mores and acceptable behaviours are learned as well. What lessons does this negligence send to youth – the future of this country – about the importance of professionalism?

In the education system, as with many departments within the public service, bureaucratic disciplinary procedures overwhelmingly favour the employee. Overworked and under-resourced principals should not have to be glorified babysitters. Rather, teachers should have the professional maturity and work ethic to do the job which they are paid to do by South African taxpayers. And until the repercussions for their systemic apathy become severe enough to elicit a change or the entire educational community – top to bottom – refuses to condone this behaviour, students, helpless victims of this systemic negligence and neglect, will continue to fail.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Shelter from the storm.

“You live in South Africa? Wow. Do you feel safe? Isn’t it really dangerous?”

The majority of entries on this blog have to do with my students, school and – to a lesser extent – observations on life in Cape Town. A very small percentage are on the topic of violence and issues of safety, ironic as this is usually the first topic of discussion people broach with me when I tell them I live in South Africa and work in a township.

Granted, I have (touch wood), been very fortunate when it comes to my personal safety and experiences of violence since moving here almost a year and a half ago. I do have friends though – very close friends – who have themselves been victims of violence in Cape Town, ranging from being pickpocketed to having their homes and cars broken into to being held up at gunpoint to getting hijacked while they were behind the wheel. These people just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They weren’t making themselves targets, they weren’t being overly risky. It just happened. It is the threat of random violence and crime that is perhaps most real for the average person living in Cape Town.

One cannot however ignore the fact that violence and crime happen all the time, everywhere, constantly. Not just in Cape Town, not just in South Africa, not just in poor countries. People of all walks of life are victim to violence, perpetrators are often similarly diverse. So why then, do people always think of crime and violence when they hear the words South Africa and township? Surely there are other things about this country and communities that are more deserving of recognition?

Well I suppose the statistics don’t help. ( Johannesburg is often called the murder capital of the Southern Hemisphere, and those who are familiar with townships often evoke images of shacks, squalor and desperation when thinking of these centres of population. Not that any of this is necessarily incorrect. Johannesburg is consistently rated as one of the most dangerous cities in the world based on rates of murder and violent crimes, and in townships you will indeed find shacks, squalor and desperation.

But how does this affect the everyday person living in Cape Town? How has it affected my life as a temporary resident? Well for starters, Cape Town isn’t Joburg. Statistically speaking, there is far less reported crime in the Mother City than in the country’s economic capital. But then, there are also many more people living there than here.

A good married couple friend of mine recently had their house broken into in Cape Town. We had all been out for dinner when the husband got a phone call from the security guard informing him that he had caught an intruder literally red handed – laptops, jewellery and passports in hand. The husband left dinner to attend to the matter and soon after we took the wife home to see what was going on. When we arrived, the intruder was being forced to kneel, hands behind his head, facing the wall. Who knows how long he had been that way. One of the security guards was standing directly behind him, a knee in the guy’s back. If the guy moved an inch, the security guard yelled at him and pushed him forward with his knee. 2 laptops, an xbox, 2 external hard drives, a myriad of jewellery and an assortment of colognes and perfumes were among the loot that was found on the guy when they apprehended him. Based on where my friend had her jewellery hidden and how much of the house he had covered, they estimated that he had been in the house for close to half an hour when they found him.

The police arrived about 45 minutes later. First came two black police officers who took an inventory of the goods that had almost been stolen and talked to the homeowners. A white officer arrived about half an hour later. Gruff, hostile and abrupt, he spoke to the other officers as though they were underlings. I did not like this man. After about an hour all of the officers prepared to leave. They cuffed the intruder who was still kneeling outside facing the wall (and had by now been doing so for the better part of two hours). Once they had cuffed him they ordered him to stand up. As he slowly eased back since undoubtedly his knees and legs were numb, the white officer lost his temper and yanked the guy into a standing position by his handcuffed hands behind his back, dislocating the screaming man’s shoulders in the process. Human arms are not designed to move this way. I felt ill. One can only imagine what happened to this man once he was in police custody.

I am not empathizing with criminals of course, and this is surely due to a Western (humanitarian?) upbringing which generally forces me to first consider circumstance before passing judgement. Regardless, I had great difficulty seeing the guy being treated this way.

I couldn’t help thinking that my friends were surprisingly calm about the whole break-in episode. Had it been my home that had been broken into and ransacked, the feeling of violation and I suppose fear that I imagine I would have felt would not have been palatable. But they were calm. When I spoke to the wife she told me that in the big picture, this wasn’t a big deal. Even if the things had been taken, they were just that – things. She then told me a story of a friend of hers who lives in Johannesburg. Her friend’s husband she said, concerned about the safety of his family and pregnant wife, had installed some security measures that my friend thought completely over the top. They included a metal wall that could lock off the top half of the house from the bottom half, and a bullet-proof saferoom. These seemingly overly cautious precautions ended up saving their lives when armed men broke into their home in the middle of the day and shot at the husband as he dove into the safe room where his pregnant wife was already waiting. When the baby was born (premature), because of the shock and excess of adrenaline that had been released into the mothers system during this experience, it was riddled with birth defects and died a few days later.

Based on knowledge of this experience then, it is not surprising that my friends’ reaction to their break-in was so subdued.

In recent weeks following the break-in at my friends home, my housemates and I too, have had a couple of scares though admittedly far tamer than any of the aforementioned. About a week ago I was at home alone and getting ready to go out. As Catherine’s room is the only room with a proper full length mirror, I went from my room at the back of the house to hers at the front. As I switched on the light in her room I heard a loud rustling sound and a quick movement behind the curtains. I froze. After what seemed like an eternity I crept into her room towards the curtain. When I pulled it aside there was nothing there but her window was open. I found this strange as Catherine is generally quite diligent about locking her window, but assumed she must have forgotten and wrote off the experience to a cheeky cat. After greeting me when she came home a few hours later, the first thing Catherine asked me was if I knew why her window was open. Apparently she distinctly remembered closing it as rain was forecasted. A survey of her room found her bicycle helmet which she religiously keeps on her bike’s handlebars, sitting on her windowsill. This meant that it had been a person responsible for the noise and movement I had heard, and that this person had unlocked Catherine’s window and been unable to pull the helmet through the bars on the window. Despite knowing that the person could not have gotten into the house because of the bars, this was still disturbing given that I had been in the house at the time.

Three nights ago my other housemate Suzanne was at home alone sitting on her bed reading. Her window was open when she was startled by a sound on the front porch. She moved aside her curtain only to be greeted with a man, no older than 20, staring her right in the face from the other side of the window. She screamed in surprise and he did not move. After staring her down for a few moments he then casually made his way down our front steps and climbed over the wall separating our house from the sidewalk (we have a front gate).

Although nothing actually ‘happened’ in either of these incidents, it has made us more wary and aware of our wellbeing. Noises on the roof that I have always thought to be (and almost certainly are), cats, now make me jump. I triple check that doors and windows and that my car is locked whereas before I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. These minor lifestyle adjustments pale however in comparison to the fear that so many of my students live with every day. These kids are robbed, assaulted, stabbed, raped…on a daily basis. Even the walk home can be treacherous. Driving one of my students home the other day, he kept thanking me for doing so as to walk home at that time of day he said, was dangerous. Gangsters would rob you if they knew you had even R5. It was 4:30pm and the sun was just beginning to take its first steps in its decent across the sky.

So what does all this mean? Who knows. Do I feel safe? For the most part I do. Do I take unnecessary risks? Not if I can help it. Do I live in fear or am I overly cautious? Definitely not. Violence can and will happen at random and to anyone. It may happen here more than the average town, but most of the time I don’t feel any less safe than I have on the streets of my hometown, which in part due to its low crime rate, has been voted one of the best places in the world to live. (

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On beauty.

As part of the grade 11 English Literature curriculum, students study Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 104’.

Sonnet 104

To me, fair friend, you can never be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d
In the process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born, was beauty’s summer dead.

As an introduction to the poem, I wrote the following assignment on the board:

‘You have just met the most beautiful person you have ever seen. Write a poem to this person describing their beauty and the effect it has had on you.’

While sometimes written assignments are met with groans and protest by this group, this day they wasted little time getting down to business. After a sufficient amount of time I collected their books and put the pile on my desk. Whenever I ask students to read their written work out to the class, it is rare to get any volunteers. To avoid this, I decided to take the pressure off of them. One by one, at random, I read out their poems to the class. I kept each book hidden so that they wouldn’t know whose I was reading, and not once did I tell them author of the poem that was being read.

As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, while on the whole I thoroughly enjoy my job and working with teenagers, there are particular lessons that stand out in my mind as extra special. This day was one such lesson. The students’ reactions to the poems were entertaining beyond belief. Cheering when someone used an effective metaphor…crying out as if in church when beautiful images of beauty and love were expressed, it was a truly lively and interactive experience for all in the classroom.

Then the lunch bell rang. And not one moved. They stayed 15 minutes past the end of the period to hear all of the poems. I cannot recall even one lesson at any grade level that I have taught, in any school, in any country, where students willingly stayed that long after the lunch bell had rang, without any encouragement from the teacher. It was amazing.

Some of my favourite poems follow.
Note: Have made some minor editorial and grammatical changes to facilitate the reading of the poems.

Just look at how beautiful you are.
You are glittering like a star at night
Your smile attracts, even in my dreams.
You are like a birch tree with smooth black
beauty skin.
You smell like a rose at spring,
Your lips taste like an apple orchard.
Just look at how beautiful you are.

Gorgeous Girl

Hey you gorgeous!

Your beauty is in my heart
Your eyes are sexy like nothing on earth

Your voice is making me happy. When you talk,
to me its like nothing my ears have ever heard.

Your smile makes me happy. When you smile
at me you rub my heart.

I like the way you are beautiful.
It makes my heart feel like I’m dreaming…

Hey you gorgeous! You make me feel happy.

Your beauty…brightens
up the room, it gives life
to the corpses.

Your beauty is very dangerous:
It made me blind.

Your beauty is like water in the

When its stormy and
you walk out of
the room the sky
changes like the
clap of a hand or
a beat of the heart.

Your beauty is like
when the sun is setting
and the sky is all relaxed

Your beauty is like an infant
so innocent and pure.

My beautiful black berry
Your small eyes and cool lips
You smile like a shining star
When I see you my eyes start
To be happy my mind tends to
Wander. My life without you
Wouldn’t mean a thing.
What a surprise in my life!
Your soft black body makes me smile every day.
I wonder what life would be without you.

A red rose!

She is a red, red rose
That is newly sprung in June.

Her eyes glisten with love
With her hair so beautiful
upon her cheeks and falling
along her neck like jewels,
so vivacious and shiny.

There is a fragrance about her!
Yes, and can only be recalled by
The sound of her name.
Her teeth as white as a
Newly born goat.

She is a
red, red

I have met an angel

I have met an angel that
touched my heart.
I have met an angel that
blinded my eyes
because her beauty is like
a star shining in the night.
I have met an angel that
made me forget about everything.
I have met an angel
that no mortals can
describe because she
looks like she was picked
From heaven.
Her beauty shocked
Me like I was seeing
A ghost that wanted
To take my soul and
Tear my heart apart
Like my heart was a building
That was exploded by a
Nuclear bomb. I wish
I could see an angel
As beautiful as that again
Deep inside my heart
She has a special room
That is covered
With white and red roses.
When we meet again I will

As a follow up assignment after we had spent some time deconstructing the poem, I had the students rewrite the poem in their own words. Again, the results were astonishing.

Sonnet 104

Your beautiful face will never change in front of my eyes since the day I saw you. You are like the wind of winter that stripped my heart to be at a warm place and I wish your beautiful face could turn to be yellow. Your beautiful face has burned my heart into ashes. Since the day I saw you you were like a newborn baby that charmed the eyes of the world. Nobody could describe your beauty and instead just wish to praise you. You are sweet as a peach. Your beauty fooled me like it was a dream and I proclaim to the next generation that no one can compare to your beauty, even if you don’t remain.

Beautiful friend

Your beauty seems to be always
shining when you wake up or didn’t
go to bath you stay as brand new,
like you are fresh shining every day
and night like you are swimming in a
new bath full of Reach Fresh and
the best of all times. The first time
I saw you you were so whiteness like a
basket full of peaches and creams.
Teeth eyes hair everything about you day and night
summer winter spring autumn,
you stay shining as you are a sun in the midday heat
or a star in the midnight sky.
You were born to be the greatest example of beauty
I have ever seen.

Sonnet 104

Your age will never change your beauty
Beautiful friend.
For it seems the same as it was when
I first saw you.

Three years have passed
Since I first saw you
But you are still fresh and green.

Oh! No but beauty
Like a tortoise on a journey
Fades from the one it is glued to
That no one can recognize it.
In the same way your lovely beauty
That seems to be unchanging
Is really changing and my eyes and view
May be tricked.

But if it is,
I proclaim to future generations:
The most beautiful one in the world
died before your birth.

Sonnet 104

Your beauty does not change
It’s just the same as the first
time I saw you. Since then the
violent, windy cold winters
have turned to be three hot
summers. Then the trees
And leaves turned yellow
But when it became older
It was ruined, dry, dying.
Ever since I say you you were very
beautiful and even now you are
still hot and beautiful and young
and your beauty moves, changes
very slowly and no one can see it
when it changes. In the same way
as your beauty changes your beauty seems
unchanging and my eye is being
fooled by your beauty and
there is no one that I can compare
your beauty with and I’m making
this proclamation about the great
beauty of my friend.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Unforgettable fire.

The day I will never forget

The day I will never forget in my life is the day that my parents shows how much they hate me. It was on the 1st day of January in 2009. the day that was windy and very rainfull. I was drunk because of having strested and I told my self that I am eating New year. My mother called my father and she told him I am drunk so he must quickly beat me.

My mother was here on Cape Town and me and my father were in Transkaaie. I was living on my mother’s home and someone was a rumour and he?she told my mother that I am drunk. My mother didn’t even ask questions and she called my father that he must quickly go out and fetch me to my fathers home. My father came and he didn’t even as too he just said “Hey you damn come here!” I didn’t even go slowly I said with an afraid voice “I am coming.” On the road to his home he stops the car and park it he beat me like he is playing boxing. I cryed no one give a damn about me. He stop beating me and we go when we arrived to his home he beat me again with a cane, I cryed no one feel sorry for me. That was the day that I realise that they both hate me. My mother didn’t react like a woman she didn’t even said to me if you get drunk again I will call your father as she makes me become scared, no she just do it.

On that day I end up telling my self that I am going to be what I want to be in future no matter what. There is a saying when is going to be white it first become black and it end up white thats what I told my self on that day. That day is the day I will never forget in my life, I even wrote the date of it in my dairy so that I can’t forget it. My parents hate me and there are more things that they keep on doing to me, like I came with a mistake on Earth.


The day I will not forget

The day I will not forget when I start to go to Fezeka Senior Secondary School. I was so nervous and scared becouse in that year was my firs day in high school. And when I get in I saw all the learners wearing their uniform but me I didn’t wear the uniform becouse of money.

The day school opened I was having little happy, because am starting the new school But I was shaking, scared and nervous. Becouse I never saw people like that in my life. Other people they think that I am a boring person becouse most of the time like to keep quit for a moment and set down and think about my personal things. After that my sister go to principal’s room and tell him that in don’t have a uniform. He said: “don’t strees it’s not the big deal as long as she will came to school becouse other parent they don’t have money to buy the uniform although she will wear the black and what.”

And then I go to class and I saw my friend at premiry and we chatted about that morning and other thing. The first teacher got to the class and start introduce her name to use and also we do so. But the third teacher she came with attitude. The name of that teacher is ***. She said “Why are you wearing the black and white do you think this is a funeral or we go to funeral. who died? Please tell your mother to bought you the uniform you make our school derty please girl.” I was so the “ouch” the teacher can talk like that, I can’t believe that. I go to home with a broeken hart. On that year day I started to hate her becouse she embarrassed me in front of the class and learners they lough becauswe she want the learners to knowe her that what kind of the person she is?

What I say the teacher will not judge or have a right to do things like that becouse you don’t know are you going to be. And you don’t know about your next day that are you going and is the people that you cretized is going to help you one day.