The school bell rang. Break time! The sound of young feet thundered down the stairwell, accompanied by excited voices. Twenty minutes of freedom to be outside. To play. To run. To be young children unencumbered by responsibility and worry. I clambered down the stairs with my friends, leaving the monotony of standard 3 lessons behind me. Thinking back, I cannot remember who our teacher was. What I do remember, however, is the group of girls I spent time with both at school and after school. I remember the games we played, and the songs we used to dance to in the living room of my best friend. I remember the afternoons after school spent at the swimming pool and in the sauna of one of my buddies.
Break time at school was meant to eat lunch and to spend some time outside in the fresh air. To us it was something more. It meant gobbling down our sandwich on the run and then playing our games. We enjoyed playing elastic with the stash I had begged from my mom’s sewing box. But during the winter days, we ‘built’ houses with the grasses that had been cut and left to dry in our school field. My group of friends, as well as the group of my sister’s, worked on our task with enthusiasm. We did as much as we could during our free time, knowing that before school we would continue with our building and our play. Placing the grasses into a sort of circular rondawel helped with our imaginary play.
When the ringing bells pealed across the large fields, the school children attired in dusty uniforms reluctantly moved towards the brick two-story building that housed our classrooms. The gust of wind stirring the cut grasses and the eddies of dust did little to encourage us to return indoors. We would rather have been playing outside under the African sun than to be seated behind desks listening to the teacher drone on about things I have forgotten.
(The prompt made me think back to when I was at school in standard 3 – or grade 5 as it is now known. The primary school that I attended was newly built and had had no developed fields when I was a student there. We played on grounds that were dusty and in the veld that had been set aside for track fields, cricket and soccer fields. In the winter, the tall grasses were cut to dry in an effort to prevent fire. As children, we loved playing with the grasses and using it for imaginative play. By the time I left the school to go onto high school, the parents had raised enough money to lay down proper grass for a track field.)
In July of 1989, I took an aeroplane for the first time and left my country of birth, South Africa. I took the trip with my uncle and godfather, my sister, and my cousin. The four of us had planned an adventure with my uncle taking the lead. The destination? Mauritius – the island where my dad, my uncle and many relatives had been born. For him it was a trip back to his birthplace; for the three of us it was a trip to discover the place where one of our parents had been born.
The 10 days we spent together on the island were magical. We had a lot of fun and made many memories. I got to spend time with my godfather (whom I loved a lot), and I got to know my cousin even better. It was a time before I graduated from university as a teacher, and a time when my sister had been working for a year. We spent moments on the beach, shopped in Port Louis, and met my cousin’s grandfather who took us to so many places in his old car (which broke down a few times!).
For our holiday, my uncle had booked a bungalow which was near one of the big hotels along the Mauritian beach. At night we would head over to the hotel to drink cocktails and dance to the music played by the DJ. At that time there was a song we loved to dance to – a song that was not being played in South Africa at that time.
While dancing to Gimme Hope Jo’Anna by Eddy Grant under the warm Mauritian skies, I could not understand why such a catchy tune was not being played on South African radios – especially as his other songs were being aired. It was only a few years later when I was able to listen carefully to the lyrics, did I understand why it had been banned from the country. It was a song against Apartheid, the government of South Africa, and the people who ran Johannesburg.
Knowing the meaning of the song’s lyrics, however, does not change the pleasant memories I have of the time I first heard and danced to the song.
Do you remember hearing this song? Where was the first time you listened to it?
To love your work as a teacher, there are a few things that you should enjoy:
Spending many hours with children. Working with young children requires patience and understanding of how their inexperienced minds work; working with adolescents requires patience of a different kind – and a willingness to talk about a wide range of topics.
Being creative. The best lessons are those in which the children are actively engaged. Being creative allows one to think of various activities and games that the children can enjoy.
Taking risks. A desire to try something new can lead to an improved learning experience. Ideas and activities do not always work out but they will add to your experience as a teacher.
Putting in the extra time at home so that the children in your class can benefit from the extra effort. Teaching is not a 9-5 job. Instead, work is done after hours and often on weekends.
Enjoyment of children, creativity and trying new things are factors that lead me to loving my work. I have tried working at office jobs – but I always return to the classroom.
The high school students I taught at Qhakaza were often discouraged. Many had written, and failed, their grade 12 external exam. They had previously attended schools where teachers were continously on strike, or were not interested in teaching them. School riots were common in the townships at that time and often students’ education was interrupted.
I began each school year by helping my students believe that improvement in English is possible, that hard work can help them pass and improve their grade. Each student had a small glimmer of hope inside of them (which is why they attended school so far from their homes) and I set to fanning it so that their belief in themselves and their desire to receive the School Leaving Certificate grew.
Anything is possible. And I saw it many times. Children who had failed their English exam entered my classroom each year. Dedication and hard work on my part as well as that of the boys and girls in my class, led to children passing my subject – and sometimes surpassing all expectations. When scanning the results in the papers after Christmas, I always felt a sense of satisfaction that a goal had been achieved.
My first weeks of teaching at Qhakaza in Johannesburg were invigorating – and yet tiring. I felt the same emotions when I began teaching inToronto: happy to be back working with children but exhausted at the end of the day. No matter what grade I have taught, nor in which country, one constant has remained the same. On entering my home, I take off my shoes, make myself a drink, and spend some quiet time alone.
Home has become the sanctuary where I relax and recharge my energy. Working with children, no matter what their age, does take plenty of my energy. As a teacher, I give of myself to my students the entire day: to ensure that work is being done and is understood, I am on my feet. At times squabbles need to be dealt with, or direction needs to be given.
Home time gives me the opportunity to think on how I will present a lesson to my class. I also think of activities I can do with them – and take the time to create them. Making games is possible with my computer, a colour printer, scissors and glue. Often I am sitting with my feet up cutting or colouring. Yes, being a teacher gives me the freedom to be creative and to do things that children enjoy.
The proximity of my family, a delicious meal at the end of the day, and a good night’s sleep. All of these things enable me to arrive at work the next day recharged and ready to begin my day.
It did not take long for me to embrace the experience I had been led to. I adapted to my environment and learned to use the tools available to me: the blackboard, a box of chalk and the photocopying machine. No textbooks were on hand so I bought a copy of texts that were available in the bookstore and used them as a springboard for creating my own worksheets. The newspaper and magazines were perfect resources for comprehensions; old external exams were a guide to the type of questions I prepared my students to answer; the news was a starting point for so many debates and unprepared speeches.
I slowly became used to the many names I had not heard of before. I remember vividly a boy whose name I could not say – Mpumelelo. We all laughed at my attempt at pronouncing his given name. He made a concession for me: he chose a name he liked and said I could call him Luke. I taught him for three years and, even when I could pronounce his Zulu name, he requested that I continue to call him by the English name he had chosen.
As I welcomed Qhakaza and the students that attended the school into my life, I thrived. The owner of the school encouraged me to take initiative and gave me free reign on running my classes. My involvement with the children extended into after school hours: I would take them to experience their first live theatre; I would work with them in their preparations for a year end concert; I would spend Saturday mornings helping them to prepare for their grade 12 final exam.
I embraced Qhakaza; and the students of Qhakaza embraced me. The 9 years I spent at the school helped me to grow as a teacher; and satisfied my desire to help children who were in need.
I remember clearly teaching my first lesson as a qualified teacher.
The community school (Qhakaza Secondary School) was housed in a coverted factory building that had been coverted into classrooms. Chemical toilets had been brought in for the students use and the walls had been painted black and white (the lower half black, the upper half white). The ground floor rooms had small, dust-covered windows while the basement had no natural light.
On my first teaching day, I descended the stairs to the basement with trepidation. I was a brand new 23 year old teacher who had had very little contact with people of other races. I was a child of Apartheid who was stepping into an unknown experience. I walked into the neon-lightened, airless room of my grade 12 class. A sea of fifty faces watched as I entered. I walked up to the front and began my first lesson: reading and answering a comprehension. After a while I got used to the intent faces watching me, listening in silence. The students were crowded around rectangular desks and many of them were older than they should have been. Their experience of learning had been erractic for a few years and they all dreamed of obtaining their school leaving certificate. They hoped I would help them achieve it.
As days became weeks, I managed to capture and hold the interest of my students. And they captured my interest too with their tales of their own life experiences. I learned of senseless rioting from the mouths of those who suffered from it. I heard stories of people being thrown off trains as part of the political violence that was erupting in South Africa at that time. My heart ached for the children who had lost their innocence so early and who experienced such a brutal side of people.
During the first few years of living in Toronto, I felt that I was stuck. I missed home, I missed spending time with my mom, I missed the lifestyle I had lived in South Africa. I spent my days in the apartment we had rented with my children: playing with them and doing ‘work’ with them. My husband had not found a job and the worry of that weighed on my mind.
I felt stuck between two places. I longed for home, for the familiarity of the surroundings I had grown up in. In the city of Toronto I was unable to move forward because I longed for the place I had grown up in, and because our situation did not seem to be changing. Friends were difficult to make as people in the city of Toronto are not as open as those who live in my home country. We had no car and could not drive around. Our place was sparsely furnished with almost no mementoes from our previous lives.
I felt stuck for many years – even once I found a job. The job was just that – a job. I did not enjoy doing it and yet continued working at it each day as we needed the money to pay the rent. I found a better job working with pleasant people – and yet I was bored. I had chosen to teach so I would not be stuck in an office all day but that was what I had ended up doing.
It has taken a while but I no longer feel that I am stuck between two places. I am now working at a job I was trained to do and I am enjoying the experience. Bit by bit, I feel that I am moving towards where I should be. It is still a struggle as I was not born in this place but at least now I believe that my goals can be achieved.
If you have missed any of my Migrating North posts, head on over here.
The piano that I often helped to polish stood gleaming against the wall; the stool covered in red cloth pushed underneath. During the day the piano was not played but stood in pride of place with photos adorning its mahogany top. Most days, after his arrival home from work, he would open the piano to reveal the black and white keys. He would sit down with a smile of pleasure and move his fingers along the keys to create sound. At times he would place sheet music on the music rack, but often the song flowed through his fingers by memory.
I now realise that playing the piano after work was my dad’s way to relax after a stressful day. His pre-dinner drink would be on hand as played the tunes of the songs he loved. This was his time alone – a time he took even over the weekend. The sound of the piano would echo throughout the whole house and the silence that came when the sound stopped was the signal for supper time.
I wonder where the music took him as his fingers moved over the keys. Did the haunting ballads take him to still, faraway places? Did the jives and the cha-chas take him to the dance halls? Did certain songs take him to places in his past? Did the music make him think of the people he had in his life?
The piano lived with my dad until the day he died. Up until then it still stood gleaming against the wall, waiting to be played. Now it remains a memory of my father and my childhood.
My childhood room was always a safe haven for me: a place where I could quietly immerse myself in the stories I loved to read; a place where I could spend time doing calligraphy and drawing; a place where I could practise mathematics and do my homework.
My parents helped me create this haven. I remember the time we spent searching for the right furniture in the second hand stores, entering store after store because I had not yet found that perfect wardrobe nor that matching dressing table. I wanted wood and something old-fashioned and what better place to find it than in places where people sent their unwanted furniture. We eventually found what I wanted. I loved the way the wood had been carved to create beauty; the way the varnished wood glistened and shone once it had been polished.
I chose the colour of my room as well, opting for my favourite colour of the moment: green. My parents and I painted the walls a hue of my chosen colour. I remember the round table I had next to my bedside. My mother had sewn a white tablecloth which she decorated with fabric paints. She spent time as well creating a duvet cover for me on the sewing machine. On my bedside table I placed my alarm clock and the books I was currently reading next to a pot plant. I enjoyed plants and had quite a few in my room. My desk was a polished brown with six drawers. I spent many hours happily seated on the chair with my feet settled on the bar underneath. The desk no longer graced the floor of an office and instead experienced the writing and doodlings of a teenage girl. The greens in the room and the browns of the furniture calmed me and made me feel that I was happy in my own space.
My bedroom was one of my favourite places to be during my childhood. I would often lie curled up on my bed with our cat, transported to worlds that authors took me. I was always happy that my parents had given me my own space and had allowed me to do with it what I wanted.