It was midweek in Alexandra. The bus pulled over into Realogile school early in the morning. Tom, Mark, Heetal and I jostled out of the bus discussing our plans for the day when one of the local teachers happily told us that school would end at noon.
This was a particularly unwelcomed surprise for me. We had six weeks in Alexandra and I was determined to teach at least the basics of English grammar to my Grade 10 classes. The way I viewed it, my students had a lag of about four years to correct. I wanted to leave knowing that I had at least generated a genuine interest amongst my students for the English language and prepared them enough to write decent university applications. The last thing I wanted were impromptu half days interfering with my plans. I really could not share the local teacher's joy.
Adamant and somewhat frustrated, I started my lessons for the day. I greeted my students in Zulu and they replied in Zulu (our English lessons would never start in English). As per custom, I asked them how they felt. Two thumbs up if they felt great. A flat hand if they were so-so and two thumbs down if they had the blues. I assessed the mood of my class and it was, on average, good. Then, for the first time, a student named Tumelo, asked me how I was feeling. I put up a flat hand and at that moment, something intangible yet perceptible happened. Class 10B suddenly looked determined to make their teacher feel happier.
I had always called class 10B the 100% class. I had a motivational theme for all of my classes and for this one, the motto was 100%. They would always put in their 100% and in return, I would also give my 100%. In a place like Alexandra, hope and motivation are some of the most powerful gifts you can give a child. In the vast and dusty expanse that constitutes the township, the usual little pockets of wonder that children encounter such as gardens, butterflies and playgrounds are absent. Instead children are exposed to isolation, mistrust, heat and dust. In this environment, words alone have the power to reignite hope and ambition.
My 100% class stayed true to its newly acquired title. Five minutes before the bell was about to ring at noon, Anthony came up to me and whispered, “Miss S, can you please go over conjunctions? Do not tell the others I asked.” At that point, I decided to tell 10B that I was going to conduct an after-school revision lesson on conjunctions and that whoever wished to stay could do so while whoever wished to leave, could go now. To my jaw-dropping surprise, not a single soul moved. 100% attendance! Heetal, from Ernst and Young, entered the classroom to fetch me and was stunned at the scene before us. As the other students raced out of school and banged their hands on my classroom windows urging their friends to come out, not a single student from my class paid any attention. We carried on the lesson with feeling of empowerment. Now we were operating on nothing less than 100%.
That day was a milestone for me. Yes, it is true that 10B's English is not perfect. There is a lag that still has to be made up for with hardwork and persistence. However, what 10B displayed that day was an unquestionable desire to start the process of recuperation for those lost years. It is that incident which makes me believe that hope is really the cornerstone of development. In a dry, dusty and cramped up place like Alexandra, it is easy for children to be gripped with a sense of haplessness and lack of purpose. What we must show them, through our words, is that there is more and that they are very close to it. Perhaps then, the children of Alexandra's children would be able to escape the dust and grow up in a place with butterflies, playgrounds and gardens.