Sunday, January 20, 2008

Week One - Mission: University Acceptance

I have been back in Cape Town only a week and it feels like much longer. It has been a week of reunions, hot sunny days, checking out cars, and settling in. In between I met with the professor who brought me here to teach at University of the Western Cape and went to the first day of school at Oscar Mpetha on Wednesday.

But the bulk of my energy, both actual and emotional, was spent in my capacity as, what my sister calls, social worker. I arrived just at the right time to take on the mission of making sure that every student I know who is trying to go to university or some sort of tertiary institute gets settled with everything before school starts. This list includes Mongamo, Babalwa and Noluyanda, three of the students from Testing Hope, as well as my former student Sithembele, and two students from my Creative Arts Workshop, Sandile and his sister Amanda.

And so the story begins with Noluyanda. She has big dreams of becoming a lawyer and helping people in the rural areas where she grew up. The fact that she is now a mother has not tempered her enthusiasm for the law a bit. Last year she took a paralegal course, but UWC won’t count those scores for admission to their LLB program. On only her Matric scores, she was rejected. But the door was not closed completely and a few weeks ago she took a test that could let her into the B.A. program in the Law Faculty (department) if she does well enough. Scores didn’t come out until this Friday. Of course when Noluyanda tried calling on Friday the phone rang and rang and no one answered. She is persistent and says she will try again tomorrow and go to the school on Tuesday, when she has childcare, if there is still no word.

I saw Mongamo on Monday. He retook the Matric exams in November and is disappointed with the results. His scores did not improve the way he had hoped, the way that he knew would get him into the University of Cape Town (UCT). In the midst of this new self-doubt about whether he would be able to study, his mom recently lost her job as a domestic worker because the family she works for got a divorce. He said he was thinking of forgoing university and working for his family, but when I asked, he said his mom wants him to go to school. Mongamo’s first choice was to study Math at University of Cape Town, his second choice, to study Math at UWC. His back up plan – study to be a Math teacher.

And so it was on Thursday morning we found ourselves in a long line outside the Faculty of Sciences, which includes the Math Department, at UWC. This compares to no line I ever waited in at Tufts or Berkeley. I have never seen anything quite like it -- a long line of students, far more than fit in the few chairs set out, curling around the hall, all waiting for some piece of information from the department, most with Matric scores in hand hoping hear that they have been accepted. There was a man running back and forth, talking to people in line, rushing back to the office, and back out again with his answers. Mongamo had his provisional acceptance letter that he received a few months ago and his Matric scores, but if his scores weren’t high enough, the provisional acceptance would be rescinded. After about an hour, the man came to us, took Mongamo’s scores and disappeared. 15 minutes later he came back, called out a few people’s names and finally we heard, “Mr. Tyhala.” He walked up to Mongamo, handed him a piece of paper and said, “Congratulations, you are accepted.” I was ready to jump up and down and scream and cheer, but Mongamo was more subdued. He was thinking of the next step… money.

Our next mission was the residence office where my excitement turned into anger when we found out there are only 575 spaces for 3000 first year students and even though Mongamo had indicated on his original application that he wanted to stay in the residence, he is now number 1101 on the waiting list. But that’s next week’s project.

I dropped off Mongamo and drove out to Khayelitsha to pick up Sandile so we could go into town to City Varsity College to find out about their journalism program. When I called Sandile to tell him I was moving back to Cape Town, he said, “When you get here, remind me that I want to talk to you about an idea for starting a youth magazine.” He is spunky and curious and thoughtful and I think he would be a great journalist.

His sister Amanda was home and I asked her how her efforts to get into the Law Faculty at UWC were going. Amanda took a semester of law courses at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and as is not uncommon in correspondence courses I think, did not do nearly as well as she anticipated and certainly not as well as she would have done in a class, with a real live teacher and other students to study with. So her hopes of studying law at UWC are gone and with it her confidence. My comment that she had a future that was more than as a checkout person at a grocery store (her current part-time job) actually brought her to tears. I can’t tell you how angry those tears made me – this is an energetic, bright person who loves learning, speaks brilliant English and when I last saw her had big dreams. So I said what seems to be coming out of my mouth a lot lately, “I know it isn’t your first choice, but how would you feel about being a teacher?” What an terrible thing to tell a kid –I know you are smart and I know you want to be a lawyer, but since you can’t, it would be better to do something at a university than another year of struggling so what about this alternative? (Caveat, I think teaching is a great career and wonderful alternative for her, I would just like Amanda to get her dreams and not her second choices.) Her response, “I might be interested in being a teacher if I thought I could be good at it.” Her lack of success at UNISA had made her believe that she couldn’t be good at anything.

Teaching is Amanda’s option because Aslam Fataar, an education professor at UWC who is now my boss, met Amanda (and Mongamo) when we had a screening of Testing Hope here in July, and basically said that if either one of them wanted to be teachers he would get them into the program.

While Amanda was thinking it over, we got into the car and drove into town for Sandile. Sandile just got back from the bush in the Eastern Cape, where he had his initiation ceremony which signals manhood in the Xhosa tribe (and includes circumcision) and has returned now a Xhosa man. He is dressed in nice slacks, a button down shirt buttoned all the way to the top, a beige suit jacket with 3 buttons, and a black cap. He will dress this way for the next 6 months, an indication to everyone who meets him that he is now a man.

Colleges are generally one to three-year programs, more career focused. City College focuses on multimedia, film, television, and journalism. The person we spoke with was very nice and gave us all the details. He addressed my biggest concern when he said that most students get jobs in the field after they finish the program. I was excited, Sandile was excited, he took the application and then asked how much the year costs. 30,000 rand or about $4,300. It is a private school so there are no loans. You can pay it off in a few installments over the first 6 months but it is a huge amount of money. It would be a great opportunity for Sandile, if only he had the money, and that is where I wish I was independently wealthy and where my ability to advise stops. How can I keep encouraging him or pushing him to go to school and seek out opportunities when I have no idea how to help him pay for them? There are so many different private colleges, some trustworthier than others, and I don’t want him to have to settle in life. He remains optimistic on the drive home and says he will talk to his parents about it and check out a few other things because, “Molly, I must keep my options open.”

We were supposed to go yesterday to the Open Day at the college to learn more about the program and any credit payment programs, but Sandile called me yesterday at 7:30 am to say he couldn’t go. I know that if he had the money he would be applying. I am not sure he will even apply but he is capable and independent and I am trying to let go, to know that if he wants to, he will and if he wants my help, he will ask.

That night I got a call from Amanda. She decided she wants to be a teacher, so Friday she went to the education faculty at UWC with her application fee and applied – well tried to. There is an electricity shortage here and that means occasional blackouts, one of which Amanda encountered at UWC on Friday. But she applied online at the internet cafĂ© in Khayelitsha yesterday and I think orientation starts this week. There are a lot of scholarships around for teaching so I hope that she can get one.

Last, but not least, there is Babalwa. She is starting her third year in the Mechanical Engineering program at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and I saw her Friday to give her the R600 she needed to register and get her grades from last term. I received two generous donations for Babalwa’s education, one from my dear friend Anja’s mother in Berlin and another from a Hebrew School teacher at Beth El Congregation in Bethesda, MD, and so I actually have the money to help her. She called me a few hours after with her results from last term – 3 Bs and 2 Cs!

As it turns out, the rest of the donation I got for Babalwa will not be necessary for this year’s tuition. A bank in South Africa has offered Mongamo, Noluyanda and Babalwa full scholarships, including tuition, room, board and books for their entire education – all 3 years. We are still trying to find out if they will pay Babalwa’s loans, but if not, the donations will go towards that. Let me publicly thank my friend Dylan Wray who works at an NGO here in Cape Town for helping to make this happen. It is certainly beyond my wildest dreams.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The First Day of School

Wednesday, January 16, 2008.

Today was the first day of school here in the Western Cape. Half of the country starting school last week, but the Western Cape and a few other provinces held off until today. Driving from my flat towards the highway, I passed students dressed in all types of uniforms, blue skirts, green dresses, grey slacks and shiny new shoes. Some were going to the elite private schools near my flat – I was going a bit further.

I visited Oscar Mpetha High School once when I was back here in July, but being at the school was incredibly difficult – many memories of my time filming and teaching their in 2005, of the loss of my friend Sipho – and I was not sure how this return would be. I also know that while some teachers really like me, and the film, others in their own quiet ways wish it hadn’t been made. But where else was I going to go on the first day of school

I arrived at 8:05 am and the opening assembly was just starting. Students were crowded into the main hall, standing in rows, neat in their maroon uniforms. Almost 100 other students were hanging out around the courtyard, waiting to be let in. They were tardy, school started at 8 am and enduring a brief punishment before the principal opens the doors. In the next hour, late students would continue to stream in.

There were very few new uniforms here. One boy’s grey pants had been carefully resewn along the hem of the seat of his pants. Another girl’s skirt was far too short – she is in grade 12 and probably bought it when she was in grade 8. But all spent careful time getting ready for school. It is what we all feel on our first day of school – the anticipation, the excitement of reconnecting with classmates and friends, the energy of a new year. One student took a rag out of his pocket and handed it to a friend who bent down to polish his shoes. In my entire life, I never polished my shoes when I was getting ready for school and while I remember liking my shoes, I can’t remember any of my friends taking such care in what was on our feet.

In the main hall, the principal was addressing the students. It was a typical first day of school speech – be on time, behave in class, follow instructions, get permission to leave the classroom and, of course, where your uniform every day. The last comment got a laugh from the students.

Context for this school is important. The unemployment rate in Nyanga is over 50%, many families live in shack settlements, and HIV/AIDS has left its mark here too, as it has all over South Africa. While this main hall is new, the students are standing on the concrete floor – no chairs. Much of the school is in disrepair. Many classrooms have broken doors and windows, they are freezing in the winter, hot in the summer, students sometimes have to share desks and chairs because there aren’t enough. Many teachers are committed, but according to the students, they are not committed enough and it is not unheard of to walk past a classroom and have the students just hanging out, studying on their own or waiting for a teacher who never shows up for the class period.

But there is a confidence here and a pride here and today, the first day of school is about motivating students.

The metaphor of the day was “the race.” The principal congratulated students who passed “the race” last year and had been promoted to the next grade and a round of applause was made of the 12th graders who passed their school leaving exams, known as Matric, and graduated in 2007. But his next words struck me as most indicative of the space that I was in.

“For those who didn’t complete the race, but managed to come back for a new race of 2008 – I am referring to what is known as dropouts – we hope you’re coming back resolved to finish this race. We will do everything in our power to help you successfully complete this race.” I looked at the mass of learners in front of me, wondering how many passed, how many failed, and how many never picked up their results at the end of last year to even know. The principal continued, “You’re provided with another opportunity to correct and rectify what went wrong last year. It is up to you to use that opportunity that is given you.”

I have never heard such a direct call to students who failed a grade, such an openness or perhaps bluntness. Of course the speech would not be necessary if so many students hadn’t failed. In 2006, only 36.5% of grade 12 students passed their Matric exams. Last year, the rate doubled, to 67%, where it had been in 2005, but it is far from where it should be. The drop out rate here is high and it shows. This year, there are 11 10th grade classes, 10 11th grade classes and only five 12th grade classes. Where did all those students go?

After students took exams last year, they had to come back to school to check their results. But many never came. They have arrived here today not knowing if they passed or failed. Is this ignorance their fault because they never showed up? Should the school have sought them out or created a system so know one starts out the first day of school unsure? The principal and staff are faced with a dilemma -- students excited for a new year, unaware that they will have to repeat the previous one.

Before students are sent to their classrooms, there is a special guest speaker. The Minister of Safety and Security for the Western Cape Province has arrived, bringing the press in tow. Why this school? It is in, as the principal so clearly says in his introduction, “the capital city of crime.” Recent crime statistics have brought it the distinction of being labeled the most murder capital of South Africa. The people I know who live here take this in stride. They know their community, the great parts and the risk, and after all, home is home no matter what other people say about it.

One cannot ignore the devastating poverty in Nyanga, one cannot deny the danger, but the astonishing thing is that in the midst of this, most students have a hope and a belief in themselves and the future despite these challenges. They know they struggle, they know former students who have been robbed or even killed, they exist within it everyday. The Minister asks them to keep their eyes and ears open and tells them he is working to help fix the problems and turn Nyanga around. One can only hope.

The school is not immune to the crime. In preparation for the start of the year, 11 new doors were put on classrooms. Some replaced old doors, others were for classrooms where there never were doors. In between last Friday and today, there were two burglaries and all 11 doors were stolen. Last year the school was just about to get set up on the internet, when its two computer labs were ransacked. But for the start of 2008, it was more simple – 11 doors.

The principal pleaded with the students to give him or the police information if they had it, but I imagine the doors are long gone -- sold, burned for warmth, used to build shacks, or any number of other things.

Finally he began to direct learners to their classrooms, “If your results show a pass and you were doing grade 11 and we call your group, and I must insist your results say you have been promoted from grade 11, not that you think you have promoted…” The students broke out in laughter.

As rain started to come down on the sunny morning, students began to move. I ran into one nervous student I know who is very bright and has never failed a grade, but has convinced himself that he didn’t pass last year. Luckily, I found out later, he did.

Then I ran into Kholeka, the teacher from the film who I substitute taught for in 2005. She is teaching grade 12 English again this year but today she has an unenviable task. She is making a list of students who failed last year and going from classroom to classroom to tell them that they are in the wrong grade. It is hardest for those who are supposed to be in grade 12, the top of the school, the preeminent year. Kholeka has become the ghost of exams past, spreading only very real disappointment today. As she told me, the alternative, these students finding out in a week or even two, is far worse.

On a more personal note, I learned Sipho’s younger brother, Anele, failed grade 10 for the second time. I found out by asking someone to show me the test results, because I couldn’t find Anele in the mass of students. Sipho was killed in a gang related shooting last year. Clearly this was a huge factor in his success in school, but unfortunately, personal loss is not factored into the end of year exams. I hope Anele stays in school, but I can’t imagine what it takes to try a grade for the third time. He is smart and special, a 17 year old who loves penguins and aquariums and the ocean – but it takes so much more than just my words, and I realize that I can spend time with him and encourage him to keep studying, but I really know little about what it is like to be in his shoes.

As I roamed around the school, I saw some students hanging out waiting for teachers to come – students here stay in their classrooms and teachers go from class to class – and others sitting quietly as the teachers checked their class lists, took down contact information, and passed out books and papers. We start full force tomorrow, one teacher told me. Again… I only hope.