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.

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