The weather is changing in the Amathole mountains and the debilitating heat of the last few months has given way to crisp autumn mornings – there is nothing quite like the sun rising over the glistening dew that covers a neatly cut lawn. Whereas the bright blue Plumbago, which are in full bloom at the moment, just stare as the loud drone of my Kawasaki imitation rushes past them, the glittering Glossy Starlings fountain into flight, visibly irritated by this unruly disturbance of the peace and quite that so wonderfully inhabits the majestic mountains in which Healdtown finds its dwelling. Term one in this very exciting year of 2010 has now come and gone, soccer fever is beginning to influence even those who hate the game and however negative the newspapers are about our country – usually with good reason – South Africa is the place to be right now.
I take pleasure in reporting on what has been an exciting start to the year at Healdtown, albeit a start with all kinds of intriguing challenges.
An organisation by the name of ‘New Start’ approached me early in February with the offer of testing pupils for HIV/AIDS. I wondered how many pupils would respond to this offer and when I spoke about it at an assembly, there was a visible uneasiness. We spoke about the fact that HIV/AIDS is no longer an immediate death sentence, but that one needs to know one’s status is of course vital. The people from ‘New Start’ came on a Monday morning and I was delighted that just under 60% of the pupils decided to let their fingers be pricked and to find out how things stand with their health. With teenagers you have no choice but to lead by example and so I too sat down in the little tented cubicle for the pre-counselling. I then went to the next station for them to take my blood and then came the 20 minutes waiting period....... I went back to the office and got busy but when I later went back to inquire about my result, I realised what a courageous step this must have been for many of the pupils. Even though I was sure about my status, there was still this uneasiness that crept into my tummy when the lady across from the desk inquisitively looked at her card, so that she could tell me the news. There was a really positive vibe in the school about it the next day and I know many of the pupils were glad they did it.
I reported last year about an organisation called “Teach South Africa” which searches the campuses of South African universities for students who would be willing to teach for two years. In January I received a very exciting e-mail indicating that two of these students were keen to teach at Healdtown. A few days later they landed in East London and have joined our staff. Berkia Banda is an English graduate from UCT and Kwanele Ngwenya graduated with a Bsc from Fort Hare University. Although they soon realised what the challenges in rural education are, they have settled in well and have brought with them a breath of fresh air.
At a recent staff meeting there was again the familiar lament that alcohol is causing havoc in many of the pupils’ lives. In spite of the poverty in this part of the world and even though the villages around Healdtown are small, they all have ‘Taverns’ in which liquor can be purchased. The idea of inviting the tavern owners over to my office and having a conversation with them about this issue was hesitantly tabled, but we proceeded to do just that. Wondering whether they would be open to coming, we sent out a letter of invitation and were delighted when three of the tavern owners arrived for the meeting. (One of them is the mother of two of our Matric pupils!) Initially the atmosphere was a little tense but when they realised we didn’t call them in to growl at them or threaten them with the police, one of my teachers and I had a really good chat with them. We appealed to them not to sell liquor to any of our pupils even though some of them were over 18, and to perhaps check if other people were being sent in to buy this liquid curse on their behalf. Their response was very positive and they are keen to work with us. We are of course aware that ‘where there is a will there is a way’, and that teenage boys who really want the stuff won’t just be put off that easily, but at least this is the start of a partnership which may well yield some positive results. One of the tavern owners even suggested that they join us at an assembly to show the pupils we are working together and that we mean business!
Little things that are part of every school are beginning to happen at Healdtown:
We had the first formal debate – something which the pupils did not find easy but enjoyed immensely.
Interviews were held for the editorial committee of a school newspaper, of which the first edition will appear next term. The pupils have called it ‘Qakazani Makhozi’ which means ‘Shine Eagles’ and I know that the skills they learn here will be incredibly useful for them in the future. (If you would like to advertise in this prestigious newspaper please contact the executive editor at email@example.com)
Learners are starting to use our library and they are thoroughly enjoying the books they are reading. Mary Reynolds, the librarian at St Stithians Boys’ College, has collected a large number of books which they will be bringing down to us early in the new term and which we are excited about and very grateful for. A school without a decent library and without pupils that are reading the books in it, can surely not be a school!
A Matric dance committee has been formed and they have already organised two fundraisers. These did not go without some hitches and there was some last minute scrambling to get things done, but it is again the learning process that is important here. The organisational skills that the pupils take with them make this kind of exercise really worthwhile doing. The Valentines bash was a great success and a tidy sum of just over R400 was raised – in this setting that is a fair some of money!!
We hosted Kingswood College for an afternoon of netball and soccer.
19 of our pupils participated in the first round of the South African Mathematics Olympiad. They found the questions very difficult but gave it their best shot and I am certain that in a year’s time, their problem solving abilities will have improved to such an extent that some of them will move through to the second round.
The senior history and tourism pupils went on a two day educational outing to Port Elizabeth. They visited various places of interest and the pupils had a wonderful time. The soccer stadium blew their minds. These trips are incredibly important for our pupils as many of them seldom leave the villages around Healdtown and thus have no idea what is out there – many of the pupils have never been to Grahamstown which is less than an hour’s drive from here.
The grade 9 pupils did a Statistics project in Fort Beaufort. They had to collect data by counting cars for example and asking people in the street various questions about their cell phones or where they live. Their holiday work is to now present this data as you would see it in the newspaper and draw some conclusions from their findings.
Kingswood Preparatory School recently donated some money to Healdtown which they had raised during a fun run with the kind sponsorship of Wimpy. The money was used to buy a television, a DVD player and to install a dish so that we can tune into the educational programmes broadcast by ‘Mindset’ on channel 319. This is something I am really excited about as I think it will make a big difference in the learning of the Matrics. Some of the best teachers in the country are used by Mindset for the lessons which they produce and they broadcast from 8h30 in the morning till 22h00 at night.
Colin and Janal are two young Canadians who have been visiting family for three months here in Fort Beaufort. They showed an interest in helping with afternoon classes for the grade 9 group and have been coming up regularly every Monday and Thursday afternoon this term. It has been fascinating to watch this grade 9 class. Afternoon classes are no longer a ‘drag’ for them and they wouldn’t miss these classes for anything – even though the mercury has sneaked into the 40’s on a number of occasions. It just goes to show that if your lessons are interesting and if you show that you care about the children, then learning becomes enjoyable – even for the most obstreperous teens.
I continue to be amazed at how many people, like Colin and Janal, show an interest in Healdtown and want to get involved. I was on the line recently to Dave Eadie who, together with his wife Anne, produces a wonderful Matric past paper series and other learning aids called ‘The Answer’. I know them from years back when I was still teaching Mathematics. Dave asked me what I was doing now and promptly proceeded to donate R10 000 worth of books for my Matrics – what generosity!
Then we had the CEO of ‘Teach South Africa’ down for a visit this term. She was down to check up on her two teachers and give them a bit of encouragement. She had told her daughter Charnay, who is a grade 11 pupil at St Stithians Girls’ College, about Healdtown. Even though Charnay has not yet been down to see the school, she has donated R1000 of her own money to Healdtown! I have a plan with this money. The mental arithmetic of the pupils is really not good – even for grade 11 or 12 pupils, 8 × 7 is not something they can automatically give you an answer for. (I know that most modern teenagers prefer to use a calculator for these simple calculations but it is really bad out here) We will thus give the pupils weekly Kakuro puzzles. These puzzles are a little like the famous Sudoku puzzles you see in every newspaper, but require a certain agility with numbers along with the logical thinking associated with this kind of puzzle. The prize money for the first person to produce the correct solution will be R50. In this vicinity that is a huge amount of money and will hopefully act as a strong enough motivating factor to get all the pupils to work at solving the puzzle each week. These are just some examples of people getting actively involved at Healdtown – there are many others, and I am humbled by their willingness to give of their time and resources to people less fortunate than themselves.
I drove up to school this morning for the last time this term. A thick mist enveloped the landscape and as I looked over to the hills through which the twisted road to Healdtown weaves its way, I was reminded of the psalmist who penned the words in Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” As I looked over the valley to my right, there was a sudden break in the mist and a small scrap of bright blue sky peeked through as if to remind me, that beyond the difficulties that sometimes enshroud us, there is a glorious day waiting to be enjoyed. I wondered how much longer it will be until the mists over Healdtown evaporate and we will get to see more than just a small fragment of blue sky. I also wondered how much longer the mists of poverty and abysmal education will brood over the poor of this country, particularly those that reside in the rural areas, hidden from sight and only conveniently remembered during election time. But then it again dawned on me that the mist of our past in South Africa won’t just disappear in an instant – it’s going to take time and a huge effort to clean up this mess.
We would do well to heed what the Nigerian writer Ben Okri once said: “If the rich continue to ignore the poor, violence will be the music to such deafness”.
I would like to end off this report with the story of a grade 11 girl. Asanda is her name and she wants to become a lawyer. She came to me during break one day asking for help with their Tourism practical assessment task. They have to organise a tour for a Brazilian couple to South Africa during the time of the world cup. Flights, hotels, transport, a trip to some game park and an adventure outing to Mozambique are some of the things they need to put in place. Asking a Maths teacher about a real life exercise of this nature is perhaps the wrong door to knock on, but I thought it was a neat exercise and so I got thinking about how to help her. It soon became apparent that for a pupil in a rural school like Healdtown this kind of exercise has a host of challenges. Asanda has no computer at home and thus no internet. Connectivity issues and old, mostly faulty computers at school don’t make it any easier. In addition there is no travel agent in Fort Beaufort and going to Grahamstown or East London would cost far too much for her granny, who lives on a pension grant, to afford. Hmmmnnnn – now what do you do? I had South African Maths Olympiad meetings scheduled in Grahamstown for that weekend and so I said she and a friend should come along and Marion would take them to a travel agent and perhaps show them around the university where I was due to have my meetings. We get to Rhodes and just before we got going with our meeting, I introduced the girls to Dr Sizwe Mabizela, the Deputy Vice Chancellor who is part of our Olympiad committee. He looked them straight in the face and told them that if they produced the required marks at the end of Matric, he would look for the money to finance their studies. Wow – how exciting – but now we have to get those marks!! Asanda came to see me on Monday morning and we discussed a possible strategy for the way forward. To be a lawyer your English obviously needs to be excellent and so I was to give her a novel to read every two weeks. One week she would write a 1000 word essay on a given topic and every other week she would do a prepared speech. She would reduce her TV time from 4 hours to 90 minutes and she would watch SABC 3 or E-TV, including the news each day. I would get her a few TIME magazines to read and another History text book. She would also start exercising by walking for at least 30 minutes, 3 or 4 times per week. It was not long until other grade 11 pupils started asking about why I was helping Asanda and not them. I spoke to them about it and told them I was helping Asanda because she had taken the initiative and come to ask. We then split the grade 11 class into working groups of about 4 or 5 pupils and I undertook to try to help them with anything they needed, but on the strict understanding that they needed to ask for help. All of these groups have been to see me and suddenly our fledgling library is a hive of activity. They are thoroughly enjoying the books and their two-weekly essays are really quite well written – at least I think they are.
Now these grade 11 pupils came to me the other day requesting morning classes on Tuesdays and Fridays at 07h00!! Having recovered my composure after the shock of this request, I said that I wasn’t sure the teachers would be able to get there at that time. “No”, they said, “that is OK, we just need to have a classroom opened so we can sit and work.” I promised to speak to the security guard to arrange it. I got busy in the frenzy of being a headmaster and forgot to arrange the opening of the classroom. It’s Tuesday morning. I’m in the shower and I suddenly remember. Shucks, how silly of me to forget – but no problem, I’ll just quickly phone up the security guard so that he can open the class. No hurry thinks I – they will be a little late anyway – as they usually tend to be. I look at my watch as the phone rings to try to get hold of the security guard – it’s 07h03. Solomon answers the phone. I tell him about the students that will soon arrive for their study time – please can he open a class. I needn’t have phoned – Solomon told me they were already in the hall, quietly working all on their own! Man was I proud of those 13 kids.
And it’s kids like this, that will, with the help of the God of Psalm 121, start ripping aside the mist of hopelessness and poverty in South Africa and will see to it that we see more blue sky than we perhaps ever anticipated. Pupils like this make teaching worthwhile and give me confidence that all is not lost. I know that there are many stories like this – what a difference it would make and oh, how our spirits would be lifted, if this is what we saw on the front page of the Sunday Times, rather than the crud that is supposed to shove up the weekly sales.