This is a piece I read recently at a youth conference hosted by Re-think Leadership, Unconventional. I was part of Sacred Slam

I watch them when they think no one is watching

I eavesdrop into their conversations when they think no one is listening

Mostly I hear questions, wrapped, hidden, neatly tied with jokes and frivolous talk like ribbons and bows on Christmas presents

So when he walks into my classroom

Shuffling his feet

Bag slung over his shoulder

Shoulders slumped and lost in his over-sized blazer

He has a quizzical look on his face.

I greet him with a smile even though I’ve been warned not to smile as a new teacher, it gives too much away.

I smile to hide my own anxiety about being in this space.

He ambles to the back of the classroom, dramatically drops his bag on the floor with a bang

Slumps into his chair, stares at nothing in particular while waiting for the class to fill up

He doesn’t return my smile and slowly I avert my eyes back to the paperwork on my desk.

Finally the question behind the quizzical look is revealed.

“Ma’am, why are we doing this?”

I pause before I answer him and scan the numbers on my spreadsheet because human potential has been limited to numbers, a pass and a fail.

“I don’t know ” is the answer that I give him

I imagine him as he sat, biting his nails trying to remember all that was stuffed into his brain in order to be reproduced on the blank paper in front of him with the tyranny of time as the clock ticked for two hours, no talking, only the sound of pen on paper.

Has my answer let him down?

Was he expecting an answer because that’s what teachers do, they have all the answers right?

I can see he is disappointed by my lack of knowledge

Maybe I should have told him that “This” is a game and the rules are unfair because they were written by people who are no longer alive or even part of this game.

This is where it’s supposed to begin

The mixed messages about being an individual while wearing a uniform that makes you look like the person standing next to you

This is about the expectation that you must be the best you can be amidst the peer pressure of being as average as you can be

Or is it below average? Because on paper only 30% is expected from you...So you only have to contribute 30% of your energy and brain cells because it’s only just for marks.

This is where people like me, teachers, think they should tell you how to be in the world.

This is about preparing you to be the leaders of tomorrow, forgetting that you ought to be leaders everyday...

This is about rules, structure, order, working longer and harder, preparing you for the real world

This is about redressing a legacy of Bantu education in the new South Africa where young people still leave the classroom without being able to read and write...and thinking? That’s just asking for too much!

This is a playground where the swings, the skipping ropes, the slides and see-saw have been replaced by the many rooms with four walls, passages desks, chairs, books, and if you are really lucky you might have textbooks, science labs, computer labs, smartboards, lockers, tuckshop, library, homework, noticeboards,

And playground politics are about dodging detention, bullies, neat hair, tucked in shirts, wanna-be rebels who are too cool for school, boys feigning manhood, girls pining to be women.

This is about limitations and endless possibilities if the beauty hidden in the young mind could be set free

This is about asking the right questions and making an effort to work out the answers for yourself and not relying on the textbook or the memo or even the person sitting next to you

This is education, teaching, the classroom, the school, my passion and my nightmare...

[context: after exams we give back the marks to the learners before they get their reports. The point is to give kids the chance to hackle over their marks and verify if teachers have calculated term marks properly. So the scene above happened on the day we had to do this with the kids and one of the Grade 9s asked me the question and I extended the question to being about school in general.]


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