Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Appreciating clichés: don’t judge a book by its cover

I recently watched the movie “Dangerous minds”  where Michelle Pfeiffer is a teacher to a group of high school learners who are bussed from poor communities into a privileged affluent school far from their own communities. As a teacher in a similar context, the movie left me thinking about my teaching experience thus far.
 One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in my teaching experience thus far has been the danger of assumptions. When I met my learners in January I made assumptions about them based on the behaviour I observed, how they expressed themselves in the classroom and how they applied themselves to the work I gave them. Observing my learners (especially when they are not looking or when they think there are no beady adult eyes around them) means that I make meaning of their behaviour based on what I know about being a teenager in 2012 and the kind of relationship I should have with my learners when they walk into my classroom everyday. If my children were book covers, many of them have been true to the hackneyed expression “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. As much as I can read their behaviour and make assumptions about who they are, I still don’t have a way to fully understand them as people. Teenagers are humans and they are as inscrutable as the sea.

A simple example: I gave a class of Grade 10s a dictionary skills activity to be done in class. But because my learners are often uninterested in their work, they wasted time in class by talking to their friends. At the end of the lesson I announced that whatever work they had not completed they had to do for homework. I was dumbstruck when one of my learners said “I don’t have a dictionary at home”. I could have simply ignored this statement and expected that everyone in the class will fulfil my orders demanding that homework is an imperative. I didn’t accept that the learner was simply trying to get out of doing homework (which is very probable) so I decided to believe the student who told me he didn’t have a dictionary at home. I encouraged him to make plan about this without indulging the idea that a lack of resources for some learners is a reality. As my mother’s daughter I insisted on the Afrikaans adage “a boer maak a plan”[1]. I was also left wondering about the expectations I place on my learners without fully understanding their limitations therefore as a teacher, I can make glib statements without thinking what my learners make of them.

Another example: at the beginning of third term one of my learners dropped out of school. The school discovered this when we followed up with the family when we realised that she was missing school after a seemingly long illness. I didn’t see this coming and even though I only knew the student for two terms, I’m sad to have lost her. The experience has taught me that the short interactions I have with my kids are within a broader context of their lives where they may choose to bring into the school with them or not. The little I knew about the learner, I thought she would overcome the challenges of being in a new school and embrace the opportunities available to her. However, this was not the case. What’s even worse is that she may not have seen any of her teachers as people she could confide in. I have lost a student into the bitter black hole where high school drop outs seem to go when they become the bad statistic in our country. The little I do know about my learner is that she doesn’t have many options available to her. She’s now in a small town in the Eastern Cape; a province with a shambolic education system.

I can recount endless stories about the implications of making assumptions about the people who walk into my classroom. And the joy of teaching is that every time I realise my lack of judgement I learn something new about myself and about my learners. And if I know anything else is that clichés are often true: we must never judge a book by its cover.

[1] A loose translation of this would be: one ought to make a plan when faced with a challenge

Monday, September 10, 2012

Musings...Waiting for the barbarians

I recently watched the play  “Waiting for the Barbarians”  based on J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Babarians. Coetzee’s writing has often left me unsettled and disturbed therefore I didn’t watch the play as a fan of his work, but rather as a critic to see if the play would have the same effect on me as his books.
The story is about “the empire”— that does not have a definite geographical location in the novel—  waiting for barbarians who are on the verge of attacking the last outpost. The relationship between the barbarians and the empire can be extended to current day South Africa where the question of safety, security and the need to identify who the real enemy is when we live in violent society such as ours. The story requires readers (and the audience who watch the play) to contemplate and question their idea of who are the real barbarians when we are in a context where the president is associated with the words “mshini wami” (give me my machine gun) or words “shoot to kill”, “kill the boer” are bandied about so easily and our newspapers are filled with images of police brutality and the insecurity of poor people where their only hope for justice is vigilantism.
The story of the empire and the barbarian, is centred around a Magistrate who is sympathetic to the cause of the barbarians. There are two women that are embroiled into the Magistrate’s life. In the play, these women  are black. When I read the novel, I don’t remember racially classifying them (In fact, I don’t think Coetzee is overt about the racial profiling of any characters in the novel. We are left to assume that the Magistrate is white and the barbarians are black). In the play, these two women are highly sexualised and become part of the Magistrate’s quest for redemption in the saga that unfolds while the empire waits for the barbarians to attack.
While watching the play I became uneasy about how the only two women on the stage were merely sexualised and constantly gratifying the white man’s desires for sex. The one woman, Zoe, is a young prostitute and the other has no name and is described as ugly because she is one of the barbarians. I became unsettled that the only time these women seemed to have a voice or were on stage they were out for display, a spectacle of what tropes seem to exist for black women: the (ugly) victim or the sex slave (amongst others).
I found myself thinking about how easy it is to display women’s bodies simply as available for men’s sexual desire. I found myself thinking about Sara Baartman and how easily we forget about the history of black women’s bodies and what they mean for entertainment.
I realise that the role of theatre is to provoke the audience, but to what extent does the play’s portrayal of women perpetuate sexism and patriarchy? Chimamanda Adichie’s idea of the single story is relevant here. She raises the issue of how perceptions are formed by what we read and see about people around us. If we do not question these perceptions that are formed (consciously or unconsciously) we are in danger of forming a single story about people rather than considering other ways of being rather than the myopic view that is often left unchallenged. The representation of black women in whatever form (but particularly in this play) has implications for how we address the single story about black women and their place in their world.
A friend of mine (who happens to be black) often jests at how “black women are at the bottom of the food change, just above the animals”. One would say this isn’t entirely true given that there are many (black) women in powerful positions however, her experience as a successful black women in a male-dominated profession, she is still subject to the single story that people have of black women that this play also seems to perpetuate. This is not to suggest that the play isn’t worth seeing, however, something has to be said about the way in which art can have a role in making us think about the experience of women.