Monday, June 17, 2013

12 lessons I learned in school

The school badge: Fac et Spera (Work and Hope)
Recently I've been cerebrating my own school days. While contemplating the woes of exams I began to contemplate some of the lessons that couldn’t be examined in a two hour exam. While there is much criticism about the relevance of school in a fast changing world (thanks Sir Ken Robinson) we forget that there are schools where there is more good than harm and I can think of a lesson I learned between Grade 1 and Grade 12 that have been relevant for the “real world” in spite of going to a school that was an English enclave with colonial traditions.

Grade 1: I discovered I was a writer. My first story was published. It wasn’t published because I was a child prodigy but because the school magazine was an anthology of all the learners’ creative work. In the form of a black and white paperback, my story (about Carly and her kitten) appeared amongst other pieces of writing riddled with all the writing errors Foundation Phase teachers have to make sense of in the process of teaching children to become writers.

Grade2: I learned not to make fun of people’s accents. My Grade 2 teacher was from Ireland and she had an heavy Irish accent. When I first met her I couldn’t understand her but I grew to love the way she pronounced “R”. As a class we tried to convince her she was incorrect but she persisted until we accepted that hers was a different “R”.

Grade 3: I learned to live without my mother. In order to be closer to school my mother asked a family friend to look after my sister and I as she wasn’t able to support us financially (my father had taken a leave of absence from family life and had disappeared leaving us with a tale of his return). My sister and I were taken in by a family friend who lived close to the school so we could walk to school. My teacher was appalled when she found out and gave me her phone number in case of an emergency. I don’t remember using it because I was happy being away from home meant being closer to school.

Grade 4: I learned to do the “7 times table” backwards. I remember the simple thrill and the laughs of being able to count backwards. This skill only made sense when I was doing higher grade Maths in high school, but nothing for my daily life I must say.

Grade 5: I was bullied. She spat in my face. She laughed at my strange hairstyles and she laughed when I couldn’t play ugqaphs and uduva. At the time I couldn’t understand why she was such a horrible person, I still don’t. I wish I could say I spat in her face and fought back, but I didn’t. I couldn’t because I didn’t have a reason to do so. And when something similar inexplicable happens in my adult life I simply shrug it off and move on without getting too much spit on my face.

Grade 6: I convinced myself my class teacher hated me. In retrospect I realise she didn’t. Amongst many important lessons in her classroom I learned the importance of “taking the initiative”. There were posters in the classroom related to group work and one particular poster had the words “initiator”. Mrs F explained the concepts and I liked the idea of being someone who takes the initiative and gets things done. I still try to take the initiative, what my friends used to call ukuzigqatsa!

Grade 7: During an unprepared oral in an English lesson I discovered I enjoyed speaking in front of people. I also found out that my English teacher at the time had completed a Masters degree. It was announced in assembly and I remember thinking “Hmmm, if Mrs N can do it, it must be something important”. People always ask me why I would be a teacher considering I have a Masters degree. I wish I could tell them that my Grade 7 English teacher had one and my high school Biology teacher had one and they were great teachers so it makes sense that I should have one too.

Grade 8: In Grade 8 I met Ms. S. She became a real-life example of a feminist. Our first English lesson she taught us about the difference between Ms. and Miss. She explained why she wanted to be called Ms. and not Miss (Ms. pronounced with the –s sounding like –z). This made sense to me when I discovered that my mother hadn’t changed her surname when she got married and was technically Ms. Mashologu but was referred to as Mrs Masola for the sake of social conventions. And I also learned never to be late for Ms. S’s English lessons.
Grade 9:I was part of the unfortunate group of students who were guinea pigs of Outcomes-based Education. This meant compiling portfolios for each subject. I learned to keep immaculate portfolios which teachers used as an example of a good filing system. This skill has been indispensable now that I’m a teacher.

Grade 10: I dropped Science and chose History instead. I was told that if I dropped Science I was limiting the opportunities I could choose from when I matriculated. I was okay with the perceived limitation because I learned that there are certain choices that can be undone. And I’ve never felt limited by the decision I made because a liberal arts degree is where its at!

Grade 11: I decided to submit my cv and apply for being a prefect. I was putting myself out there and choosing to become a firm part of the school’s system. I think there were about 50 people and 21 of us were chosen. In spite of the criticism towards the prefect system, I enjoyed the opportunity and have no regrets about that year. As prefects we hosted an event “Party in the park” which made me realise the importance of being a do-er(taking the initiative), rather than waiting for others to make things happen!

Grade 12: I learned to question authority. There was a dispute in hostel and a group of us informed our principal about this and asking him to punish the trouble-makers. We gave him a list of names and informed the trouble-makers (a few learners in Grade 11-or were they in Grade 10 at the time?)that we had reported them (another lesson on being a whistle blower perhaps). Instead of punishing the people on the list, the principal punished their entire group. We didn’t understand this and we went back to him demanding that he explain his decision. He said that the real culprits didn’t own up so the whole group was punished for being complicit in the lie. We debated this decision for what seemed to be a long while but the principal dd not change his mind. I remember using the words “But we don’t agree with you Mr N” and he simply nodded and allowed us to vent. We didn’t challenge him because we thought we would win, rather we challenged him because we knew we could. And that was sufficient enough for me to know the importance of telling those in authority that they are mistaken


  1. They where probably in Grade 11. this is lovely. I love it. I want o write my own lessons. I love what you are doing Athi, you are so brave.