Hello and Goodbye: farewell speech to my girls

As is customary at my (now previous) school; when teachers leave they say a farewell speech to the school. Before I said goodbye to the school two of my students in Form II said their speech which ended in two sonnets which made me realise what my two years at St Mary's have meant. Below are the two sonnets-with little iambic pentameter if at all- which they read as well as the speech from me (because that was the last section of work we did).

(Shakespearean Sonnet)
Could I compare thee to a summers day?
Nope, you simply outshine the summer sun,
And anyway it would sound too Cliche,
And not describe the amazing things you've done,

English from you was more than just a lecture,
Because you were the teacher that gave us a voice,
And we used to explore topics like history and pop culture,
And you'd listen to our opinions like you had no choice,

Being taught by an empowering woman like you,
Made us want to make a permanent mark in society,
Just like your strong Africa tattoo,
Because we had thought provoking discussions about Humanity,

So as long as people breathe or eyes can see,
I doubt the school would ever find a teacher as astounding or legendary as thee

(Italian Sonnet)
Romeo and Juliet ended in heart-wrenching tragedy
But Ms Masola your departure clearly wins the sadness contest
Against Shakespeare's famous protagonists deaths.
Ms Masola you're leaving and its really hard to see
The one teacher that was truly down for a DMC
Leave but there wasn't much we could do to protest
Because we know that the new journey you're embarking on is for the best
English will seriously be different next year and I know it's not just for me

But at least we have the brain capacity to remember the importance of your English lessons
And with what you've left us with I'm very thankful
Because it was the TED talks that encouraged us to think differently everyday
Which were combined with our beloved random class gossip sessions
You enabled us to grow and to voice and discuss our opinions no matter how controversial
So I'll keep it simple and say goodbye because I know you don't want a cliche

Many of you have asked me why I became a teacher. This question was always posed during a not so riveting lesson and some classes managed more than others to get me to digress from the original script of the lesson. So as I say goodbye to you I think it's fitting I give you the full answer.

The answer to that question is quite simple for me: why not? I am well aware of the opportunities I have out there in the world because when I was in primary school my teachers went to great lengths to expose me to astronomy, paleontology, engineering and many other areas that were forbidden for girls. This was important for young girls in the 90s because I went to school when there were still lots of firsts: first black female accountant in South Africa, first female Vice-Chancellor at UCT, the first female African pilot in South Africa: my generation finally had an endless list of opportunities to choose from because other women were finally breaking the glass ceiling.  It wasn’t for lack of knowledge or exposure that I became a teacher. I became a teacher largely because of my own teachers at school. I had great teachers growing up and when I got to matric I thought, if I could become a fraction of what these people have been to me I will be pretty happy with myself. They weren’t perfect but they always seemed to know a lot without checking Google.. They also taught me important lessons about what it means to be human. 

And so I did a BA: also known as a bugger all. It was the kind of degree that if you looked at my transcript/report you wouldn’t be able to say which job I could I apply for. When I left home at the beginning of my first year I lied to my family and told them I was going to do journalism. I needed them to take me seriously. And journalists take themselves very seriously. I was the golden child who had made it into university so I had to do something that was anything but teaching. But by August of my first year my sister had cornered me and asked me: what are you actually doing with your life while I tried to explain the modules I'd done in Philosophy and I decided to tell her the truth: I’m going to be a teacher. She was appalled: you’re going to spend all these years at university just to become a teacher. Just to become a teacher: as though that was a failure. And in my context: perhaps it was. Some people told me, “but you’re too smart to be a teacher”, others said “you’re too soft to be a teacher, they’ll eat you alive”. My mom was probably the most disappointed. She had been a teacher in the 70s and early 80s. I think she had a bad experience because she said very little about why she left teaching. My decision must have triggered all those memories for her because she had been the generation of black women who were told which professions they could choose.

So you can imagine me in the early 2000s with my wonderful, middle class education which had prepared me for the 21st century, having done all the right subjects, ticked the right boxes. And I wanted to be a teacher! I wanted to be a teacher because it felt like I was making a choice. I wasn’t stumbling into someone else’s expectations of who I should be. I wasn’t forced to do it because some government official decided that’s what I should do. I chose to be a teacher for all the warm and fuzzy reasons: I like people. And mostly, I like kids and teenagers. I became a teacher because I genuinely believe in the importance of learning, life-long learning. And not just the learning that happens through books but the learning that happens through a meaningful life through meaningful relationships.

And St Mary’s has been part of that journey of forming meaningful relationships. I know I’ve only been here for two years which is a second by St Mary’s standards. And I’m okay with that. I know I haven’t taught many of you but those whom I have taught have a very special place in my heart because willingly or sometimes unwillingly you gave me your time. Even those who don't like poetry somehow humoured me when I tried to read you poetry just for fun with the hope you could enjoy poetry rather than asking: is this going to be in the exam? You allowed me to share random stories and you too shared many random stories. Some of you taught me not to take myself too seriously by teaching me juju on that beat dance moves and giving me homework like: you need to to listen to Solange’s seat at the table. Some of you forced me to put my game-face on and pretend to be an adult, but it turns out I'm not good with being an adult anyway. You wrote me some wonderful essays which I loved reading and shared many laughs about many things like someone told me in a Form II class that Jesus died three times. Some of you challenged me when that needed to be done and humbled me when that needed to be done. And some of you have seen me recover from my most embarrassing moments. 

I'm telling you all this because I know first-hand the negative perception teaching has because I know many of you would never choose to be teachers. And it's such a pity because it truly is one of the most fulfilling and challenging professions you could choose. I'm also telling you this because you're in the process of making choices. Both big and seemingly insignificant choices. Take those choices seriously. Don't be afraid to disappoint people with your choices. And when in doubt choose yourself. I encourage you to read about the legacy of women who have gone before us, women who made choices they could stand for and we as young women can read about them and be proud of those women. There are many women whose stories don't make it into the history books who managed to change the world. And I'm not talking about changing the world in grand gestures but change your world and the things you have control over. One of the most inspiring stories I keep coming back to is about Charlotte Maxeke: the women who has a hospital named after her in Johannesburg. She was the first black woman to get a university degree in 1901 from Wilberforce University in Ohio, America. She graduated with a BSc and came back to South Africa and in 1918 she started the Bantu Women's League which spearheaded the anti-pass laws campaign as early as 1919. In 1912 she was the only woman present at the inauguration of the SANNC (South African Native National Congress which later became the ANC). Together with her husband Marshall Maxeke (also a graduate of Wilberforce University) who was the editor of the newspaper Umteteli waBantu, they started the Wilberforce Community College in Evaton which is still in existence today and she helped establish the African Episcopal Church in South Africa. Charlotte Maxeke's life reminds me that one of the best gifts women have is the ability to make choices to create the kind of lives we want to live rather than simply be an idea of what society think we should be.

Being a teacher has been the best decision of my life thus far. Going to the University of Pretoria is a continuation of this journey because I’ll be teaching other young people who want to be teachers. I’m going to end of with an extract from a poem written by James Schlatter which I first came across while I was in high school. It was on a teacher’s wall and when I read it I thought, hmmm, it’s cheesy and I like it. I tweaked slightly so it can make sense to a St Mary's context:

Throughout the course of a day I have been called upon to be an
actor, friend, nurse and doctor: although those of you who had a nosebleed during my lesson will agree I’m a lousy doctor. I have been called upon to be a coach, finder of lost articles, cheerleader, psychologist, substitute parent, salesman, politician and a keeper of the faith.
Despite the poems, Shakespeare, verbs, PEE method, marking tests and exams, I have
really had nothing to teach, for my students really have only themselves to learn, and I know it takes the whole world to tell you who you are.
I am a paradox. I speak loudest when I listen the most. My greatest
gifts are in what I am willing to appreciatively receive from my students.
Material wealth is not one of my goals, but I am a full-time treasure
seeker in my quest for new opportunities for my students to use their talents, and in my constant search for those talents that sometimes lie buried in self-defeat.
I am the most fortunate of all who labour.
A doctor is allowed to usher life into the world in one magical moment.
I am allowed to see that life is reborn each day with new questions, ideas and friendships.
An architect knows that if she builds with care, her structure may stand
for centuries. A teacher knows that if she builds with love and truth, what she builds will last forever.
I am a warrior, daily doing battle against peer pressure, negativity,
fear, conformity, prejudice, ignorance and apathy: But I have great allies: Intelligence, Curiosity, Parental Support, Individuality, Creativity, Faith, Love and Laughter all rush to my banner with indomitable support.
And who do I have to thank for this wonderful life I am so fortunate
to experience, but you, St Mary’s girls and staff.
And so I have a past that is rich in memories. I have a present
that is challenging, adventurous and fun because I am allowed to spend my days with the future.

I am a teacher...and thank you St Mary's for being part of that journey.


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