Ode to an amazing teacher

2016-08-30 06:00

I am in awe of the massive contribution that the late Michael “Mike” Coetzee (1921-2016) and his colleagues at Zonnebloem Boys’ Practising School have made to this country.

Whenever I am in District Six I feel compelled to revisit the school and as I enter the grounds, the memories come flooding back of rich and stimulating experiences, just about every square metre a pleasant memory starting with the grade 3 classroom at the top of the avenue nestled between the Chapel and a small residential area.

The area around the Chapel was hallowed grounds and out of bounds. Equally hallowed for many of us, however, was the area in front of the houses and immediately adjacent to it because this was where he held his physical education classes. There would be warm up activities on the lower paddock followed by free standing, stretching, gymnastics on the upper level. Classes were well structured and carefully prepared and there was a clear striving for excellence in all that was presented and high standards were expected from students.

The professionalism and enthusiasm he demonstrated brought out the best in us and many of his students developed a high level of proficiency in a number of physical activities.

He was a wonderful role model, always immaculately dressed and gave us inspirational demonstrations – I can still see that hand-spring on the mat or head-spring on the box with straight legs and pointed toes. He not only provided the skills, he emphasised when coaching team sports respect for oneself, respect for fellow team players as well as the opponents; playing the ball and not the man and good sportsmanship. These values were complemented and reinforced by his colleagues in so many other school and inter-school activities and the stimulating weekly assemblies with rousing hymns and always a moral lesson (I can still hear the principal, Mr Little repeating, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”).

The vision was clear: “A sound mind in a healthy body”. And the comprehensive programme of activities served to achieve this and the energy and zeal that drove his lessons were present in all that was presented by the rest of his colleagues.

One of the more endearing names, which we proudly bore, was “Boontjies” as a result of the nutritious bean soup we were often served for lunch.

The formal academic programme was provided with the same dedication as all other activities and such was the quality of Zonnebloem graduates that those who proceeded to secondary and tertiary institutions were more than able to hold their own and excel at our leading educational entities.

This sort of achievement could be claimed by many institutions. However, Zonnebloem teachers were unique. Theirs was indeed a labour of love and one felt as though one was part of family. But the difference between Zonnebloem of his time and other institutions was the behaviour of Zonnebloem past students. The emphasis on a balance of physical and mental development resulted in his perfection of a formula which enabled students to convert “Playing the ball and not the man” into “Restrict your contribution in discussion and debate to ideas and not personal attacks on individuals”.

Students who passed through his hands felt compelled to go out into their communities and to right the wrongs in society. One such a person was Walter Jansen who, though barely out of grade 8, introduced a motion at our soccer club to eliminate discrimination that on any grounds prevented any person from becoming a member. There were sufficient former Zonnebloem students present at the meeting to influence the decision that the previous discriminatory practices be thrown out.

There are numerous examples of great achievement by his students, probably the most illustrious being Basil D’Oliviera and his achievements in the England cricket test team.

Not only did D’Oliviera’s achievements redound to the credit of Zonnebloem but as a result of the controversy resulting from repulsive treatment he suffered at the hands of the then SA government, he was personally responsible for significant changes in sport and social interaction.

As junior members in our soccer club over 50 years ago we showed how racism had to be countered by not giving legitimacy to the apartheid division of individuals on the basis of skin colour or any other physical attributes. We rejected especially the designation “coloured” as derogatory and an affront to to human dignity and we rejected acceptance of a label which meant approval of the second class status which had been written into the statute books.

Thank you Mr Coetzee and your colleagues for the Zonnebloem family you created and the high quality of the education that you provided and the values that you instilled. It was there that we were inspired to defy the government of the day and to recognise the human dignity of all and accept them as our equals.

Reg Peterson

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