Ringing the changes

2008-10-31 00:00

In his address at the senior prize giving last week, Andrew Graaf, now the headmaster of Alexandra High School, referred to the soul of the school. During the course of the proceedings, the soul became almost tangible and I was not the only person, I’m sure, to have felt quite moved by the spontaneity and enthusiasm of the young people in response to the address by the headmaster, the wise words of guidance from the guest speaker, Dr May Mkhize, the choir, the academic and other successes of their colleagues and an award to a clearly popular member of the staff.

I admit to a sense of pride that the steps we took in the early nineties to transform the school into a non-racial, co-educational establishment have led to an environment which reflects not only the demographics of our country, but the sort of ambience in which young people will experience tolerance and care and in which they are happy, regardless of whether they are achievers or not.

I remembered, especially in the context of recent events, that we offered Zulu as a first language taught by a Zulu teacher from about 1994 and remembered, too, the reluctance of many parents to accept this option for fear that their children would be penalised for not taking Afrikaans. I remembered how difficult it was for the staff to accept different patterns of behaviour which were sometimes cited as proof that disciplinary standards were declining (as so many people seemed to think they would). Black youngsters were noisier in their normal intercourse with each other and it would have been wrong to bind them to the traditionally-more-inhibited environment of the boys’ high school where an outburst of noise inevitably meant trouble — a fight, probably.

I remembered, too, the fear of parents that their sons, and daughters later, would be victimised by much older black children sitting in the same class. The problem that actually emerged was that some black children whose parents sought their enrolment into the school were a good deal younger than par. It appeared that a bright young black boy (it was inevitably a boy) was sent to school as early as the school principal would overlook the admission regulations. I thought about the “white flight” which emerged when the school became popular among black people and, at the same time, the many compliments we received, often from parents whose children were at other schools. The school became, I reflected ruefully at the time, a good school for other people’s children.

I thought of all these things as the Alex boys and girls sang the hymns lustily and with overt enjoyment. I thought of the dismal, adolescent, white English-speaking attempts at hymn singing that had been so characteristic of the boys’ high schools which I had known as pupil and teacher. Detention after school for “hymn practice” was a punishment for inhibition. It made no difference in the long run. The introduction of girls to Alex improved this aspect of school assemblies to a marked degree, but now the young people just about lift the roof off. And the polite clapping which always used to accompany the handing out of prizes has given way to real celebration and ac-claim. The overt pleasure ex-pressed for the successes of others was a momentous part of this ceremony and reflects, of course, the African’s joy of celebration, as much in the good fortunes of others as in their own.

At the present time, matriculants all over the country will be writing exams and when the results are announced with the customary elaboration they will serve as the benchmark for the measurement of success or failure. In attaching so much importance to these, we are fooling ourselves. A great deal more is required of people entering the world of work, or even tertiary education, if the drop-out rates are anything to go by. While it is true that the successful education of our young people must prepare them with the knowledge and skills they require to be gainfully employed, we must expect, surely, that they will be prepared equally to fulfil the obligations of good citizenship and be in a position to advance, through leadership and example, non-racial human relations, moral integrity and compassion within their communities.

Thus, what young people experience in their schools, as well as what they learn, prepares them for adult life. I have come to believe that schools should avoid creating or perpetuating artificial environments where many experiences have relevance only to former school mates in reminiscences at old boys’ functions. Beyond the academic work in the classroom, I cannot think of a single thing of real value that I learnt in high school. I learnt far more while teaching at Glenwood and Maritzburg College, and later at Alex, where I hope I had a guiding part in some meaningful experiences at least.

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