Special angels

2010-02-11 00:00

AFTER a decade of being a temporary teacher, I was finally placed as a permanent­ qualified employee of the Department of Education at Grange Primary School in Pietermaritzburg South. It was a privilege to teach in an advantaged school with luxury facilities­, abundant resources and surplus staff. After a year of being in a comfort zone, I received the most devastating news in December 2002, during the peak of my career.

The circuit inspector came to school and said: “Mrs Singh, I am sorry­ to be the bearer of bad news. Unfortunately, you will be redeployed to Glenwood Primary School.”

“Glenwood Primary, err, where is Glenwood?” I solemnly asked.

“Just 10 kilometres from the city centre, and I want to wish you all the best.”

I became rather apprehensive and rushed off to take a glance at this new school. It was never mentioned to me that it was a temporary tin structure in Glenwood near the informal settlements known as Thamboville and Madiba.

To my astonishment, the school had window panes that had been vandalised, untiled floors, outside ablution facilities which were not in the best hygienic condition, broken fences and gates, uncut grass, no electricity and no security. It was later brought to my attention that the vandalism took place after school hours by the neighbouring citizens. The sight of that impoverished school saddened me. I have been exposed to many poorly resourced underprivileged schools in rural areas before, but this was my first experience to see one in the middle of a well-developed urban area.

I believe that the universal forces put us in challenging situations so that we can learn humility. I was confident that my expertise and proficiency could bring about positive change. Notwithstanding the envisaged challenges, my financial position and a passion for teaching dictated that I embrace this vocation, although reluctantly at first.

With lots of encouragement and prayer I bravely drove to my new job with my first experience being my vehicle­ sliding and skidding on the untarred roads. I finally reached the school gate. Both positive and negative thoughts flooded through my mind at the thought of encountering the unknown. I did not know what fate lay behind those broken gates.

After much introspection I almost drove back home to my safe haven, when a smartly dressed woman approached the gate. She was the ardent Miss Nxumalo, the principal. Now there was no turning back.

“Good morning Mrs Singh, welcome home,” she said exuberantly. She gave me the warmest hug and assured me that I would be happy there. As time elapsed I began to realise that she was right. I was surprised to see that I was the only Indian teacher among the other 12 teachers. Initially I was neurotic, but after a warm hospitable­ surprise party I felt at ease and ready to work with my new team-mates. We immediately gelled.

I was escorted to my Grade 3 class. There were limited resources. There was a shortage of tables and chairs and most of the furniture was dilapidated. There were no charts, no textbooks, limited stationery and no cupboards. The limited furniture was actually­ the hand-me-downs from other schools. The principal spent many tiring days trying to obtain as much as she could. I was elated to receive my new children­.

Most of the pupils were carefree and happily embraced life. They came from the nearby informal settlements. Some had difficulty in speaking and understanding English, which was the official medium of instruction.

Besides the inability to afford the school fees of R200 a year, they could not even afford proper uniforms or school shoes. Life was really challenging for this indigent community. Fortunately, a local charitable organisation provided a hot daily meal for the hungry children. All they needed was compassion. We, as Gods angels, were sent to inspire these deprived children, to help uplift their spirits and assist them to cope and deal with their daily challenges.

We introduced the children to basic literacy. There were no readers so we had to make our own simple little books. We also introduced sport and culture to the school, although we did not have a proper playground, sport equipment or a hall. We learnt to improvise. By the end of the year, our pupils were ready to challenge privileged schools. We played most sport that regular schools play. We also did drama, choir, drum majorettes, art and chess. Although I cannot dance professionally, I introduced the children­ to Indian dance to bring our cultures closer. They were naturally talented.

A sense of pride filled me to watch them dance at The Wykehym Collegiate and on another occasion for the minister of education, at that time Ina Cronjé. The pupils often participated in hymns and cultural activities. They looked awesome in their cultural attire. They created such a vibe that both the pupils and the teachers moved their bodies to the rhythm.

During summer our skins burnt just by being inside the tin shelter. We had to go outside and make the big oak tree our new classroom. In winter we were really cold. There were so many challenges, but the biggest challenge was a shortage of funds. We once went on a campaign to raise funds to host a sports day.

We were assigned to target large, profitable companies. It was disappointing to see how a popular cool drink company refused to help our school because we did not sell its products in our tuck shop. Tuck shop, what tuck shop? We did not even have one.

Another reputable bakery, which can afford to advertise on audiovisual media, made us virtually beg for 20 loaves of bread. It was appalling to see how the disadvantaged people were shunned. With a limited budget we hosted a successful sports day. I made a difference by donating gold-plated medals to the winning teams. They were so grateful and it meant gold to them and motivated them to achieve higher. That brought me tremendous joy.

The pupils at the school were humble compared with affluent spoilt children­. They were fairly well disciplined and they were helpful with a caring nature. One Friday afternoon an hour was used as a life-skill lesson to clean up the school with adult supervision. The children enthusiastically swept, dusted, went on their knees and washed floors, wiped walls and picked up litter.

We even had a vegetable garden. The pupils were not shy or embarrassed to work hard to plant chemical-free veggies. They hoed and dug and even walked a long distance to fetch buckets of water to water the plants. Eventually the healthy plants were sold to neighbours and parents or they were used for the children’s meals.

We once took the children on a trip to Durban. I was surprised to see how many children had never visited­ the beach. We also went on a boat cruise, and the children were ecstatic.

Through our struggle we believed in ubuntu and bathopele. We stood together and gave each other and our pupils moral support. Every morning we congregated. We happily sang praises and said a prayer. We did not despair.

A special colleague from Glenwood Primary, the proficient Sipho Makhathini­, had inspired me to further my studies. Initially, I came up with all sorts of excuses not to study, but he convinced me that by empowering myself, I could help others and make a difference. His philosophy in life was that “one should rather die being useful than useless”. His demise was a loss to the entire community.

Through good discipline and sacrifice I completed my honours degree, which helped me become more successful in achieving my aspirations. Currently I am a principal and director of two successful pre-schools.

As I reflect further, I remember the day when the good news came. Through our daily prayer, the ward councillor proclaimed that the Department of Education had accepted the proposal to build us a new, well- resourced school. We screamed ecstatically, clapped and cried tears of joy. Now the struggle is almost over and our children will have a normal school with good facilities and a proper education.

The modern multi-storey­ school was built within a short time span and effectively became operational in January 2005.

My time had come to lift my wings and fly to my new destination. In December­ 2004, very emotionally, I left with a sense of empathy, pride, joy and fulfilment. I needed personal and professional growth. As I move on in life with my new ventures and reaching new milestones I often think of my experiences and life lessons that I learnt in my time spent there. Nothing and nobody has touched me more than those special angels.

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