The speech that changed my life

2012-02-13 00:00

I was born and raised in KwaMashu, a township outside Durban. When I turned seven I went to school and registered for Sub-A.

At the end of that first year we got our report and I was the last person to pass inthe class. My family celebrated my promotion to Grade 2 since no one had given me a chance.

The story of my academic life continued in that way for the first four years of my education at Bhekilanga Primary School. For Grade 5 I went to Sokalisa Senior Primary School and again I continued to struggle academically. I passed, but again at the bottom.

For secondary schooling I knew I had to go to Zakhe Secondary School.

If I had had a choice I would have gone to another school. Zakhe was known for producing high achievers and for its strict discipline. I went there because it was closest to home and my family’s financial situation did not permit me to attend a school of my choice.

My definition of “a school of my choice” was a school where I could do as I wished with little discipline.

My first year’s academic performance at Zakhe was average when compared with other students. The following year was different. Early in the year, around March, a deputy principal came to our class and invited me and another classmate to the principal’s office. The invitation was not a friendly one, from his countenance it was clear we had done something bad.

We followed the deputy and when we arrived at the principal’s office there were other students responding to the same call.

We were told to wait outside. During that five-to-seven minute wait, no one spoke except to signal, “What wrong have we done?” Shortly afterwards another five students arrived.

We sat there, waiting. During that time teachers were coming in and out of the office. Finally, we were ushered into the principal’s presence.

There was Mr Nzuza sitting behind his desk and next to him his deputy and other teachers. Mr Nzuza was one of the chief architects of discipline for which the school was known in the community of KwaMashu. Teachers and students alike feared (with hindsight I can say respected) him.

He was a thin, tall man, always neatly dressed and a heavy smoker. We stood to attention and all of us looked very worried. After a long pause he began: “We have invited you because of what you are doing at this school.”

I listened attentively, wanting to know what we might be in trouble over. He went on: “We are proud of your work and we think you are in a position to make this school proud when the junior certificate results are released.”

At that time Form 3 was an external exam. Mr Nzuza continued: “You have started the year well and if you continue at this pace and work even harder you would do well.”

“You are our champions and we expect to hear great things from all of you in future,” concluded Mr Nzuza.

That speech lasted for less than two minutes, but its impact changed my life forever. I did pass my junior certificate and proceeded to high school where I also did well.

Following high school I went to the United States and completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and eventually returned to South Africa to complete a doctorate.

Mr Nzuza’s speech and encouragement were a turning point in my life as it said to me: “You are bright and have a great future if you work hard.”

From there onwards I always considered myself one of the smartest persons around. It is over 30 years since I went to Mr Nzuza’s office, but his words of encouragement still ring deep in my ears. 

• Great South African Teachers by Jonathan Jansen is published by Pan Macmillan and Bookstorm. It costs R190.

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