Thursday, 16 May 2013

Only birds born in cages...

One of the most important things I think this job is teaching me (nay, ramming down my throat!) is that I bloody accept that I can't do everything. End of. Including regular blog posts...

So much has happened since the last post. We have elected a governing body, that motley crew of teachers, parents, staff and students who reign supreme by South African law over schools. A good School Governing Body is a fundamental part of a functional, well-run school. I'm pleased to say that I think the parents we have found to serve on our SGB will play an important role in reaching the dream we have for our school. Already this week they have sat through disciplinary hearings for students who are repeatedly disruptive, and their proactive approach and pertinent questioning during the hearings was very encouraging. It is all too often that schools that serve middle-class families have a much easier time of the Governing Body. The parents come with all sorts of skills to offer and, usually, far more resources to put into the school. Our parents are struggling to string it all together generally, but kudos to them, they are not taking it lightly.  It is heart-warming to see them take the school seriously too.

The elections were held on Monday night. This was a tentative event because of what happened at school during the day on Monday. As my colleague and I herded the students up to assembly, we found a poster stuck to the pillar, hand-drawn on a page torn out of a student's notebook. The poster was a direct threat by one faction of boys against another, claiming that 'tears of blood will flow'. Not acceptable, by any means, but there's been so much hot air out of the boys that is preposterous that one doesn't know how much is real and how much is bravado anymore.

We're used to the factions the boys have drawn up amongst themselves; the Xaba Boys, the Bad Boys Club (BBC) and the Young Money Hunters (Y.M.H.). Unfortunately our desks and chairs are littered with inscriptions already, as are the kids themselves. Some fake their tattoos. Others don't need to.

So having found this poster, we took it off the wall (my colleague knew who had drawn it), and we cornered the boy in assembly with the head master and frog-marched him down to the office. This was at 13h30.

At about 13h35, a group of 6 gang members scaled the fence (we have a HUGE unpatrollable perimeter) armed with foot-long kitchen knives and an axe. The teacher on duty was unaware until these kids ran through the playground, looking for specific students, right on top of us.

Someone had tipped off the police because at the moment when we had just realised what the hell was happening, the men in blue were hot on their heels, chasing them up the hill.

They were obviously looking for a particular student/group of students. The teacher on duty found herself between one intruder and one of our boys armed with a rock. The policeman dashed past her, gun in hand, safety off, and the intruder fled. The students had followed the gang fight a la gladiators. Their bloodlust is quite disturbing. The teachers flocked up the hill to find out what the commotion was and herd students down to the classrooms and to safety. Break got terminated early (we have mentor period after second break) and I spent 10min frantically searching for my students and coralling them like a mother goose into my classroom.

Once I'd gotten them all in and locked the door, it was clear that some of them knew what was going on. Turns out that one of the girls in my class went to a birthday party on the weekend and 'kissed the wrong boy'. She's supposed to be 'with a BBC' and snogged a Xaba. BBC gatecrashed the Xaba party and there was a stabbing: a BBC stabbed a Xaba over the girl. The remainder of the weekend was spent invading each others turf and beating each other up.

Monday was full on retaliation. Obviously a BBC had heard that the Xabas were going to the school to hunt BBC boys (of which we have many) and called the police which is why they appeared so quickly.

At about 14h15, a bunch of older BBC boys from outside the school had heard about the attack and jumped over the wall behind the classrooms to retaliate. These guys had pangas. The BBC boys in my classroom were scratching at the turf to get out and 'sort it out'. I locked the door and told them that they were not going anywhere.

I have a soft spot for one of them: a bright boy who is actually kind, although tough as nails, and quite respectful. He wants to be an engineer. Perhaps I flatter myself but I'd like to think we have a good relationship. He would never admit the depth of his involvement but he is in deep: it breaks my heart.

Again, the parents response was encouraging: several came down to the school to find out what was happening. Last night there was a community meeting involving the local authorities, parents, church leaders, politicians and general community headmen, and these boys involved in these junior-gangs (I call them junior because at this point its violent turf assertion amongst laaities on booze and weed, not organised crime. Yet.) Apparently the response was one of 'no way, not in our area' with patrols set up between parents and police to terminate the boundaries of the various factions. We'll see what comes of it.

But to say it was scary is an understatement. One of the boys in my class asked me "Are you scared Miss?". I responded "well of course! There are crazy people running around outside with axes and knives. Who wouldn't be?" He thought it was very funny. I said it was natural. But it does go a long way to indicating how normalised this sort of exposure to violence is for our kids. Some expressed shock at it spilling into school, but outside school it was something they were used to.

At least it was only blades I suppose. Our container walls would not stop bullets.

Prior to said incident, it has felt a bit like the wheels are coming off this term. Something amongst the staff feels like the standards are slipping: getting to class on time, follow up on homework, expectations of behaviour. Mostly the promptness I think. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to be one of the few teachers who is insisting students arrive on time to class when others don't... you really are trying to hold back the tide. This takes a lot of energy which really could be used for other things. Like behaviour management.

The kids are also responding to the slackening... they smell it and respond immediately with pushing boundaries harder. Holding the line in the face of a larger wave takes more energy. I'm pretty sure my own steadfastness is waning rapidly. Being quite seriously sick twice this term has not helped. The cough is still persisting 3 weeks later. It may be time for a chest x-ray.

On other fronts: having been elected (reluctantly) to the SGB and serving on the SMT as well as trying to orchestrate (with mixed success) a maths intervention programme, I'm realising that I need to work on my leadership and management skills. For one, I still get too pissed off when it seems to me that people are not pulling their share--this will always be the case and there must be ways of changing the situation or working on it rather than just sitting and stewing. Not good for mental or physical health (speaking of which, I haven't been for a run in almost two months! This somehow needs to move up the priority list. Once the cough goes).

In summary: while we still have our ambitions and high standards, there have been some pretty cold reality checks that we are what we are: a township school. Complete with gangs and violence, persistent bad behaviour, vandalism, worn-out teachers and massive learning deficits. To forget that is folly. What happens in other schools is a complex product of teachers being slowly ground down by what are, in all honesty, completely unfair and ridiculous requirements of them, coupled with an uneven distribution of belief in the vision for the school, and effort applied to fulfill that goal. I am starting to understand far better what has created the dysfunctional schools in South Africa (not that we are one, yet). They are the natural outcome of a long process of unbelievably severe conditions which are not quite believable or understandable until you've seen it yourself.

To end off positively: relationships with individual students are starting to really blossom. On Saturday we spent 2 hours 'playing' with our maths, whereafter I got takeaways and the kids designed a mural on my classroom wall. Then we spent 3 hours painting together, listening to music off one student's phone [who knew that windows could be used as natural amplifiers? He wedged his cheap Nokia between the pane and the burglar bars and VOILA! The entire side of the classroom turned into a giant amplifier. Pretty neat). We sang and laughed (and made a mess) and overall had a good time. These are the moments that matter to me most. Not only do they make my job easier with the kids, but they also keep me sane and provide a different outlet while still getting work done. Otherwise I'd be home marking.

Painted on the wall of my classroom:
"Only birds born in cages think that flying is an illness."


  1. YOH sisi wow!!!! Uyasebenza nangona kubonakala kungathi kunzima. Ndikuqhwabela izandla.