The Big Read: Inside a blackboard jungle

16 August 2005. Nkuleleko High School, Kwanebuhle was vandalised. Most of the windows had been broken. When it rains the children have to push their desks away from the broken windows to ensure that they do not become wet. SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS: ‘Nobody really cares about the children of the poor as long as their own children are taken care of.’ Looking into a classroom at Nkululeko High School, in Kwanobuhle, Eastern Cape Picture: EDREA CLOETE/MEDIA 24

What is it like to teach in an American classroom?

We started with two pupils in the class. Then another one strolled in. “What’s happening?” Ten minutes later another. She does not speak at all. Moves right past the teacher while I continue teaching in the art classroom. Two more slip into the class even as one moves out with his backpack.

I continue to teach while taking in the migration patterns.

It took me several days to prepare this multimedia lesson, an introduction to the politics and aesthetics of South African art. I fine-tuned the two 45-minute lessons for context – senior high school kids with little knowledge of South Africa and, as I anticipated, a very limited concentration span. I would talk very little and they would paint, guided by the geometric shapes and bright colours of Ndebele artworks projected from the computer screen.

They would listen to a powerful recording of Nelson Mandela’s life as he appeared in his arty T-shirts. And then a discussion on Sam Nzima’s famous photograph of the dying Hector Pieterson, closing off with a cartoonist’s view of South Africa after Mandela. The learning thread connecting these activities conveyed the South African story through the visual arts of sculpture, photography, painting and cartoons.

The teacher who invited me is a wonderful young man with the temperament of the Dalai Lama and the compassion of Desmond Tutu. Just as well. The two classes that followed each other would drive a South African teacher nuts within seconds.

In this working-class school of black and mainly Latino kids, some of them recent immigrants, teachers come and go. I learn from the classroom chatter that Ms X was driven to tears more than once and eventually left the school devastated.

“She was so sensitive,” mumbles a black boy as he colours in his Ndebele artwork.

A steady stream of offensive words floats above the din. Bitch! Shit! Fuck! “Now that’s enough,” says the teacher. “You have to leave. That’s it. I mean it.”

The group of offending boys continue – heads down – painting. The wise teacher has stopped the swearing but knows that to eject the boys from the last class on the last day of school could escalate a manageable situation into an unpleasant confrontation in seconds. His operating margins are extremely narrow – he could over-react and the situation could turn nasty; he could under-react and lose his limited control over the class.

“I need to go,” says one pupil. “Why and where to?” asks the teacher. “Stuff,” says the boy. Several pupils are on their phones.

An attractive Latino girl hits on the teacher all the time: “How are you Mr Y?”

“What are you doing for the summer, Mr Y?” The same kid volunteers to her friend that her mother is on the line, jealous that her father is giving her, the daughter, all the attention. “I must call my dad,” she says loudly, as she struts across the room.

Another boy sits through my entire class without doing anything but search for signatures on his white, long-sleeved shirt.

I feign ignorance as I start each lesson. “Why do you guys bother to come to school? It’s a beautiful day outside. Why are you even here?” Like South African kids they tell you what they think you want to hear – to get an education, to make a career. Be honest, I implore.

Then the truth.

“I come here to network.” “To meet my friends.” Just outside the window of the class a girl and boy are kissing. Before I reached the class, two youngsters were driving a massive truck inside the school campus with eardrum-splitting music floating across the quad.

“I expect to see you in class,” says the valiant teacher. The driver nods his head in a way that said “Yes” and “Are you kidding me?” at the same time.

Not all US schools are like this one east of San Francisco. But there are many poor and neglected public schools with high dropout and teacher turnover rates. In the richest country in the world I discovered the same truth as in Lavender Hill in the Cape or Umlazi in Durban. Nobody really cares about the children of the poor as long as their own children are taken care of.

“I will miss you Mr Y,” shouts the attractive Latino girl as we pass her and her friends on the way back to my car. “I will miss all of you,” shouts back the wise young teacher.



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