DISCLAIMER: The following blog post is a recap of the first 3 months of my experience as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. The observations and opinions contained in this post are solely my own and do not reflect the views of the US Embassy, the US department of State or any of the institutions or people alluded to in any official capacity whatsoever. This is simply a journal style blog entry that describes my experiences as I view them.
I can’t say that these past three months have flown by. Furthermore, October seems pretty far away. I think that’s a good thing. I remember as we were boarding the flight from Atlanta to Jo-burg, I turned to one of the other ETAs and said, “Nine months just doesn’t seem long enough.” Now it seems like nine months is just right.
The first three months of my Fulbright experience have been full of stops and starts. In fact, I have spent the vast majority of this time feeling like I was in limbo. That’s not to say I haven’t accomplished anything. I’ve accomplished a great deal, but given the turn of events that caused me to change placements, I haven’t settled in the way I had intended to.
My fellow ETAs and close friends and family know the reason for the placement change, and while I’ve spoken about it on my social media, I haven’t gone into too much detail for two reasons, the first being that I wanted to protect my students and remain professional during the transition period, and the second because, as my studies of nonfiction have taught me, sometimes your brain needs time to process before you write about a big event. In terms of protecting my students, I was worried that going into specifics would propel negative stereotypes of the country from those who’ve never visited. Some of these kids were sweet kids with big dreams, others were students who didn’t have a lot, but made do with what they had. I didn’t want their strength or their infectious spirit to be conflated into a narrow view, further fueling the ignorance people have of countries outside their own. What follow is the truth as I experienced it. It’s my truth, but it is only a slice of the experience I’ve had thus far. However, I think I’ve waited long enough. It needs to be shared, because this introduction to South Africa has been the framework of my atypical ETAship.
Even now, I am hesitant to use the school’s name both in writing and in conversation. I usually just refer to it as “the first school” perhaps as a subconscious way of protecting the school’s reputation. I had some truly amazing students there. The best students I could have asked for. Most of them didn’t do their homework, but they were eager to learn and wee respectful. They challenged me to be a better teacher, to give them every bit of knowledge I could, and because of this, it didn’t take long for me to reaffirm that teaching high school English is what I want to do as a career. It doesn’t sound as sophisticated as working for the foreign service or starting my own charter school—both of which are great goals, common one among ETA’s—but it’s what I want to do. There was actually a moment when I felt like my aspirations weren’t high enough. I worked hard through school and was always at the top of my class. That hard work paid off in receiving the grant, but in meeting the, shall we say, future movers and shakers of America, I felt like being a high school teacher was too simple. I’ve since realized being a high school teacher is valuable. I’ve also realized I’m not cut out for the foreign service. I don’t want to live in a country for 2 years then move, and I definitely don’t want to not have a say in which country I end up in. Plus, I’ve got a family to care for, not right away: I’m not married and I don’t have children, but sometime down the road, I will be the sole caregiver for my older brother, Danny, who has autism, and I simply can’t reconcile living so far away from someone I am responsible for. The foreign service just isn’t for me. Neither is working in an office trying to change educational policy. I would rather be in front of the classroom.
I cannot speak highly enough of my students at the first school. Were they the brightest most well-behaved children ever? No, but I liked the person I was when I was around them. I liked that they felt they could ask me questions, anything from “why do we have to put a comma there?” to “how do you care for your hair.” That being said, the administration needed improvement. The deputy principal was great. He truly cared about the school and education, and he listened to our suggestions for improvement, things like adding a four minute break between classes rather than having all the classes bleed into one another, stricter punishments for teachers who were late to class or who left their classes unattended and new furniture so that each student could have his or her own chair, and not a broken one at that. The rest of the faculty wasn’t as willing to discuss change. They thought the students were the problem. According to them, the students were lazy. Sure, some were, but when a teacher is 10 minutes late to a 50 minute class, it’s not the students who are lazy. When a teacher leaves a class of 60 kids unattended, the fact that not all of them stayed in the classroom is not a sign of their laziness. Of the eight classes a day, sometimes students would have two. If a teacher stayed a few minutes later than the bell, the incoming teacher took this as a sign that he or she didn’t need to teach their class. The kids wanted change. They wanted to be held accountable. It was the faculty who didn’t.
When I think back about the first school, there are a few moments that really stand out, some good, some bad. Many of the good moments relate to my martial arts club in some way. For example, I gave one of my grade 8 classes an assignment to write 5 sentences using a contraction. We’d gone over contractions that day and were schedule to play contraction BINGO the next day. I even gave them time in class to write the sentences. It wasn’t a difficult assignment, but when I asked who had done it, very few kids had. I told the ones who had done it to stand. Of the 60 kids, 8 stood; six of them were my martial arts kids. I was pleased with the self-discipline. I really did have the school’s best students in that club.
Another favorite memory of mine was when this girl came up to hug me the day after my first martial arts class. I could never pronounce her name, and she wasn’t in any the classes I taught, but she came to marital arts regularly and told me her name meant “Surprise” in Zulu. I knew from that hug that I meant more to this girl than I could understand, more than one would think after just an hour and 15 minute session of teaching basic kicks and punches. It rained the second week of martial arts, or at least it was supposed to. We were training inside, and when the session was almost done, I heard thunder rolling in and saw flashes of lightening. The kids all walked home after sessions, so I told them that we had to end early. The younger students were making posters of the training principles and didn’t want to go. The older students were learning basic technique. The kids loved coloring. I couldn’t believe it; they drew pictures of the images on the patches of my gi without me telling them to or even suggesting it. In fact, I was across the room doing down blocks, which goes to show how important symbols can be and how little it takes to make a difference. This was week two and the kids already associated GMHMA with its symbols. Anyway, the kids would not go home. They weren’t concerned about the thunder or the imminent threat of rain. They probably thought I was crazy, but I was trying to be a responsible adult. At one point, I said “I love you guys, but you really have to go home before it storms. I want you to be safe. We can color tomorrow. I promise.” I let the kids take my extra paper and markers home with them since that was the only way they would leave, and the next day as I was walking to my office I saw Surprise waving to me out the window of her grade 8 class. I asked her where her teacher was and she said she hadn’t had a teacher all morning. I told her I had to go to my next class and as I turned to continue walking to my office, she said “Bye. I love you.”
In our culture, love is a tricky word. We say it when we don’t mean it. The Greeks had four words for love, but for us, love is one word with many degrees of meaning. I do love my students, but I also love chocolate and my love of chocolate is not the same as my love of sport, which is definitely not the same as my love for my family. I don’t know how the word love is used in Zulu culture. I don’t know if this girl had parents who told her they loved her. Maybe she did. Maybe I was just a teacher that she loved. Every kid has a favorite teacher, but there was something about this girl and the gap-toothed smile that lit up her face when I was around that I’ll never forget. On my last day, I went around to say an unexpected goodbye to my students, and I couldn’t find Surprise. I knew she wasn’t in the two classes I taught, but she wasn’t sitting by the window of the classroom I had seen her in that one day either. Finally, I walked in. There was a teacher doing a lesson and all I could say was “Sorry to interrupt, but I’m looking for…” I scanned the classroom and was kicking myself for not knowing this girl’s real name. 50 plus faces stared at me and then all of a sudden, on the opposite side of the room, Surprise popped up and said “I’m right here, Ma’am.” She knew I was looking for her. I took her outside and told her I wouldn’t be teaching there anymore. I gave her the scripted response the embassy told me to give, namely that the embassy wanted me to teach in Cape Town. Such a response didn’t place any blame on the school, and it wasn’t a total lie. It was simply a manipulated version of the truth. Surprise didn’t look sad or confused like I expected, but the smile she had when she knew I was looking for her was gone.
Those were some of the happier moments. I had incredible students who loved life, which made my work seem less like work and more fun, the way good jobs should feel.
The first few weeks at that school were good. We saw needs that we could fill. There were frustrations, of course, as there are with any job—large class sizes, students who didn’t do homework, a lack of textbooks, chairs and desks, but we made do. Most of my lessons involved students coming up to the chalkboard and doing examples. We also played games, and then of course were my lectures. I swear there were moments when I felt like a human encyclopedia, reciting American history or grammar rules to the kids. At first I was worried I would seem pretentious, further alienating me from them, but it had the opposite effect. My kids knew that I didn’t say things unless I knew they were true, and if I wasn’t sure about something, I’d go home and look up the answer and tell them the next day. I was their computer.
Around the third week though, we started noticing corporal punishment. My coworker saw teachers hit students with an open hand right above the heart. I had seen teachers carry around whips and bats as a scare tactic, but it wasn’t until the last couple days at the school that I actually saw a student struck. I’m not even sure what the student was hit with. It wasn’t a ruler, but it had the same effect—a loud cracking sound. The students were scared of corporal punishment, and when I gave them essay or speech assignments, many of them used corporal punishment as a topic to speak out against.
I know paddling is still done at some school in the South (in the US), and other ETAs who had worked in other African countries had seen much worse, so I wrote off corporal punishment as a cultural difference, mostly because I only heard threats of it, but never actually saw it happen until the very end of my time at that school. And not to pardon it, but to be frank, what I did see was relatively tame. It doesn’t make it right. In fact, I don’t think the student should have been punished at all—he was late for class—big deal, students are late all the time. It’s easy to be late for a class when you don’t have any time between classes or when you don’t have teachers who show up on a regular basis, but for whatever reason, this kid was hit in the small of his back with a ruler-like object. I’m sure it hurt, but by that time, corporal punishment was the least of my concerns.
Looking back, I guess it started with what I have since dubbed the “chair throwing incident.” I was teaching a lesson on active and passive voice. We did examples to show that writing “Jimmy kicked the ball” is better than “The ball was kicked my Jimmy.” I made colored flash cards to show the kids that active sentences are simpler and more direct, whereas passive sentence have extra words. Prior to doing the activity, I confiscated a cell phone a girl. As it turned out, it wasn’t her phone. I had a new boy in the class, and it was his phone. He stood up in the middle of my lesson and demanded his phone back. I had never had any problems with this class until that day, but I had heard from other teachers that this boy had changed the dynamic of the class. Since I only taught that class 3 out of every 7 days, this was my first class with him. I told the boy in no uncertain terms that he needed to sit back down, that cellphones were not permitted during class time and that he could collect the phone from the deputy principal later that day. The other kids were stunned by his audacity to interrupt my class, and they knew I wouldn’t tolerate an interruption. He sat back down, and I put the cellphone with my belongings on my desk and continued to teach. At the end of the period, the cellphone was gone. Someone had taken it when I was helping a student with the flashcard activity.
I am a relatively patient person, but in this instance, I was quick to anger. Someone had come into my space and taken something I confiscated. I felt disrespected. My trusting nature was violated. I yelled at the kids to sit down and told them no one was leaving the room for lunch until I got the phone back. I said I didn’t care who took it, but I wanted it. I cannot recall a time when I’ve ever had to yell so loudly. I’d been stern with students, like when the boy interrupted my class, but I’d never yelled like that. The students sat down. The girls in the front all looked wide-eyed and fearful. Two students came up to my desk, both speaking in rapid Sipedi, a language I don’t understand. I assumed they were trying to tell me what happened to the phone, but neither one of them was involved in the incident prior to this moment. The boy and girl began to talk over one another, and then the girl said something to the boy and slapped him in the face. He punched her and drew blood. I later found out that she called him a stupid giant. This boy had stayed back and was older and taller than the rest of the students, hence “stupid giant.”
I was standing behind the desk at this point, and I remember thinking that my mom, who is also a teacher, warned me never to break up fist fights, to let male teachers do it. Then there was a moment of “Sorry, mom. Here goes nothing” and I went around the desk and stepped in between the two, breaking it up like I would have had it been a sparring match. They stopped instantly. I know it could have turned out differently, but they stopped as soon as I stepped in between them. I sent the girl to the nurse to have her nose looked at. Turns out there is no school nurse just a sick room…
I yelled for a second time, this time demanding that one of my students go get help. As fate would have it, the student I asked to do this was the student who stole the phone from my desk, but I didn’t know that at the time, and admittedly, when he told me later that day he was being blamed for it, I honestly didn’t think it was he who had taken it. He lied to me. I know kids lie, but I thought I had a better radar than that. My students were always surprised at how often I caught them with phones or talking, whatever the case was, and what they neglected to realize is that it wasn’t that long ago that I was their age and had peers who did these same things. The difference was that in all those other minor incidents, when the kids were caught, they were honest about what they’d done. I made it clear to all my classes that getting caught in a lie was worse than taking the punishment for what you did, but until that point, most of the lying was students trying to hand someone else’s homework in as their own, and when I caught them, it didn’t take much work to poke a hole in the lie. This student seemed earnest. He said he didn’t steal the phone from my desk and pleaded with me to make sure he wouldn’t be expelled. At the time, I really didn’t think he did it, one because of his character and two, because he sat in the back corner in the seat furthest away from my desk, but he did do it, though he had no idea the avalanche that would result from stealing the phone back. He probably didn’t think I’d notice it was gone, and he certainly couldn’t have predicted that two kids who were uninvolved would get into a fist fight.
The two students who fought had a history of tension I didn’t know about. Apparently this boy had been teased quite a bit leading up to the incident, but did not tell anyone. Based on what I later learned about how the principal views male students, I now understand why, but we’ll get to that later.
It was clear to me the girl started it. She insulted him and struck him first, and I can understand why a boy would be hesitant to report being bullied by a girl. This girl wasn’t the sweet type. Girls often bully one another by starting rumors or making snide comments about other girls. High school girls can be brutal, whereas the boys are much less transparent. They fight and the matter is settled. This girl had that mentality—fight until you’ve finished things.
When some other teachers from the neighboring classes finally came in to help, and I do mean finally—I know they heard me screaming and took their sweet time coming the 40 feet from their door to mine when I sent a student for help, I tried to explain what happened with the phone and how it led to a fight, but there was a language barrier, and the other teachers thought my phone was stolen. At this point, I sent a student for the deputy principal because I knew that the time it was taking to clarify the phone issue was time that the fist fight would go unreported.
The deputy principal came quickly. He saw I was upset and told me to go to my office and that he’d get to the bottom of things. I hadn’t even told him what happened yet, and based on what my students had told me about corporal punishment, I was not leaving that room to let someone else discipline my kids. I could handle the discipline. What I wanted was to explain what happened, to report the fist fight, and to have help sorting out who stole the phone, since the kids clearly knew something, but were having trouble explaining it to me in English. I thought they’d have better luck explaining it to him in Sipedi.
At this point, the girl returned, walked past five other teachers and picked up a chair. As soon as she reached for it, I knew what she was going to do, but no one else stopped her, and with my superiors in the room, I thought it was their job, not mine. The girl charged down the aisle to where the boy was. He stood up, and she threw the chair at him. It hit the floor in front of his feet. She then proceeded to put the boy in a one-handed choke, and threw haymakers and upper cuts with her free hand.
I want to be clear. This girl was not one of my martial arts students. I also want to be clear that the boy did not fight back. I come from a culture where men are not to lay their hands on women, and I told him such when I broke up the fight. He listened to me. He didn’t lay a hand on her, but none of the teachers came to his defense.
It took a great deal of restraint not to intervene as soon as the girl grabbed the chair, but it took everything I had not to step in when she was punching him. She landed three solid punches before the other teachers shouted at her to stop—because shouting a someone across a crowded classroom is really going to make them stop.
Most of the students on that side of the class were girls, and as soon as she began punching, these girls climbed over desks to get behind me. I now realize that none of these girls ever associated with this girl even though she sat among them. She always looked so angry or at the very least like she’d been through so much more than the sweet girls at the front of the class who all had dreams of being scientists one day.
I believe the boy was expelled, or at the very least suspended. I heard the girl wasn’t, but I can’t confirm. After I left the school, I received a message from the girl who I took the cell phone from in the first place. Apparently there was a risk she could be expelled. She and the other two boys, the one whose phone it was and the one who stole it from my desk, were being blamed for my coworker and I being relocated. They weren’t the reason, and as soon as I got that message, I phoned the deputy principal and told him that I didn’t think what this girl had done merited expulsion. I felt she’d suffered enough. She made a mistake. She was a bright girl who was playing on a phone in class. She wasn’t the first student I caught with a phone, and God knows she wasn’t the only one who had ever done such a thing. It’s not her fault things snowballed, but the fact that she was being blamed speaks to the real reason we left: administration issues.
We’d heard that a student was stabbed at Sports Day, an event my coworker and I did not attend. Sports day was the day after the chair incident, a Friday, so we heard about this on Monday. Over the next two days, I overheard several references to gangs, something I had not heard about in my first few weeks there.
That Tuesday, as I was leaving my office immediately following the lunch period, I saw a group of five or six of my Grade 8 boys carrying one of my other students. The boy had a horizontal gash above his eyebrow. He was bleeding profusely from his head and was too weak to stand or speak. He was holding a piece of toilet paper to the wound with one hand and was hunched over in his friend’s arms, grabbing his stomach with his other hand. They carried him the way my friends and I carried each other at summer camp when we played “Queen for a day,” arms linked to make a “throne” for the person to sit on. This boy needed to sit. He was too weak to use his friends as crutches to help support his weight as a walked on his own. The positioning of his body alone spoke to the gravity of the issue, regardless of what happened, I felt he needed medical attention, maybe not an ambulance, but something more than a wad of one ply toilet paper to soak up the blood streaming down his face.
I have no background in street violence or trauma care, but based on what I saw and what I’d heard happened the previous Friday, my fear was that this a stabbing or beating. I asked the boys holding him what happened and none of them said anything. At this point, it wasn’t a cover-up. They genuinely didn’t know. Later that day, when I saw the boys again, they did attempt to cover it up, in my opinion anyway, but I’ll get to that in due course.
Upon seeing how weak the student was and how profusely he was bleeding, I told the students to go get the principal. I worked as a substitute teacher in the States, and if anything serious happened, you were expected to report it to the principal immediately. I didn’t have a working relationship with the principal at this school. He didn’t want my co-worker and I to attend staff meetings in fear that “we’d see the school’s dirty linens,” something I found humorous because the staff meetings were the least of the school’s dirty laundry. No, I dealt with the deputy principal. He drove us to school in our first weeks there and was the one who was receptive to ideas for improvement. The principal never left his office, but I thought given this situation, he needed to be called. After all, the day before he addressed the school during assembly telling them that violence would not be tolerated. He was always very passionate during assemblies, so I held out hope that I would see the same anti-violence convictions in him in what I felt was a time of need.
The students replied “Ma’am, he’s right there.” I looked up and sure enough, the principal was standing across the courtyard, watching as I simultaneously shooed onlookers away, sent students for help and tried to direct the student to keep pressure on the wound without actually touching the blood myself. I probably seemed like a madwoman to my students. This was their normal, and I was all up in arms, but I was later told that was one of the things my students liked most about me. I cared. Maybe it’s because I’m still young and most of my coworkers were a bit burnt out. Maybe it’s because I come from a different background and culture, or maybe it’s just because I’m me, an impassioned yet patient type A person. I had the situation under control, just on my multitasking terms, and my ability to multitask was something that flabbergasted my students.
I’d never seen the principal outside of his office except when conducting the Monday morning assembly, and I’d certainly never seen him in the grade 8 courtyard, the section of the school that was arguably the furthest from his office. As I write this, I wonder if he knew something had happened. Why else would he have been standing there staring? I couldn’t believe he was just standing there doing nothing, and it wasn’t that he thought I had it under control and that’s why he backed out. When the students parted, so I could see the principal across the way, he looked angry. I’d heard kids speak of being scared of the administration before, but it wasn’t until I saw the expression on his face that I understood why. I wasn’t scared. I’ve stood up to authority in the past. I was raised to do what is right even if it brings hardship onto oneself, so I didn’t find this man the least be intimidating, but I finally understood why the kids did.
I flagged him over, still wondering why the heck he was just standing there when he could clearly see the student was bleeding, and in my opinion, needed medical attention. He took his sweet time walking over and when he finally stood before the boys, he spoke in Sipedi, telling the injured boy he was weak (which is probably why that other student never bothered to report the bullying and finally snapped, punching the girl after she struck him) and telling the other boys to put him down. I don’t speak Sipedi, but what this man failed to realize was that hand gestures communicate a great deal. I knew exactly what he was saying. The boys reluctantly put their friend down after being told to for a second time, and the injured boy collapsed to the floor. The other boys were then instructed to pick him up and bring him to the bathroom—the same bathroom that the students complained about because of how unsanitary it was. It was the students’ job to clean the bathrooms. I never went in to see how bad they were, but I know one of the projects the students wanted our help with in addition to getting more chairs and desk was to help renovate the bathroom.
The boys carried him to the bathroom and were then shooed away, told to carry the boy to the sick room, which was in the same building as the administration’s offices and staff room.
Later that day, I saw the boys who were carrying that boy. I had a free period and they didn’t have a teacher so I went in to ask if they knew how the boy was doing. They said he was fine. I asked if anyone knew what happened to cause the wound and one boy who was not present for the earlier drama held up his fists and answered “fighting.” One of the boys who was carrying the wounded boy said, “No, he was running and tripped.” He then shot the boy who said fighting a glare he probably thought I wouldn’t catch, and I knew not to ask any more questions in fear that telling me the truth would lead to more students getting hurt.
When asked about the incident, the principal told my superiors at the embassy that the boy was running and tripped. It’s a nice story, and maybe it is the truth. Maybe it is possible for a boy to run and trip and nearly crack his head open and have no witnesses, but seeing as this was during lunch and there were at least 100 grade 8 students in that area, I highly doubt no one saw anything. Usually one would expect to get 10 different versions of the story, but no story at al at the time it happened? That’s suspicious. That usually indicates violence. If he was running, he had to have been running from something, even if it was an innocent game. Someone would have seen that and his friends would have been able to tell me that when I asked, but the way the other boys carried him, there was an air of solidarity to it. Maybe they really didn’t see what happened, but they knew enough to get him out of there. I think they knew what happened and knew not to tell me. I also think they knew that though I’d ask for an explanation, I do whatever I could to help, explanation or not. I just can’t wrap my mind around the running part. There were nearly 300 grade 8 students all sequestered in that back area. Even if some of them went to other parts of the school to eat, there would still have been about 100 students there, and even when that area is empty, you can’t run in the courtyard. You would run out of space before even reaching sprinting speed. The other option is he was running in a classroom and hit his head on a desk, but seeing as there was no room to walk in these classrooms, this is even more unlikely. Furthermore the desks weren’t sharp enough to cause a gash like that. And what about his stomach? Being too weak to sand and having a head wound are symptomatic of running and hitting one’s head, but he was holding his gut like he was punched.
There are many possible explanations of the running and tripping scenario, but all have flaws. However, even if it was true, the reason we were relocated is because of the escalating concerns for our safety and the fact that the administration not only didn’t seem fazed by it, but also propelled it through corporal punishment. Rather than trying to find out what happened or show concern for the boys’ health and well-being, the principal told him he was weak. Maybe the boy really did trip, but it was clear this was not the right placement for my coworker and I. We would have been moved anyway.
In the time that has passed since, I have taken comfort in knowing we would have been moved anyway, that the embassy has strict concerns for safety and high expectations of the institutions it partners with, but there were times when I wondered if I had done the right thing. I knew reporting the various incidents was the right thing to do, but leaving my students was hard, and I felt guilty. I oscillated between the old adage of “if it walks like a duck…” and the fear that I’d been wrong and maybe the kid really had trip with no one there to witness it and just happened to get a horrible gash and concussion as a result. At the time, all signs pointed to stories being amiss. They still do. Unfortunately, the only explanation that didn’t have holes in it was the prospect of gang violence, or at the very least that this boy had been beaten up, but at the end of the day, this was not a singular incident. There was something rotten in Denmark, so to speak, before those boys carried that boy to my office door, and it was a combination of reasons that caused our placement to be moved, which is why I didn’t want the students involved in the cell phone incident to be expelled. They’re kids and they made a mistake, but playing on a phone in class does not merit the same punishment as violence. Furthermore, students got away with so much do to the lack of organization that punishing them because I caught them or because I later left would be punishing them solely for being my students. Had this happened to another teacher, there would not have been talk of expulsion, though I doubt other teachers were vigilant enough or cared enough to confiscate phones. It was a rule that students weren’t to use them in class. I was teaching. You can’t just pick and choose what rules you enforce. You have to enforce all of them and be consistent. The problem wasn’t the kids. The problem was that the administration found it easier to blame the students than look in the mirror.
The principal claimed the bleeding boy was weak and wanted attention. He was a bit older than the other students and was popular. Anytime I needed that class to quiet down. He was the one to do it. He wasn’t the best student academically, but he ruled the roost. He kept the other students in line when I was teaching. I knew he was repeating grade 8, and he probably repeated at least one other grade as well, which would make him at least 16. What would he gain by appearing “weak?” He’d want to be considered strong, to make up for the fact that he was older than a grade 8 student should have been. He was considered strong. So what motive would there be for him to seek attention by purposely catapulting himself into something sharp enough to cause that much blood and a concussion? If he wanted to get out of class so badly, he could have just wandered around or hid in the bathroom like all the other students who wanted to cut class. Plus, it was lunch when this happened and he probably didn’t have all four of his teachers show up to class that morning, so it’s not like he had a ton of work he was trying to avoid. There was no punishment for not doing homework. I just don’t buy the attention seeking behavior part.
I’ve been careful not to identify any people or the school by name in this post. This is not intended to be an exposé that slays giants or a piece that uncovers some drastic injustice. It’s simply my version of what happened, both the good and the bad. I hold no animosity toward the administration or the students, and despite it all, I really did enjoy my time there. I felt at home, which was why it was so hard to leave and why I have felt like I was in limbo ever since.
I’ve been asked by numerous people why we were placed there if townships are not known for being particularly safe. Admittedly, this was a question I too asked myself. Initially my coworker and I were supposed to be placed in Durban, but the high school did not come through with their commitment to find us housing. Also, the Durban branch is much smaller and less staffed than the embassy in Pretoria. As there had been ETAs who worked at the University of Pretoria in past years, it was easy for the embassy to secure housing for us on such short notice. We literally had a one week time clock to change all our treaty permit paperwork and send it to the South African consulate in Chicago. The Christmas holidays were a bit of a nail biter for me, but thanks to overnight shipping and an amazing Mom, I could my permit in time. Normally, institution placements are determined by August for a January start date. When the Durban placement fell through, the embassy had to find a backup, and other ETAs had volunteered at that school. The other point I must stress is that, while not the safest places to walk alone at night, teaching in a township is safer than people might think. ETAs are meant to provide English support for schools in need. Many of the schools in nicer areas don’t need help, which is why some ETAs work in townships, but live in the city. Two of the most successful job sites for ETAs have been in township high schools.
We had to depart from the first school rather suddenly. It came as a shock to us and even more so to our students. From there, we were temporarily assigned to assist at Pretoria Technical High School during which time arrangements were made for us to work at Cape Peninsula University of Technology from the beginning of April to the end of our Fulbright grant in the middle of October. PTHS and CPUT both welcomed us with open arms, for which I am grateful, but there are still days when I miss the students at the first school. I’m sure part of the reason I miss them so much is because it was my first long term teaching job, or at least it was supposed to be. I was supposed to be there 9 months, and I had big plans that will not come to fruition, but part of the reason I miss those kids is because of who they were. Some of those kids were so genuine and hardworking, that I couldn’t help but love to teach them. Now that I am working as a consultant in the writing center at CPUT, I miss being in front of a classroom of high school students. I worked at Hendrix’s writing center for 3 years, so while I am in my element so to speak, I am also out of my element because I prefer having my own classes and seeing the same students day in and day out rather than appointments to help with the grammar mistakes in someone’s 30 page project write-up, and that’s if they show up to their appointment. I miss the structure I had at the first school. I had regular students, a regular schedule, and I was seeing results.
I am currently volunteering at a high school for one hour a week to teach martial arts and am in the process of setting up a creative writing group for high school students, but in some ways I’m still in limbo even though I’m mostly settled in Cape Town. Living in Cape Town is great. There is so much to do here, which was not the case in Pretoria. If only I could combine my current living arrangement (I actually have a fridge and shower now! In Pretoria, I had to eat out and shower at the gym every day) with the energetic students I had at the first school, but alas I can’t.
It’s been three months. I’m a third of the way done with my Fulbright experience. In some ways, it has been a jam packed three months and in other ways, it feels like very little has happened. Changing locations from what I thought would be a permanent location to a temporary location to a now permanent location that was not what I had expected has forced me to reevaluate my goals. Three months ago, I wanted to teach English and have an after school martial arts club, and for the three weeks I was doing that, I was happy. I felt like I was doing fulfilling work and making so much progress. I’ve only had glimpses of that feeling since we were pulled out. Despite it all, I’m glad to be doing this. I just hope there will be less bumps in the road from here on out. Otherwise, at this rate, by the time I’m settled, it’ll be October and I’ll be ready to head home.