School starts this week for most young South Africans, and this year I’ll be starting school right along with them. My job teaching reading and literacy skills to 2nd and 3rd graders at two Catholic schools in Soweto began on Monday.
I arrived on my first day to some familiar back-to-school sights: parents waiting in long lines outside of the office to make sure they had paid their registration fees and submitted all of the appropriate papers; workers hauling in box after box of materials to distribute to learners; and teachers laughing over holiday stories before meeting to discuss their plans for the year. The children had yet to arrive.
Then I met for orientation with the 2nd and 3rd grade teachers and things quickly lost their familiarity. The line of parents at the office door, for example, would not disappear until March because registration at these schools informally extends through the first term. Leaving aside what this means for the ability of a teacher to use the first term productively, when the paperwork finally settles, there will be an average of 40 learners in each class.
Nor did the plans that the teachers were there to discuss really coincide with my notions of curriculum. One teacher told me that she rarely assigns homework because less than half of the class would bring it back completed. “Except if you gave them a good hiding about it the day before,” she added, straight-faced. Ignoring the thought of an 8 year old being spanked for not writing his alphabet, I asked her whether parents could be useful in getting the students to complete their work. “Not really,” she said. “Most parents have the attitude that teaching is the teachers’ job, and that we ought to be able to do it without their help.”
“And the grades?” I asked. “How often do the learners expect to be given grades?” There was a long silence. One of the teachers spoke up to say that, quite frankly, for reading, they didn’t have any method of grading the learners. I tried to keep a positive look on my face while she added, “Maybe that is something we can start together.”
Then, rather awkwardly, late in the conversation, we got around to introductions. Everyone already knew my name, so I pulled out a pen and began, “Which of you is teaching in Room 8?” Miriam. “Room 9?” Emily. And so on. Then the room grew tense and the teachers looked at each other inquisitively. “What’s the problem,” I asked. “Maybe,” one of them said, “if we’re going to be working with you we should tell you our real names.” “Okay,” I responded, forebodingly. The second time around, Miriam became Kgathatso, Emily became Puseletso, and Nonhlanhla, Portia and Zoleka were added to my list of colleagues. At this point in the meeting, my concern about hidings and homework were overshadowed by the thought of having to learn the unpronounceable names of 10 classes with 40 kids each.
We proceeded in this manner for quite some time—me, asking naïve questions, and the teachers, gingerly letting me down to reality. After the somewhat misnamed orientation I went to have a look at the library, to see what kinds of things were available for these kids to read. I introduced myself as the reading teacher, and eagerly parted the stacks looking for a shiny copy of Where the Wild Things Are, or Pierre or, my personal favorite, Sneetches. I found none of that. Among the tattered copies of Shakespeare and Afrikaans primers sat the piles of materials I saw being delivered when I arrived that morning. I was surprised to see, instead of the readers and textbooks I imagined, sheaf after sheaf of blank white photocopy paper.
As I left campus I could think of no better image to capture my feeling about the coming year. There would not be much to start with, but if we worked hard and had some luck we could fill all of those blank pages with something worthwhile by December.