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„You’ve been warned many times. I’m losing my patience with you.” I don’t know what to say to Diana now, I feel like I have used all my words, gestures and arguments to make her understand: her future is at stake.

It all started last September, when I was given a group of lively and enthusiastic middle-schoolers with the challenging task to help them catch up with all the nuances of the French grammar, at least at a level expected in grade 7. Not a big deal, I thought first. I’m quite good at grammar, so why should there be a problem? Well, I soon found out what surprises I was into when I saw six pairs of eyes, all belonging to a set of sparkling white teeth with a cheeky smile and glowing dark skin. They were the selected „élite” coming from a disadvantaged background, living in a township at the „dodgy” end of Jo’burg, called Soweto, an area dreaded both by westerners and any sensible white population; a no-go zone for all of us who wanted to stay safe and sound while in South Africa. Soweto, a place for a population ruled by their own traditions and laws, yet so well-informed about the outer world since the end of the apartheid.

Needless to say, my relationship started out as strained as it can be between a young and unexperienced teacher and a group of youngsters, who were a mixture of the Zulu and Ndebele tribe. I soon established a connection based on complete dependence, where obviously, they were depending on me, trying desperetly to obey and meet standards in every situation. They could not afford the luxury of failing, or even lowering their grades, for fear of soon finding themselves „deported back” in the township school, with often no running water, no public facilities, let alone computers and proper books to learn from; to mention only a few of the commodities that we take for granted in any school in Europe. Yet for my little group, this was the only opportunity of their life, a chance that they would not be given again, should they fail to do their best basically every minute of the day. It was the beginning of a better life, a glimmer of hope that the never-ending circle of being born miserable and dying miserable could be broken and the curse that had been passed on for generations would finally stop. They were all eager to succeed and were dreaming of a better life, wanting not less than a university degree from a top institution, of course.

Every single day, they made the long bus ride from Soweto to the much coveted part of the city. A vibrant atmosphere, where skyscrapers and luxury mansions can be easily spotted from the air, like pearls on a long necklace along the avenues. Shopping centres everywhere, with their neon signs that hurt the eyes at night and busy people going on about their business. But this half a dozen of hope sank back into their own reality at 4 pm, when they set out for the trip that slowly but surely took them back where they came from: their own cramped shacks. A sharp contrast difficult to deal with on a daily basis for a young, innocent mind. From a city full of opportunities, wealth and modern beauty, to a depressing reality where children with HIV have to care for their own siblings until they die themselves. I wondered what THEIR hope could be compared to these bright and intelligent youngsters I saw every day?

That was one more reason why I could not comprehend Diana’s attitude. She was such a brainy girl, with so much potential, yet, I had to watch as her grades started to lower and her homework was more often missing than not. As the weeks went by, I had to face the daily discussion with her about her duties, responsibilities, and how proud her parents should be of her. It seemed to work for a few days and things returned to „normal” again. I was seriously getting tired of her and her obvious lack of concern about her own future, until one day I started to give her a lecture that I was hoping would shake her up from whatever had been going on in her mind. „You’ve been warned many times. I’m losing my patience with you.” I went on and on painting a grim but vivid picture of the future that would await her. I didn’t even have to use my imagination too much, just assembled bits of pieces I had experienced before on my rare visits in the township, like a gruesome crime story with everything included: illness, murder and prison. And above all: a never-ending misery that never leaves you but stays with you even in your sweetest dreams. Silence fell in the small classroom, you could only hear the distant screaming and shouting of some kids playing football. I had to open the door, so that we could let out all the negative energy and try again everything from scratch. Diana, listening the whole time in silence, was looking at me with her huge watery eyes, like two pieces of sparkling diamond. I could see a deep sadness in her eyes, and for the first time, she was questioning her abilities to succeed, I could tell. Little did I know that I had just painfully and cruelly described in details the moments of her everyday life. Her reality that she was desperetly trying to escape from.

The rest of the lesson went as usual, but I felt a relief when it was finally over. Diana didn’t want to leave and just sat in the back of the classroom, like a bird that had just realised that her wings had been cut off and would never be able to fly again. Then, slowly, she got up from her chair and leaned over to my desk, saying: „My mom died from HIV and electricity was disconnected two months ago in my house and it’s always dark when I get home. I cannot see in the dark to do my shoolwork.” Her reality suddenly hit me. Now the two of us were sitting side by side silently for a few moments. I knew it was my turn to speak. I gave her a hug and murmured into her ear: „I’m so sorry. How can I help?”

And that sentence, like a magic spell, started a new relationship between me and my students. It felt like I had just become a teacher.

Update: I lost touch with all of my 6 students after they graduated from the school and have no information whether their education really was a turning point in their lives. I can only hope that it was.

Johannesburg, 2003

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