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Teaching is learning.

Learning to be wise, to accept, to tolerate. To help in every possible way. As you get wiser, you help more and teach less.

Every day is different in the school. In the morning, you go in with full of plans, high hopes and fantastic ideas. As the day drags on, you try to stick to the plans, and sometimes, you end up doing „damage-control”. But still, no two days are the same, and this is because it’s all about human beings who have good days and bad days.

It was a normal day as noisy as it can be when 30 eight-year old kids all try to do their tasks. The first rays of the warm November sun was becoming stronger and stronger every day, telling us that spring was definetly just around the corner. No need to wear jackets inside anymore and no need to run the heating in the car before having to go into the sunny, but cold classroom. However, spring also meant something I dreaded. It meant the end of the dry and cold wind blowing accross the plateau of „Highveld”; the wind that smells like spices from all over the world and cleans the air from pollution. It meant the beginning of a mixture of a much heavier and prosaic smell: school lunch lingering in the air as the temperature rose day by day.

I had to admit, parents took school lunch very seriously and it had become both and art and a competition. Cooked and warm in thermos containers, cold but nutritious in plastic boxes, recycled leftovers from the previous day, store-bought sandwiches with a message from mom, not to mention all the exotic meals made with affection and care by African, Indian and European hands and hearts. Lunchtime was like being at an exotic food market, you didn’t know whether to look at the colours first or taste everything straight away. Amidst the mouth-watering fruit salads and pasta dishes you could easily spot some heavier and more consistent but not less colourful african or indian specialties. On the top of this visual heaven, kids took advantage of this stress-free moment of the day and chatted with friends and classmates. All in all, there was never a dull moment during lunchtime.

Despite the mayhem, it was not difficult to spot Siya, sitting alone in the back of the room, with a neat and clean tablecloth laid on her desk and looking out of the window. „Is everything OK?”, I asked. She just nodded casually, adding: „Today my sister’s bringing me lunch.” And she went on reading her book in her lap while taking a glance at the door over and over again.

Soon, it was time for dessert. Undeniably, every mealtime came with a French touch. Crème brûlées, éclairs, apple pies, just to mention a few of the delicacies. „Siya! Don’t you want to share my lunch with me? Look, I have enough for two people. Do you like spaghetti bolognese? Would you like my banana?” She just shook her head as an answer, adding: „No, thank you. Today, my sister’s bringing me lunch.”

When you are a kid, there is no such a thing as getting tired. Straight after lunch, and before the afternoon lessons, they all made their way to the playground, one by one, as chatty and lively as you can expect from any eight-year old to do so. In fact, nobody noticed Siya, sitting patiently at the same spot. She went unnoticed easily because of the fact that she was completely „normal” in every regard. She was polite and respectful, always did her homework and completed her tasks on time in class. You could never hear her screaming or shouting loudly in the hallway or on the playground. But at the same time, she would not miss an occasion to play, to participate in anything where she could move around, sing or act. It’s not that she never made silly things or forgot stuff, but she was basically every teacher’s dream: the kid with a stable family background, who shows respect and interest in school and people in general. What else can you wish for in a world, where virtually anybody and everybody is „special needs”? She was a problem-free kid and as strange as it sounds, they quite often go unnoticed in the class. But that moment, I did notice that she hadn’t eaten and lunchbreak was almost over. With all the kids outside, the classroom went silent, and I was trying to relax. I could see that Siya immersed herself in her book, probably to avoid any conversation with me, but it was fine, I could not take it personally; to the contrary, I wanted to show her that I had understood her communication and respected her need for privacy. But then, she came up to my desk and asked permission to go and see her sister who was in grade 7. She looked a bit concerned and said that her sister had probably forgotten about her. She left in a hurry.

No lunch without coffee! I didn’t even realise, but I only had ten minutes left before the bell would ring again, so I had to get ready both mentally and phisically for a long afternoon. Kids will show signs of fatigue soon, and who knows, I might need to be a bit more flexible if they work more slowly. I needed now my own moments of silence, kids-free with only some small talk in the teachers’ room. With the classroom empty, I wanted to make a quick coffee- and bathroom-run. For this, I had to go past the middle-school section of the building that had a kind of picnic area with tables and benches.

Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I spot Siya with her sister. They are sitting at one of the tables, with two napkins laid in front of them. Her sister looks focused as she is trying to break a cereal bar into two pieces exactly in the middle. Their lunch. Their main course and their dessert. For two. I catch Siya’s eyes, but she turns her back to me, avoiding all eye contact. She clearly has a good reason to go unnoticed. My insticts tell me to go to their table, but I don’t move. I froze for a few moments and continue my way to the bathroom, repeating in my mind: „teaching is learning.”

That day, I learnt from an eight-year old black girl that age, race or social class have nothing to do with dignity.

Johannesburg, 2003

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