Lessons learned

This time last year, I took Brooke, Eleanor, Jacques and Charles for their first trip to South Africa. I hadn’t been back since I lived there in 1990 and 1991. Over the years, the children had been subjected to my stories and hours on my lap with the photo albums. For whatever reason they always lingered on a simple one of a STOP sign with the word “apartheid” stenciled in at the bottom.

The kids knew the whole story of how I’d taken time off from university because I wasn’t happy and wasn’t taking advantage of opportunities I might later regret having missed. With the help of good friend Jennifer Griffin, who incidentally wrote one of the most moving tributes to Nelson Mandela I’ve read, I got hired as a teaching assistant for a political science professor at The University of the Western Cape. The school was quite radical and had given up its admissions policy and instead accepted students randomly by lottery. So students came in with widely different levels of academic experience.

One of their first assignments was to read an essay and write a response to it, and my job was to grade twenty or so of their papers. After I graded only a few, I saw two that were identical. Uh oh. Then I realized they weren’t plagiarizing each other, the papers were actually meticulous copies of the original essay to which they were asked to respond. I took it to a fellow teaching assistant. What is this?

“Oh, yes that happens all the time. You see, that is what they’ve been taught in apartheid school. Just copy. Don’t think. So we have to reinforce that we really want to hear what THEY think. It’s hard.” It was.

My children got to see the sights of all the stories they’d heard. Being young, they had always related to them more as adventure stories rather than accounts of a turning point in history. As we toured Cape Town, I pointed to Robben Island and explained that Mandela spent many of his 27 years of incarceration there. “Wait, I thought he was President,” said my youngest. “How could someone be prisoner and a president?” he thought. Exactly.

Mandela’s life, which had helped make it possible for all South African students to think critically in school, was, in a small way, doing the same for my son. The facts were teaching their own history lesson with few words needed from mom and dad.

Mandela was a fighter for rights. Then a sufferer who gathered power by suffering for a cause. Then a healer who forgave. And the country’s most powerful man who gave it up. Or in his words, not a saint but a sinner who kept trying.

I meet many South Africans here in the UK and was chatting with a few of them recently. I began to explain why it had been so important to me to take my family there, but before I could one of them interjected, “It changes you. It just does.” She was right.