Although I never completed a teaching qualification (I tried twice, then gave up), I spent a number of years teaching at high schools. It was very different from the stuff that I was told about how teaching should be.

After teaching at a convent school in a smallish town for a year I resigned. I had taught both science and biology to grades 10, 11 and 12, without a laboratory assistant. Although the classes were small, any science or biology teacher will witness to the fact that this was an impossible workload.

Like so often before and after, I was now without work – and income – again. However, in February the next year (our academic year starts in January), I was phoned by the head of the science department of another school in the town with an urgent request to teach science. A science teacher had suddenly resigned, and they desperately needed another teacher. I accepted.

When I went to fetch my books the day before I was to start, I sensed that the school was not at peace. There was a general restlessness in the school. Classes were noisy, and I could hear several teachers shouting at the students. I knew it was going to be an interesting experience!

It was a technical school, and because of traditional subject choices, most classes consisted of either boys or girls.

The boys in a particular grade ten class (labeled the ‘dumb’ class) were extremely restless and almost violent when I arrived. They would continually stand up, walk around, hit each other, and even throw each other over the desks, never settling down. Some of them were about to be expelled for vandalism, having broken water pipes out of the walls. I was expected to teach them science, which was not their highest priority in life.

Soon after I started, various items of science equipment started disappearing. I kept trying to get through to the boys, without success. More and more items disappeared.

I tried a different tactic. Each time I noticed something missing, I wrote the name of the item on the black board. From time to time, I asked the boys to please return the items. Other classes asked me what the list meant. I told them, and mentioned a quote by Goethe: “I you can accept who I am not, I will become who I am.” They thought I was bonkers. I didn’t care. I was busy with an experiment that I believed was going to work.

Then the boys had to go to ‘veld school’ and I volunteered to go with them. (‘Veld school’ was a compulsory outing of a few days for all white school children in grade seven and grade ten in the days of the previous South African government. The content of these outings included learning about nature, ‘obstacle courses’, etc., but also what cannot be described as other than government indoctrination.) At the veld school, each teacher was allocated as a mentor to a number of boys. From the start, my group complained.

“Sir, the food is bad.”

“Sir, the teachers treat us like shit.”

“Sir, …”

Each time my response was, “If you have a problem, why don’t you tell the teachers about it?”

“Oh no, we can’t, sir. They will shout at us and we’ll get into even more trouble!”

“Well, then you can’t really expect things to improve, can you?”

“No, but you must talk to them.”

“So you want me to take responsibility for you?”

“Yes, they’ll listen to you, they won’t listen to us!”

“Well, I’m not going to. If you have a problem, you must sort it out.”

It went on like that for a few days.

At each mealtime, a boy was obliged to say grace, which the boys thought was a farce. Once, when we were standing talking just before a meal, one of the boys made a joking suggestion.

“I dare you,” I said.

Lunchtime came, and he had to pray. He chickened out, but another, bolder one took over:

“Rub-a-dub-dub,” he started off, “thanks for the grub!”

I froze, pretending to know nothing. The teachers were furious. The boy was immediately called aside and severely reprimanded. During the meal I ambled towards the teachers, who were still complaining. They wanted remove his name from the list of potential ‘leaders’. But surely, I suggested, this boy’s very behaviour demonstrated his leadership? Wouldn’t it make more sense to work with him rather than against him?

I was in charge of the store room, and decided to give one of the most ‘difficult’ boys, let’s call him Fred, the key and ask him to take charge.

It was as if I had given him the keys to Fort Knox. He didn’t allow anybody close to the room, and duly reported on every time somebody had to take stuff from there!

Back in class, the boys settled down.

“Sir,” they said, “we have made a fuck-up, but now we want to work. Teach us.”

The relationship had changed, and they were ready to start learning. I started teaching, spending the first class explaining the periodic table and its eight groups.

“Wait, sir!” they said at the end of the class. “You are going too fast! We must write a test on this first!” They wrote a test on one period’s work, and they got good marks! These boys had not known what it was to get good marks before.

Now they determined their own pace, and really worked. We were getting somewhere.

They didn’t get distinctions, but we got through all the work, and as far as I know all of them passed (I left shortly afterwards).

More amazingly, one by one the items that had disappeared mysteriously re-appeared on my desk. A flask here, a meter there: everything came back (about twenty or so items). Only my electricity meter never re-appeared. Nobody said a word. I never knew who had taken what, but the experiment had worked: I had experienced the power of forgiveness in practice!

Human beings are not rational. We think, feel and act on the basis of what we believe about the world and about ourselves. Intellectual understanding of this makes no difference.

Fred had scored 60% for his test. He proudly showed it to his mother. He had never in his life had 60% for a test before. Fred’s mother looked at it and tore it up. “That’s not enough!” was her only response.

Fred took an overdose of pills. Fortunately his stomach was pumped out in time. Not a word was mentioned at staff meetings, but his friends came to tell me, and I went to visit him in hospital.

How could a mother possibly respond in such a way when her son had brought home the best test result ever?

As I see it, the explanation is very simple, but goes against one of the most powerful assumptions of modern society: the assumption that we are rational. If we could accept this one simple basic truth, the world could be a very different place.

Fred’s mother believed her son to be ‘dumb’. After all, he was in the ‘dumb’ class and had always battled academically, so she had all the ‘evidence’. When confronted with evidence that her son may not have been as dumb as she had believed, she did not know how to respond. She was completely out of her comfort zone. At that stage, her unconscious beliefs kicked in. What she did may have seemed utterly irrational to an outsider, but seen from the point of what she believed, it was not that irrational at all. The Dead Poets’ Society-phenomenon in action!

At the time, I was also involved in facilitating multicultural youth camps during school holidays, with the specific intention of using group process to facilitate meaningful communication between young people of different races. This was just before the change in government, and direct human contact with people from different races was a new experience for many.

I asked Fred whether he would be interested in coming on one of these camps. He was at the point of being expelled from school for having vandalized the bathrooms and being “most uncooperative”. But he was very keen, and so it happened.

The camps were held at Trackers, on the Blyde River in Mpumalanga. We combined various nature-based activities such as hiking, canoeing and abseiling with specific communication sessions. During these sessions we used basic communication skills, such as taking responsibility for your own feelings, deeply listening to others without judgement, and the willingness to be vulnerable. The results were amazing.

At the camp I saw a radical change happening before my eyes. This formerly stubborn, morose and aggressive boy emerged as the star of the camp. He was an hilarious entertainer, and had the other participants at his feet. He was social, helpful, witty and participative – virtually the exact opposite of what he had been at school. Who was he really …?

The night before we had to back he came to me, rather depressed.

“Sir,” he said, “I can’t go back.” I could understand that of course, but he had no option. We can only effectively deal with what we don’t like by engaging with it. I tried to encourage him to always remain true to himself.

This was just before I left the school, so I don’t know what happened afterwards, although I was told that he completed his schooling and even became a prefect, for what it’s worth. In any case, he never vandalized again and he wasn’t expelled.

That’s the thing about teaching. We have an enormous influence on our pupils, though most of it we will probably never realize. The effect that we have has very little to do with the subject matter that we teach; it has to do with who we are and to the extent that we allow ourselves to be that. After all, who are the teachers that we really remember with fondness from our own schooling days? Somebody once remarked that they are the ones who either had a passion for their subject, or loved working with children, or both.

Above all no professionalism. That is against my nature. I want to do everything I can as though it were a game, just as it occurs to me and for so long as the inclination lasts. I my youth I used to play like this unconsciously, now I want to continue to do it consciously for the rest of my life.

Wolfgang von Goethe

Filed under In the Light of Darkness