Beacon for education
The bones of the teachers lie buried less than 100m from the school in a hot, dry corner of the northern Free State. But inside the half-renovated school there is an energy among the living nuns that belies their age and vocation.
A young girl appears at the door of the basic staff room where we are about to start a short meeting; the child is out of breath and excited, but does not say a word.
The old nun leaps from her seat, grabs the girl's hand, crouches slightly and she sets her sights on the distance, and together they sprint along the brightly polished corridor to where the child wants them to go.
More than 100 years ago, the sisters of Notre Dame made their way from England to this bleak part of central South Africa to minister and later start a school out of which was born St Peter Claver High School.
Here, the children of railway workers and the offspring of destitute parents could receive high-quality education from dedicated teachers, who earned little, if anything, as part of their sacrificial commitments.
The school survived the vicissitudes of 20th century South Africa, closing and reopening, and withstanding the apartheid legacy.
The site was once handed over to the South African military for training defence force personnel, and reopened again recently.
The nuns came to teach, grew old, and many were buried where they served.
You can literally smell a good school. The fresh paint of the walls, the red polish on the floors, the fresh curtains in the main hall, the neat carpets on the stage, and the immaculately dressed boys and girls.
Coming to the school last week for their reopening, I took a wrong turn into the town with the largest potholes in South Africa.
I saw children from other schools already drifting through town before 11am.
They looked ragged, aimless, and without any identification, other than various kinds of bags to suggest they might have had school that day. I wave to some of the children, and they return faint smiles in my direction. There's not much to be happy about on this side of town.
"It is not fair," I say to myself.
How can one group of disadvantaged children in a half-renovated school receive such warm attention and strict pedagogy under the guidance of a group of selfless teachers and yet, less than five minutes away, another group of disadvantaged children are under-served and neglected?
The difference, of course, is not money but values.
At St Peter Claver High you notice two firm values quickly: love and discipline. I notice the way the principal and the teachers talk about the children, how they hold their hands and lift their spirits.
The children are not only loved, they are respected. But I also notice the unwritten rules for behaviour, the ways in which soft discipline is everywhere - from basic but clean, ironed clothing to neat seating patterns, to carefully crafted singing routines. Nothing is out of place. "This is the way, walk ye in it" - the old scriptures come to mind.
My mind wonders as I await my turn to speak.
What if one could capture those two values of love and discipline in a bottle and transport it across the main road into Maokeng township where the other schools are?
What if the selflessness of the nuns could be injected into teachers from the other schools who would, at the slightest provocation, abandon their duty - the children - in a quest for better salaries?
Of course, educational change is much more complex than my questions allow. But what St Peter Claver reminds you of is that the children on both sides of town are the same children - black, poor, and filled with limitless potential.
How they learn and behave depends on what we as adults do.
How often do I hear teachers try to mislead with these words, "It is much more difficult to teach today than when you were a teacher", or "If only the parents would play more of a role", and so on and so on.
Actually, the children are the same from one generation to the next. They respond the same way as children anywhere when faced with those compelling values of love and discipline.
The mind tests me with one more question. What if I could persuade the teachers in the other schools to also agree to be buried where they taught?