Pupils aren't the problem
I was expecting a riot. The 75 Grade 12 students found themselves, by cruel circumstances, inside one of the worst schools in the Free State. The government had withdrawn the subsidy of this quasi-private school because of the terrible examination results. The building was a shambles. Teachers came and left on a regular basis, some not receiving pay for months.
When I visited at the end of last year, I stood in shock as boys wearing ties around their heads drifted in and out of the dysfunctional school while uniform-clad couples "made out" in the streets outside the gates.
Then, standing in the decrepit outbuilding which constituted the school hall and had no chairs, I waited for a long time for the children to calm down.
"You are not the problem," I told the pupils.
"The teachers, we adults, are the problem; we failed you."
Silence and shock.
"You have an attitude problem, but that we can sort out in a day or two; but you are not the problem."
I told them what the University of the Free State could do for them if they committed themselves to succeeding at school.
The children pleaded for a chance to receive a decent education. Then we all left for the Christmas break.
Now, at the start of the year, the Grade 12s are packed into a scruffy room as I return to deliver on the promise. But there was a risk; would they rebel when they heard the terms? I expected the worst.
"So, children, here's the deal. As of Monday coming, your school starts at 7am sharp, not at 8am, and finishes at 5pm, not 2.30pm.
"I will start the teaching before I go to my other work at the university. Agreed?"
The students applauded warmly as if they had just been given unexpected, expensive gifts. "Yes, sir, we will be there." No riot.
"They will not come," several teachers reassured me, citing all kinds of early morning and evening dangers and a long culture of tardiness on the part of pupils and teachers alike. The next morning at 6.30am, there were already neatly dressed Grade 12 learners waiting for class. As the steady stream of young people came towards the broken school, they came to greet me by hand before rushing into the now packed classroom.
Neat white and green uniforms, every hair in place, an urgent desire for learning.
At 7am sharp, the class starts.
"Today I will teach you comprehension," I tell the class in a school where only two students got more than 50% for Grade 12 English.
"What does this word comprehension mean?"
All the guesses were wrong in this class where half of them were doing English Home Language. The final examinations were about 10 months away.
As the pace of teaching picked up, however, the energy of the class was unbelievable. New vocabularies were being learnt, a tough essay was being analysed, and students lapped up the new knowledge with an enthusiasm I'd never seen before. I was in educational nirvana.
In the evening, I addressed the parents in English while the young principal translated into Sesotho.
These parents were poor, very poor, their eyes dulled by the daily hardships of making ends meet.
I told them about the intensive teaching plan for their children and how they could help. It is the same for all parents: be involved in your child's learning; insist that they spend three hours after school with their books; make sure they arrive by 7am for their lessons.
"Here is my cellphone number. Call me 24/7 if there is a problem and your child is not learning."
The joy and appreciation of these unemployed and hardworking parents make the effort worthwhile.
The next morning I bring Sinoxolo Sem to address the class, the young man from a dangerous school in Cape Town who managed to get more than 98% in history.
"Hallllllllooooo" crooned some of the girls when they saw this triumphant example of a scholar.
"How," I asked Sem for the sake of my mesmerised Grade 12 English class, "did you manage to get such high marks in history?"
His answer, of course, made sense: "I had a very good history teacher." And then, almost as an aside, his casual follow-up comment also made sense: "He was from Zimbabwe."