Seven super numbers

26 January 2012 - 02:40 By Jonathan Jansen

95, 91, 86, 85, 84, 83, 78. These numbers cannot possibly belong to Valentino Thabang Ndaba, a poor, orphaned girl from Amaoti (10km inland from Umhlanga), "the most dangerous place in Durban", says her supportive mentor, a wonderful humanitarian called Tich Smith.

At the age of five, Valentino's mother died tragically in a car accident, going to her grave with a grand qualification in the family, a diploma in journalism.

In language more befitting an honours student in literature, Valentino writes of that time: "Sorrow was attached to [me] the way the skin lays against the bones."

A doting grandmother and Lungisani Indlela, a Back-to-School organisation, ensured that Valentino became the owner of those unbelievable seven numbers - her Grade 12 results in the 2011 National Senior Certificate.

When I collect Valentino at the Bloemfontein airport, it will be with a knowing joy that she will register to study media and journalism at university.

It did not make sense, two girls running hand-in-hand down a single lane in the 100m sprint at last week's first-year athletics event. Until I noticed that the one girl was looking the wrong way, to the side and upwards to the heavens.

Now I know, the blind girl running at an astounding pace was Louzanne Coetzee, the only girl who appeared on stage with the group of boys honoured by the Minister of Basic Education when the 2011 NSC results were announced earlier this year. This had never happened before - a blind student racing in the first-year athletics event.

She set a record without knowing it, her life exemplifying determination to do well against all odds.

After I walked arm-in-arm down the aisle with this star matriculant and introduced her to an auditorium packed with first-year parents and our sparkling new students, the audience rose to their feet in thunderous applause for the blind matriculant from a Worcester school.

I was running late for the midnight swim on Tuesday with two first-year residences in the giant university swimming pool on campus. But I needed to print what I had just seen as incoming mail on my Facebook page; this was extraordinary, a completely unexpected message from a science student.

Refiloe wrote: "Prof, I have great news. The botany department is the most integrated department I have ever seen. We had an excursion from January 13 to 20 in the Hogsback mountains, and not once did I feel like we were black and white.

"Yesterday, the Afrikaans students asked if we could have class together so now the English and the Afrikaans students have lectures and practicals together.

"The lecturers in the botany department are the best and the students are amazing!"

What makes an otherwise ordinary story so moving are the deep fissures that still exist across race, class and language on university campuses, and how students sometimes resolve these issues among themselves and not as a consequence of a policy action.

In this case there is no "fight-to-the-death" kind of animosity over a language but a resolution of a sticky problem that flows from the forging of friendships in everyday life.

"Did you read today's newspaper?" asked another matriculant from a Cape Town school through a Twitter conversation.

I quickly scanned the online version of the Cape paper, only to find a picture of the youngster floating in thin air after a jump from an aeroplane.

The Little Spirit, Geesie Theron, is the girl with a huge tumour on the brain that had rendered her blind. Despite this, she passed Grade 12 with a bag of distinctions. She had warned me some time back that she was going to jump from a plane.

"Are you serious?" I asked the daring kid from DF Malan High.

"Don't worry," she retorted, "I won't know how high it is."

The nice thing about working in education is bumping into young people every single day who demonstrate what an amazing future this country has as we prepare the next generation of leaders. Here is the antidote to angry, destructive youth who have the same potential for greatness if only we provide the discipline of love and correction.

For more and more children, this will not happen at home, in part because of the growing evidence of single- or no-parent households.

For those who are lucky, a minority like Valentino, significant adults might replace the parents and give hope and counsel.

When the unlucky ones enter school or university, those might be the only places in which they might experience compassion and find direction. If we do this right, expect many more Valentinos, Louzannes, Refiloes and Geesies.