The Big Read: Jayde's lessons will live on
Since its founding in 1877, Riebeek College had never experienced such a devastating tragedy. More than six weeks later you could still feel the sadness, the sense of loss, hanging in the air of this modest but outstanding girls' high school on the edge of Uitenhage. They had lost the heart of the school, a young, beautiful and talented life orientation teacher. The educator who taught pupils about life would lose her own before she had even reached her 30th birthday.There are so many layers to this tragedy. That she was abducted while waiting for her ride to school, robbed, killed and dumped on an open road. That following a moving eulogy at the funeral her husband, Chris Panayiotou, would be arrested on suspicion of murdering her. That the husband's sister, a dear friend of the deceased, teaches at the same school. That many young children would have to navigate the pain of bereavement for the first time: one day they saw the teacher in front of the classroom, the next day she was gone.Like several others in this tight-knit community, Jayde Inggs was a pupil at Riebeek before she became a teacher at the school.In the sparse boardroom, Marilyn Woods, the principal, (also a former pupil) takes me through a box of photographs of the petite brunette alongside another box of heartfelt tributes from the surrounding schools and communities. Woods, I would soon find, was the rock on which so many relied in the days after the disappearance of Jayde and the discovery of her lifeless body.I wanted to be there, among the children and the teachers , to comfort them with piano music, a winter comedic routine ("it's so cold that..."), and a few words on the heart of a teacher.The front office secretaries of a school are typically cold and businesslike; not at Riebeek. The warm reception calmed me as the two women laughed while I tried to complete dressing for the day, a task which started 30 minutes earlier when I sped from Beach Road, Port Elizabeth, to this little Eastern Cape town known more for making motor cars than anything else."Look around you, what do you see?" askedWoods after I called to confess being lost in a town with one main road. I looked around and saw a beautiful woman, but something in Woods's voice told me that volunteering such useless information would be met with swift rebuke from the matter-of-fact headmistress. So I turned to inanimate subjects and mentioned the FNB building. "Turn right, after three robotsleft, after one school, ours .." Now that was efficient.The hall full, the children ready. I started with a song on the piano, not about them, but about others. How our calling to serve others is more important than our quest to find a job. "If I could help somebody..." in the words of a song made famous by Mahalia Jackson, turns the attention from our own needs, even sorrow, to the needs of others. And then for the fun parts.It is time to laugh and once again the routine works - using humour to drive home a serious point about the dumbing-down of education."There is now a proposal for a Grade 9 exit certificate," I warn the kids. "What are you going to do with a Grade 9 qualification in a 21st-century economy? All you'll qualify for is to wash KFC chickens on the streets in Braamfontein!" They get it. "Do not become like your country."Children are not stupid. They realise what is at stake. Whether in disadvantaged or privileged schools, they know the official standard for education is a joke. No need to belabour the point: your scholastic expectations of yourself have to far exceed the government's minimum standards for a pass in a school - or you're dead in the water.Somewhere between the many selfies with the children, the mesmerising smell coming down the corridor guides me to the consumer science classroom. Then tea on the stoep with some of the teachers while the children write tests.This is a rare school. It is well-integrated, offering a model of racial inclusion to the country. The fees are modest and yet Riebeek was listed among the top academic high schools in one magazine survey. And I saw their mission in action: "Sound values in a happy environment".Jayde would be proud.