Pupil's heartfelt story leads to silver lining for her school
Etaine Wilson was told to report to the teachers' boardroom by Kasselsvlei Comprehensive High School acting principal Brett Dyers.
The 18-year-old may be one of the Cape Town school’s star pupils, but the year has stripped nearly everything she held dear from her life. In 2020, surprises have seldom been pleasant.
But last week there was finally something to celebrate. She and two of her peers, chosen for their academic excellence, walked in and were handed boxes containing laptops given to the school by Mark Young, CEO of fintech company Finclusion.
Young made the donation after he read Etaine's article about her lockdown experience in the Sunday Times in June.
Prof Jonathan Jansen, of Stellenbosch University, published seven letters from pupils around the country, but it was Etaine's that touched Finclusion staff.
“We read the article, and Etaine’s story - maybe because it was first, maybe because I live in Cape Town, so I know the community a bit more - really resonated with me,” said Young.
“We felt that although relatively speaking we’re a small business, we had to do something. We reached out to the school and although this started out as very much a project around Etaine, we realised the problem is a lot bigger than that.”
In fact, the problems in the school's community of Bellville South are immense, and for some children financial pressures and personal circumstances can prove too much.
Outside Kasselsvlei's entrance, crowds of teenagers sit around smoking or stand on corners - ripe for a life of crime and gangsterism.
Pupils have been asked to bring their cellphones to school so they can download schoolwork using free WiFi, but the phones are often stolen by children who have already turned their backs on the education system.
For others, there is a choice between bread and transport money to school. Parents increasingly opt for bread.
Dyers said that even though fees are relatively low, at R1,500 for the year, "our parents cannot afford that - 30% to 40% are on Sassa [South African Social Security Agency] grants at the moment. You’ll find that the majority of our learners’ grandparents look after them, because the parent is not able to look after that child.”
Etaine’s mother received a disability grant, which she used to feed her and Etaine, pay school fees and buy clothes.
In her letter to Jansen, the schoolgirl explained that she shared a room with her mother and had to see to her needs before starting her homework.
“I started this exciting journey with my goal to receive distinctions and pass my grade well. Instead, it turned out to be a year where I am in fear, anxiety and depression. Am I going to pass this year?” she wrote.
“My parents are not that well-experienced with home-schooling because both my parents — I should actually just say my mommy, she’s a single mother who receives a social grant due to disability — she cannot help me because she only has grade 9.
“And my dad, well, let’s just say he only gives money when he feels like it, because my mommy raised me all on her own. She made me the young lady I am today.”
Three weeks ago, Etaine’s mother passed away, which made the gift of a laptop even more important for the teenager.
“It really means a lot because now I get to do my schoolwork, I get to do my tasks,” she said.
“Especially now with exams coming, I can download past papers and also it helps me to study. It really means a lot, I’m really grateful for it.”
Etaine once aspired to study law, but caring for her mother changed her mind. “My mom was one of the reasons why I changed to wanting to do social work. I want to give back to my community,” she said.
“The challenge here is that a lot of parents drink and do drugs and that has a huge effect on learners at the school. That is one of the biggest problems.”
Thanks to Etaine's letter, her peers Cymanda Daida and Natalie Dass also received laptops from Finclusion, which is also covering their data costs for the rest of the year.
Cymanda, who was at school despite violent protests which shut down parts of her neighbourhood of Mfuleni, said her parents have talked for years about buying her a laptop but had been unable to afford one.
She has been the top-performing learner in her year since grade 8 and hopes to study medicine.
“I’d like to go into forensic pathology, but at the same time I love trying to understand what goes on in the human mind, so maybe a neurosurgeon or a neurologist,” she said.
“I do love working with people but I’m very much an introvert, so I want to be the guy behind the scenes.”
Cymanda's father is jobless and struggles to find the money to transport her to school.
“A lot of times I worry, because it’s up and down," she said. "Sometimes you have money but it doesn’t last for the whole month, then I worry how I will come to school. But overall, I can’t complain because most of the time I’m here and I try to find ways to come to school.”
It’s amazing that they don’t allow their personal circumstances to define who they are.Hymoena van Harte
Home room teacher Hymoena van Harte said she and her colleagues were inspired by the trio and their determination to succeed.
“All three of them, their work ethic is amazing. It makes you just want to be more prepared the next day. They actually motivate teachers to want to work and keep us on our toes,” she said.
“It’s amazing that they don’t allow their personal circumstances to define who they are. But also, they don’t readily speak about it, so unless something happens that affects them emotionally, they are not going to talk about it.”
Finclusion’s donation also included stationery kits and scientific calculators for the 90 matric pupils.
Young spoke about future commitments to the school and the community. “Honestly, coming here today and just listening to what the problems are, I realised we’ve got a bit more fight in us ourselves to step up and do a bit more for the school,” he said.
“Just listening to the relative school fees, I think we can sponsor a few grade 11s and grade 12s next year. That seems like a relatively easy and simple thing to do.”