I will let you in on a little secret that might be surprising in light of some of the things I have talked about doing in this blog: there are some days, even in South Africa, when I simply do not feel motivated to get up and get going. I do not mean that in a depressing, the-world-holds-nothing-for-me way. No, I am talking about those days we all know and love, the ones where knocking off the first season of MacGyver on DVD with the occasional jaunt to the kitchen for more Cocoa Pebbles sounds pretty fulfilling. These are the kind of days where talking about the paper you need to write is as much of a success as actually writing the paper.
To be honest, I have been a little surprised in the moments I have felt this way. My naivety has been a fairly recurring theme in these blog posts, and I think it is again appropriate. I was unrealistic about the transformation I expected Cape Town to initiate in me. I had romantic visions of going into this trip as a painfully unaware, ignorant and even selfish American and leaving with the steel will and selflessness of a Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. What I have found, however, is that developing the admirable behavior associated with people like this has a lot more to do with the choices I make than where I am when I make those choices.
The instances that my energy, will power and patience have been most tested have been at my service sites. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I have been teaching a reading class of 6th and 7th graders at St. Mary’s Catholic School in a township called Nyanga. While it has already been a truly rewarding experience, it has also been very challenging. I might ask a student to explain what we read the previous class and get a shrug in reply. I might ask students to prepare a drawing that compares part of their life with one of the characters we read about and discover the next day that none of them remembered to do the work. I have asked students to complete this assignment four times now and still have not had a student bring in a drawing. You know what they say, though: fifth time’s the charm.
The after-school program I teach guitar lessons at has also presented its fair share of difficulties. Teaching a new instrument to someone is in some ways similar to teaching someone a new language. While a Spanish teacher might struggle to teach a topic simplistically when their understanding of that topic is on a more sophisticated level, a guitar player who is more familiar with pieces that are past a beginners’ stage might have difficulty explaining the basics of playing the instrument.
The most aggravating aspect of these challenges, however, is not their presence; it is the reaction they get out of me. The reaction is generally…well, aggravation. It can be pretty perturbing to teach a class when students often do not complete their homework, talk while I try to explain something to them and are silent when I ask questions. The times I feel the worst about getting so irritated, however, are the instances when a student is clearly putting forth a full effort but with little success. There have been times when I have felt my patience waning as I grasped for a simpler way to explain the difference between a guitar’s frets and strings. I have also felt my blood rise as I reiterated yet again that you can only answer “yes” or “no” when playing 20 Questions.
If I have the same kinds of frustrations I sometimes feel in the states, however, I can take comfort in the fact that I have been able to find inspiration the same way I do at home: from other people. Luckily for me, there is no shortage of people in South Africa who are there to remind others through their examples that we each decide whether or not to see our circumstances as obstacles or opportunities.
Linda Biehl, the woman whose daughter is the namesake of the foundation I intern for, is an excellent case in point. As far as I know, Linda was a relatively normal, suburban mother until 1993. That year, her daughter Amy, who was doing graduate work in Cape Town and trying to help the country ease in its transition from apartheid to representative democracy, was murdered by a mob who saw her as a symbol of white oppression. The response of Linda and her husband falls under none of the categories for reactions I would expect: they supported their daughter’s killers’ appeal for amnesty in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, began a friendship with two of these men and set up the Amy Biehl Foundation (ABF) to guide Cape Town youths in positive life directions. When Linda and Ntobeko, one of the men who killed Amy and who now works for ABF, spoke to our Marquette group, I could not help but sit in awe of what life had brought these two people and how they each chose to react: a suburban mother’s daughter was murdered, and she sought to understand and become a part of what her daughter was trying to accomplish in the first place. A young man grew up in an oppressive and racist society, responded to the Pan-African Congress call to militancy, paid for his crime in prison and found redemption through a new mission with the person whose daughter he killed.
There are many people we have had the good fortune of meeting that have different but equally inspiring stories. Judy Mayott, an American woman who was instrumental in beginning the Service Learning in Cape Town programme, has been a part of countless organizations and has won award after award for her tireless human rights activism. While in a war zone, she stepped on a landmine and lost the ability to walk. Nonetheless, she continues to work for the causes for which she has paid an incredible price. There is Desmond Tutu, whose wit, wisdom and humor were shining lights for South Africans during some of the darkest days of apartheid, as well as during the revelations of that darkness during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even my housemates, who are also working tirelessly at their sites to make real differences in others’ lives, floor me. Megan Yohann, for example, wrote a proposal for an initiative to feed 20,000 people. Terry McGrath has been administering HIV tests for people in townships. And Charlie Birts will sometimes show up at Tembalethu School and be told what he will be teaching a group of disabled children less than an hour before the class starts.
The people that inspire me the most here, however, are the very students that can give me so many headaches. For while they can forget to do their homework or chatter in Xhosa while I try to ask them why Bella was sad about leaving Phoenix in Twilight, they also demonstrate remarkable determination considering the way some of the proverbial chips of life are stacked against them. English is their second language, their school libraries consist of books such as Fred Savage: Totally Awesome and they come from a socioeconomic background that does not afford them the comforts that I take for granted every day. Despite these setbacks, however, the students show up. While they are not always quick to answer questions, some of them volunteer, especially if I coax them with bonus points or the promise of snacks (they said my first attempt at chocolate chip cookies was acceptable). That is not to say that it is not tough, or that it will not continue to be tough. But in those few moments when I have felt that I really could not take any more, something has always happened. I see one of my students trying harder than I have ever seen someone try before. It may be an effort to read a series of words that they have never seen and cannot pronounce. It may be a guitar part they cannot understand. But as they shake their heads with frustration over each mistake, and then bow their heads back down to their task, furrowing their brows in determination to get it right this time, I take a deep breath, realize that it is time for me to do the same, and walk over to try and help them.