Westerford High School gets a 3D tour of Lavender Hill-Steenberg schools

I was blessed to be invited by educator Keith Niekerk to be part of Westerford High School’s Lecture Series which was launched this year. The focus of my talk “3D Reflections of School Life in the Lavender Hill-Steenberg area on the Cape Flats” was a tribute to the 16 schools that show amazing hope and resilience despite all the odds stacked against them.  As life would have it, I listened to the discussion on SAFM on the latest report released by the World Bank about the poverty levels in our country. I hear that the top end 20% still own 70% of our country’s wealth – no surprise at all.

I reached Westerford, joined in on the “Cake Day” treat and off I went to my lecture room. I compliment the learners on their beautiful school and therapeutic garden setting. I share with them that I could just drive through their gates and ring the bell for attention at their school. At most of the schools I serve I say, the gates are locked and there are security personnel manning these gates. Then once I get my clearance – which is not a challenge for me because I have become a familiar face over the 4 years – I am allowed in. 
Then off my audience and I went- travelling to Lavender Hill-Steenberg and the surrounds for the next 45 minutes.

Westerford learners during the talk
 I took the Westerford learners to their peers’ homes in the dull, blocks of flats in Lavender Hill where 48 households share a common washing line and paper-thin walls where neighbours hear your conversations.  I then escorted them to Overcome Heights where the crudely-constructed shacks are home to many of our learners in our schools.  Together we saw that there are no play parks for children, no libraries, no cinema, no swimming pool in this area – things we take for granted. I mentioned that about 60% of the population is unemployed and that many cannot feed their families.  I shared the report findings that a group of Ph.D American students – under  the supervision of a Westerfordian, Adam Cooper  -compiled on their recent 3-week visit to Lavender Hill. Their report confirms that the learners want to learn, they want to succeed and they want to help build our country and they have an acute understanding of their poverty trap.

Westerfordians pensive during talk
I highlight the conflicting pressures that educators experience teaching our 16,000 learners that attend schools I serve. The schools often reel under this duality of being serving teachers and social service agency rolled in one. The teachers know they need to provide high quality teaching and learning and simultaneously accept that they have to offer a high level of care and support to their deprived, vulnerable learners. The education system with its fast-paced changes and its high stakes systemic tests – ANA and systemic tests in the GET phase - expect all learners to reach the national benchmark of a 50% pass in language and mathematics. But the educators also know that they FIRST have to feed a few of their learners or listen to their hurt because of a friend or family member that was killed during the gang wars raging through the area at night. This is where the rub is: before educators can teach and learners can learn, our foot soldiers' priority is to ensure that breakfast (or a late supper) happens, offer counselling services and then start the Mental maths and the reading programme.  Tough stuff. Almost an inhuman expectation.

Relaxing during the talk
I share a few anecdotes with them about my own experience working with the heads and educators of the schools. I tell them about the chronic truant high school boy who jumped over the fence during interval just to come and have a meal. I share with them the story of teachers who cannot wait to get to school at 7h00 on a Monday morning, just to feed a few of their learners whom they know probably did not have a meal over the weekend.  What is the biggest lesson for me, I said, is the hope and resilience that these school communities display despite all their challenges and all the expectations of civil society and the state on them. Al Pacino’s stirring speech “Inch by Inch” from the movie, Any given Sunday, provides the perfect finale to the talk, I think.

Small world - I meet the son of the Prof. Badroodien, the supervisor of Adam Cooper, Ph.D student at  Univ. Stellenbosch and alumnus of Westerford. Badroodien Junior = back, far right.
 I thoroughly enjoyed paying homage to the educators of the Lavender Hill-Steenberg belt. In fact, I announced my talk to most of my colleagues and they wished me well. I also told a few Grade 12 learners at Lavender Hill High of my lecture focus and one girl chirped: 'Yoh, Os is famous' and her friends showed their pleasure openly. This I too, shared with my audience and we shared a warm, laughing moment. At the start of the lecture I asked the learners to indicate who knew where Lavender Hill is. During both sessions, about 50% of the learners knew where Lavender Hill is. This revelation made me realize that we don’t know ourselves and there are many invisible communities because they are situated on the periphery of our city and on our mental maps. I remind the learners we are a young country, only 18 years old and like typical 18 year olds, we are still grappling with our new identities, our new lives, making new friendships, examining how we relate with others – we are still as vulnerable. But we can reach out – in real ways – to break down the fences.
Westerford learners during the talk, 3D Reflections
When I return to the office, my colleagues can’t wait to hear the feedback. I rave about the warm reception I received, the  comfortable rhythm evident at the school and the disciplined, engaging sessions I had with the learners during the lecture. When I share that about half of the learners don’t know where Lavender Hill is – although they know Muizenberg that is situated about 10km from the area, they are not too suprised.
We live such sheltered lives, I said. Yes, says Irene, they probably travel via the M3 to Muizenberg. And then I get another lesson, this time from Irene.

The talk is still on track here with my Westerford audience
“I too come from a sheltered life,” said Irene. I only became exposed to other communities in 1996 when I came to work at Mitchell’s Plain. I was terrified, fearful. But then I realized my fears are unfounded; in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed working in the schools there, having some of my best experiences. If I have a choice now, I would choose to work in our poor community schools.”

end of talk and my hosts leave for their next lecture

My day was made. Thanks to Keith, I have grown another inch and I share that inch with Westerford Learners and the Lavender Hill-Steenberg communities.
Keith Niekerk and Fadia - two educators at Westerford.


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