It was 11 o’ clock on a Wednesday. I know because it was break time after assembly. We gathered in the staff room. It was a scorcher, a typical South African summer’s day, and I was frustrated by the heat and the pile of marking waiting for me on my desk.
Relieved that assembly was over, (yes, teachers are bored by assemblies too) I walked quickly to the coffee machine, aware of the line that would accumulate. I made my coffee and sat down, conversing here and there with my colleague friends. Two staff members were engaged in conversation near my chair. Usually, I left the staff room at break. Why teachers discuss school things at break time is beyond me. I used break for a break. I took a walk, read my book or simply sat at my desk listening to music. But for some reason, on this day, I stayed in the staffroom, unable to escape the conversation taking place a meter away from me.
“He’s going to fail the year.” A teacher said.
“Oh yes. Absolutely. There’s no hope for him. Pity.” The other teacher responded.
Now I must mention here that as a Libra, and possibly just in accordance with my character, I have shied away from conflict all my life. If two people are fighting, I take both sides. If someone comes at me, I immediately defuse the situation by agreeing or flattering. Whether it was my incessant need to be liked or my compulsive trait to please people, either way, I never engaged in hostilities. But for some reason, this summer’s day at Wednesday Break Time, my “conflict streak” was about to end. I watched myself in shock as I got up and walked over to the teachers.
“It’s only February.” I said to them with a confused frown on my face. “It’s possible he can make up the marks this year and pass.”
They looked at me strangely, no doubt stunned to see this side of me.
“There’s no way.” The Stubborn One said. “We pushed him up last year and he’s already failed 3 assessments.”
That was a fair point, I’m aware. But something inside me felt like it was just plain wrong to sentence this boy to his fate of failure before giving it our best shot. Was this not the point of the teacher after all?
“Well, he’s passed two of my English assessments.” I explained. “He failed one, fine, but he passed two.”
They looked at me as if that didn’t really give me a leg up.
“He needs to pass English and Maths, right?” I confirmed.
“Yes.” They responded.
“Great! I’ll help him pass English, and you can help him pass Maths.” I gestured to The Stubborn One. She looked annoyed that I had given her more on her plate. I smiled, grabbed my coffee and walked out the staffroom.
That moment was profound for me. Not only did it show me that I have the capability to engage in conflict, when necessary, when I feel strongly, when my heart is involved, but it also showed me that it is courageous to defend others who need it. It was Desmond Tutu who said, If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. I know it was courageous because I was fearful. My heart was beating, and my palms began sweating as I “half” argued with my colleagues. But it was the pushing through the fear that really did it for me. It was speaking up anyways. Speaking on behalf of a young boy with potential that only I could see. It was my Authentic Self that shone through in a time of need that really changed the way I have engaged with conflict ever since.
I saw the boy once a week for extra lessons pretty much most of the year. It was sports day when he ran down the grandstands onto the field to meet me at my place as timekeeper. He had a smile from ear to ear.
“Mam! I got 62% for my prelim!” He exclaimed in excitement. I hugged him in relief.
“Thank You.” He said humbly.
“It’s all you.” I confirmed.
“And Maths?” I asked hesitantly.
“… I passed.” He said. I high-fived him.
“Now just finals to go…” I said to him with encouragement. He nodded.
He passed the year. I take no credit for this. It really was all him. He had it in him all along. Everyone does. He just needed someone to sit with him, to remind him. That’s all I did.
I sat with the teachers at our staff party.
“I can’t believe he passed!” The Stubborn One said as she pulled up a chair next to me. I smiled but said nothing. What was there to say? I told you so? Not my style.
“He must be so happy.”
“He really is.” I replied.
The people who are trying to make this world worse are not taking a day off. Why should I? - Bob Marley