Cromer Street and Steenberg Primary – Muizenberg and Steenberg, South Africa

“Our new friends are here!,” echoed off the wooden floorboards from an unknown chamber within the Californian’s new home in South Africa.

With open arms, young adults from all over the world invited us new volunteers into their/our house. The warm welcome led way to a familial bond that flowered in 48 hours. Time was spent with kind-hearted details and explanations such as how to walk to local cafes, telling us the best toasty (grilled cheese) deal, and sage advise about our town of Muizinberg.  They went out of their way to ensure our needs were met. Literally going above and beyond that, they took us to hikes and to sunsets in mountains rising high from the sea. His expectations of getting along with others in his house were superseded by the reality.

Similarly, the Californian’s expectations for his volunteer experience were off base. Dissimilarly, the reality was worse than the expectation. He had not been in a primary school setting for over a decade and as such had forgotten much of the routine and standards. He expected to learn over the course of 5 weeks from a teacher about the teaching process, how to work with difficult students, and to empower the future generation.

He enjoyed high school and almost all of his teachers. He had arrived in 9th grade with less than a dozen friends and left senior year feeling as if he had achieved greatness due to awards in academics, sports, and social settings. Teachers liked him for his work ethic and disposition. However, one tired (soon to be retired) teacher created one of  the biggest blots on his high school experience. The teacher had checked out, taught without effort or efficiency, and created a poor learning atmosphere. The Californian learned how not to live by watching how this man chose to present himself.

Anticipation is a unique feeling because it is not always clear which basic feeling it stems from: possibly fear, possibly joy. His anticipations of the first day of school in the township were high.

In the volunteer orientation, the placement leader informed them there would be culture shock. Some teachers were known to be more assertive than teachers in other countries because that treatment was the norm. Their actions were not rooted in meaness  but (in the Californian’s ignorant opinion) in a broken communication style that was learned at home and in the community. It seemed to be reinforced in the school system by some teachers. It is not the fault of teachers that overcrowded and underfunded classrooms persist. The orientation imparted the expectation of doing what they could to help the teacher and the students while refraining from using their phones for personal communications if possible.

On the sunny and breezy Tuesday in early November, he entered Steenberg Primary School for the first time and was placed with a 6th grade teacher whose attitude matched that of the tired teacher from high school. It is more vivid to use examples to describe the nature of this woman.

Tone-setting is a crucial tool he thought every teacher would utilize. However, his recent experience with children at an eco-farm camp and an upscale kindness-oriented residential camp in the hills of Maine fostered tone-setting skill building. He did not realize these camps also isolated him from the real world.

He thought he would be spending five weeks with this teacher, so finding out about this person’s background seemed a wise idea. To ease into the topic, he simply asked, “How long have you been teaching?”

The Californian hadn’t been in South Africa long but he knew sarcasm, and knew when a statement severely lacked it.  She earnestly responded stating, “Too long.”

His next task in the classroom was figuring out and then explaining how to set up her new phone. A package was delivered to the room about 10 minutes after his arrival and she proceeded to open it immediately, take out the phone, and begin to look over the new toy. The class, meanwhile, “worked” on a math assignment while he explained how her new technology worked. He rationalized that this instrument was important to her life but thought the conversation and task of installing the SIM card could have waited until interval (recess).

Over the next two hours, the teacher chose to not leave her seat but rather repeated the same type of “quiet down” techniques at progressively louder volumes. She was like a tea kettle whining louder and louder until she blew her top at whichever individual happened to make the most recent offense, regardless of size.

Her third and final strike happened when a difficult student, a trouble maker, came to the front of the class to ask for help at the end of the allotted assignment timeframe. He asked for clarity on a certain question and her response flipped the Californian’s  stomach.

“YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO ASK. GO SIT DOWN. FIGURE IT OUT YOURSELF,” she roared from her chair behind her desk in the corner of the room.

Every single communication technique and methodology for childcare he had learned at Camp Laurel South 2018 in Maine was rooted in kindness. The methodologies of Hidden Villa Summer camp were based in thoughtfulness and perspective.  This teacher did not have this mindset.

He thought after the first day it would be a good learning experience to make it through the week before requesting to change teachers. However, during the second day, he excused himself to the restroom to release tears of sorrow and frustration over how poorly this teacher managed and the amount of failure she was setting her students up for; seeing children with potential not being encouraged to achieve more; seeing children who had lost all innocence in their eyes; seeing children who couldn’t grasp concepts that should have be learned years ago because they are a product of a system that doesn’t have the resources to ensure they are helped.

He did not come to watch students fail. He also did not have the skillset, knowledge, position, or right to step in and “Home Makeover” the class. Maybe a more empowered version of himself would have the courage, but in that week he did not.  The Californian returned home after that second day and immediately spoke to the supervisor and explained the situation. “Can we have you stay the rest of the week?” the supervisor queried after hearing and understanding his feelings.

The Californian was a man who had just wept while at primary school. He knew what he wanted, to work with younger children. Moreover, he knew what he didn’t want. And he didn’t want to be in that class.

“I am sorry, I can not.”

The next day he walked into a grade R (kindergarten) classroom. The children greeted him with smiles and sideways glances. The teacher smiled and made him feel warmly welcomed. He helped with kindergarten activities over the next couple hours. They played at interval (recess) and colored in the late morning. The teacher checked in with him multiple times throughout the day to ensure he was comfortable.

At the end of his first day, he got up to leave and was rushed by a dozen young children hugging him goodbye. “Bye Trevor!” “Bye!” as small bodies embraced his legs and waist from all angles. The positivity he felt from the young ones’ innocence filled an emptiness he’d long felt. Something he’d missed at camp that summer by working in the office with computers and adults rather than ‘on-camp’ with children.

For the first time in a nearly decade he went home from primary school happy.

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