"Hello everyone, my name is Mr. Pflueger... and I'm here to observe your class because I'll be teaching in Umlazi this year."
It was hardly my best introductory speech so I was not anticipating the response I received. An eruption of cheers and applause from all thirty-seven uniformed and seated students reverberated through the classroom.
Unsure of how to react to such a welcome, I smilingly shuffled over to my designated observation area behind an old desk. My introduction was followed by my colleague, a man named Bryce who is traveling to the DR Congo this month to work as an English Language Fellow. Bryce has many years of experience teaching in various foreign countries around the world. It showed in his introduction as he smoothly transitioned between rehashing his recent endeavors abroad, polling the students on their opinions of U.S. celebrities, and casually quizzing their expertise in African geography. The students chuckled with curiosity as Bryce shared that there are in fact no lions, giraffes, or zebras in Madagascar. I was merely a warm-up to the main act as the cheers were released even more enthusiastically at the conclusion of his repertoire.
Over the last few months before I arrived here, many of my friends and family asked me why I wanted to return to South Africa. Four years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a little more than a week in the country visiting various schools in the townships outside of Durban. My very short time there was still enough to make me dream about making an extended stay there in the future. South Africa had captured my interest, but I often found it difficult to concisely communicate my reasons for wanting to go back. My first week back here has been reminiscent to a moment when you finally begin to remember the lyrics to a tune that has been dancing around your head for a long while.
The members in my training clan and I had the opportunity last week to observe classes at a high school in a township down the road from the U.S. Embassy. After the buzz of our initial arrival simmered down, Bryce and I settled in to watch the class for the remainder of the period. The students sat in silent attention as they waited for instructions from their teacher. The common etiquette for an educational observation is to let everything proceed in the room as if you weren't even there, so I had to hold myself back from intervening when a strong breeze flung the classroom door open. The door hinges were rusted over so badly that the resultant creaking noise from the movement of the door made concentrating on anything else nearly impossible. Even the slightest drift of wind against door caused an interruption to the auditory scale of a hundred house-cats clawing a chalk board in unison. The teacher's voice was barely audible to me over the noise as she attempted in vain to keep the door shut several times only to have a new gust of wind reset her efforts.
As I was fixated dwelling on how we would have replaced that old door about five presidential-terms ago in America, a new sound began to emerge. The aging teacher with her lesson now in full swing was conducting a chorus of responses to her prepared questions in spite of the distraction. The students combated nature's attempt to thwart their lesson off by continuing on as if the distraction didn't exist. The teacher sailed through the rest of the lesson, facilitating her students while they recited some fundamental rules of English grammar aloud in perfect synchronization. The droning rhythm of the disruptive door contrasted with the vibrant melody of the teacher-student interaction to create impromptu symphony and the movement I was hearing reflected the reality of life in the townships for these students.
As I left the school with my team, we all marveled at what we had observed. The distractions the students face everyday aren't constrained just to their school rooms. The background noise of Apartheid is still humming in the struggles of the children in the townships. The rusty classroom door manifests itself outside the classroom in the form of immense poverty, improper housing, lack of opportunity after schooling, gang violence, and the premature death of family members due to AIDS. In spite of those obstacles, many of these students have more life in them and passion in the classroom than those who have access to state-of-the-art resources and potential scholarships to big name universities. There's something special about being around the youth in a country that is only a little more than two decades removed from government sanctioned segregation and oppression. These students possess an ambition-filled energy that stands in stark opposition to the environment around them. Today, you see teachers in the South African townships who come from humble roots and receive little pay and little recognition, but they are fighting in the trenches everyday because they know this generation has a new kind of hope. A kind of hope that you cannot fabricate and certainly cannot encapsulate in only a few paragraphs.