A Space to Read
Firdous Hendricks | May 2019
As I write this, I have active event-planning documents scattered all over my computer screen. I am planning a Youth Day event for June 16–in South Africa, this marks the day in 1976 when black students protested the imposition of Afrikaans as the compulsory medium of instruction at schools by the apartheid government. Inferior education, in a language that was not their own, was one of the many tactics used by the white government to control and oppress the black majority of the country. The tragic consequences of this day have moved beyond the innocent children who were murdered by the police during their peaceful protest. Forty-three years later, inferior education continues to exist in predominantly black and mixed-race communities all over South Africa.
For the past 10 years, I have used transformative art to engage and activate at-risk children and youth in after-school spaces. My students have taught me a lot, none more so than in my first year.
I will never forget my first day on the job. I had a group of fifteen grade 5s scattered all over a grade 2 classroom on loan to me in the afternoons in a no-fee school in one of the many underresourced communities in South Africa. The prepubescent boys sat on tiny chairs, their knees half lifting the miniature desks, while some of the girls spread themselves across the story mat. They were painting and singing, dancing and laughing. In my naivete, I was feeling pretty impressed with myself.
Suddenly one of the boys, Alvino, lifted another child off of his feet, slammed him to the ground, and started beating him. This was but the first of many outbreaks of fights, arguments, and racist name-calling. It was tense. It was the political climate of South Africa playing out in primary school.
Alvino was often at the center of the classroom conflict. He was tall and muscular for a boy his age, and his eyes suggested a hint of fetal alcohol syndrome. He was quiet and loved making art, but he had a very short temper. Any small remark, movement, or giggle would send him into an unapologetic uppercut.
I would often sit next to him and gently put my hand on his arm while he struggled with something. He would tense up at any tiny change in sound, smell, word, or movement; even when nothing was happening and everything was calm, I would notice him look around and tense up. All of the unrest of the June 16, 1976, protest lived inside Alvino’s 11-year old body.
A few weeks into the program, the grade 5 teacher brought another boy into my classroom. Chad was sensitive, bright-eyed, and full of life, but he didn’t have any friends and was bullied in class. His teacher recognized his love for drawing and referred him to me.
That day, I decided to try something new: I started the lesson with a writing prompt.
One or two students simply got on with it. Most students stopped constantly to ask for help. My eyes moved in surprise over an array of misspelled, grammatically incorrect sentences that crossed between English and their home languages. Their written words communicated only a fraction of what they wanted to say.
Chad didn’t do the task at all. He couldn’t write, and he couldn’t read.
This is not uncommon in South Africa. From grades 1 to 3, students learn to read. In grade 4, they should read to learn. According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), a 2017 study showed that 78% of grade 4 learners in South Africa are unable to read, and 8 out of 10 grade 4 students in South Africa could not read for meaning. It’s no wonder—only 38% of the students they tested actually had access to a library. Chad was the norm, not the exception.
Later in that same session, I noticed Chad and Alvino huddled over the bookshelf at the teacher’s desk. As I looked over, I found Alvino teaching Chad to read using a grade 2 reader. In his breaking voice, Alvino moved slowly over the letters to form each word, and Chad repeated after him. He explained how the sounds of the consonants varied between the two languages they spoke. I walked over and gently put my hand on Chad’s arm. He didn’t notice, and there was no tension.
The reading lessons continued every week until Chad had read all of the grade 2 readers by himself. Alvino’s pronunciation of words was not always correct, and he struggled through some sentences just as much as Chad did, but he succeeded in teaching Chad to read a way that their teachers never could. A tender friendship between two unlikely boys had grown, and it changed the dynamic of the classroom. Chad’s peaceful vulnerability evoked a protectiveness in Alvino that became infectious, and a culture of care and community developed among the students. The class became a safe space to learn and take risks without fear of being mocked or ostracized.
Years later, I returned to their high school. Chad thrived. He became very good at writing and reading English—though he still struggled in his home language. He has since completed high school and has his own blog where he reviews events; he writes poetry and has created his own online poetry publication.
Alvino dropped out of school in grade 9. According to a 2015 study by the Department of Basic Education, 60% of South Africa’s grade 1s will drop out of school, and a 2019 study showed that only 37.6% of the grade 10s will pass matric (their final year of school). Alvino is the norm, not the exception.
When I asked Chad if they are still friends, he said: “Our lives are too different to hang out now, but we still greet each other and we have a lot of respect for each other.”
Firdous Hendricks is a visual artist from Cape Town, South Africa. She uses the transformational power of the arts to spark creative thinking and develop the entrepreneurial spirit with youth at Lalela, an NGO based in Africa. She has also used art as a tool for healing at the Butterfly Art Project in Cape Town. Firdous moves between traditional and digital arts and has always been interested in the relationship between word and image, which she explored in the performance Stretching Silence in collaboration with poet Toni Stuart (South Africa, 2013). Firdous has recently started her journey in writing fiction and was chosen to be a part of the Women's Creative Mentorship in association with the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. She is currently working on a novel for young adults.