Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Journey to Mauritius

It was my first individual tutorial. Dr Brian Cooke settled back into his leather armchair, notebook on his knee, pen poised. He was destined to be my tutor for the duration of my Masters Degree at Exeter University and he proved to be a wonderful mentor.  His book-lined, oak-panelled and leaded windows were just what I had envisaged as the perfect study for a university Don. I breathed in the atmosphere and relished it.

His opening question to me was straight to the point.  ‘So….why are you in teaching?’ he asked.

Mike Apperley and I had done our undergraduate degrees together at UCT and had resolved then to expand our horizons by taking a year off teaching and going overseas to take up the challenge of a Masters Degree in Education now that we had a few years of teaching under our belts.  He had started his teaching career at SACS while I had opted to start my teaching adventures under the watchful eyes of Messrs Blackbeard, Lennox and Connellan at Wynberg Boys’ High School.

My answer to Brian was given spontaneously and with the bravado of a young man who knew it all. ‘I want to change the world,’ I said - and I meant it. It was a few years after the Soweto Riots, the schools were restless and it was clear that things had to change in South Africa.

It was to the eternal credit of Brian Cooke that he did not immediately clutch his midriff in mirth and  roll around the floor. He merely nodded thoughtfully before remarking that he hoped the year ahead would assist me in my quest.

It certainly did.  It made me realise that I should lower my sights somewhat.  It made me realise that I had to change my own world view.  For the first time, I came to the realisation of the importance of teaching as a career.  Above all else, it gave me a sense of purpose and an awareness of the need to work towards a goal in everything we did at school. The goal was never in doubt.  It was to produce thoughtful, empathetic, curious human beings.

Little did I know then that I was destined to run a school for seventeen years but the lessons learnt in that year stood me in good stead in the classroom, on the sports field and, finally, in the Headmaster’s office.  What value were good matric results or hard fought sport victories if the end result did not produce a quality human being?

Ten years later, Stephen Covey said exactly the same thing in his best-selling book: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. ‘Begin with the end in mind,’ he said, ‘and envision what you want in the future.’ 

I decided to use this philosophy in my Ethics classes in Grade 8 recently. These form part of the Life Orientation classes and when boys start the year by asking me what Ethics is, my response is always the same: ‘It is the way we do things around here’.

‘Where is the place that you would love to be?’ I asked one of the classes.
Planning ahead: The Journey to Mauritius

‘Mauritius!’ shouted out a bronzed, flaxen hair beach boy.  So Mauritius it was.  It became the goal of where we wanted to be in five years’ time. ‘It is October 2019,’ I told them. ‘You are about to ring the bell at your Valedictory Service.  Have you arrived at your personal Mauritius?  Write me a letter telling me what YOUR Mauritius is and whether you have arrived there.’

I told them that I would be giving these letters to their House Heads and that these letters would be filed in their personal files for the duration of their school careers and that they could retrieve them before that final ceremony in 2019.

Some of the letters showed some amazing insights.

I look down at my two feet.  They are on the same tile I stood on five years ago, ringing the bell after the Grade 8 hike.  I am no longer that thirteen year old boy who was shaking and trembling at the prospect of living in a different country away from my family … I stand here today, arm extended, my hand about to clasp the bell rope.  I am no longer terrified.  I no longer tremble.  I look at that same tile.  Now I am whole, empowered, focused – but emotional.  Emotions are running through me like a firecracker.  I take a deep breath and ring the bell.  That’s it.  The end has come.  I am trying to hold my emotions back.  However, deep down, I know that this is just the beginning.

Other boys also saw their Mauritius as a merely a port of call in their journey through life. ‘My time at school is over.  I have arrived in Mauritius – and it is great. I will enjoy my time here before moving on to other destinations.’

Saying Farewell, that Final Bell
Kelton Goertz Valedictory 2013
A number of boys expanded on the image of the bell. ‘It was a very emotional moment for me when I rang that bell in Grade 8 as I knew that the next time I rang it, my Wynberg career would be over.’

Another wore his heart on his sleeve. ‘I know that ringing that final bell means only the end of my school career – but not my Wynberg career.  I will always be a Wynberg man.’

Leaving a legacy was another theme.  Many of them wanted to be an inspiration to their future buddies.  ‘I want to be remembered as someone who gave his shoulder to be leant on without hesitation.’

I hope Mothers had the tissues out if they read these letters before their sons handed them in. ‘As I stand at the bell, I know that I have reached my Mauritius. I now know what it means to be a Wynberg Man. I ring the captain’s bell loudly and with pride knowing that I can hold my head up high, proud of the man that I have become.’

The sentiment of wanting to make their parents proud was a feature of many letters. I think that this wish is a feature of most men.  Even Jacques Kallis, at the age of 37, in his speech to the world after his final test at Kingsmead in January 2014, said, I hope I have made my parents proud.’

Some letters revealed the inherent anxieties of thirteen year olds.  Many boys wrote letters to themselves rather than to me.  One boy asked himself: ‘Did we manage to get a girlfriend? I am just asking.’

Another was a little more narcissistic or maybe he was aware that he would soon be on show on a Mauritian beach. I would like my nickname to be ‘chest-hair, he said wistfully.

A number of letters just listed the level of sporting achievement the boys wished to attain in their school careers.   Over a hundred boys stated that they wished to represent the school in a first team. Clearly, basic mathematics will show them that teams have a finite number but it is difficult to quash hope and optimism in a young boy. Our next task is to help them over the inevitable hurdles of disappointment, setbacks and disillusionment which life will put in their paths.

Some letters stood out because of their depth of thought.  One boy chose to write to himself.  ‘Dear Me,’ he said. ‘Do you remember when you used to have handwriting like this?  Now I want to ask your three questions.  Firstly, are you still fit? Have you looked after yourself because being fit and healthy will make you feel better about yourself?

Secondly, are you happy?  I am not talking about being happy with your test marks, I mean happy with who you are.  Are you still the optimistic guy with a smile on his face always ready to make new friends?  Or have you become the guy you hated the most when you were in Grade 8 – someone whose popularity has let it go to his head?

My third question is, do you have any regrets?  Did you not ask some girl out because you were scared that she would reject you?  Have you hurt someone deeply?  And let me tell you, that if you have become a smoker, drugger, user, drinker and, above all, someone who hurts other people just because he wants to be socially accepted, then you don’t deserve to be called by my name.

If you have stayed true to yourself and haven’t done anything to harm yourself or anyone else, than you are really the best person I know.’

I think my Tutor all those years ago at Exeter University would be happy to know that the philosophy he was hammering home to those idealistic and romantic Young Turks would bear fruit in a small corner of the world many years later.  I certainly never managed to change the world, but possibly a few boys have been assisted on their journey to manhood.

The final word comes from one of the boys:  ‘From Grade 8, I have used the four pillars of Wynberg as my firm platform.  Without these pillars, the roof (which is the present me) will collapse.  With the wisdom of academics, the endurance of sport, the emotion of culture and with the compassion of serving others, the roof will stand a lifetime.  My lifetime.’

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