There are moments in our lives that make an indelible mark on who we are and who we become. For me, the realization that education is a gift – from our families, our communities, our institutions, and our government – and with that comes obligation, occurred in Soweto, a township in South Africa. Soweto is famous for the role of its school children in ending apartheid in South Africa. The students walked out of their classrooms on June 16, 1976 to protest the government decree that the exams in mathematics, arithmetic, and social studies in black schools would be in Afrikaans, the language of the white population, instead of in English, the language of education prior to then. The students came out of their high school singing and dancing. They were waving their arms in the air when they encountered the tear gas and bullets of the Afrikaner police. Hector Pieterson was the first boy killed. The students stopped, registered what had happened, and then a remarkable thing happened. They kept going, singing louder and stomping their feet harder in dance moves, more determined than before. Their maturity and their willingness to take action when the adults had been cowed, stunned the world, and the South African adults who had been complacent about their own role in maintaining a system of apartheid. These students changed the world that day. And they did so because they wanted to learn and they wanted to take their annual exams in a language that they understood so they would get credit. Their belief in education humbled me when I visited the site.
I realized that it is inexcusable not to use the 23 years of formal education I have been given to improve the education of others after talking to Mary, a school administrator of the Boikanyo Senior Primary School in the Soweto township of South Africa. During the FIFA World Cup of 2010, Corey Moffat, was developing and implementing curriculum that used the love of sport to teach girls and boys ages 13-15 to stay HIV safe. He brought us to the broken down campus of the Boikanyo school where Grassroot Soccer was providing a camp, free of charge, because all schools had been closed down during the World Cup, despite the parents need to work and lack of child care. Play acting with the students, Corey demonstrated the “red card game” he had created to encourage teenage girls and boys to mentally flash a red card when they were offered a cell phone, a ride in a taxi, or anything likely to put them in a compromising position. The acting and the laughter that ensued was an example of learning-by-doing and effectively drove home the seriousness of the message about the risk of HIV infection resulting from unequal relationships and compromising situations.
I asked the school administrator about the drop-out rate for the middle school students. I was dumbfounded by her statistics. There was an apx 55% drop out rate for boys and a 15% drop out rate for girls between grade 5 and grade 7 at the Boikanyo Senior Primary School. Once they dropped out, these children rarely returned to school. It is unlikely that they were quitting school in order to work because today there is an estimated 26% unemployment rate in South Africa, and in 2010 there was an estimated unemployment rate of 75% in the townships. Adults were seeking the same jobs children could do. I asked Mary why the students dropped out. She looked at me with her arms spread and shrugged. I asked if she needed books. She said, “we have nothing – no paper, no pencils, no computers, no books.” All I could think was, “These are the children and the grandchildren of the brave Soweto students who stood in the face of fire and sang.”
Leaving Boikanyo Senior Primary School I made a pledge to myself that I would use my education to its fullest. Although I enjoy counseling students and preparing students to succeed in college, I realized that I could and should do more in the field of education. Perhaps, one day, OVA students will decide that they would like to communicate with the students of Soweto, or elsewhere in the world, to explore what they have in common, learn from other students’ experiences and to share their own knowledge and books. World history, environmental science, economics, mathematics, photography, English literature and composition are just a few of the endless possibilities for finding a shared dialogue for the future of our planet. Starting with a small community of dedicated athletes and students, welcoming all students and parents, and by collaborating with charter, private and public schools in California, the Western Region and elsewhere, OVA can show the world what a small school can do.