Back in 1990 I was a nine-year-old girl in Standard One at what I consider to be a historical school on the corners of Cecil and Coleridge Roads and Dryden and Pope Streets in Salt River. Coming from schools in Mitchells Plain and driving out of Eerste River in the Northern Suburbs and toward that majestic mountain daily, this was vastly different from what I was used to. Less children. Smaller building (singular). No grass (which meant no more making daisy necklaces during the summer months). Going for a lav break was like a long walk to freedom. Yet, there was a sense of imprisonment because a lot of the teachers were older and were real moms…They were the mistresses of the “mom stare”. The teachers back then looked like they were going to church or a very important meeting. They were impeccably dressed.
I remember my class teacher in Std. 1A. Mrs. E.T. Roman. She had a very prim look about her. Salt-and-pepper bob cut just below the ear. Not too red lipstick. Skirts worn below the knee…in dark colours. Always a blouse buttoned to the neck no matter how hot it got. Brown brogues on her feet. The epitome of a schoolmarm. Our school principal at the time was one Mr. Afrikaner. What a formidable man! Tall, broad-shouldered, trim, clean-shaven. Always in a light brown or grey suit. Full suit. My Std. Two teacher was Miss Natasha Abrahams. I could never forget her because she had this red fading VW Beetle she called her Ferrari and a shower fresh curly mullet. Then in Std. Three I had Mr. Reginald Plaatjies who seemed way too cool to be teaching us (he really was super cool)…and of course, another mullet. The difference between the younger and older teaching staff was very evident in their style of dress and manner of speaking.
Growing up between the Cape Flats and the Northern Suburbs was already a challenge. Throw in Salt River and my young mind goes “ka-boom”. Mitchells Plain was what I knew. Where my first friends were my cousins, so I no longer got to see them every day. We moved to Eerste River in 1988. I had just started primary school. Back then it was quite normal for kids to live with their grandparents during the week and with their parents on weekends. That was my life for one-and-a-half years. I can remember walking from Mitchells Plain Primary to my Grandad’s further down in Westridge alone at the age of six. In 1989 I first lived with a family friend in Westridge because I had changed schools from Mitchells Plain Primary to Harvester Primary, on the other side of Westridge. I can remember getting a hiding with my own ruler (I had a wooden ruler) from the caretaker teacher (my teacher was ill that day, and she was a very nice lady) because my phonics book was not in a plastic sleeve. I would only get said plastic sleeve when I got home over the weekend. That hiding left some wonderfully painful red imprints on my arm. Whilst my dad did the bathe-his-daughters thing that Friday night he saw the offending marks and immediately called for my mother. Now Mother Dear was by no means a big woman, but she had that look. You know the look. I remember her taking me to school the following Monday so she could confront the offending teacher and the principal. Enter embarrassment. She told them off something real good. You see, my parents had no problem with their children being disciplined. In fact, they welcomed it. However, no one was allowed to abuse us. In their eyes, this was abuse. The marks were there for days. That teacher was never allowed to touch me ever again. Frankly, I think she was too scared. Mama don’t play. I think this was one of the reasons my folks decided it was time for us to live at home with them.
The following year I was enrolled at Cecil Road Primary School. School number three. This was different. There was no grass. Half the children had to travel to school from various suburbs. We were a sizeable early morning bunch. Most of us, children of nurses at the nearby Groote Schuur Hospital in Observatory. I was a shy child and didn’t mix with others easily. Being able to talk lots does not equal being sociable. I went to Aftercare after school. We were transported in a kombi (minibus) by our Aftercare teacher, Gonda. I remember she had a son called Pascal. I can remember my classmates thinking the whole setup odd. You see, technically, we were still in Apartheid South Africa. Here was a white woman driving around picking up a bunch of black, white and coloured kids from various schools whilst dressed in tie-dyed outfits and combat boots driving us to our haven where we could just be, in Observatory (which, really, has always been about Liquorice All Sorts). We really were our own little rainbow nation at that time. And we were colour blind. Race was never an issue with us. It wasn’t something we noticed. However, attitude was huge. If you weren’t “nice” no one would talk to you. Byron, Candice, Kate, Lindsay, Roshen, Sandile and me…a melting pot of childish silliness.
For part of Standard Two I had to walk to the hospital after school. So here was me, a lanky ten-year-old, walking (alone most days) from Salt River to Observatory. Walking toward the mixed bredie that is Groote Schuur Hospital sitting in the lunch room doing homework until my mom finished work at four. Being one of a few kids in a hospital (if you knew my mom you’d know running around was never an option) you make “friends” with the adults. It was a community in itself. The following year my sister started school at Wesley Practicing School. So in the morning my mom would drop us at my school before seven. At seven-thirty I had to walk my sister to school (and that could be tedious when you’re a ten-year-old marching a five-year-old and you have to hold her hand and she walks so slow) then march on back to my own school.
Then came 1993. Another change in schools. This time, a school closer to home. Problem was we had no one to take care of us. So at the age of eleven I got my own key. We went to Tuscany Glen Primary School. My classmates thought me strange because of my…accent. I was told that I was “keeping me white” and told to “talk right”. This was when I first noticed the difference in race, I think. The country was also more politicised with the unbanning of various parties and factions. Or rather, to me the country seemed more politicised. My class teacher, Mr. Wardle (still one of the best teachers ever) was very political. And in his young zeal he shared his political beliefs with us. Our world was changing. Music was changing. Everything was changing. And I was on the cusp of adolescence. What a recipe! I can remember rapping to Snow’s “Informa” on demand. A good student, but always different. I come from a political family. By that I mean that politics was discussed and activism was active. You get my drift. However, as children we were not privy to adult conversation. No counting teeth. We were quite sheltered. So all this talk of politics was new to me.
When 1994 rolled around there was a palpable feeling of change. As young as I was, I knew something was up. I was the deputy head girl of my school (I still don’t know how that happened. I was the new girl). I played volleyball. Did track and field. Sang in the school choir. Played the role of Marbini the illusionist in the school play “Bugsy Malone”. And my parents voted in the first democratic election of our country. I could feel their excitement. However, they wouldn’t let me tag along. Judging by how long it took them to get home, I’m glad. It really got me thinking though…Were they really unhappy with the old dispensation? As a child I saw societal difference but dared not ask questions. I know the truth now.
Later that year I attended an interview at my prospective high school. I remember my mom made me wear my grey melton jacket with my school uniform. I was only at my current school for two years so I only ever had the skirt and tie. Because I was taller than my friends I couldn’t borrow any of their jackets. My hair was so neatly done I had the Asian eyes. You know what I mean? Hair tied so tight it slants your eyes upward. I met Mr. Gurney and could sense my parents’ nerves. I’m sure he could too because he sent them out so he could speak to me alone. And then I became nervous. For all that he looked so tough he was really pretty cool. A few weeks later we got a letter of acceptance and an invitation to Standard Five evening. Again, my mother intervened because in her mind I had no fashion sense. I don’t think much has changed in that regard. I had a thing for head-to-toe denim and looking like Tupac Shakur. That night, in October of 1994, I was once again in a melting pot of cultures. For some kids I’m sure it must’ve been different. For me…hey, this still exists?!?
My first day of high school just happened to be Friday the 13th. January 1995. When we entered the school grounds there was a welcome sign. It read “Welcome to The Settlers High School Class of 1999”. Only four of us from our primary school went there. However, high school changes things…a lot. So here I was…shy, gangly, in a too big uniform. Most people don’t know this but I am an introvert. Time has taught me that I need to engage more but my preference is not to engage at all…unless I know you and am comfortable with you…then you are privileged. Because of this it was easy for me to retreat within like a hermit crab. Don’t get me wrong, I had friends. But I was never part of any particular group. I didn’t hang out with school friends on the weekend. Instead, I still hung out with my primary school friends every weekend. Those are people I still have bonds with to this day after twenty-two years. And they still think I’m an oddball but have learnt to live with my quirks (and there are many). In Standard Seven five of us formed an a capella group at school. We called ourselves 4GM (Four Girls and a Man…dude didn’t want to be called a boy). We were pretty good. I had a colourful bunch of friends. I realized early on that my school friends and my home friends would not gel. Again, living between two worlds. In fact, I’d say I was caught between two worlds.
I’d say I only came into my own when Standard changed to Grade…Standard Eight or Grade Ten. My class teacher was one Me. Marieta Nel. An amazing teacher. She helped me realise that I was more than what I perceived myself to be. Even though I had (have) a quiet nature I was (am) strong. She made me truly love the Afrikaans language. She made me realise that Cape Afrikaans is awesome. She was fascinated by how the coloured kids spoke the Afrikaans language and encouraged it. No English was allowed in her class. She had a notice hanging from the classroom ceiling that read “As jy Engels praat in hierdie klas sal jy in ‘n soutpilar verander” (If you speak English in this classroom you will turn into a pillar of salt). She also made me feel wanted. Not many know this, but I was teased at school. I was teased a lot. Subtle things. Laughed at. But Miss Nel…she was just awesome and helped me believe in myself. I had her for Afrikaans throughout my high school career and count myself as fortunate. Another great teacher I had was Mrs. Salome Heinz. I don’t think the children under her tutelage realise how privileged they are to have her as a teacher. My first day in her class she introduced herself as “a bee with an itch”. So promising of a lovely relationship. She is brilliant. She is a tough lady. Not to be messed with. Very few liked her. All respected her. She once told me that I reminded her of herself. That I was a lot like her. Scary words to say to a sixteen-year-old who thinks you’re one of the scariest beings around. But…she wasn’t wrong. I realised that when I hit the age of thirty. I am truly honoured and count myself privileged to have had her as a teacher. Then there was our unwavering Mr. Trevor Webster. A man who was cool, upright and quite stern. That’s never a bad thing. When one has the responsibility of running a school filled with raging hormones being a dad (with typical unintended dad jokes to boot) in the situation is awesome. He had our respect. Real respect. How many headmasters can own that?
Settlers was where I discovered I really could sing…and tell stories…and act (kinda…more to friends than anyone else). I also discovered that I have a very strange, warped and dry sense of humour, not appreciated my many…so I kept that to my inner circle only. I was cast as a villager in the “Fiddler on the Roof” singing my heart out for “Anatevka”. My last year of high school. Matric 1999. What an awesomely tumultuous year. I was an athlete. I did well in the Tygerberg Eisteddfod in Afrikaans and Music-Vocal. I modelled clothes for “HipHop” (do they still exist) in the school fashion show. I was cast in the role of Ms. Lynch in “Grease”. I was a cheerleader. I remember I sewed my dress with my own hands. I designed my own matric ball dress. I came home late from school almost every night. I didn’t have much of a life. I do not regret it though. It prepared me for a life of hard work. And sacrifices. I had come out my shell…just a little. My world was about to change, yet again. But man, was I having a good time. The Settlers High School prepared me for adulthood and a world filled with challenges. They taught me how to not just think, but reason. I’m proud of that school, now celebrating her fiftieth year. The school’s motto is “Fide et Opera”. In Faith and Work. Very fitting.
Life did change. I became a student. I was growing up. The journey in my former years was different to what many might’ve had. I went to four different primary schools. I walked a distance between school and home and saw tyres burning on Merrydale, en route to my grandmother’s home in Portlands – where I was staying at the time – at age eight. I had to learn to take care of myself and a littler human being and cook dinner for the family at age eleven. At age thirteen I had to find my own way on public transport on the first day of school. I was different. I was thrust into leadership roles at an early age. I had fantastic role models in the teachers I have had over the years. I am blessed. Have always been blessed. I am different and I own it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is diversity is good. Change is inevitable. Being different isn’t bad. Being yourself is best. Take from life what you can and use everything you have at your disposal. One negative can aid the existence of many positives…if you allow it. We were not all dealt the same hand. It’s what we do with what we were given… My life is nowhere near what I thought it would be. But, my life is filled with so many blessings. I will always be grateful for a new day for who knows what lessons it may hold.
Life is life. Live it. Live your life.