Saturday, August 9, 2008

fun in the townships

Her last year in college, my girlfriend ran a program called SHAWCO - !!insert name, a student run organization that sends college kids into the township (slum) schools once a week to teach a class. I went along for the first time last Friday to check out the scene. What a rush.

As both regular readers of this column know, I love kids. I like babies too but I'm not as stoked about caring for one 24/7. As my dad says, “It only really gets fun when they start talking back.” Since I spent most of last week in bed with tonsillitis taking some strange South African concoction called “Grandpas” to stave off the feverish nightmares, I had plenty of time to fantasize about my future family. I pictured a warm sunny day at Lititz Springs Park with children swarming everywhere while my five to eight rugrats wander around stirring up trouble. Then I yell “Pelger Flash” and all of my kids swing into action by jumping up, yelling at the top of their lungs and running around the park waving their hands over their head like in a Godzilla movie. After a minute of this hopefully disconcerting behavior, we all meet at a spot in the grass for a giant dog pile. Our family motto will be: making the world more surreal, one freakout at a time. I can't wait to be a father.

Anyway, the above scenario helps to illustrate why I loved this township school. As we drove up in our short bus, half a dozen kids swarmed through the gates to meet us. A few had vicious looking dogs on rope leashes. One little guy had a dog that dwarfed him. I said to him, “That dog looks like a killer. Is that dog a killer?” He just solemnly nodded his head as the dog took off running presumably to go lunch on the third grade. I turned to another kid. “Do you think you could beat that dog in a fight?” Big shake of the head no. “What if I gave you a knife?” I look at the dog again. “A really big knife.” A big smile this time but still a shake of the head no. “Yeah, I think you're right. Them's some mean looking dogs.”

I walk into the classroom with the two college girls who will run an art class here next week. Their only plan for this week: get the names of their new charges. Instead, there is chaos. Absolute and glorious chaos. A room of forty 7 to 13 year olds who seemed to only be slightly afraid of the principal who yelled at them in Afrikaans to shut up. They were not at all afraid of the two english speaking girls in the front who didn't understand Afrikaans. I heard some of the boys use some bad words in Afrikaans but I decided to feign ignorance. If my teacher didn't speak my language, could I resist insulting them? Probably not. I couldn't throw stones on that point.

Whenever the girls asked for silence, the noise would drag on as various factions tried to silence the others. The hissing and shouts of “shut up” chased each other around the world in a seemingly endless echo. Kids kept standing up to walk around. A little blonde girl repeatedly punched one of the older boys and somebody kept making fart sounds which made me hide a smile. While everyone else tried to silence each other, only the long row of older boys in the back simply would not shut up. However, once I squeezed into one of the tiny seats in the middle of their group, they went from being the loudest offenders to being the most annoying keepers of the peace. They would vehemently yell at anyone standing up or making noise. This often led to a yelling contest about who should shut up. Everybody wanted everyone else to be quiet and instead they took the roof off the old building. I giggle about it again even as I sit here and write it.

Once I got the boys on my team, they enthusiastically played Simon Says and the rainmaking game. We all especially enjoyed the part of banging on the desk to make thunder. I don't think real thunder reaches this level of cacophony. My new buddies started questioning me. “Why did you come to South Africa?” I told him, “Because of a girl, the age old reason.” I'm a big believer in speaking to kids like adults so I went on to say, “Girls are like a drug. You do things because of them even though you don't want to.” He tells me, “I know that. I have two girlfriends.” “Alright,” I said, “So you know what I'm talking about my man.”

Once the games and name gathering finished, class broke for the day. I somehow acquired two monkeys on my back before even leaving the classroom. Two cute little ones jumped on my back as I walked out. I had fun asking them if they wanted to go for a swim in the nice warm mud puddles dotting the field. Unfortunately, the little girl called my bluff because she actually did want to be thrown in the mud puddle. I had to be the weak one who backed down from carrying out the challenge. Girls always win.

In my first trip to a township school, I didn't learn anything about their needs or desires. I did see the loudest, wildest and funnest group of kids. I have a feeling that when I go back, I'm going to more of a hindrance than a help to the other teachers. I'll just want more chaos.

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