By Ernie McCray
As I reflect on Mandela’s passing I’m reminded of how the struggle of his people has played an important role in my development as an educator, starting back in ’57 or ’58 before I had taken my first “How to Teach” course at the University of Arizona.
At the time I was writing a research paper and found some essays on South Africa and the word “apartheid” leapt off the pages at me and I discovered that my struggle in Southern Arizona was so similar to what blacks were going through in the southern tip of the Dark Continent.
Of course, apartheid was more brutal. I didn’t have enough time to dwell on the subject so I just tucked my new found information away and got back to a life of pop quizzes and mid-terms and the like.
But, I didn’t know how much I had internalized what I had learned until the next year when I was in a class listening to a glowing lecture on South Africa that highlighted the country’s sparkling beaches and stunning countryside and rugged mountains and rich resources.
Nowhere, in his talk, however, did the professor mention “apartheid.” So I brought the topic up myself, wondering, from what I knew, how somebody could talk about South Africa and not say something about the separation of the races.
He countered with “It’s better to leave such things alone. It’s too big. It’s just the way the world is, young man.” And I couldn’t help but think, even in spite of my lack of training as an educator, that this man had blown a chance to open up a captivating new world for us freshmen and sophomores to explore.
Well, whether he wanted to or not, he helped me develop basic philosophies as to what should go into the creation of a dynamic learning environment. For one thing I learned to never let “teachable moments” get away. But, over time I’ve come to realize that we educators let such moments pass us by too often.
Like when I was teaching in the 60’s, early in my career, and an exchange student from Johannesburg came to my school with a spectacular video presentation about her country. She told her story of its wonders ever so eloquently, in jubilant tones, with a big beautiful smile on her face, ending with: “Come and visit us, you’ll love it!”
She bowed to tremendous applause, including mine, in spite of my concerns about the impression she had left on my students with whom I had to share the “other story,” the one about the turmoil and hate and blatant cruelty that governed the life of blacks, dampening their wide-eyed dreams of visiting towns like Pretoria and Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. I did so without denouncing our spirited speaker, who probably didn’t know any more about apartheid than my 6th grade charges, as she lived a privileged life in a world created for her to enjoy. I doubt seriously if she was ever privy to a discussion about the meaning or impact of racial discrimination on a people.
The kids seemed to understand what I shared with them, in their hearts, for sure, if not completely in their heads but I found that my peers, my fellow teachers, knew no more about South Africa than the children at our school when I spoke with them about the need to correct the inaccurate perception of South Africa that our students would carry home with them that day.
“You’re too sensitive” they said with the same “It’s better to leave such things alone, it’s too big” tone of my college professor a mere ten years or so earlier. Those “teachable moments” drifted away like a kite that’s broken free from the person flying it.
Then there was the time San Diego Unified started earnestly integrating its schools and I said at a meeting “This is wonderful what we’re doing but I hope you know that, as we integrate, our retirement system is investing millions upon millions of dollars in corporations that are doing business in South Africa, propagating a political system and a way of life called apartheid which is the opposite of integration. That dishonors what we’re trying to do.”
Whoa, my colleagues looked at me like I was the bearer of polio and some actually laughed in my face, resigned to the notion that “This doesn’t concern us.” On this issue, in the school system, I was like an electric fan blowing against a hurricane.
The thing is it didn’t bother me so much that people didn’t agree with me but that they didn’t seem to have a clue as to what I was talking about and worse than that, didn’t care.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, however, brought the story of South Africa to the forefront of the world’s collective mind. In the process he taught us new ways of thinking, how to reconcile our differences, how to forgive. What a lesson plan he followed.
South Africa still has a long way to go to fulfill the dreams Mandela laid down for it. It won’t be a task it can carry out alone without help from the rest of the world. That’s why it’s so important, I think, that educators find a way to look at what’s happened and is still happening there and tie it to the stories we have in our history, and those in other country’s history – and get our students sorting through it all critically and seriously so they can entertain ways to make changes in their world. For the better.
I’ve learned how to teach a bit since those days when I discovered Mandela’s homeland and I’ve never seen such “teachable moments” as we have waiting to be examined by our children in our world today.
Photo courtesy of Futeratlas.com