I was busy writing the script for a show about school days, when I was reminded that going back in time to those years would obviously mean so many different things to different people. I guess we are all on a spectrum somewhere between hammer and nail; between bully and victim; and of course between quality education and the lack thereof. My suspicion is that sadly the latter reigns supreme for most at present.
The school I attended many moons ago launched a museum project on Heritage Day to celebrate the school’s heritage a few years ago. I am talking about Harold Cressy High School on Roeland Street in the city. While attending the event that spoke to our hearts rather than our minds because of the memorabilia on display, I was acutely reminded of my past – mostly the happy parts of it, but there were many hardships and deeply emotional moments that perhaps are not depicted in those photographs.
What this moment meant to us was the beginning of a history that we need to document – that might have gone nowhere if a few dedicated individuals did not decide that it is necessary to put this history in a museum. And how fitting to launch it on Heritage Day, right?
The walls and a few classrooms were decorated with memories that stretched from the beginnings of time for Harold Cressy to more recent times – photographs capturing woodwork models to typewriters, to cultural event programmes, and even old school uniforms. And those who are not aware of what Harold Cressy meant to many a young person at the height of Apartheid would not know what a bastion of strength and of principle it was in shaping many of us; how it gave us the right foundation to become who we eventually became.
Our ex-principal, Dr Victor Ritchie was there, as lucid and sharp as ever, as was my Latin and English teacher, Helen Kies, and my Biology teacher, Lionel Adriaan and his wife, Afrikaans teacher, Maureen Adriaan. I was fortunate enough to have gone back to Cressy as a teacher for two years some three years after I graduated from UCT and to have a few of those very ex-teachers as colleagues. At first a peculiar experience, but later it became one of the most important experiences of my life – it was like the gift that kept on giving. One that I guess added many lessons to this point in my life. After all, whatever has gone before is our heritage.
Whatever we are doing now, will become our legacy. I hope the hooligans breaking down instead of building up, realise that…
As I stood there looking at my old matric classroom and seeing the grace with which my ex-teachers have aged, I was happy – happy to have shared so indelibly in this day, knowing that however small it may have been, my contribution also added to what is now known as my Alma Mater’s heritage…
Then, recently, I heard from my friend – who I met in standard six at Harold Cressy and we have been friends, close friends, ever since – that Helen Kies, our English and Latin teacher, is being considered for a possible Honorary Doctorate at UCT. She (my friend) had to write a motivation letter in support of the consideration. Here is an excerpt from her letter:
“It is a profound honour and privilege for me to write a statement in support of an Honorary Doctorate for Helen Kies. Mrs Kies was not only my Latin teacher for my five years at Harold Cressy in the late 1970s and early 80s, she also had a profound and long-lasting influence on my political consciousness and education during that time. She embodied the notion of activist-teacher. During those turbulent years of
Apartheid State repression, she taught us that our resistance was not only an anti-apartheid struggle, but also an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-neo-colonialist struggle. ‘Education before Liberation’ was the dictum that guided her practice as a teacher. She taught us not only what we needed to know as prescribed in the curriculum, but also what we were entitled to know as children of the oppressed class.
She instilled in us principles of defiance and resistance against the Apartheid state and exposed us to anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggles elsewhere in the world.
She compiled reading lists from her private library, encouraging us to read and critically discuss the literature she made available.
Mrs Kies’s unwavering dedication and commitment to providing education for liberation, inspired me and my fellow students to read, to learn, to think critically and always to resist oppression.”
How many of these teachers are currently walking the corridors of learning, I wonder?