The staff room

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In many ways, the DCS staff room is reminiscent of many that I’ve encountered throughout my teaching career: the random collection of furniture, the tea/coffee area with its collection of assorted chipped mugs, the way certain seats are sacrosanct – I would not dare to sit in Rosa’s chair, and would feel most uncomfortable taking my place at the young women’s table. And of course there is the photocopier, occasioning a familiar frustration and despair whenever it malfunctions.

Some things are different. It is more well-used than most, especially for the daily morning briefing (which also contains prayers, of varying lengths and styles as they rotate through the staff). It is also friendly and welcoming – happy birthday is sung regularly, and there are monthly break-time feasts. Just about everyone says good morning to everyone else, and, best of all, the mark of a most excellent space, it is frequently consumed by laughter.

Please miss

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A school operating with about 20% attendance today. With troubles forecast all over Johannesburg (South Africa even) because of the anti-Zuma marches (alongside the pro-Zuma backlash organised by ANC supporters) some teachers and many learners could not get in because of transport problems, and many parents decided that safety trumped education and kept their children at home. Classes went on as best they could, but my rehearsal was dealt a fatal blow, and had to be cancelled.
Lucy, however, took to the art room and enlisted those learners present for Art as assistants in painting a door needed for the production. I met one of said learners later today.
“Mr Walters, your daughter taught us today.”
“And how was she?”
“She was a lot of fun. Very sarcastic.”
“I can’t believe that. I wonder where she gets that from.”
(Head on one side.) “I wonder too.”

Girls just wanna have fun

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When I heard the sound of an impromptu rehearsal coming from the dining room, I rushed down to the art room to fetch daughter Lucy. She arrived yesterday, and was already engaged in making and painting a door for the production.  The sound was, as ever, breathtaking, but we were both astonished to discover that it was coming from just nine girls singing (plus one drumming).

Later that same evening, we were taking advantage of a school trip to the First Thursday art event in Rosebank, and while waiting for the bus, we were treated to the most enjoyable spectacle of some spontaneous fun and games in the school quad.  Do not let it be said that the only way young people can have fun nowadays is to look at a screen; but that is the way that you can enjoy, vicariously, their joie de vivre.

Lessons as usual – shadow puppets

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Before the option arises of choosing subjects, the Grade 9 learners have on their timetables something called Art & Culture, a number of short practical projects.  As Viloshni’s replacement it was my job to “teach” one of these: making shadow puppets, and demonstrating them in a short shadow play.

Difficulty number one: I am no Art teacher.  Number two: the lessons took place in an ordinary, but particularly small, classroom, further compounded by the fact that half the desks had been removed to the exam hall.  Number three: a total lack of any resources – no card, no scissors.

Amazingly, we managed.  We broke up some boxes, though the material was too thick for anything approaching detail with the learners’ child’s safety scissors. But constraint breeds ingenuity: the more detailed work was cut out of paper, and stiffened with card.  I bought some split-pin type paper clips for hinges, and some bamboo braai sticks, and we used blu-tack to hold them on. Some of the results were a little rudimentary, but some were marvellous.

We were to see (and assess) the plays today… and the bulb in the projector blew.  Ah well.  To get the picture, we went outside, and used the sun.


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The Grade 10 and 11 learners’ trip to see the Market Theatre’s production of Sophiatown was not without its organisational problems, with the school reluctant to shell out the money in advance; I had to field a series of increasingly frantic emails from the theatre’s marketing manager.  Fortunately, we were able to send it in (the nick of) time, and at 10 am on Friday morning, 27 learners, plus Val, me, and Mrs Nolo Lange, an English teacher at the school, set off for the 11 o’clock schools’ matinee.

It was a packed auditorium, the audience in a riot of different coloured school uniforms (plus one set of white students in civvies.)  The production, yet another South African classic, regularly revived, was superb.  It was a musical depicting one household in the lively Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown in the 50s, and showed their eviction as part of a mass relocation and demolition in the early days of apartheid. The songs – a tribute to the music of the period – were terrific, and the performances sharply comic.

Our learners’ behaviour was exemplary, and their reaction very positive (though some preferred the school production we had mounted a couple of years ago.)  We raced back – courtesy of school bus-driver and legend Francis – and arrived just in time for school finish and my rehearsal.  A success!

Lessons as usual – Antigone

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Practical drama work in South Africa follows the same pattern as in England, pretty much a 50/50 split between scripted and improvised/devised work.  The video shows an example of the former, an extract from one of the Grade ten set works: Antigone by Sophocles.

You might have thought that Greek theatre was about as far removed from black African experience as you could get, but Camo makes Creon’s speech into something modern and relevant. To my mind, quite extraordinary.

I don’t think the learners here find the memorising of lines any easier than their English counterparts do, but they put the work in, and that gives them the freedom to act, not read.  As you can see.

Food glorious food

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Not having experienced boarding school life in my youth, our stay at DCS has been an interesting insight into institutional life. One of the experiences is food – boarding house food – which by repute can be dire.

So when we arrived at DCS we were pleasantly surprised at how decent the meals here are. The cooks do a fantastic job to with what, I assume, is a very limited budget. Admittedly, breakfast is probably enhanced by my having been up for nearly two hours, including fitness workout, but it is nonetheless always tasty.

There have been some logistical problems: at the beginning of term a shortage of cutlery meant you had to get there early, or you’d end up eating with plastic knives and forks. And at weekends, meals seem to happen at random times – we resorted to staking out the dining room in the morning so as not to miss breakfast.

Dinner was initially something to look forward to, South African options include chakalaka and pap (I have acquired a taste for both), but they also do a very good suet pudding and stew. However, as time goes by, the repetitive nature of the food has got to us, so increasingly we look for ways to escape.

Lessons as usual – warming-up

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It occurs to me that one area of school life that I have not covered at all in this blog is the one that, since Viloshni went into hospital, takes up the majority of my time, i.e. lessons.  So, to begin with: warming-up.

It will not surprise any of you who have had any experience of me as a teacher that I have lost no time at all in introducing my absolute favourite warm-up activity: the game of zip, zap, boing. For the uninitiated, it is a fast and furious game requiring energy, commitment and lightning-fast reactions.  Its purpose is to instil energy into the listless; basically, waking people up. (There is a version which seeks to pretend that what is being passed around the circle is a ball of energy, but I think that is pretentious nonsense; my belief is that the major motivation is competitive, i.e. not getting out.)

What has come as a big surprise to me is the enthusiasm that has infected both the classes I teach that are big enough to play it.  I have never come across classes who have taken to it with such a spirit, and I have taught it to lots and lots of people (actually, quite a lot of you out there.)

Safety dance

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After church, it was a lovely day and I decided to pop down the road one block to take a picture of the mosque on the opposite corner. No sooner had I snapped my photo than I realised one of the DCS security chaps was in hot pursuit, telling me in no uncertain terms that I should not be wandering down the road, camera in hand, outside the school gates. Just by coincidence (I think), a police car pulled up too and made some disapproving remarks to my minder. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cause any trouble!

Of a Friday evening when we draw up to the security gates in our Uber (actually, we’ve recently changed allegiance to Taxify), the driver waits with headlights full on to make sure Prosper, our night security guard has everything in hand before reversing away. Taxi drivers seem to be quite vulnerable themselves, on several occasions recounting stories of their livelihood being threatened after a phone or car-jacking.

It’s hard to tell whether the crime and violence is overblown here, or is in fact the reality of the place.  So far, apart from occasional distant gun shots we hear at night-time, we haven’t experienced anything unpleasant first hand – let’s hope we keep it that way.

Football crazy, football mad

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We’ve mentioned before that the lawn right outside our window is frequently used as a rehearsal space, chiefly by the choir.  The downside is that it is used even more regularly as an inpromptu football pitch, every night after dinner, and as such it is far louder than the choir.  Not exactly two jumpers for goalposts, as the goals are a single dustbin at each end, which does make for an interesting variety of tactics.

Football is also played every break in the playground by the learners, as well as, just down the road on a scrappy piece of wasteland, local youngsters.  In both venues the players exhibit a good deal of skill, and here (and no doubt there) many have the ambition of playing professionally; the chances are, of course, virtually zero.

Naturally, with the globalisation of the beautiful game, most people here have two teams: one South African, one Manchester United.  I regularly try to suggest that there are alternatives, and have many conversations about the merits of other teams… well, one other team.  I also possess a Kaiser Chiefs shirt, which provokes much excitement, but just a hint of disappointment when I confess that my interest is more in the rock band of that name than the team.