Sorry for keeping you waiting

You’re a Teacher?

Raeesa Patel describes her love of teaching – and learning from – her students in a South African public school.

After suffering through 12 years of sitting behind an uncomfortable school-desk and trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on what my teacher was saying, it’s not really that difficult to understand why people’s mouths drop open and eyes go wide when I say that I am a teacher.




There are days when even I don’t understand it! You are constantly covered in chalk dust… The pay is not the greatest… the kids you teach can be real monsters at times… tension headaches are part of the course… you are suddenly “mother” to 240 kids or so… and of course… the relatives and cousins and friends who surprisingly cannot seem to do their homework without calling you for “advice”!




Regardless, I love my job… I look forward to the girls coming to hug me because I took the time out to smile at them as I passed… my day is made when the “bullies” of my class stop to chat with me for a few minutes. And I am absolutely addicted to the moment when comprehension dawns and something that I have been teaching for a while has made sense! On those special days I know that I have chosen the right profession!




So how did I get to the point where the prospect of teaching approximately 240 youngsters a day no longer sends me running home, wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, to my mummy? The very first thing that I had to learn was to truly understand my kids, their culture that is so different from mine, their dressing that sometimes cannot be called “dressing” because that very word implies some sort of covering up, and their ways and mannerisms that can actually be misconstrued as crudity and rudeness by the ignorant onlooker.




You see, I am a South African Indian Muslim female whose only previous experience of teaching came from teaching in a small town Muslim school (population 300). On the 14th of January 2008, I walked into a school that housed more than 800 students – 98% of whom are black South Africans of various religions and ethnicities. Needless to say, all parties involved experienced some sort of culture shock. It took an extremely brave – or precocious – child to ask me if I was really a cancer patient. My blank and uncomprehending stare prompted him to point to my Islamic headgear with a look that spoke volumes!




Who’s who?
The majority of my children come from broken homes, poor backgrounds and an environment where drugs, alcohol and bad company are readily available. I am, at the very least, 8 years older than my grade 11 students and yet, there are girls in my classroom that are already mother to 2 or more kids. Why? Because the grant given to them by the government is 250 South African rands per child and that paltry sum of money buys them their monthly groceries. In their community, children are beaten by their mothers, abused by their guardians and forgotten by their fathers. Children who come to class, put their heads on the desk and fall into a deep sleep are thought to be lacking ambition, drive and passion. And yet, they’re just simply so exhausted because they are the ones who go home after a school day, cook and clean, look after their siblings, put them to bed, do their own homework, finally go to bed themselves, and then… wake up before the sun does just so that they won’t miss their transport and arrive late for school!




On the other extreme, I have students who belong to cliques with names such as “Carvela”, “Vibes” and “Princesses of Bling”. The very specific criteria for these highly popular groups? It is essential that  all members embrace the western way of “hip–hop”, that they call each other “dog” and “nigger”, wear their pants in such a way that the crotch sweeps the floor and drape themselves in expensive bling–bling  at all times. Clothes that are not branded are not allowed and money most definitely talks. In lieu of all of this, the club members are sworn to protect each other from enemy gangs. The actual price to pay? Five hundred rand for every school term.




Why, oh, why?
So yes, it is a challenge to stand up in front of these students, all of whom are brimming over with youthful arrogance and the unshakeable notion that adults are D–U–M–B. But…I do it because the instant I have their attention, they are mine!




This is the moment that I wait for: the moment where I can teach my children the difference between right and wrong… the importance of dressing neatly… the value of a kind word… the reasons why they shouldn’t engage in pre-marital sex … the art of conversation … the challenge of not defining themselves by what they see and hear on TV… the beauty of friendliness and anything else that will steer them along their tumultuous journey as hormonal teenagers.




In between all of that, I try to teach them about sentence structure, antonyms and synonyms, a Shakespearean poem or play, malapropisms and the basic foundations of the written and spoken English language: things that they will be tested on at the end of the year but which will not really do much to develop their internal moral compasses.




To me, that is the crux of being an educator: ensuring that your children leave your classroom with a strong sense of integrity that will help them to develop their potential in the best possible way.




It is the fear of every teacher to be informed that a past student has failed to use those tools effectively enough…tools that we gave to him/her. For if they fail, we have failed.




Every child that leaves a school will leave with the opportunity to improve his/her inherent disposition towards virtue in humanity (fitrah), or to give in to their baser desires and become human beings without any humanity. It is my responsibility, as a teacher and as an example, to give my children the tools needed to develop this fundamental character and to teach them how to use them in the big wide world. More than that, I unfortunately cannot do.




And what do my students teach me? Well… I’ve learnt that skinny jeans look the best on skinny people (hence the name, duh!), that it is sooo not on to blow your nose in class and many other vital bits of information that govern the lives of my students. But most importantly, I’ve learnt that all children just want to love, be loved and laugh. And that behind the makeup and the attitude there’s a child who does not deserve to be judged by the way he/she speaks, moves or thinks. And that no matter where in the world, no matter what race, colour or creed, no matter what school or institution, Allah has created all little (and big) children absolutely exquisite in shape and form and He has given them an amazing capacity to love and to endure. Just look into the eyes of a child and tell me what you see.




Teaching isn’t just a job for me – it is who I am. When the going gets tough (and it usually does!), all I do is remember what a great ammanat (responsibilty) I have on my shoulders every day and then I realise what an honour I have been blessed with: I have been given the opportunity to try and change the world 40 beautiful kids at a time… and oh how I love it!




Raeesa Patel has been an English educator for the past 5 years. In her time at home, she teaches young adults how to read and participates in group activities that aim to promote the holistic development of teen Muslimahs.