(please check the Dutch version of this blog post for more pictures…)
When I walked through the crowd at the township school I already saw her standing, she was slightly outside the crowd. I recognized her from last year and she gave me a careful smile. I answered her greeting in the same way.
Shortly before that, I had entered the township of Elandsdoorn, SA, in my rental car and a warm feeling of recognition and a sort of coming home had started flowing through my body. But also a healthy tension, because I was once again curious how the children of “my class” had grown, both literally and figuratively. This was the fourth year in a row that I would have the class of around forty children draw their dreams for the future, and every year it had been very special stories and dreams that came to life. And every year there was a new “pearl” that stood out.
This year the pearl had lights in her eyes …
Together with my good friend Thami I walk among the many school children. They scream, laugh and pull on my green shirt. “Jabulille!” I hear some calling, the nickname that was given to me in the same township years earlier and which means smiling person. From the first day I was happy with my nickname☺
After a short visit to the head of the school and some shaking hands and hugs with the other teachers, we are taken to the classroom where the children should sit with whom I would work. But when I walk into the old barracks, I see hopeful and happy faces, but I am convinced that this is not the same class as in previous years.
I doubt if I will say anything and just start but the teacher is ahead of me. “This is the wrong class!” She says with wide open eyes and she sends the children to another room while Thami and I are left behind.
The question now is where our class has gone because some of them seem to double a year and the others have been split into other classes. Last year’s drawings with name and age offer a solution, I am glad I brought them with me. The schoolyard in front of the barracks is now filled with children in school uniforms and one by one a drawing is held up and the corresponding name is mentioned. After the teachers confirmed that the name belongs to the child in question, they are allowed to enter the classroom (there are very clever ones, who confidently take a step forward as if their name is mentioned. I think I had done the same …).
Half an hour after arrival we are complete and the teacher calls the class to order. Although I speak only a few words of Zulu, I understand from her words that she briefly welcomes me.
For a moment I think she’s not there, the girl with the lights in her eyes. But then I see her sitting in a white blouse and her hands folded on the simple school desk in front of her. She absorbs everything that is said, I see her head nodding with every word of the teacher.
The teacher looks at me and the children greet me in unison. The great respect for the teachers and the strict hierarchy are clearly felt. I have no problem with that, but it inhibits free thinking for my assignment and so I kick off with a round of “out of the box” dreams.
“The crazier the better,” I say, “and if you think it’s not possible then you’re okay,” I conclude with a wink.
Forty pairs of raised eyebrows look at me. Thami listens on the sidelines and laughs. Fortunately, he is my support in situations like this and knows how to translate my thoughts and purpose of this assignment to the children, in Zulu, their native language.
“They want you to give an example of your crazy dream or wish,” he says after his explanation, looking at me with a broad gray. Now I raise my eyebrows, because it is about the class and not about me. With a slanted look I look at the girl and see her sitting on the edge of her chair. She looks at me expectantly, just like the rest of the class, so I grab the piece of chalk.
“Okay,” I say. “I will portray my crazy dream on the board” and I will draw a large bird with a small mini person on it. Behind me I hear the children giggling but when I turn around they are abruptly quiet. “I would like to be a little Jabulille who could fly around the world between the feathers of a goose or another big bird, that seems great!”
The children cry out with laughter and raise their fingers one by one to be allowed to tell their crazy dream. From Superman to a flower that continues to bloom forever, you can’t think of it that crazy and that is exactly what I was hoping for.
After ten minutes of “out of the box” dreaming we move on to the more serious part; the real dreams of the children. I explain that the first crazy assignment can encourage the drawing of your future dream that they think can never be achieved. Perhaps you can, if you just go for it and believe in yourself.
“Do any of you want to share his or her future dream with the class?”
She raises her finger, anxiously awaiting whether I will give her the turn.
Her reaction to my question is as calm and quiet as she is.
I nod at her and she stands up. She straightens her skirt, looks around the class and ends her gaze with me. I smile at her and look forward to her reply.
“I will become a writer later,” she says, clearly audible to the entire class.
“With my stories I take people to an exciting fantasy world so that they can forget while reading that they have a poor or difficult life.”
I think her passionate to the point choice of words – of which you would put your hand in the fire for every word – is amazing.
I am glad that she does not sit down immediately, but waits and looks at the children in her class.
I slowly clap my hands and break the silence by applauding her. It is the reaction from my heart that I want to give her, as an encouragement and as an example for others.
And then something happens that I could not have foreseen.
Her classmates, one by one, turn to her and start applauding.
She shines and I see the emotion in her eyes.
I get a lump in my throat and am convinced that her beautiful dream of the future, together with the lights in her eyes, will shine a great light on the lives of many.