One Proud Moment

Sadie Suleiman Shanice

Recently, I attended the annual awards ceremony at the boarding high school where we send students who successfully complete our Learning Center program. If you are familiar with Goshen International’s mission, then you are aware that the students we help come from South African townships and are disadvantaged in many ways. Living under the effects of Apartheid, these students are not dissimilar to poor inner city youths in America, but in most cases, their poverty, family dysfunction, and hopelessness is more extreme. This is why when I see these students excel, the sight fills me with hope and pride.

Earlier in the week, I doled out my usual share of accolades and scoldings after receiving report cards and meeting with teachers. Some students were still coping with the transition to the new school, and others were not working as hard as they should. Yet, three students in particular did very well, and the school recognized that effort at the awards ceremony. I would like to share a little about each of them.

Shanice Davids, an 11th grader, strives to be a hard-working young lady. From her early days in the Learning Center, her efforts placed her at the top of the class consistently; a distinction which followed her to high school. She is one of the students who causes teachers from the school to stop me in the store and say, “Thank you for sending us that child!” Shanice and her three sisters were mostly raised by a single mother. They are poor, and one sister frequently gets into trouble. On top of that, we only discovered a couple of years ago that Shanice had a very bad hearing problem. She had been working hard in school and achieving all of these years despite the fact that she could barely hear what was going on in class; and because she is so shy, she never spoke up about it. Fortunately, she now has an ear device which has greatly improved her hearing. With almost straight A’s in her subjects, she was rightfully recognized at the ceremony. She does especially well in math, and she may even pursue a career in the subject.

Sadie Roman seems like a fixture in our lives because she comes from a family of Learning Center students, and we have known her since she was in the 5th grade. Now a senior in high school, she also enjoys the praise of her teachers and holds leadership positions in the school. Being athletically gifted as well, she represented her school and won in the provincial (state-wide) netball competitions. However, Sadie comes from a poor background and lives in a house with at least 12 other people. Her parents, grandmother, aunts, cousins all live together in one small home. I was very proud at the awards ceremony when Sadie not only received recognition for her academic and sport accomplishments, but also received the Fish Eagle award. It is a highly-coveted prize which takes years to earn. To get it, you have to excel in your studies, prove your physical fitness–especially along a multiple-mile hike, and exhibit concern through community service work over your entire high school career.

I saved Suleiman Kriga for last. Suleiman is not marked by high grades like the other students. His grades were actually poor at the beginning of the year. However, when I looked at his recent report card, I immediately noticed the vast improvement that he made. In fact, his teachers consistently echoed the mantra, “Suleiman works so hard,” and you can see the sincerity in their eyes. This translates to sports as well. Although he is short, he plays rugby, runs track and everything else. In all of this, he tries hard and does well. Suleiman has the most broken background of all in many ways. He only met his father when he was 13, and they do not have a strong relationship. His mother is a drunk and a social pariah. Because she was very poor and refused to take care of him properly, he shifted from place to place before finally settling down with an aunt. Yet in the midst of all of the instability, Suleiman has developed a pure love for God. You can look at him and see his passion in the pursuit of the Lord, and you can see how it affects the rest of his life. His personality is infectious, and he is adored throughout his school. This is how he became the center of the awards ceremony. While going on stage to receive a sports award, a teacher handed him a bag. The moderator asked him to open it there on stage. He did this and pulled out a laptop computer! The crowd was amazed. It was the first time anything like that had been given to a student. It was a gift of encouragement meant to acknowledge the effort that Suleiman gives in school. He may not have been the best in all of the award areas, but the school staff sent a message that evening of how much they believed in him!

Having no kids of my own, I sat in that auditorium with a pride and joy as if I were applauding my own children. I guess that is what happens when you walk alongside young people for so long. Resisting the urge to stand up and say, “That’s my kid,” I sat with a cheesy smile and took pictures like any proud parent. I’m proud of all of our kids and the way that they make a statement against their circumstances with effort and work in order to take advantage of the opportunity our donors help us to give them. I’m also very thankful to God that I can be here in this place and this time and do my little part to help these students achieve their goals. It is an honor that I know both Nicole and I would not easily trade.


Overcomers

kids working 3

Everything about our entrance process is geared toward making students turn and run in terror.  I know that may not sound very inclusive or missional, but terror, dread and hyperventilation is the aim.  First, we give them a test that includes a great deal of deduction, reasoning skills, and frankly, information that they have never seen before.  Then, we ask for teacher recommendations from their current teachers.  Finally, we put our students through the most difficult part of all, an interview in English–their second language.  In the interview, we try our best to banish all ideas of fun and food by emphasizing the hard work, long hours, and intensity.  Some children quit the process on the spot.  Others, hear every word, lift their chins and say, “I will try!  I cannot promise I will succeed, but I will try.”  Even more rare are the students who look at us and say, “I have been waiting for something like this,” and then begin to interview us.

When I talk to people about how hard it is to get into my program, they typically criticize me, smirk, or begin a lecture on God’s love.  I have even had missionaries come to South Africa and get angry with me because of the structure and rules that make the boundaries of our program.  The underlying idea behind all of these comments is the same:  Nicole, this is too hard for these students.  Give them a break.  You don’t have to be this mean.  Most of the time, I don’t respond.  Why? The response is simple: I’m not being mean.  I am being kind.  Our program is by far the hardest academic training that these students will ever go through.  When we get them, they typically cannot  subtract properly or underline the main idea in a paragraph.  As a matter of fact, few even know what a main idea is.  They all have beautiful penmanship but cannot compose a sentence.  Coming to our program with its expectations, academic rigor, long hours, and reduced breaks will be overwhelming.  Generally, the first year of the program, students feel that they are going to drown.  It takes more than intelligence to overcome that feeling.  It takes a special blend of grit, intelligence and industry that few people have.  For a sixth grader to work hard enough to go from a third grade education to a sixth grade education in a year or two is not easy.  You have to be an overcomer, and that is what my students are.

Our students come to our program with little knowledge and end up going back to their primary school classrooms to teach both students and teachers the concepts that they are learning with us.  Our students are chosen to represent the district at science consortiums and are given positions of leadership once they arrive.  Our students debate other schools in their second language and win.  Our students face a drunken community, jealous friends, and abusive caretakers and are still determined to win.  They are praised for their hard work, promoted for their leadership, and admired for their endurance.  They simply will overcome.

Every year, we cut our students’ break times short.  We have so much work to cover that several extended breaks get in the way of progress.  So, we usually take a bit of break time for instruction.  One year right before our “working break,” I was dismayed to hear that one of our student’s mother died over the weekend.  I was devastated for her.  Her mother was her only caretaker and her death was sudden.  Two days later, with her aunts trailing, this student appeared at the Learning Center door.  I thought, “What is she doing here?”  I looked at her, asked her if she was okay, and hugged her. Then, she said, Ma’am, I am here to work.  Even I thought, “Work!  Your mother just died.”  But, I said, “Great!  We missed you yesterday, get started.” I, then, walked outside to speak privately with her aunts.  They claimed that she insisted on coming.  She said that she could not afford to miss any work and wanted to come.

In the face of such grief and devastation, this student chose to learn.  She later told me that she loved her mother, but her mother knew that being a part of this program was going to help her succeed in life.  She did not want to disappoint her.   Our students make choices like these every day.  Some prevail, others fail, but we know what it takes to be an overcomer.  Each of our students has something to overcome, we just help them know that they can.  We are building leaders, but more than that, we are raising overcomers!