A few weeks ago an article came out on the front page of the monthly newspaper. Much to our surprise the kid featured on the front was one of the students we know at the high school. Wow! Michael grabbed the paper and started reading the article; then, he threw the paper down in disgust. The article was about another organization that had a math contest to see who could do the most multiplication tables in a minute. This 14-year old, 8th grade Coloured boy won because he could do 34. It made the front page of the local paper. A local Coloured boy could do 34 single-digit multiplication problems in a minute.
Michael was indignant for quite a while. He began ranting about how our 5th graders are required to do at least 40 problems in a minute; how we were the first group in the area to even do math minutes; and how we should be getting more publicity for the work we do. It was quite a rant! I was upset also, but for a vastly different reason. First, why would something like this make it into the local paper? It was embarrassing. With drugs ravaging our townships, I understood the desire to want to promote something positive, but this was quite a stretch. Second, how could anyone think that this was front page material? Then, it dawned on me. It is not amazing that a kid can do single-digit multiplication. It is amazing that a kid whose skin color is not white can do single-digit multiplication. It is so amazing in this town that it is worthy of the front page of the paper. No white kids were a part of the contest because it would have been unfair. White kids can obviously outdo a child of color in a test of intellect.
To me this article and its pretend accolades further expose the racism that is still prevalent in South African culture today. My students and other children of color do not typically have the academic background of their white counterparts mostly because they don’t have their wealth. Their parents cannot afford for their children to go to school with current books, highly-skilled teachers, and adequate supplies. Our students are not exposed to anything that could be considered academically rigorous until they pass through our Learning Center doors. In their regular classes, they are taught to write neatly, but rarely do they have to use their minds to process information and come up with their own conclusions. Even after 15 years, we are still fighting with teachers about the proper way to divide so that the students consistently get the right answer!
All of this is true, but it is due to a lack of exposure not a lack of ability. Some white South Africans still think that children with darker skin do not have the intellect to process information, and that is why they do so poorly in white schools when given the opportunity to go there. I am here to testify that this is not the case. Students given the opportunity to go to a school of higher learning with greater standards cannot compete without the proper academic foundation. First, a child’s foundation has to be right, then it can be built upon. But, to praise a child in the 8th grade for doing 3rd grade work is not the right kind of encouragement; it is demeaning at best. Someone has to give children of color tasks that are difficult, expect them to do it correctly, then praise good work and critique the bad. This is the basic formula for any learning. However, lowering the standard and claiming that easy work is difficult is insulting.
We are here to raise the standard. One reason we want to start our own school is because we believe in these students. They are children like the rest. They have strong qualities and weak ones and need the thoughtful direction of the adults around them to grow in their strengths and build from their weaknesses. We don’t believe in fair being equal; however, we do believe in giving children the opportunity to try. Please pray with us that we will be able to build a school that will set the standard and serve as a model for what can be done in education in South Africa.