March 22, 2008

Charlie’s Angels

I continue to meet twice a week with a group of seven high-school students for our interminable reading of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Their attendance has been pretty good, which means they must be finding something of worth in our meetings, but I still wonder just how much they actually understand. They don’t seem to show that much enthusiasm for the unfolding story, even as I try to build up to each new revelation, and I can only think it’s because the plot just isn’t clicking for them. For a while, some of them even thought the story was non-fiction.

In any event, these students never fail to brighten my week and I look forward to my meetings with them. Here’s some brief snapshots of who they are.


Lindiwe was one of the first people in this group I really became aware of last year, mainly because of her son Kamvalethu (“our future”), who is about a year and a half old. Lindiwe is 17 or 19 (our health records say 19 but she says 17) and in grade-10. She’s lovely and friendly but just doesn’t seem to be all that curious about the world. She goes to school, does her work (I think), reads “Charlie” all right but never seems to get interested or excited about any of it. Her name means “the one we’ve waited for” and she is always late, a fact I frequently harp on by saying “silinda uLindiwe” – “we are waiting for the one we’re waiting for.” I think this is hilarious. No one else does.

Ayabonga is 17 in grade-10 and has a 3-year old daughter who is cared for by Ayabonga’s mother. She and Lindiwe are best friends and when I was first getting to know Lindiwe, Ayabonga always intimidated me. She didn’t smile or talk a lot and was this strong, powerful presence next to the willowy Lindiwe. When I saw that Ayabonga was going to be in this group, I was a bit worried how it would work out because I was convinced she would be nothing but a disruptive presence.

Now that I’m actually getting to know her, I am happy to report I was completely wrong. In fact, Ayabonga is rapidly turning into one of my favourites. Her English is fairly poor but it’s good enough to make fun of me – she now frequently imitates my “silinda uLindiwe” in a way that is actually quite funny – and good enough to ask me for help on her homework, which she does more consistently than anyone else. I’m grateful she seems to be taking her education seriously and is quite regular in her attendance. But whenever I ask her a comprehension question about “Charlie” she just stares at me completely confused. She has a long way to go.

She also loves my iPod and I now make sure to bring it on Wednesdays just so she can listen. In fact, she gets on so well with me now she just walks in and rips the ear buds out of my ears so she can listen too.

Nonhlazo (“lucky”), who also goes by Victoria, breaks my heart. She’s 18, in grade-10, and has an energetic 2-year old who is an absolute bundle of joy. Her English is solid and she’s an all-around good person with a wonderful smile. But her attendance at school leaves a lot to be desired and I’ve caught her several times around Itipini during the school day. I try to reinforce for her the importance of school but some of it gets lost in translation and the rest of the message obviously doesn’t sink in. I realize she has some significant responsibilities and her mother isn’t as helpful in the raising of her son as other mothers are. But I see her son wandering around Itipini by himself sometimes and she’s nowhere to be found and not in school either. I see so much wonderful potential in her that is not being drawn out and built up the way it needs to be. I try to check in on her frequently but she can be tough to find.

Noncedo is the only student of this group in grade-12 so this is a big year for her as she’ll have to take a high-stakes exam in November that determines whether or not she gets a diploma. She was a bit late in coming to us asking for help with school fees but since then she has shown impressive dedication to school and really seems determined to pass that test. In fact, she’s blossomed into one of the most eager students. She always seems to show the most grasp of the story and is always asking if we can read another chapter. She lives with both parents, is 18, and doesn’t have any children. She seems so normal! She also pays more attention to her appearance than any other person I’ve ever met in Itipini and I’m quite frequently stunned at the kind and variety of outfits she pulls out.


Mthunsikazi is another “normal” student. In fact, AMM doesn’t pay any of her school fees for her as her family has it all sorted out. She just hangs out with the other girls at school and came along one day and I was happy to welcome her. She’s only 15 and in grade-10 and also doesn’t have any children. She is very quiet and struggles the most with the English so it’s easy for her to fade into the background of the group. I’ve been trying to draw her out more lately but it’s tough because there’s a definite language barrier and I haven’t quite built up a rapport with her yet.

Luleka has the capacity to be a brilliant student. Her English is good, her family background is strong, and she doesn’t have any children. But I think she’s content just to meet the standards of the school she’s in, which might not be all that high, rather than push herself. I try to push her with “Charlie” but she’ll shrink back and let other people answer questions I ask her. I’ve been trying to get her to open up a bit more lately but she can be incredibly withdrawn at times. Even though her attendance is good, she always seems like she wants to be somewhere else. We just don’t have enough vocabulary in common for me to draw her out and learn more about her.

That being said, as they were leaving on Wednesday, she turned to me, made sure to make eye contact, and said very softly but meaningfully, “Have a good Easter, Jesse.” It made me feel so good I almost forgot to wish her a happy Easter as well.

Nonzuzo is far and away the best English-speaker in this group. She will zoom through paragraph after paragraph of “Charlie” with amazing ease. Lately she’s been drifting away from the group, pleading sickness quite often, and I hope it’s not because she thinks the book is too easy for her or that she’s so far ahead of the other students she doesn’t need to come. I haven’t quite figured out how to make the group important for her.

Some other tidbits I’d rather not associate with a particular person but you might find interesting. One is an AIDS orphan. Another had an abortion last year. One has run away from home at least once. I am so different from all of them I wonder how I ever ended up here and why they even want anything to do with me.

After our pool party last month.


Janet said...

Why are there hardly any teenage boys around?
I'm also wondering if there would be a way to educate them, as well, about the "Facts of Life" and talk
"man to man" with them?
Just a thought -
Janet Smith Coyne