Opinionista Refiloe Nt'Sekhe 16 October 2017

School taught me to be an independent thinker and to leave a mark

The difficulty and beauty of developing young independent thinkers is that they will make their mark by challenging inequity and pushing for change to build inclusivity at schools.

I know first-hand what I received by having been at a girls’ high school. It moulded me to becoming who I am today. In 1990, I was enrolled at Pretoria High School for Girls and my elder brother in Pretoria Boys High.

At the time, my mother was studying medicine in Cuba and her response to my father was simply that her professor supported the move to these two schools as these were among the top 10 schools in South Africa and are recognised internationally.

Having completed my secondary education at Girls High made it easier for me to become a University of Cape Town graduate. Not only to get in but also to study there. UCT knows Girls High’s reputation: the fact that we are disciplined and balanced women who have perfected the art of studying hard while playing hard, yet achieving results in the classroom and on the field.

That is why today, as a mother, I find myself gravitating to the same schools because of the foundation that these schools gave me, and next year my son commences his journey at Pretoria Boys High.

One cannot talk about Girls High without talking about the development of the ability to think.

It is also not by mistake that we see that girls had the hair saga. Too many people focus on the saga itself but I would like us to focus on a different aspect of this issue. Over the years since its inception, we, the girls of Girls High, also contribute to moulding our school to what we would like it to be for future girls to come.

When I was in Grade 8, the school had just introduced running or athletics in general because those before me had fought for us. Before my time, it was thought that running was unladylike.

During my term, I became the first black tennis captain and on one occasion we went to play at Hoërskool Waterkloof.

They refused to play us because I was a black tennis player. I told my teacher that in that case, my whole team would not play, and she supported me, insisting that either the whole team would play or no one would – and so we all got back into the bus and returned to school.

Each generation leaves their mark and putting these together contribute to making our school a better school for tomorrow’s girls.

So, it is not by mistake that events around hair started and happened at Pretoria High School for Girls. Girls High prepares girls for adulthood – it encourages girls to think. The difficulty and beauty with developing independent thinkers is that one cannot control thought processes.

Pioneers and liberation fighters are the sacrificial lamb of any society, whose mandate is to lead, with high discipline and morale.

Great leaders make personal sacrifices, with public scrutiny, criticism and constant pressure to perform as leaders.

It is not outsiders who will change our school; the task falls squarely on us girls and teachers. Parents also have a pivotal role to play and contribute. As the demographics of our school changes, the school will change but at the same time retain its heritage.

It is important that we question the order of old things in order to make way for thought through relevant, politically appropriate and inclusive policies that recognise and take into consideration what the school is today.

This is vital for Girls High to continue to its work and heritage of producing high quality leaders who are not afraid to change the order of things to ensure that this school gives all the girls a sense of belonging without anyone feeling excluded.

Change is inevitable

This is an event which we should be proud of. We should be proud of our girls, teachers and our school as a whole. We should be proud because it forced South Africa to start thinking and having the difficult conversations about race relations. The reality is that when you start something new, you will not always get it right but starting is important. I am proud because it is Girls High that initiated this. Today I see in Kempton Park, where I live, that other schools are following.

In life, the struggles for freedom and the emancipation of women have gone hand in hand. You will encounter many other struggles as you go through life but because you are Girls High girls, you will know and feel that the “hair struggle” prepared you for the battlefield of life – where women’s struggles are still far from over.

After Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected President of South Africa, the truth and reconciliation commission was established. Unfortunately, however, there was a lot more that still needed to be discussed. In a way, race relations, which is a very sensitive subject, was swept under the carpet.

Race relations are never comfortable to talk about and often people find themselves forced to deal with it only when there is provocation. No pro-active conversations happened after the truth and reconciliation period.

Jodi Picoult said, “What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your concerns, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit?”

This quote is related so strongly to the change that comes with life, with questioning the old, with just the knowledge that things must change. Similarly, the girls will try to change what they perceive to be outdated rules – this being the provocation.

However, hard work, perseverance and discipline are important – the reputation management and constant media attention especially today means that we must take the time to sort through what works and what doesn’t. Not throwing it all out.

Should things stay the same because they are traditional? Some traditions must be kept and some traditions must be reviewed. Parents must be involved in such crucial conversations.

Schools must become more inclusive and make black learners feel more comfortable. Black learners usually find themselves having to adapt to a white culture in schools such as Pretoria Girls High but how much is done to adapt to black culture?

These are the important things that need to be considered in order to build an inclusive learning environment. No one should feel excluded. Black learners should feel the same sense of belonging as white learners. After all, this is their school too.

We must also recognise as black parents that when we take our children to Girls High, we do it because we are attracted to “something” about this school. It is this “something” that we must preserve and protect; sometimes it’s the discipline or the ethics of the school.

There is no manual for how blacks and whites should interact with each other. Girls High will have to figure out its path between white teachers and black learners, black teachers and white learners, white learners and black learners, white teachers and black teachers.

It is a path that teachers and girls will just have figure out through trial and error, but what matters is that we try.

Mmusi Maimane said, “If you do not see that I am black then you do not see me but also if all you see is that I am black, then you also do not see me.”

To the girls: you have been prepared to go out there and pursue your dreams. Tertiary institutions and life depend on your understanding of subject matter in order to find solutions for yourself, families and fellow countrymen. DM

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