Us and Them

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” 
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

 

The last few weeks have been both a whirlwind and a slow crawl. Paradoxes abound in South Africa. We are now out of the hotel and into our house. The boys have started the process of unpacking their toys, a task which I think might take the full four-year term to complete. It is nice to have the certainty of a house again, but there is also something isolating about the silence of the day that the commotion of the hotel kept at bay. We have cable TV, although like back home, there’s never anything on. Internet at the house seems to be a pipe dream at this point, and oddly enough I’m ok with it. The iPads sit lifeless on the top shelf. The old cd collection which had been relegated to a couple of distressed shoe boxes is suddenly enjoying a resurrection. All three Bennett guys now have mountain bikes, and we have started the process of teaching the boys to ride without the training wheels. I’m excited about the outdoor adventures the bikes will provide for us. Our eldest is now an expert on the local ropes and zip-line course. Who would have thought that our timid little bird would ever want to jump from a tree platform fifty feet up. This is what we came for. The Comcast of South Africa is welcome to take its time.

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First fire in our braai.

Winter is on the way and the rains have ceased. Our last good soaking dumped five inches on us in the span of a few hours. Our pool overflowed with a brown sludge and the yard flooded, but the house remained mostly dry. The rains down in Africa don’t play. Juliet, our domestic worker, needed to get home during that storm, and I couldn’t imagine wading out into such a torrent to catch a bus that might never come. So we climbed into the Audi for the first real test of its all-wheel drive capability. There’s a reason why trucks and SUVs have snorkels here. As we left the golf estate I witnessed the full destructive force of the water and gravity. Cinder block security walls were leveled. White water spilled out of drains and overflowed from culverts. The rush of water felled trees. Five inches of rain fell in five hours. I saw makeshift homes washing away. Four lane roads were suddenly half a lane wide. Cars and trucks were piled high with people trying to make progress against the elements and the fates. Stop lights (affectionally referred to as “Robots”) and street lights were eerily black leaving the outline of the road only to the imagination and the spectacular flashes of lightning. As I feared the taxis and buses quit for the day abandoning thousands of people at the makeshift stands and stops. Many had started walking or rather wading home. We drove in silence through the dark township. The narrow roads were lined with eyes peering out from under sheetmetal roofs and behind barred windows. The outrageous conditions that so many people endure are humbling and heartbreaking. Overwhelming gratitude for all that I have is never far away. I’ve sat and cried in the car more than once over the last few weeks. I simply cannot wrap my head or my heart around the injustice of fortuity.

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After the rains, the pool was sludge.

Each day is bright and cool and weirdly reminiscent of autumn on the Maine coast. My days are spent putting around the house and playing with our youngest son. He doesn’t start school until August, and I’m cherishing having a little shadow by my side as we unpack the last of the boxes or assemble bikes or navigate the markets for what we need. We take walks and imagine fighting Transformers. We go to swim lessons and build Legos. He is also teaching Juliet how to play American style. This means she is given a lightsaber or more often a Stormtrooper mask and blaster. She’s a wonderful human being, and I can already see that she loves our boys. As you might remember, Juliet and her husband have two daughters, and that they can only afford to journey home to Zimbabwe to see them once a year. We focus on how we can help: paying a living wage, arming her with skills and certifications related to her interest in cooking, giving ample time off in order to travel, inquiring on how we can help reunite her family, and ensuring her girls are given the opportunity to stay in and focus on school. And yet… It all still seems too little to assuage the unfairness and cosmic prejudices that have appropriated the resources and opportunities so unjustly.

Yes, I feel guilt. Yes, I feel embarrassment. Yes, I feel shame. And it isn’t at what I have, but what I’ve forever taken for granted. My advantages were so prevalent and so omnipresent that in the States I never tried to distinguish between the results of my efforts and the results of historical, geographical, genetic, social forces and just dumb luck. I assumed it was all my doing. Perspective. Compassion. Empathy. We all want to possess these attributes, but there is an expensive emotional tax for commiseration. It is one that I have paid mostly in lip service. I simply cannot imagine a life where I only see my boys once a year, or one where I commute through deluge, crime, and danger to work for only a chance at a better tomorrow.

So what do I do with this? What is my responsibility in this new light?

I don’t know.

I enjoy teaching literature because through characters we can focus on choice and responsibility and consequences. We can contrast the ideas of fate and absurdism and try to see how we can exercise some sort of control over our own stories. I teach existentialism not out of despair, but rather to try to get to the heart of purpose and the human condition. For me responsibility is as concrete as making decisions, acting, and accepting the consequences. If there is anything which I take from our readings and discussions, it is that what we choose to do or not do does make a difference. It makes a difference to the environment, it makes a difference in terms of material and economic consequences, it makes a difference to other people. It sets an example and endorses action. I ask my students what terrifies them more, that nothing matters or that everything does? Each year I fall more firmly into the camp of what we do matters.

But what does it mean then when I drive past people literally begging for help? What am I choosing to see, and what am I choosing to ignore? If at every moment we choose who we are and what we do, what does it mean to want to ignore the human being standing in front of me? In Man’s Search for Meaning Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl says “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” How do I need to change? My favorite author Jeanette Winterson answers this question by comparing humans to snowflakes. We are all different, and we must forget this fact if we are to function.

“They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?

By forgetting. We cannot keep in mind too many things.
There is only the present and nothing to remember.”

… 

On Monday I travelled to Jo’berg for an interview of sorts at the American School. It is the second time they have offered me a chance at my dream job. Small, diverse, highly motivated classes of IB students. The campus is pristine, complete with golf course and new natatorium. The staff is incredibly talented and driven in their instruction. The resources are unimaginable for an urban public school teacher. I could certainly see myself learning and growing and thriving professionally in this environment. While I considered the offer, I spent yesterday in the Mamelodi township at a public elementary school. The students there receive an educational experience that is at the other end of the privilege spectrum. The campus is surrounded by makeshift walls of concrete and re-bar and topped with razor wire. The main gate is imposing to see, but it wasn’t locked and could be easily opened with a shove. In the first room I visited there were roughly forty students sitting on a red carpet in the middle of the small stuffy prefab building. The walls were bare, boxes and stacks of donated materials lined the one shelf in the back. A teacher and an assistant were setting up miscellaneous items on the few desks that there were. But I never got to see the activity they were planning. For the most part, the teachers had the kindergarten students counting one to ten and then back down for the first hour I was there. Yes, the students sat on the carpeted area for an hour counting to ten. We kept waiting for something to happen, but they kept sitting and kept counting. And while upsetting, I can’t blame the teachers. Most do not have a formal education or degree beyond their own public schooling. I was told that some months they get paid and some months they don’t. It is difficult to retain teachers who have gone to on to teacher’s college when there is no guarantee of salary. There were no books and very few teaching materials apparent. I met the headmaster and he like most administrators I have ever worked with was kind and proud and knowledgable of all of his students. Easily in his sixties, his eyes were sharp and bright. I had a feeling that the people who worked with him believed in him and his mission. For the generations of kids from Mamelodi, this might be the best educational experience they have ever received. After all, the school was clean, safe, and they were learning to count. South Africa is often a paradox. One minute it is devastatingly heartbreaking and the next you are witness to public displays of joy and beauty and appreciation that is rare back home.

I do not think I will accept the teaching job. Many of the same reasons that I declined the offer last December are still relevant. I do not yet know how to best spend my time here. I do love and miss teaching. Yet I also feel the pull to something else. I want it to be writing and running and thinking, but I don’t know if those will answer my questions either.

 

On the drive home from Mamelodi I fight tears and decide to listen a meditation app. A calming voice with an English accent tells me to breathe.

One… Two… Three… Four… Five… Six… Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten.

 

Be good and keep in touch.

2 thoughts on “Us and Them”

  1. OH, Scott. My tears are not stopping. I am thinking of you, although we have not yet met. Reading what you have written is causing five inches of rain in my heart in the five minutes it has taken to read it. Because of my experiences living and teaching in Ecuador and Honduras I have an inkling of what you are experiencing. Only an inkling. Please continue to write and share, it helps the rest of us, but you too, I think. Right now I do not know what else to say. But in my small, small experience I remember the responses of people I observed. I viewed immense dignity, boundless courage, ingenuity that still exceeds my own creativity by magnitudes. I remain humbled by these memories. Chronicle every thing, every thing. But I do not know what to say to you about the hurt. I have no helping words for you. But one thing to consider is that you and Erin are raising boys who will become men in a world in need of them, their experiences, these experiences. P.S. Has Erin told you she has invited me to come next Easter and all of us go to Botswana together? I am her elementary school librarian. Get her to tell you how Ms. Harper uses a library with children.

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