True stories are not only accounts from the past, they are also voices from the past – messages that cause us to reflect deeply about ourselves and those around us.
The story of Sandra Laing, a South African woman who “looks” black but was born white, is such a story.
A South African documentary captured her story. Published even on the internet, the video shows glimpses of a story that masterly concludes with emotive scenes where Sandra interacts with children at the very same school where, because of the colour of her skin, she was expelled some 40 years ago .
What is to be learned from her story?
The documentray and Judith Stone’s recently published book, “When She was White”, on Sandra Laing’s life, can help answer this question. The book, considered as one that “calmly pieces together a story that many … would rather forget” (Oprah Magazine) is now a point of a discussion amongst a few teachers in South Africa. These teachers believe that these stories should be part of our children’s learning experiences – part of the curriculum.
Moreover, they are identifying more serious probes. How do we help our children uncover what is to be learned? These teachers are convinced that the answer lies in discussing literature and art and music in such a way that we are able to see the ideas that emerge – timeless concepts nuanced differently by different contributors, be they poets, writers, painters, musicians or sculptors. But the ability to discuss assumes much, not to mention what kind of discussion is referred to.
South Africa’s history, like one of the Big Five, has spots – events that cannot be erased. When we look at them, we can look through the eyes of an historian, a lawyer, a scientist, a humanitarian, an archeologist, a politician and even a theologian and draw conclusions accordingly.
But to both observe and interpret, one must be able to decode the images and symbols that make up the picture. There is our basic assumption. Reality, though, keeps us in check. Some of the children that walk through the doors of a South African classroom today cannot decode the symbols, let alone interpret them. Some know how to spell “spots” and can even connect them to the proverb that involve the leopard. Others, in the same class have to be promoted to the next grade level even if the teacher knows that the learner can neither decode nor grasp the spots. My American and Swedish colleagues assure me that the disease is international. More and more children have great difficulty in reading and subsequently zero understanding.
Can we make a difference? How?