Sandra Laing – How can our children learn?

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?

2 thoughts on “Sandra Laing – How can our children learn?

  1. It is encouraging that GDE does deem this as important because it has stipulated reading of South African fiction and non- fiction texts for different purposes as a learning outcome.

    In my opinion one needs to reach a child from within their lifeworld. Relating information and life skills through stories that are homebred ventures to lessen the generation gap. As seen in the video. Those little girls related to Sandra so well because her struggle years ago paved the way for them to be empathetic toward her during their visit. It was beautiful to watch.

    I think that as teachers we are too hasty to get learners to decode information presented in texts without presenting a solid enough base of relevance to their life world.

    Once this is properly done in the foundation phase of schooling, books will become that child’s lifelong companion. Which is every teacher’s dream for their learner. A thirst for new experiences through reading.

  2. The fact that Sandra does not look like her biological parents must have greatly affected her. She must have had so many questions to ask them. Even I wondered whether they were indeed her biological parents.

    The feelings of rejection, anger, hurt and humiliation must have been unbearable. She was ridiculed at school and in her society because of the colour of her skin. The fact that her own father and brothers rejected her made the experience even more traumatic. She must have longed to belong. Her father’s act of banning her to see her mother was most cruel. Sandra really missed her mother. I would not know what to do in such a terrible situation!

    I do wonder what was going through her mind when she met, fell in love and ran away with Petrus. Who happened to be a black man. Was he in the right place at the right time, a shoulder to lean on? Knowing her present situation, why did she do it?

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