By Damaris Zehner
I was an obnoxious twelve-year-old, which should come as no surprise. As a student at St. Mary’s in Waverly, Johannesburg, I complained about school a lot. When I got home, my uniform would be thrown on the floor, where it would generally stay until I shook it out and put it on the next day. I’d bring my bookbag home, but I didn’t do much homework. The supplemental Afrikaans classes I had to take after the regular school day, since I hadn’t grown up in South Africa, I often skipped, hiding out in the bathroom with a book until it was time for my mother to pick me up. I seem to recall a certain amount of whining and sulking, too.
As a U.S. diplomatic corps family, we had a house and servants provided for us. In South Africa the house was pretty luxurious, and we had three live-in servants, a cook, a maid, and a gardener. In my own way, I loved the three of them. They were better people than I deserved.
Jackson was the gardener. He was in his late twenties, a member of the Shangaan tribe from the eastern part of the country. He had just moved to Johannesburg and didn’t speak English fluently. He was strong, hard-working, and shy, with a goofy sense of humor. He had unsuspected depths; once he saw me trying to make something out of a sort of papier-mache modeling medium and not really succeeding. He asked if he could have some and made me a perfect cow, humped, heavy-shouldered, with spreading horns – the symbol of wealth. I have it on my bookcase today.
One day my mother told me that Jackson had asked her to teach him how to read and write; it had never occurred to me that he couldn’t. She was agonizing about the decision, partly because she had never liked teaching, partly because she didn’t know how lessons would fit into the servant-boss relationship, which she was already uncomfortable with. Eventually she decided to go ahead and collected some basic materials. I was vaguely aware that lessons would start on a particular evening when Jackson finished work.
I had been lolling in bed, reading a Georgette Heyer or Enid Blyton book and ignoring my homework. I happened to wander to the dining room just as Jackson came into the house from his quarters. Instead of his usual blue overalls, he was wearing the white suit he had for serving at parties. He clutched a cheap plastic briefcase, not new, probably scavenged from somewhere. I realized that he was trying to be a proper student, like me, with a uniform and bookbag. He was tall and handsome, a man more than twice my age, but even to my adolescent eyes he looked terrified and exhilarated, wound up to face something unknowable and life-changing. He was trembling slightly as he sat down at the table with my mother.
I went back to my room and for some reason found myself crying: shame for myself, pity and admiration for him, anger at the injustice of the world. What I took for granted and complained about was everything to him.
If this were fiction, I would have hung up my uniform and done my homework. I don’t think I did; I know that for years I was an indifferent student, even after we left South Africa. But step by step, in high school, college, and graduate school, I found myself teaching others, until I chose it as my profession – or it chose me.
I still complain – about the grading, the poorly disciplined students, and the hundred ways my circumstances fall short of perfection. But when each new crop of students comes in, I see Jackson. The arrogant jocks, the surly hillbillies, the ex-offenders, veterans, neo-Nazis, and solid academics – they all are waiting nervously for something unknowable and life-changing, whether they are aware of it or not. They may take the whole process for granted, but I won’t forget that education is an extraordinary privilege.
I never saw or heard from Jackson again after I left South Africa at the age of thirteen. I hope that, if he is still alive, he is happy in a post-apartheid country and that he can read and write everything he needs to. I wish he knew the strange link between his sitting down at the dining room table with pencil and paper and rural students slouching into a community college in Western Indiana. Maybe one day he will.
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Photo by Dylan Thomas/UKaid/Department for International Development at Flickr. Creative Commons License