Beginning: 12:09 p.m. on Wednesday, December 24th, 2014
Listening to: Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo on NPR and Samuel Barber’s Mutations from Bach
Reading: The Book of Trees by Manuel Lima and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Another subject I’ve long wanted to honor is personal and thus more challenging to write about: a young girl named Lisekho Mbioza, whom I taught for approximately half of my contract with Keiskamma Music Academy. Lisekho was and, I hope, still is a student at Hamburg Primary School. When I met her and began our recorder lessons, she had just started second grade. We also believed then that the correct spelling of her name was “Liseko”; but I realized this was a misspelling on the part of a former teacher when she herself wrote her name down as Lisekho. (The added h more conforms with typical Xhosa language and spelling. Why no one thought to ask Lisekho earlier how her name is correctly spelled remains a mystery to me.) Of the hundreds of faces and names teachers (re)encounter and memorize yearly, a handful will inevitably stand out: Lisekho was one of mine, and among my favorite students. I loved this child; getting to know her as a teacher, as with the other students I was blessed to bond with, was like an unexpected detour taken from my usual trek along the vulgar dirt path to Hamburg Primary–breath-taking albeit difficult, demanding strength, urging introspection.
Lisekho first made herself known as an extremely helpful student. Ask her to find someone by name, and she would do it, running into any of the five classrooms for the eight grades we taught and brazenly asking young recorder players to be pulled from their regular lessons. Lisekho’s helpfulness eased occasionally tenuous relations with Hamburg Primary School. In my term, I realized I had unfortunately inherited a contentious connection with Hamburg Primary teachers from the previous administration, which I sought to rectify. (See one previous blog post Water and Time.) Our teaching of primary school students took place during their regular school hours, as opposed to teaching at the high school, which occurred after school. We supposedly had permission to teach KMA primary school students during class for twenty- or thirty-minute lesson periods; but this was always a struggle to do so consistently, and even with discussion and supposed agreement on a schedule we often faced rancor or miscomprehension from their teachers. In this environment, while I was still becoming accustomed to my position and learning exotic student names, Lisekho helped lesson schedules run smoothly and on time through her enthusiastic spirit and fearless, extroverted personality.
What made her act more extraordinary was that, of the thirty-or-so students we taught at Hamburg Primary, Lisekho’s English was arguably the worst. English wasn’t taught as a formal school subject till second grade; so, Lisekho was just starting out. She was clearly intelligent, my own bias aside. She also used to get so frustrated, I recall, when trying to communicate with me. For this reason, I wonder whether her family circumstances–perhaps a predominantly Xhosa-speaking home environment or an unpredictable series of home environments–might have been behind the speed of her learning. A good number of second graders spoke passable English, enough to get by in a music lesson with more playing than talk. But Lisekho was somehow different. I remember another favorite student–Siphesihle Ndogeni, a extremely tall, lanky fifth grader held back multiple years, who I’ll write about later–jealously tried to discourage my interest in Lisekho by citing her lack of English skill. “She cannot understand what you’re saying,” Siphesihle once interrupted. It is believed that 93 percent of communication is nonverbal. I looked into Lisekho’s face and knew that she understood.
Lisekho gave me another gift when she took a liking to me. I will always remember the sight of her at a distance–running from the Hamburg Primary school yard, past the chain link fence, and down the worn-down grass footpath to meet me. I have a memory of a particularly overcast day in late October/early November. She was panting by the time she stopped. “Lesson today?” she asked. “No, Lisekho. Today is Thursday; you’ll have your lesson tomorrow on Friday like before.” “Lesson tomorrow?” I nodded, and we walked together, side-by-side, contentedly, back into the school yard.
There was a period of time, I will admit, when I became extremely curious about Lisekho’s family and living circumstances. Just as before lessons, she would find me afterward and often walk part of the way home with me, as I made my way to teach at the high school. I asked her then, “where do you live?” She stopped and pointed in the direction of no single building in the distance. “Heritage,” she said. After inquiring among my colleagues, I learned that Hamburg held a Heritage Site, a multi-purpose building used for local cultural/tourist events and an occasional home for those without. I was disturbed at this knowledge. Was Lisekho an orphan? Did she have a family? A few late nights, I’ll admit, I struggled and prayed over whether this was significant and what I was meant to do. I had considered the possibility of adoption as a single mother before–only later in life, when I was sure and financially able to support a child–certainly not then. I wondered: how long would this mean I’d have to stay in South Africa for the adoption process? How would this alter my life?
I had a conversation en route to Chicago this month after a gig in Indianapolis with a soprano who described her motley family and a history of foster parenthood. She had three younger siblings, all from different parents, who for various reasons were legally adopted into her family. I believe that her household was especially open to the idea of fostering and adoption, and that this increased with each child they welcomed in. But she also described an intuitive “knowing,” or feeling of belong to the child, an instant recognition, that led to the creation of family, however unconventional. To think that over a year after the start of my time in South Africa I would find some form of answer and validation of my own experience with a relative stranger is what we live for. I was both disappointed and relieved to see Lisekho with her mother one day in the square courtyard of Hamburg Primary School. I was not surprised when Lisekho, seated perfectly by her mother’s side, ignored me. I made no motion to engage on my way to my classroom. I saw, and I understood why.
Again, I loved this child; I still do. And it was for this reason that, when our new volunteer teacher from Germany arrived midway through my teaching contract, I reassigned Lisekho to be her student instead of mine. I did so without comment and have never pointed out the significance of this till now. I still saw Lisekho in the square courtyard of the primary school and would receive her greeting happily. And, naturally, she stopped running out to meet me around that time. Lisekho seemed to improve steadily under her new tutelage; although I am reluctantly pleased to say that I never learned of a bond formed as strong as the one I imagined she had with me.
On my last day of recorder lessons at Hamburg Primary School, Lisekho came and found me during my final twenty minutes with one of our newer students, another second grader and the younger brother of a high school recorder player, Amiyoli Gqwaka. The three of us sat in a circle in the sparse, one-room primary school library, not speaking, instruments in hand. There was a particular riff from Miriam Makeba’s song Qongqothwane that the high school students had learned to perform and that, naturally, primary school students admired and attempted to emulate. (You can see a recording of a live performance I captured last year here. Special attention should go to 10th grader Mkhululi Peter, playing the marimba in the performance, a skill he did not learn at KMA, but mastered all on his own.) Lisekho and Amiyoli had memorized the riff; and so we took our time improvising using it. I played something new, and they played it back. We took turns trading musical ideas, over and over again, till the improvisation gradually petered out and came to a natural stop. Silently, we put down our instruments, looked into one another’s eyes, and nodded.
Then it was over. I packed my belongings and walked one last time away from Hamburg Primary School, pausing to look back only now across an ocean of separation. I gave Lisekho my address, printed by hand on an index card pilfered from the high school Music Room cabinet, in some shy hope that I might get to see the beautiful woman this beautiful girl might someday become. But English was not among her many strengths; and in that environment it’s so easy for things to be lost. I think one of the things I loved most about Lisekho was that, contrary to Xhosa patriarchal culture in which boys typically dominated and took advantage of girls from the earliest age, Lisekho did just the opposite: teasing the boys, making them blush, yet always getting away with a wry smile and spirited giggle. This quality was unique among the girls I taught. I wish it were not so. I would like to think that such joyful abandon, resilience, and beauty will continue to grow strong, will last; and for that I can at minimum continue to keep watch and hope. She would be ten years old now, eleven next July.
I recently reached out to teachers I had during my undergraduate degree at McGill for letters of recommendation to graduate school. For all, there’d been minimal contact since I left Canada over two years ago, and countless names and faces since. I wish to acknowledge them and thank them for their recollection of me, which I can better comprehend with each passing year–that we are not forgotten to one another and for this reason might have chance at a more hopeful future.
Trailing off for now,