Visiting the other side of the world

During July 2017, I’m lucky to be spending ten days in KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa, traveling with a group of 14 students from my school and two other chaperones. Although the trip is classified as ‘service,’ it’s much more immersion and exposure to a community on the other side of the world, where the people are serving us by sharing their homes, stories, and culture.

Thursday, July 6

After teaching at an all-boys school for ten years, I hardly notice how often I am the only woman in the room. It happens every day while I teach. It happens during open studios, and during weekend work sessions with student editors. It happens in the basement of a Philadelphia church, surrounded by men willing to share their stories of homelessness with my students. A situation that might feel unusual in conventional workplace or social settings is part of my everyday life.

When I do notice it, though, is as we are anxiously waiting in the Johannesburg airport customs line, with the sinking feeling hovering over our group that we just might not make our connecting flight. Surrounded by people from countries all over the world, feeling stares at our group with the matching t-shirts, I’m aware that I’m different. I know the questions I would ask, if I saw a sole woman accompanying sixteen men. I choose not to dwell on those questions — after all, the more urgent matter is how we are possibly going to make our flight — but here it is nearly twelve hours later, connections made, and I’m still thinking about it.

On the plane, the flight attendant lightly taps my shoulder and asks me if I was the woman in charge. I nod, and she wants to know if the boys in the matching shirts can have alcohol. My seatmate — age 17 — chokes back a laugh. I shake my head and say no, firmly. She nods and walks on. Openly laughing now, the student beside me says, “Did someone ask?” I say, “I hope not, but I’m glad she did.” We settle back into pretending the flight is comfortable, and trying to sleep.

Now, of course, I’m not the only woman at Jacob’s Well. After almost a full day and a complete backflip in sleep schedules, we have settled into this beautiful convent, a place where the view over the Valley of a Thousand Hills lasts for days. Sister Margaret and Sister Frances welcome us with hugs, warm smiles, and comfortable rooms. I’m still the only woman on a hallway of teenage boys and male chaperones, so I get to claim a single bathroom that otherwise would be shared. Sister Margaret quietly asks me if this arrangement is acceptable; “of course,” I tell her, and it is. My room has a balcony where I can look over the breathtaking valley, and watch our students toss a lacrosse ball in the convent’s small yard. Sister Margaret wonders aloud if the boys have ever seen sisters dressed in habits back home. We tell her, not often, and she thinks this explains how respectful and deferential this group acted as they greeted the sisters and got settled in the convent.

Sister Margaret is nearly shaking with excitement as she asks the chaperones if we would like to meet the Cardinal. He is visiting with the sisters, she says, and would love to meet us. In a parlor, the Cardinal is nobly holding court — or tea — with five aging sisters. They all greet us with nods and hugs. The Cardinal is surprised to meet a woman chaperone, but he smiles warmly at me. “You must have your hands full,” he says. I smile and politely say thank you.

With a target of keeping the group awake until they will be able to cycle their sleep into the rhythm of South Africa, we ask our driver to take us to the beach. Driving through the streets of the city of Durban, there are people everywhere, crammed into markets and narrowly darting through traffic. I look up at the apartment buildings and wonder about the lives and stories behind each window open to the winter air. Winter in Durban is still warm enough for the other chaperones and I to wade into the Indian Ocean up to our knees, and take guesses at the height of the waves. I ask my friend the science teacher why there are waves, scientifically, and he describes a balance of the moon’s constant pull and the crust’s constant tremors. Pulling and cracking. Although the moon’s gravity is consistent and measurable, we never really know how much or when the crust will shake — in fact, mostly we don’t notice it. I wonder if this is why each wave is a little different, like snowflakes — same pattern, different quirks.

The boys play soccer with some local children on the beach. When they are tired, they swim out into the ocean with their new friends, jumping into the waves. Later, reflecting in the convent’s library, they tell us that a lifeguard kept blowing a whistle to stop the black children, but said he assumed the “white boys” could swim. They described feeling at first uncomfortable with not sharing a language, but later grateful for the common language of kicking a soccer ball. Another boy said that today at the beach was the first time he ever felt like he was in the minority.

We share our memories from the day, then the chaperones drink tea in a small parlor, waiting for the dorm to get quiet with early sleep.

South Africa feels like a comfortable place to stretch out of our comfort zones.

Originally published at Teaching Craft.

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