2012 was my first year as a qualified teacher. I ended up at the last school (of 20+) that I handed my CV into. And, in short, I nearly declined the job despite the impressive starting salary for a teacher. In fact, I didn’t even want to go to the interview because the school had a reputation for exceptionally badly behaved kids. Nice initiation to the teaching world! I didn’t want it. Long story short, I accepted – my only reason was that it was a foot in the door.

It wasn’t long before I met discipline problems in the preschoolers I taught. One child would spend an hour in time-out because every time I let him out, something else would happen. He went to the principal’s office and after a stern talking to, came out laughing at the tender age of 6. I threatened to leave and walked out of my classroom many times. As I walked out and past the window, my Grade R’s were dancing on the tables. Another child one day decided she was the heck in with me. She refused to do anything!  She lay under the table, sulked and scowled at me. It went from days, to weeks, to months. She refused to work, refused to walk, refused to cooperate, refused to answer me, refused to do anything. She was eventually moved to another class and behaved like an angel! I regularly, regularly cried! I was never okay when anyone asked. The pressure was intense!

 

Some children made up for it. There was the bright and tender-hearted Luyanda. There was the sweet, gentle Chase.

 

Then there was Mpumelelo.

 

Mpumelelo arrived at school without a word of English. I don’t think he had the faintest idea what this “mlungu” teacher wanted him to do. He was so overwhelmed, he hid under the desk. Not in fear. Just because the environment was too overwhelming. He sat on the outskirts of the circle of kids for days. Eventually he joined. He didn’t speak much to anyone. He was serious. As time went one and he began to understand, I despaired over his work. He knew nothing and even when he did understand, his work was poor! I couldn’t see this child doing well at all.

But little did I know that this little boy had a completely different side.

 

One day, we were going around the circle, clapping the syllables of our names. When it came time for him to say his, he sat there. The obvious silence made the whole class all turn to look at him. He grinned, leaned forward and clapped his hands together, completely off syllable, and hurriedly said, “Mpumelelo!” The class laughed hysterically and I was worried he would be mortified and never open his mouth again. But looking at his face, he looked SO pleased with himself! It became a joke. Everyone was itching in their seats, anticipating his turn. As the kids went around the circle, smiles would creep across their faces as it came nearer to his turn. Sometimes, he would wait ages, basking in all the attention. The class would be grinning, leaning forward, waiting. I was one of them. Then, with such show, he would clap his hands ridiculously and triumphantly exclaim, “Mpumelelo!” 

 

He had a mischievous grin and a very naughty twinkle in his eye when he spoke to me. One day I was laughing at him and he pointed his finger at me and grinned,

“You! You ihashi! (Horse) And you wash your teeth!”

I laughed out loud at his insult. He brought a smile to my face just by looking at him.

 

My parents asked for weekly stories about Mpumelelo and we often sat wiping tears at the dinner table. I wish I could show you all that little face and demonstrate his antics with my hands the way I did for them!

 

As I sat at my desk one morning, the kids were arriving for the day. Mpumelelo arrived and stood at the door with his bag on his back and his hands holding the straps. For some reason, he hadn’t hung up his bag. But he stood, proudly yet seriously at the door as if waiting for someone to acknowledge his arrival. After a few moments, I said,

“Good morning Mpumelelo.”

He turned to look at me, offered me no smile but merely lifted his hand up, acknowledged me and walked out to unpack. Such was the character of his sense of humour!

 

Honestly, he was a gift from God! He made my days brighter! And I really believe God put this little boy in my life to cheer me up and make my life at the school bearable! I wish I could remember all the stories about this child. There were many!

 

I hated, hated bathroom duty. The boys and girls shared bathrooms with the primary school so boys and girls were split (not common in preschools). I stayed far from the bathroom doors. I seldom ventured in the girls’ bathroom. And I never went in the boys’ bathroom. If things got too raucous, I would stick my head around the door and yell. The boys regularly came out whining and showing me streaks of someone else’s wee across their shoes, hands and arms! Revolting! What is it with boys and urinals?!? One day, two boys raced out the bathroom to tell on.

“Mrs Botha! Mrs Botha! He peed on my arm….”

“But he peed on me first!”

There was evidence.

Then out came Mpumelelo. This was the cherry-on-top! He said nothing. He just marched up to me with with a deadpan face and stuck his head forward. He emphatically pointed to his forehead. I was finished!

 

The story that has become legendary in my family was one from early on. His playful nonsense hadn’t yet started and he was still quite a quiet, reserved child. (I laugh at this in retrospect!) I was on duty near the sandpit one day and there were many kids playing in the dirt making mud birthday cakes and singing “Plip, plip, pulay!” (Hip, hip, hooray!)

All of a sudden, a chant started, murmuring softly at first, and slowly gaining volume.

Mpu-me-le-lo, Mpu-me-le-lo, Mpu-me-LE-LO, Mpu-ME-LE-LO, MPU-ME-LE-LO, MPU-ME-LE-LO!

I was horrified! Was I just witnessing a bullying chant by a mass of children? I was ready to yell at all of them at their terrible treatment of this poor, quiet little boy. I turned to look for him, expecting to see him looking up, smiling in oblivious confusion from his sitting position, a handful of sand poised above a bucket.

 

But my little spark of joy was not quietly sitting. Far from it! He stood proudly at the side of the sandpit, his cheeky grin that I came to love so much painted across his face and his hands conducting the chorus of kiddies as they chanted his name!

 

I remember the names of many of the children I teach. But their faces blur after awhile. I can’t remember which year I taught them or which children went with whom. I can remember the outstanding work of some and the poor work of others.

And then there are the Mpumelelos. I don’t always remember their work. I don’t always remember who they were friends with. But I know that I will never forget them! They will be the children who bring a laugh to my eyes and a smile of fondness because they have etched themselves on my heart!

 

Photo Credit: Bruno Gandon (Stock Photo)

 

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