Monday, July 27, 2009

Back to school

In Cape Town, in a way I had never understood it to be in Johannesburg (or even, for that matter Pietermaritzburg), access to resources depends pretty much entirely on where you live. So, when we decided to move to Cape Town, a friend implored me to only consider buying in the Southern Suburbs. Her reason was straightforward. “That is where the best schools are”, she said.

So, being the compliant type that I am, I obeyed. And subsequently, we spent a few months of laast year looking for an appropriate school for our oldest child. Now, yes, it is true, our circumstances are not the usual. We are a same-sexed, white couple, with two adopted black children. And most of the time, life is just as ordinary and as straightforward as anyone could want it to be. But sometimes, one is taken aback by how different, apparently, other people’s reality is. Our first interview with a prospective school principal was a case in point.

She is a homely looking, somewhat pleased with herself white woman, with very clear understandings of what a teacher is and what a parent is. Things have changed somewhat from our first encounter, but I could not help feeling vaguely patronised, then. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the situation. It was difficult to tell.

Now understand, this interview process is, by its very nature, a lopsided one. She is in a position of some considerable power. And you, the parent, are trying to put your best face forward, because you want your child to have access to the school, which, from all accounts, is one of the “good” ones.

So, when she sits you down, folds her arms and says “Look, I’m a very straightforward person. How long have you two been together?” you might be pardoned for wondering whether she would ask a heterosexual couple the same question. You may be pardoned, too, if you bit a large hole in your tongue and refrained from asking her that question, which would certainly be what she deserved. The problem is, she is in a position of some considerable power in this situation, and you are not. So you sit there like a deer in the headlights and meekly say you have been together nine years, for what it is worth.

Then you are then told that your child would not be allowed dreadlocks, if he were to be accepted at her school. You are given a bogus anthropology lesson on the “meanings” of various styles of black hair. They were so preposterous and bizarre, that I can’t even remember them, but what they pointed to was a mindset which remained, shall we say, underexposed?

This was followed, some time afterwards, by an orientation session with all the parents and children, she started by addressing the children. “Let me tell you”, she said, “this is a safe place. And the teachers are going to be just like your mummies. You will get to love them, and they will get to love you, just like your mummies love you”.

Now there is nothing essentially wrong with this. The sentiment is obviously well intended. But she hasn’t thought a centimetre beyond what is usual. Our child doesn’t have a “mummie”. (And, I bet sitting in the audience, our child wasn’t the only one without a “mummie”. ) Furthermore, “Mummies” sometimes don’t love their children. “Mummies” sometimes run off with others and leave their children with someone else. That isn’t something gay, or straight, it is just the way the world sometimes works.

In our search, we also went to another school – a much more “free-spirited” school – where the same-sex thing was seemingly of no consequence. But the prospective teacher, with both parents and the child in the room starts saying “Oh, but he doesn’t have parents, does he?”

I don’t despair. I have no doubt that they are all good and kind people. But isn’t it weird that in this day and age, that this kind of thinking is probably the norm?

It is, essentially, about the dominance of one particular world view over everything else. It is there when whites do it to blacks. It is there when blacks do it to whites. It is there when straights do it to gays and when gays do it to straights.

The problem is, it is mostly unchallenged and unchecked. It is insidious. It gets passed on down the generational line. And it is reinforced, fed and nurtured in the school environment, unless something is actively done to challenge it.

Talking of which - the school my child now goes to has a "diversity group". Very nice. My partner sent them an email, enthusiastic and willing. We never got any reply.

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