Notes from the Field: A Night with John Gilmour


Steve Le, 2010 Teach with Africa fellow, is a teacher and co-director of the Service Learning program at Pacific Ridge School, in Carlsbad, CA.

John Gilmour, founder of the LEAP Schools, met with all of the Teach With Africa fellows on Thursday.

He opened the discussion by providing the context for intervention work in education, such as the type that LEAP means to achieve.

“I need to see myself as part of the problem,” he began, “and not the solution.”

The statistics that John listed in the meeting provided some sense of the disparity in the educations that whites receive and that which blacks and coloreds do.

Two-thirds of all black children drop out before graduating high school.

Of the 800,000 total black students that took the maths and science matric exams in 2008, 242 passed.

Seventy-five percent of blacks know domestic violence as a regular feature of daily life.

To see oneself as the problem and not the solution, for John, means that he needs to ignite systemic change in education.

Founding one school to intervene in one community is a start, but it cannot be enough. Altering the entire education system is near impossible, so change is more likely going to come up from the ground. The LEAP model can help other initiatives to start by exporting its pedagogy, methods, and even curricula.

In 2008, of the 242 students who passed the maths and science matric exams, 19 came from LEAP School.

Change on the ground level can be more expedient than that in national policy but, paradoxically, it can also be invisible in one’s lifetime because of its slowness.

Toward the end of the meeting, John asked a question to which he did not know the answer and seemingly wanted us outsiders to provide a perspective: “What is the point of entry for real change?”

In thinking about this, I cannot help but think of an individual I have met who lives in Langa. He is in his early thirties, which means he witnessed the tumultuous years leading up to [Nelson] Mandela’s election.

Because of his intelligence and athletic skills, he was able to attend a good high school and to go on to university and graduate school. Now, he is the sole earner in his family, who still lives in a shanty in Langa. They rely on him and tell him so.

He has come to resent them, not because he does not love them, but because he knows that their reliance has immobilized their own ambitions. He no longer relates to his childhood friends; they almost speak different languages. In his mind, he needs to leave his family, the township, and the past, even if it means causing pain and tearing apart the fabric of his family.

His success depends on his ability to escape, to move beyond.

If there is one of him, then there must be others. The Pinelands neighborhood surrounding TWA’s home base is a middle-class one, where black and colored families live alongside white ones. One by one, people will move out of the townships and move into the social and business structures that hold increasingly less room for the apartheid or colonial model.

Education, especially early education, provides the vehicle for social change, but the individual actors must decide and act.

The answer to John’s question is that the agents of change are moving about in his schools’ hallways, but they are moving at a pace that is comfortable to them and can be visible only to an historian’s eye, which has the privilege of reflection.

Moving from one’s past, especially when one’s family chooses to remain there, carries great risks and even greater consequences.

When the young man from Langa speaks, there is turmoil in his voice, but there is also hope and determination.

He knows his role and what he needs to do; I hope that he has the courage to take the next steps.

Change the world, fund a teacher!

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