issue 159 - May 1986
The nightingale and the dove
Or how Keats fares in a Soweto classroom. A short story by Ahmed Essop.
IT was soon after that turbulent period when the pupils rose in revolt against the rigidity of State-controlled education, that I met the headmaster of Rockdale High School at a stationery store in the city. I was a teacher at a private school and helped at the store during vacations. The headmaster invited me to visit his school after I had expressed the desire to see how English literature was taught there.
I went on a day in spring, spring in abundant display on the way to Soweto. But in that sprawling concentration camp-like place the comparatively few flowering trees proclaimed the season fitfully. The school-buildings were part of the atmosphere: austere, brown walls surrounding a cemented courtyard.
The headmaster - a small, corpulent, friendly man - invited me into his office.
'Sit down,' he said. 'I have a minute's work to finish.'
He returned to his desk, wrote on a pad, went into an adjoining room, spoke to someone and returned.
'I am very pleased you have come. Let us take a walk and look at the school.'
He showed me the various classrooms, then took me to the laboratory. It was a poorly equipped room with bottles of chemicals on shelves, two old cupboards, a table for conducting experiments, old desks. There were no pupils in the room. Then he proudly showed me the library which had recently been built with funds donated by readers of a daily newspaper. He also informed me that the money for the books had been given by the Anglo-American gold-mining company.
'Are you permitted to stock books of your own choice or only books prescribed by the Education Department?'
'We have to select from prescribed lists.'
Mono Badela, reporter at City Press Newspaper.
'The democratic movement in South Africa has entered a new phase of opposition. New forms of organisation have emerged that are intended to lay the basis for a new South Africa - a future decided by all.
'The new move is particularly gaining ground in towns and cities in the Eastern Cape. During I985 the black local councils in Eastern Cape towns such as Port Elizabeth, Cradock, and Uitenhage, collapsed under heavy pressure by their residents. The councils had been imposed upon the people in December 1983 much against their will - only 9.8 per cent of people countrywide voted In the boycotted council election. Into the place of these State-sponsored councils has sprung genuinely democratic unofficial organisations which hold our real hope for the future.'
Mkhuseli Jack, Port Elizabeth Consumer Boycott spokesperson, declared a 'banned' person by the Government in March.
'We realised that more leaders might end up disappearing. And we realised that the answer was not to talk vaguely of building organisations, but to go down to grassroots and form structures. So we went to our people who had been supporting us under dangerous circumstances in order to involve them in the decision-making processes. We said: in the streets where you live you must decide what issues you want your organisations to take up. We are not in a position to remove debris, remove the buckets, clean the streets and so on. But organisations must deal with these matters.'
He next led me into several classrooms and introduced me to the teachers. The classes were overcrowded and when I asked him what the roll was at the school he informed me that there were over 1,500 pupils. At that moment he appeared to me like a wizard who had performed the incredible feat of accommodating many pupils in a small building. I was on the point of asking him another question - a very pertinent one as his school had been in the vanguard of the revolt - but refrained.
The English teacher was a tall, lean man. After introducing me to him and telling him why I had come, the headmaster informed me that Mr Majola had completed his BA degree the previous year and that the pupils enjoyed his lessons very much.
'Can I sit for a while in the class?' I asked.
'Certainly,' said Mr Majola. 'I was about to start a poetry lesson when you came in.'
The headmaster said he would return to his office. One of the boys gave me his seat and sat on the floor.
Mr Majola requested the pupils to produce their poetry books and told them he was going to recite Keats' Ode to a Nightingale. Before beginning he showed the pupils a picture of a nightingale and described it briefly. He ended by saying:
'You are not likely to see this bird nor hear its song in this country as it is mainly to be found in the northern hemisphere.' He then started reciting the poem (occasionally looking at the anthology in his hand) and in order to make it a vital experience for the pupils dramatised it.
'My heart aches. . .'He placed his hand on his heart, looking lugubrious and reclined his head in languishment. He went on to pour the 'dull opiate' into his mouth and by moving to a corner of the room sank 'Lethewards'. He flung his arms out as a 'light-winged Dryad of the trees' and completed the first stanza in a subdued voice.
He began the second stanza with a roar: '0 for a draught of vintage!' Walking with uplifted head and arms he yearned for the drink as though for ambrosia. He ended by reclining on the table. Sitting up he went on to the third stanza, reciting it in a whisper, reserving his energy for the fourth's fortissimo beginning: 'Away! away! for I will fly to thee.' He leapt into the air and flapped his arms. The fifth's beginning, 'I cannot see' made him search for flowers on the classroom floor and for the sixth's 'Darkling I listen' his voice dropped to a dying man's whisper. In the next stanza his baritone voice flared in a triumph of recitative power: 'Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird...' only to fall in the final stanza to a diminuendo: 'Forlorn! the very word is like a bell.'
Throughout the performance the pupils sat quietly as though they were present at a funeral or listening to a sermon in church.
He then began an explanation of the poem. At times he asked the pupils questions. They seemed hesitant and unsure of themselves. One pupil knew the meaning of 'hemlock', several of opiate' and none of 'Lethe' or 'Dryad'. He tried to bring home to them the poet's response to the nightingale's song and the charms of summer in England.
When Mr Majola had done I went up to him and shook his hand. As we walked towards the door I asked him which other poems were prescribed for his matriculation class. He mentioned several, among them Shelley's Ode to the West Wind and Gray's Elegy.
'Any poems by local poets?'
'What novels are prescribed?'
'We have Hardy's The Return of the Native and Austen's Emma.
'Any novels by local writers?'
I thanked him and returned to the headmaster's office. As I entered the door the school bell rang for an intermission.
'Did you enjoy the poetry lesson?' the headmaster asked, handing me a cup of tea.
'He is wonderful, Mr Majola. He knows how to make poetry come alive. Perhaps he will produce some poets among us, real poets.' He laughed again.
When the bell rang the second time I decided to leave. The question I had refrained from asking earlier came to mind again. 'How many children,' I wanted to ask him 'were killed in the June revolt?' But I did not ask. It occurred to me that if he said 20 or 50 his answer would not resurrect them.
As I started my car I thought of the nightingale of the Ode that had failed to have much meaning for the pupils. By joining them in class I had experienced in a profound way that an alien literature imposed on ghetto children left their sensibilities untouched.
On my way home I was passing through a tree-lined avenue in a white suburb when I saw a small fluttering object lying in the middle of the road. I stopped and got out of the car. It was a dying African wood dove. I lifted it and saw blood on its beak. Perhaps someone had thrown a stone at it, or it had not been quick enough to avoid a speeding car. I could feel the pulse of its panic-stricken heart. I went towards a plane tree and sat down on a rock. I looked at its grey-mauve down and the dark glitter of its eyes. I felt its pulse slowing.
I sat there for a long while with the dead wood dove in my hand. In my wanderings in the country I had often listened to the lovely threnody of the dove and once at home two of them had made a nest in the granadilla vine and reared their young. Again I thought of the nightingale of the Ode. Both birds were dead. And the children whose hearts the soldiers' bullets had riven - they were dead too.
Ahmed Essop works as a teacher and lives in the 'Indian' township of Lenasia. He is the author of two acclaimed pieces of fiction - The Hajji and The Emperor.