Learning Lessons
eBook - ePub

Learning Lessons

Jonathan Jansen

  1. 204 Seiten
  2. English
  3. ePUB (handyfreundlich)
  4. Über iOS und Android verfügbar
eBook - ePub

Learning Lessons

Jonathan Jansen

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'It is probably the question I get asked most often by students: how did you achieve what you did? There is an urgency to the question and more than a little self-interest. If I can figure out how he made it, the student reasons, then maybe I will know how to chart my own path. It was always difficult to provide a simple answer to a long and complex journey. So I often leave the inquiring student with a pointer here or a caution there. Never enough to really account for lessons from learning and life...'– Jonathan JansenJonathan Jansen doesn't regard the achievements he has made in academia and his contributions to public intellectual life as his own – rather, he sees these accomplishments as a product of the hard work and sacrifices of family, friends, teachers, colleagues and mentors around him. Jansen recounts, in his indomitable way, how the people in his life invested love, direction, encouragement (and even money) to make his journey possible – in the hope that his story may give inspiration and direction to generations of young people taking their first steps in adult life. Yet, cautions Jansen, this book is not a 'what-to-do' checklist to leverage learning for success in life – as every journey is different, every circumstance carries unique challenges, and every personality manages difficulty in various ways. What the book offers is the chance to learn from the moves and mistakes that others have made along their way to achieving great things in life.

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Pay attention
‘I never knew that the point of a gun is that cold.’
Stanley Ndimande, a taxi driver from Benoni, was about to be hijacked as he stopped to offload the last two male passengers in his 10-seater vehicle. One man locked the doors and the other kept the cold gun to his head while Stanley’s girlfriend was in a panic at the back of the taxi. ‘That gun was cold,’ he says again as we talk.
Stanley panicked and, in the congested traffic, simply could not find the reverse gear to get out and drive in the direction indicated by his kidnappers. In the struggle to reverse, a South African Defence Force Hippo vehicle forced its way through the stranded cars towards the stalled taxi. One soldier started to beat Stanley for holding up the traffic.
At this point, the two hijackers jumped out and one of them shot a soldier in the stomach before fleeing into the nearby bush. Stanley and his girlfriend barely survived.
You would not have noticed Stanley Ndimande in a crowd. The former taxi driver decided to save up money to embark on studies away from home in the coastal city of Durban. There, he was quiet and unassuming as he went about his work at the University of Durban-Westville, photocopying materials for the lecturers to make some money to support his undergraduate studies.
What I did notice was that he was forever smiling, always going to his next task at a half-sprint and more eager than most to learn. He paid attention to detail – to his work and most of all to his studies. I decided to employ this first-in-the-family university student as my research assistant so that he could learn real skills.
It started badly. ‘Would you fetch me this journal from the library?’
Stanley panicked. ‘I had no idea what a journal was and I wasn’t going to tell you that I did not know,’ he tells me years later.
I insisted that he study abroad but the application form asked for ‘a statement of purpose’. He did not know what that was, but recalls that I helped him write one.
Over time, his confidence grew and as the country slid from apartheid to democracy in 1994, Stanley, like so many other black students, reclaimed his first name, Bekisizwe. I was so impressed with both his academic talent and his humanity that I wrote to the famous professor (and now friend) in curriculum studies, Professor Michael Apple at the University of Wisconsin: ‘Michael,’ I wrote, ‘I have an ex-taxi driver from Benoni whom I am sending to you for doctoral studies.’
Send him,’ came the reply.
This ex-taxi driver is now a professor of curriculum studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, writing his own books and critically reviewing my own in international journals. This kind of thing happens when you pay attention.
* * *
School was a drag. Well-meaning teachers droned on in front of the class. Lots of shouting and commands: Shut up. Line up. Give up that bubble-gum in your mouth. Asking permission to go to the toilet was more about breaking the monotony of the classroom than relieving any urgent physiological need. Some teachers would simply refuse habitual requests and every now and again, a primary school child would wet themselves in the classroom.
Acts of discipline broke the spell of boredom. Like when one primary school teacher with a temper reputation hurled a bunch of keys in the direction of a boy who was talking in class. He ducked, and the keys cut open the forehead of the boy behind him. Teachers did not apologise in those days and parents did not sue educators. In fact, if you came home with a grievance, you were likely to receive another hiding or hear ‘the teacher must have had a reason to beat you’.
More than anything, I looked forward to the two breaks – the short one and especially the long break. The boys divided into two teams. Captains were chosen. The toss happened somewhere during a lesson on fractions or synonyms. Team names followed the two local clubs, Hellenic and Cape Town City, or English teams from far away. When the bell rang, we rushed out into the sand or onto the tarmac – there were no rolling green fields like at the white schools, such as Zwaanswyk High School down the road, and sometimes there was no real soccer ball. A tennis ball gave as much joy to the imagination.
It was at one of those high school soccer games – during ‘the interval’, as we called it – that I saw my Latin teacher leaning against one of the pillars along the corridor outside his classroom. Paul Galant was a leaner – against the blackboard as he taught or against an outside wall as he conversed with his colleagues. This time, he was watching me scramble across the tarmac in pursuit of the tennis-cum-soccer ball. ‘Come here, my boy.’
I was mildly irritated. The game was in the balance – it always was. But I had no choice so I went over to where my teacher was standing. ‘You know, you pretend to know nothing. But I’ve been watching you. You’re actually very smart. You have potential. I will be looking to see how you do in the next test.’
‘Thank you, Sir,’ I said, half-bewildered, and hurried back to the match.
I do not fully know what happened in that brief interaction, but it changed my life forever. I am watching you. You are smart. I will see what happens in the next test. Nobody had ever told me that I had potential, that I was clever. Nobody.
For the first time in my life, I studied for a school test. And I studied hard. My teacher was watching me. From that moment on, I started to rise in the class, from always hovering around the class average to being one of the top three or four students in high school. I was starting to pay attention.
I had come under the influence of a good teacher. My high school had a few teachers like that, who not only taught the subject but found time to encourage you – like Mrs Akoojee, my biology teacher with the grey-blue eyes. She kept telling me, ‘I am expecting an A from you in biology.’ Or Mr Jooste, the geography teacher, who did not even teach me (I chose history) but whenever he saw me, would ask, ‘How are your studies going?’ or say, ‘Good luck with the final exams.’ These were salt-of-the-earth teachers who made all the difference. They were influencers who made an impact if you paid attention.
This is the one lesson about successful learning that made all the difference in my life. I responded positively to those who tried to encourage my learning and who expected much from me. Of course, I could have ignored Mr Galant and continued to be an average learner, doing well enough to pass but not working to my full potential. But I did more and I sought out my Latin teacher’s help in my overall development as a young student.
As a result, when Mr Galant put out a call for athletes interested in the 800 metres (it was 880 yards before South Africa changed to the metric system in 1970), I showed up after school. As with academics, I was fairly average when it came to running. In fact, my younger brothers were much better athletes in the 200-metre and 400-metre sprints (Peter and Isaac, respectively). My youngest brother (Denzil) actually came second in high-jump at the interschool championships. I never came anywhere but I was buoyed by my Latin teacher’s encouragement and so I showed up for practice regardless.
It was hard: up and down the sand dunes until your calves hurt; early-morning runs around the patchy school track, where the thorns constantly cut into your bare feet and the sand held you back. It was hell. But I showed up every morning and every night. Then came the day of trials. The school would choose two learners from every age group to qualify for a specific discipline at the interschool competition, which convened at Greenpoint Track. I still remember the flutter in my stomach that morning as a teacher fired the starting gun. ‘Daar hol hulle!’ (there they go) was the refrain from the sidelines every time a distance race got underway.
The star in the under-16, 800-metre group was a chap called Alex Thomas. By some miracle, I was hot on his heels as we reached the final 200-metre bend. Then there was the sprint down the home straight. Alex won and immediately turned to me, saying, ‘I was wondering who was breathing down my neck.’ The last person he expected was that nerdy Jansen kid in the other English class. I felt good that for the first and only time, I was in the school team headed for Greenpoint.
The encouragement in academics had rubbed off in my performance in athletics. This was a lasting lesson about the power of a teacher’s words.
It was another long hour at church. The youth normally hung about for some time, chatting, while parents were doing their own catching up. Suddenly, I saw a shy-looking chap about my age (11 or 12), standing against the wall to the side of the church building. His family were newcomers. I introduced myself, not knowing that this new friend was about to turn my life upside down.
Depending on who you spoke to, his name was either Archie or Lennie (his full name was Archie Leonard Dick). Most people called him Lennie to avoid any confusion with Archie Dick senior, his father.
We would see each other virtually every single day and the subject of conversation was mostly soccer, long before it became girls. There was, however, something different about Lennie. He was a serious student. He was also at a serious school: South Peninsula High School – a black institution in a white area that refused to be relocated under apartheid’s Group Areas Act. The school had a reputation for academic excellence and the students from ‘SP’ carried themselves with a swagger compared to the rest of us from working-class schools like my own Steenberg High School.
Strangely, Lennie actually did his homework and studied every day. Fine, but then he also did something weirder. He would study through the night every Friday evening. This was so bizarre to me but he was my best friend, so on Fridays I would drag myself to his home on Sonata Street. At first, I just wanted to see what on earth this studious youngster was really up to.
Here was the pattern. Lennie would study for two hours and then take a break for coffee and doughnuts or some other eats his mother had prepared. Then he soldiered on for another two hours, followed by the next break. This time, he sometimes ate something and took a run around the block. Back to the books after that, before another round of eats. I watched this madness and made my decision. I would sleep, but I gave him strict instructions: Wake me up for the breaks.
Eventually, I gave in and joined the one-man (now two-man) study group. Initially, I dozed off around midnight but eventually I got the hang of it and became quite the student myself. I started to enjoy studying – more so, because I could discuss difficult concepts or hard-to-solve problems with him for an interesting reason. Lennie was my exact age – a month apart by birth – but he had been ‘promoted’ in primary school because he was deemed to be too smart for his grade. He jumped ahead by two years, thereby becoming the youngest member of the class throughout his school years. In other words, whatever I was learning, he had already mastered.
Lennie taught me a vital lesson as a high school student: application. My marks started to improve. Like him, I loved the sciences. He boasted about Mr Coker at SP and I bragged about Mrs Akoojee at Steenberg. We laughed about funny teachers like Mr Hilario, who taught Latin at both schools during his career and whose name lent itself to childish humour. ‘Waar lê die ou?’ one group of students would shout from a safe distance when this teacher came into sight, to which another group responded in chorus: ‘Hilario!’ (hier lê die ou, in Afrikaans). And then there was another ‘Sir’ at SP called MT Wessels, whose name started a well-known proverb.
With all the serious studying going on during those Friday-night sessions, there were still lighter moments and fun competition. Somewhere in the early hours, during one of the study breaks, we would start a high-jump contest over his mother’s washing line in the back yard, with an old mattress to cushion the fall. Lennie had mastered the Fosbury Flop. This would be followed with a 100-metre dash from the pavement of Mr Henry’s house, the concrete bricks serving as starting blocks, straight down towards the front door of the Dicks’ home. Then the 800 metres from the house, around the canal behind rows of council houses, and then along the main ‘boulevard’ to the same door. He usually pipped me in the sprints but I had the edge in the longer distance.
More seriously, in Lennie’s little council house was a piano that was at the centre of our lives. Lennie’s parents sent him to get piano lessons from a white lady on the other side of the railway line. He would come back playing pieces I had never heard before like Handel’s ‘Largo in G’ or Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’. I was mesmerised by the beautiful chords and watched as he practised with concentration for hours on end.
Then something else happened that would bring much joy into my life. I started to memorise what Lennie was doing on the piano and tried to ‘play by ear’. It was a mess, of course, but I kept trying. Fortunately, around that time, we had a talented group of church youth who played various instruments, mainly by ear. I observed and learnt from them and started playing the piano with more confidence.
Lennie graduated from high school and went on to study what was then called library science at university. I had no intention of ‘studying further’, as people in the community used to phrase it, but since my best friend did it, I followed suit. My love of biology firmly entrenched, I did a BSc degree with botany and zoology as majors. There is no doubt in my mind that studying further might not have happened if this precocious young boy had not entered my life early on.
‘How do you manage peer pressure?’ a student once asked me during a high-school address.
‘You choose the right peers,’ I advised.
It turns out that Mr Galant had also taught and inspired Lennie when he was at a nearby primary school. Afte...


  1. Cover
  2. Copyright
  3. Contents
  4. Introduction
  5. LESSON 1: Pay attention
  6. LESSON 2: You are smarter than you think
  7. LESSON 3: You must show up
  8. LESSON 4: Make things happen when they do not
  9. LESSON 5: Set high standards
  10. LESSON 6: Set a goal – then move heaven and earth to get there
  11. LESSON 7: Beware the riptide
  12. LESSON 8: Find your passion – and pursue it
  13. LESSON 9: Plough back
  14. LESSON 10: Keep your feet on the ground
  15. Parting thoughts