This time was different. We have morning meeting every day beginning at around 7:45. When learners arrive after it has started, they take a slightly longer way around the Foundation Phase block and file to the back of the line with the rest of their class. Yesterday a learner showed up only moments before the "going to class song" begun, in which each line for each grade marches off to their respective classrooms. This learner's eyes were so swollen I don't know how he could see what was in front of him. The song is being sung by the other grades, because all of his classmates in Grade 3 and the surrounding lines are too busy pointing and laughing at this one kid. He shuffled to his classroom and tried to hide his face by looking at the ground, but a mob formed and the laughter overpowered the voices of the Grade 6 and 7 singers. I felt sick to my stomach.
After invigilating (SA English for "proctoring") the Maths common paper exam, I went to the Grade 3 teachers and asked about this learner. "What happened to the one learner with the very swollen eyes?" I asked them. After a moment of hesitation I'm told that, "he fell." "He fell. …really?" I ask with doubt in my voice. "Yes. We sent him home. He is probably at the clinic now. He was climbing a tree and fell from it." Things I wanted to say: "Yeah. He fell from a tree. And landed only on his eyes," as well as 'I fell' or 'I walked into a door' are two of the most used excuses in domestic abuse incidents. But of course I didn't say these things, and instead felt helpless and heartbroken for the rest of the day.
This is not the first time I've seen learners show up at school with signs of aggression and violence leftover on their faces. I've seen some black eyes, some fat lips, and some scabs and cuts from God knows what. I have yet to see a learner (or a South African in general) who does not have a visible scar on their body. I obviously come from a place where this kind of behavior would land someone in prison, but I still can't fathom how a parent or a teacher could do this to a child and not feel sick with their actions. This behavior and acceptance of the behavior is the biggest and most difficult cultural difference for me thus far, and I can't think of any example that I will see that hurts more.
When talking with my counterpart about corporal punishment a week or so ago, he said that the Bible justifies hitting children. "It gets the confusion and badness out of them," he explained. Bull shit. This is just another example of my reasons for my intolerance for the Bible and religion, but that is an entirely different story. He says he won't hit children, but still justified it. I'm confused.
Yesterday after I invigilated the exam, I returned to the Grade 7A classroom where I spend most of my time and leave all my stuff. I found two sticks on my desk. I snapped them into three pieces each and loudly slammed them into the dustbin behind the door. A few kids looked at me in disbelief. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I will never, can never, hit a child. With a stick, with my hand, with anything. One of Peace Corps' three main points is sharing American culture with our host country and the people we spend our days with. I know that I can't change the entire system of education and discipline here, both of which frustrate me more than words can express. But I do want to show the teachers and learners at my school that learners can be disciplined without force and brutality and still turn out fine. I am an example of that. My country is an example of that. And if I can get through to a small fraction of the population through the individuals at my school, I will feel like I have achieved something really meaningful.