I woke up earlier than usual this morning in order to meet Lee’s new found “guardian” to pick her up and take her to the school that Lee attended last year (the school where I teach). I wouldn’t have forgotten my promise to “help” because Lee had been on my mind the entire weekend after our meeting on Friday, but had I forgotten about my engagement with his “auntie” this morning, I would have been reminded by her call last night, “making sure we were still on”, and then her call again this morning, “just wanting to make sure that I was still coming”. This was encouraging to me. I could feel her sense of urgency and genuine concern for Lee. When I arrived at her house she was eagerly waiting for me. We drove to the school.
When we arrived at the school the principal was busy in a meeting and so we were informed by the secretary we would have to wait about thirty minutes for him. Lee’s auntie did not seem phased by this. In the meantime, I took her into the secretary’s office and introduced them to each other. Lee’s auntie then sat down in the chair across from the secretary’s desk and began to spill out her story with a gush of emotion. I just sat there and watched as she explained to the secretary how when her daughter had first brought Lee to her house and asked if he could stay with them, she immediately rejected the request without blinking. She said that Lee began to cry and ran off, and her daughter chased after him, probably making some teenage-like comment to her mother as she ran away, chasing after Lee.
Lee’s auntie’s eyes began to fill up with tears. “Then it became late, and my daughter had still not returned home so I went up to main road to look for her... where she said Lee had been staying…” The dam blocking her tear filled eyes broke and tears began to stream down her face, “When I got up to main road I saw her standing beside an old broken down BMW. I walked up to it and looked inside and saw Lee. He had his shirt pulled over his knees and was curled up in a ball. My daughter said, ‘Look where he is living mom!’ and it was at that moment that I realized I could not allow a child to live in that situation, even if he was not my own child.” Her tears streamed down heavier as she told the rest of the story of how she took in Lee, how his drunk grandmother had visited her house and the only interest she showed in Lee was to swear at him profusely and then left again, and how she wanted so badly for him to get back in school. My heart broke for her.
Before long the principal got out of his meeting and we met with him in his office. Lee’s auntie had hoped he would change his mind about refusing to enroll Lee at his school, but he did not. He explained that he has a whole school of students to think about and teachers that would be very unhappy at Lee’s return to school. But he did show a true concern about Lee and said that he wanted to help in any way he could to get Lee placed in another school. I felt caught in the middle because I fully understood his side and reasoning for not wanting to take Lee back, but I could also see the heartbreak in the Auntie because she has seen a “new Lee” and was not as familiar with the one that the principal and I spoke of in that meeting. I could see the Principal’s frustration with the “system” as he explained that he has been having literal nightmares about this situation.
He asked if there was nothing that could be done in holding Lee’s parents accountable. He asked it, knowing the answer: it would be a long road with social services that would probably be in vain. The Auntie also informed us that the new school had said they would only take Lee based on his report from last year. I knew that his report was far from something they would accept. I asked the Principal what the possibility was of the new school accepting him in order to do grade five over again. The principal informed me that last year was, in fact, Lee's second time to do grade five and they are forced to push up a student, no matter what, if they are more than two years behind the grade they are supposed to be in. That is when I once again noticed how policies are failing our children and are also not being holistically implemented on the ground level.
Though this “push them up” rule is true, and occurs way too frequently, often producing children in high school who are completely illiterate, I also know that the South African School Act of 1996 states that a parent that does not see that his or her child is going to school can be prosecuted. I can see how the latter policy could come in handy in meeting the principal’s request to “hold the parents” accountable, but I know the reality of the situation is that would never happen. So we all walked out of the meeting not feeling much more positive about the situation. The principal remains haunted by the fact that he is caught between what is “right” for his other students and for his staff, and what is “right” for Lee, Lee’s auntie feels disempowered to help this child that she has now taken into her care and cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I can’t help but feel a little apathetic. Because I know the system, I have seen it mess many-a-kid over, and I can see where this story is headed. However, Lee’s life cannot be changed by apathy, and I will continue to hope, and do whatever I can to try and see positive change come in his life. He deserves a break!