The South African Series

I’m Sorry…You Want to Be WHAT?

Last night I was watching Malcolm X with Marshall, and there was a portion of the movie that I had never recalled seeing. Little Malcolm was sitting in the classroom of his foster home being admonished by one of his teachers.

“Now Malcolm, you’ve written that you want to be a lawyer when you grow up,” the teacher said in measured tones. “You have to come up with something else. You can never be a lawyer.”

“Why not?” moped Malcolm.

“Because you’re a nigger, Malcolm, and a lawyer is not a realistic profession for a nigger.”

“But why sir? I gets the best grades in class,” he said in objection.

“Now Malcolm,” the teacher said sternly. “A nigger just can’t be lawyer. Let’s think of something else. You’re good with your hands! And you’re very personable. People like you. How about a carpenter? A carpenter is a fine profession. Jesus was a carpenter.”

“Yes sir,” sulked Malcolm.

So Malcolm never became a lawyer. He became ‘Malcolm X’. ‘Nuff said.

This scene in the movie brought to mind an assignment that I had given the kids last week. I asked them to write an essay called “My future occupation.” Of course, the majority of them DID NOT, but many of them were happy to talk to me about their future aspirations all the same.

“I want to grow  up and be a maid and clean your house,” said 3 third graders in Xhosa. When this was translated to me I frowned most angrily.

“I can clean my own house!” I shot back. “You people are not going to school to become maids – unless you are opening a business and employing other maids. Now think!”

The alternate answers came slowly. Of course, all the boys wanted to be football players (but not rappers; shocking!), but the girls were a little more creative.

“An actress!”

“A singer!”

“A mistress!”

A mistress? What do you mean by mistress?

“Like you!” the little girl said emphatically.


“Like to stand in front of the class and teach!”

Note to self: Remind self that in South Africa, ‘mistress’ is used as an alternative to ‘teacher’. As in headmistress.

“I want to be a model,” said one teenager confidently.

I looked her over. She was clad in all pink, but outside of the color of her clothing, there was nothing to even suggest she was female. She looked completely androgynous – which I suppose could serve her well in the modeling world.

“I guess you’ll have to learn how to walk the catwalk,” I said warmly. “But you’ll have to stand up straight.”

This particular girl has a bad habit of slouching. She looked at me blankly when I told her she’d have to stand up straight. Upon closer inspection, I realized she was not slouching at all. She had a hunchback.

Now, I didn’t come to South Africa to take a dump on anybody’s parade, but Harper’s Bazaar isn’t going to put androgynous hunchbacks on the cover of their June issue; however if there was ever an audition for Quasimodo – the Untold Story, I’m sure my girl would get a call.

One high school student who actually took the time to write an ‘essay’ (it was 2 paragraphs really), said that she wanted to finish her ‘shcool’ and go to ‘cholage’ to become a teacher. Clearly, we need to work on at least being able to spell where we want to go – that place being ‘college’ after we’ve finished ‘school’.

Of the 15 notebooks I handed out, I got 3 back; and of those 3, only one was deemed excellent. These are very poor numbers, but I wonder if they are reflective of the larger success rate in a township like Qolweni? Is only 1 out of 15 students going to make something of themselves and have a future they can take pride in? God I hope not.

When we were kids, GI Joe, our parents, Nickelodeon and whoever was selling dreams that week used to tell us that we could ‘be all that we could be’ and that we could ‘be anything we wanted’. It appears that someone has sold the same dream to this generation, but without tempering their expectations and providing them with the necessary tools to succeed. (Again: There are NO hunchback supermodels!)

It’s weird. It’s like a perverted version of apartheid all over again, with a sprinkling of narcissism and reverse psychology. And it’s just as tragic as little Malcolm, who had the skill and knowledge, but was denied the opportunity.