I enjoy reading the newspaper. It is one of the little old-fashioned indulgences that I grant myself in this ever-whizzing, beeping, flashing modern world. I like the coarse texture of the paper, the smell of ink, the rustling sound of printed words telling so many stories. As I was flying back to Cape Town from a visit to Port Elizabeth (PE) recently, sipping some lukewarm aeroplane tea with my head buried deep in the crammed columns of The Herald, a particular story caught my eye.
It was a truly sad story indeed.
Make no mistake, sad stories are hardly a surprising feature in any newspaper – one cannot really pick up a sheaf of newsprint without expressly agreeing to being subjected to a broad array of suffering, violence and despair. Newspapers should come with printed disclaimers on their front pages: ‘Warning: Contents May Cause You To Sink Into An Irrevocable and Impenetrably Gloomy State of Depression, Read At Own Risk’. But this tragic story, in the midst of so many others, wounded something within me; its account of pointless devastation and irrational damage caused me to feel acute pain.
The story goes as follows. At the cowardly hour of 3am on the 26th of November, nameless vandals set ablaze a small primary school situated in one of the most impoverished areas of PE. Did their faces light up with laughter in the reflected red glow of the blaze? Did it give them a sense of triumph to know that they had the power to reduce four classrooms, including a science laboratory, to a blackened, smouldering shell?
|Some of the books that were destroyed in the blaze|
In the wake of this senseless destruction, textbooks, exercise books and stationery to the value of R200,000 (over $13,000) were reduced to a smouldering wreckage; where before desks stood, blackboards gleamed and books were stacked neatly on shelves, only smoke-tinged emptiness remains. Even the tools of a volunteer, who had been diligently and generously giving of his time to build a library for the school, were burnt beyond repair.
The cruel irony is that the new textbooks had only been delivered the previous day. Undoubtedly, each volume had been carefully unpacked and stored with pride, awaiting the year to come, awaiting a future that was so abruptly turned to ash. All of the lessons that these books could have imparted went up in flames, all of the knowledge and learning that they could have provided are lost now. The power of these textbooks to educate, to uplift and to inspire is now just the soot of what could have been.
It was this particular paragraph in the newspaper article that devastated me the most:
Shattered principal Tyrone Johannes, who was still in the pyjama pants he had been wearing when he rushed to the school at about 5am, said the school had no funds to replace the books or repair the damage.
He said Bayview Primary relied solely on the Department of Education for its funding.
“I feel like I have lost a child. That is truly how it feels,” he said.
“I have been here for 17 years now. Other principals have been visiting me and some have been sending messages of support, but it really feels like someone has died.
“Right now my main concern is the children. I must prepare to tell them that there are no books. Nothing is left.”
The world is full of catastrophes. The world is full of stories that are much ‘worse’, of horrors that are far ‘greater’ than a few burning classrooms, annihilated books and a lone man’s aching sense of loss.
Look at Paris, some will cry. Look at Syria, look at Mali, look at Lebanon, look at Kenya, look at Afghanistan, look at Iraq. They will wag their fingers and suggest that this is not a sad story worth caring about, it is not horrendous enough to warrant notice.
There is an unending string of places that are hurting, places where the pain has become too much to bear, places where the suffering seems to know no end. But why should the scale and gravity of our planet’s innumerable crises numb us to the smaller losses, the seemingly ‘normal’ acts of destruction and anger? Is the extent of human madness so great that we can afford to meet lesser acts of insanity with a casual shrug of the shoulder and a turning of the page?
As ordinary individuals, we lack the capacity to heal each place where there is a wound, we cannot even pretend to know every scar that blights the flesh of this planet. But we need not become paralysed by the vastness of the agony – we can still bring relief to the immediate injuries that cross our paths. We can make the deliberate choice to not become so anaesthetised by all the suffering that we fail to recognise heartache that we have the power to soothe, even if only by a single word or tiny act of generousity.
We should, however, guard against helping others merely to feel better about ourselves, in the hope that in doing so we may dim from view our many failings. We should not waste our time embarking on a superficial charade of ‘charitable deeds’ with the sole aim of achieving the hallowed status of the ‘good’ and the ‘kindhearted’. Above all, we should not pretend to care, as this is the gravest form of disrespect.
Should our caring actions only aim to glorify our own self-image, perhaps we should rather do nothing and be sincere in our apathy. There can be no dishonour in apathetic sincerity but there is deceit in false kindness.
If we choose to act, we should do so because we have taken responsibility. We should only do so once we have come to terms with this uncomfortable truth: the change that we are so desperate to witness on a vast scale can only occur when there is a change at the level of our individual hearts and minds.
We cannot control the infinite calamities that fill our newspapers every day, but we have absolute power to alter our perceptions individually and to make conscious choices about the manner in which we interact with every person we encounter.
The opportunity to help and to make a difference is not in found only in Paris, Syria, Iraq, the Middle East or any other war-ravaged, disease-stricken, impoverished part of the globe. The opportunity to be a force for good is in your home, it is in your family, your office, your neighbourhood, your town, your country. The good that you can do every day need not be grand for it to be great.
Is it not possible that we aid the spread of humanity’s disease with every thought of blame, attack, hatred, judgment, fear or anger that we harbour? By taking ownership of the unhealed aspects of our own lives, surely we can bring about a gradual cure to the pandemic of hatred we bear witness to every day? By simply treating others with kindness and respect, you are choosing to be a part of the antidote, instead of simply trying to ignore the sickness.
Unlike international conflicts that we cannot alter or battles that we have no ways of ending, the commitment that we can make to regaining control over our own thoughts is a victory that is ours to be won. By examining our own capacity to judge or to condemn and thereby turning our gaze inwards as opposed to merely finding someone else to blame, we can seek to ensure that what we find within ourselves promotes the peace and tolerance that we claim to be seeking in our world.
I have no doubt that the vandals who torched that school and set those books on fire had never had the joy of an education. I am certain that they do not know the quiet pride of learning, the humble satisfaction of expanding one’s mind. One cannot destroy with such heartlessness that which one has truly loved – had they been taught to cherish and value the gift of learning, they would have been incapable of their arsonist’s attack.
We cannot undo the damage of their ignorance completely; we cannot put out the destruction wrought by their flames. But we can show support to this school, its Principal and its children, children who need to be taught a lesson far greater than anything written in a textbook: compassion, empathy and courage can and will outshine even the darkest of circumstances. We have the opportunity to remind them that hope can still burn bright, instead of relegating their loss to suffer the fate of every other newspaper story that briefly captures our attention before subsiding from our thoughts.
By choosing to assist in the alleviation of ‘just another sad story’, perhaps we can replace the devastation with empathy, the loss with new hope and take a small step towards rewriting the endings of the stories that fill our newspapers.
If you would like to assist in some manner, please contact The Herald in Port Elizabeth (+27 41 504 7324), they are leading the initiative help Bayview Primary find a way to emerge from these ashes stronger than ever before. Here are the articles about the incident http://www.heraldlive.co.za/fire-havoc-pe-school/, http://www.heraldlive.co.za/?s=bayview&x=0&y=0, http://www.heraldlive.co.za/author-just-one-many-wanting-help-pupils-devastating-fire/).
I will be delivering 200 copies of Miranda The Polkadot Panda to the school and have pledged to donate 100% of the proceeds of any books that I sell to PE residents as part of a campaign I’m calling #burnbright. I have broadened this pledge to include all book sales for the month of December, until I reach my goal of donating the proceeds of 500 books. If you are looking for a Christmas present that will in turn be a gift to the children of this school, please contact email@example.com. Miranda The Polkadot Panda retails at R150.00 and is a dotty adventure for the young and the young at heart! Order your copy today and help the children of Bayview Primary to #burnbright.
Believe with your heart
Believe with all your might
Whatever you do, you have to burn bright
People may try to put your flame out
Life might cause you to flicker with doubt
But never, never dim your light
Keep it shining, let it burn bright
If sly shadows come creeping dangerously near
Don't let them turn your joy into fear
Keep your heart burning bravely
Keep your heart burning bright
For there is no darkness dark enough
To ever put out your light
When it seems as though only sadness and smouldering defeat remain -
Wait, look more closely. Wait, look again.
Even when all seems to have burnt to the ground
With nothing left and nothing to be found
Your courage can kindle an inferno most great
An inferno that consumes all sorrow and hate
For buried in the choking gloom of despair
Tiny embers of hope still linger there
Despite that what remains like dead smoke and ashes seems
Let these coals catch alight, breathe life with your dreams
Set the sky ablaze with boldness that burns deep within
Let it burn proudly
Let that fire win
That is the fire of all that you can be
It's radiance everyone shall someday see
For although you may now carry it quietly inside
It blazes with a brilliance that is too powerful to hide
For this fire within you is fire that shines
It is fire more precious than all the gold in the mines
It is fire that burns with what is good and what is true
It is your fire and it makes you YOU
Your spark is unique and the world needs your glow
So don't ever be afraid to let your light show
For when you believe with your heart
When you believe with all your might
You are at your greatest, you are burning bright
- Ani Mallover