Do you ever look back? Look back and remember those faces and places of your past? I look back and often realize that there were people in my past that don’t realize how much I learned from them. Or how much they meant to me. It’s not that I miss them. Or that we left on bad terms. People I worked with and people I was friends with or I met at school. It just fizzled out. No harm done and no bad feelings. But I do wish I can go back in time and tell them what amazing people they were/are. That I liked them then because they made a difference even though they might never have known. Even though I didn’t always know it at the time. We don’t always stop to tell people that. It’s not bad. It’s just life. But I do wish I could reach back and tell them I loved them (or at least liked them), that they were cool and that I still think of them even though I have lost touch with them.
There are too many people I would like to reach back to. And for the sake of a happy marriage, I’ll leave all my ex girlfriends out of this! (“How you doing?” – in my best Joey voice.) Life’s been an education. Some people played big parts with short sentences. Let me tell you about one such short sentence…
I’ve said before that my path has been an education. I wasn’t born to be this way. From a racist family to fighting on the side of justice. But it wasn’t that much of a journey. It has been no more complex than an amoeba really. Once you set the path you can’t turn around. It’s just a ride. But I really didn’t have a “moment” that made me “see the light”. It was little things. One sentence stands out though. The first time I realized there might be another story out there that I haven’t been told.
It was just a passing comment. Almost a whisper. I don’t think the person who said it realized what they were doing. I would like to think they did, but it was just a comment. Thrown my direction and then they walked on. Or told me to keep on walking.
He was my history teacher. And he was a short little shit. Funny as hell. Always walked around with a little cane ready to give you one on the backside or on your hands. Mister U.E. Grant. I still have no idea what the hell U or E stood for. Anyway… He was always walking around throwing questions at us. Left, right and centre. I loved it. I wasn’t a great student, but I loved history. The stories of those who won. The battles. And the lessons. Where we came from. And how we landed up where we were back then.
Actually, it was the last one that wasn’t answered in our history classes. You weren’t told of the ANC. Or of Nelson Mandela. Or the oppression of my fellow South Africans. They were not only banned from the country, they were also banned from our books. So we were taught this history of the brave Afrikaners. Half of it was over-glorifying what they achieved and the other half was just plain bullshit. But I didn’t know. I just saw it in the books. And books don’t lie, do they?
I can’t even remember what we were being taught on that day. Something about South African history – maybe a story of some brave Afrikaner fighting the British masters. Maybe the Bezuidenhout brothers fighting at Slagtersnek (Slaughters Hill). I was so into that. Frederik Bezuidenhout fighting the English masters and standing up for the Afrikaner. Or at least that was what was written in our history books…
No one told us that the language Afrikaans wasn’t even established or spoken yet. Or that the concept Afrikaner wasn’t even close to being a seed to be planted yet. Or that this “Afrikaner” hero was actually married to a Xhosa woman. White wasn’t as white as they told us. Oh, they did say that he actually got his ass kicked by the English – killed in the hills. Anyway…
I thought he was a hero back then. Now I know he was, but not for the reasons that the Apartheid government told us. But because what old U.E. told me.
As always, I was late in getting my bag packed for the next class. The rest of the class was already on their way out. I grabbed my bag and headed for the door. And U.E. looked up from his desk and shouted, “Mister C! Come here for a minute.” (Meneer C, kom gou hier.)
And then he said it…
“There is another history of South Africa that you won’t find on the pages of these books.”
Just that. Nothing more. No further explaining or advice or anything. Just that simple one line. Actually, it was more like this:
“Daar is ‘n ander geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika wat jy nie in die bladsye van hierdie boeke sal vind nie.”
But I thought I should translate it for you…
I looked at him and wanted to ask him what he meant, but he just shook his head and told me to get going. That was it. Nothing more. Just that one sentence. Make no mistake, I don’t think he was a liberal by any stretch of the imagination. My school was as conservative and right wing as you can get in Apartheid South Africa – and proudly so. But he still said it. I still don’t have a clue why he did it. But he did. And it never left me from that minute on. It still lives with me today. Never forget history, not even while we are busy making it today.
I would love to think that he somehow knew I liked questioning things. I was already known at school for poking fun at politicians. But I knew nothing about real politics. Oh, I asked questions in class – trying to find out more. But I had no political knowledge or understanding or any liberal leanings. Nada. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Really.
Maybe he liked the fact that I was willing to stand up for things when I saw an injustice. Whether it was a kid being bullied or just helping a newbie. Or the time I made everyone cut their hair off (a number 1 cut) because I thought the hair rules were stupid. My hair was way short and I kept on failing hair inspection every single Monday. So I got (read “forced”) everyone at the hostel to get a number 1 cut – administered by myself. Of course I was called to the office of the headmaster the next day… And Mr Grant was there as well. The headmaster looked at me and asked if I had anything to say. I was about to say something when Mr Grant (standing behind the headmaster) just made a silent “shh” sound with his mouth and shook his head for me to be quiet. I kept my mouth shut – Yeah, that was something new for me as well! But I was lucky, the headmaster was going to kick me out of school if I opened my mouth that day. I broke so many rules in one go. Oh, apart from cutting their hair myself and a few other things, I also managed to cut the hair shorter than what was allowed under the rules…
Yes, maybe Mr Grant saw something. I hope he did. I didn’t. But he planted a seed that has steadily grown over these years.
Those words stuck though. I kept on digging deeper and deeper to try and find more answers. Nothing in the library. Nothing at home. My friends knew nothing. No one was telling me. But I kept on digging. And I kept on asking. And slowly but surely the answers started coming. That’s a story for another day. You know, my digging and finding a few answers along the way. But I am still digging. Still looking. All thanks to Mr U.E. Grant. Whether he meant it or not – He helped start this journey. So go and blame him!
Thank you Mr U.E. Grant.
I don’t think he’ll remember me. But I’ll never forget him. Because I’ve never stopped looking. Have you?