This week the Western Cape public schooling system welcomed back around one million children of school going age. The first week is normally a frenetic one despite the many campaigns to make sure we do not have late registrations, unplaced children, textbooks in place and so on. Invariably, we have a few crises moments. 2015 was no different.
But all is not gloom and doom. We do have fairly sophisticated systems that allow us to plan for the commencement of the schooling year and these work well. No system is perfect so we manage the issues that pop up. The really exciting aspect of the new intake of learners and the commencement of the academic year is the requirement that we visit schools to check whether institutions are teaching from day one. This series of visits always allow us to go on a walkabout within the school being visited. I always enjoy seeing the fresh faces of the Grade 1 learners at primary schools and the Grade 8s at high schools. You can almost taste the expectancy, the anxiety and the nervous energy in these children as they explore their new surroundings. And they wear crisp clothing, with seams that are perfectly ironed and socks as white as Nordic snow. They are manicured to perfection. Lunch-boxes carry an array of eats and school bags have no graffiti. And the buzz around them is electrifying.
One of my first visits this year was to a new primary school in our district. I love our new school buildings; they have a 21st century feel to them and the architectural design is modern in every respect. And much thought goes into the landscaping and open spaces. This school building didn't disappoint despite contractors still applying finishing touches.
After the morning assembly, I did the walkabout. And then she caught my eye. She was a beautiful sight in every respect, wearing a brand new uniform, white socks, shiny black shoes and short braids. Standing at the door of her classroom, she was crying her heart out. Nothing quite pulls at an adult's heartstrings than a young child weeping in a way that something terrible has happened. I moved quickly towards her and asked what the problem was. She tried hard to compose herself and through her tears said, "I am so hungry!" It was 08:30 on the first morning of the school year. She didn't have breakfast before coming to school.
My colleagues responded quickly. We ushered her away and organized some sandwiches for her to eat. There was an uneasy silence and then it dawned on us to never forget that many of our families live on the poverty line or below it. This child was well dressed but she couldn't function without food. We surveyed the whole school and all the children were externally ready for school. This we could easily gauge but we had no idea how many of them received adequate nutrition to function once they arrived at school.
All our children have huge potential to excel cognitively in the right circumstances. These circumstances include going to a good school where they are taught by good teachers, receive good resources and have good multi-layered exposures and are surrounded by safe infrastructure. The reality though is that all this counts for nothing if our children come to school hungry. Without adequate nutrition they simply can't function. This little girl was a stark reminder this week that unlocking her talent starts with addressing her most basic need; something to eat daily.