The emotional school fees we pay

How would I describe my first experience at one of the most prestigious schools in the country? Complex. An experience some of us are still battling within ourselves.

It was my parents’ dream to give me a better life than they did; a life free from the hardships they endured. No matter what we went through as a family, my brother and my education was never taken off the table.

I am grateful for the doors their sacrifice opened for me. It would be an inaccurate depiction of my schooling career if I did not mention the standard of education I received. It was stellar. It made my entry to university academics swift. I did not feel the jump, if I’m honest. 

But this isn’t about my academic preparedness; this is about my emotional preparedness.

Years later, I carry this legacy of prestige with internal bittersweetness. I’ve gotten interviews with great companies, public recognition, and “different treatment” when their name is read but I’m quickly overcome with an unpalatable sensation that makes me feel like a fraud. How can I smile and fondly acknowledge my attendance when my most vulnerable years were terribly painful? 

I still feel a deep sense of betrayal when I give in to the pain I felt during my time because I know what a privilege it was to go there – evidence of my indoctrinated and indebted silence.

But now is the time for truth. 

It’s been a wondrous time observing our lives change in real time. People of colour country-wide with the most respected almae matres are speaking out for the first time about their experiences of institutionalised racism and discrimination. It has been a powerful unfolding.

It is further proof that we have generations of damaged adults due to a system that wasn’t designed for our inclusion. We go through many traumas in life that contribute to our damage, but I don’t believe school should be one of them. This is where we should feel safe. 

But that was not my experience.

I remember my first day of Grade 8 like it was yesterday. I arrived at school much earlier than most and I stood outside my classroom door eagerly waiting. I recognised many girls from the orientation day the day prior but a lot of them just walked past me as if we’d never met. Uncomfortable and awkward, I stood in my new school uniform. Newness everywhere. Most of all, new people. Most of whom looked nothing like me.

It really confused me. I remember my 12-year-old self begin to feel overwhelmed by the realisation that I was all alone. Everything became a blur and the tears began to well without my consent. 

Not a single person stopped despite the tears rolling down my face. Girls and teachers alike walked past me and stared. Some giggled.

The landscape was nothing I had experienced before. The school was monstrous and I immediately felt little.

It set the scene for my five years to come

My upbringing was an eclectic mix of progression and traditional culture. While my mother listened to Tchaikovsky as she cleaned on Saturday mornings, I still grew up much like every other ordinary Indian Hindu child. I spent weekends with my cousins and grandparents; my extended family was big and loud and when we had family gatherings, it went on all night until the uncles had drank too much and brought out the guitars to sing. We religiously fasted on Mondays and we ate with our hands. There was always an abundance of food no matter our financial state. I went to the temple on certain auspicious occasions. Overall, I grew up loving being a South African of Indian descent.

For this reason, the environmental shift created a discomfort in identity in me when I joined this school and it was difficult to adjust. I quickly began feeling ashamed of my lunches and asked my mother to not pack certain things for me. My red Luxmi string was constantly found to be offensive (which was a shock as I attended a private Catholic school for primary and it was never a problem there) and my refusal to remove it landed me in a string of detentions with repeated targeting from teachers.

My five years at the school was a slow progression of erasure that I continuously fought and it made me become an angry teenager. Whenever I stopped fighting, which was usually due to being exhausted, I was lauded by certain teachers for “getting there”. I still don’t know what that means,

And then the bullying.

The bullying I experienced is still hard to write about to this day. But the thing I take away most is that I had no one to take my bullying to during those years. I felt that no teacher truly wanted to know me, outside of my academics.

I feel that this deepened my inner silence and made me believe I had nowhere to turn.

I reached a point of ultimate loneliness in my matric year, after a break up. With the bullying becoming increasingly harder to deal with, I attempted suicide.

Unconscious bias

As teenagers do, the “Indian block” got into teenage fights but there was never enough personal attentiveness towards us to notice the discord. There was no teacher who could teach us togetherness, who understood our culture, who could have helped us rehabilitate our hard experiences together.

Maybe then the bullies and the bullied would both have come out less damaged.

I thought that’s what a girls’ school experience would be like. (I grew up reading a lot of Enid Blyton, so I was truly disillusioned!) Simple things like being noisy in class were met with, “Keep it down, you vervet monkeys!” as opposed to, “Shush!” There is a distinct difference.

And those differences sit within you for a long time. It breeds self-confidence issues, anger, and anxiety. Many children of colour grew up to be adults with mental health issues, me included. We have to wonder why. During these formative years, many of us lived a double life.

The issue with systemic racism is that it creeps up on you. Before you know it, you begin to redefine the concept of “better”: the idea that the better girl is one who is poised, slim, and agreeable; whose hair “fits in” neatly, whose accent is “neutral”; whose skin colour doesn’t pop out too much; and who knows how to take a “joke” instead of getting upset.

On a subconscious level, our worth becomes deeply affected because when we leave the school grounds and go back to our families – we cannot be all of those things. And this creates a disconnected experience during your most impressionable years. 

The burden of first generation people of colour in an environment that does not echo your race, culture, and religion is that we carry a subconscious disconnect in our identities for many more years than we experience the environment. In essence, we pay more school fees.

We are taught that in order to be the “acceptable” young women, we are to shed everything we come from in favour of something we truly can never become – white.

Maybe teachers didn’t realise that black and brown girls needed more than academic assistance? Maybe they themselves couldn’t identify with us? This is the part we need to undo.

I see an invisible guilt hanging over many brown heads these days and I don’t want us to exist in that repressed indoctrination. Ask yourself: Why did you overlook your name being mispronounced? And were the additional school fees worth it because you were gaining a proximity to whiteness?

As an Indian South African, I believe that in exchange for the access we gained to these prestigious institutions we reintroduced our an internal casteism through identity separation. We were essentially “moving up” in “class” and it became intrinsically tied to our worth.

It’s taken me 15 years to wade through these memories and find an assemblance of myself; to embrace my culture entirely again with all of its idiosyncrasies. Most of all, to consciously decolonise myself.

It is a journey that makes my inner child deeply uncomfortable but it makes my heart more satisfied so I chose to go with that.

I urge every person of colour to examine themselves and look at their internalised racism. Look at what a colonised environment has turned you into. How do you subconsciously define “better”?

  • Do you think distinct “ethnic” accents are unfavourable?
  • Do you avoid eating with your hands around non-people of colour?
  • Do you prefer travelling to the west instead of to the east or within Africa?

The greatest part is that you don’t have to disregard the things you favour – it’s simply an acknowledgment of why you favour them.

I don’t intend to stop reading Jane Austen. But I do intend to read more Lesego Rampolokeng. Because the world I grew up in didn’t cater to that and it’s my job to decolonise my mind. So that my bridge between identity, history, and culture is realigned.

What can we do?

It’s encouraging that these schools have started to take our words seriously. It has been a long time coming, but there is never a “right time” for transformation. Injustice is like a pressure cooker. It’s only a matter of time before the pressure becomes destructive if not released. And it happened now due to the bravery of many a young person. We must support that. Historically, student protests have been the catalysts for change the world over.

For me, it begins in acknowledging the truth of our history in this country and in these establishments: Colonisation and the impacts thereof. It cannot be erased or sweetened to be palatable because it was not. It was violent.

The beauty of transformation is taking into consideration evolving social contexts without discarding history.

Know that these elite schools who intend to transform require assistance from people of colour, which is what we all should be putting up our hands to do.

This time, we have the opportunity to band together to ensure that the children who receive these world-class opportunities walk out with a truly holistic, current world view entrenched in an anti-racist, anti-discriminatory education.

This will embed the emotional preparedness of our future leaders. This will create more mindful, conscious leaders in the next generation.

Most of all, this will make sure we all pay the same emotional school fees.