A World Without Colour

2:03 PM / Posted by Daniel C /

There was a goat. There will always be a goat. When I am asked of my earliest memory, there is no instant of hesitation as I knit my brow in the endeavour of attempted recollection. Of my years before acorns were currency and sandpits were castles, I possess only one memory.

The calendar pages have yellowed and fallen, crayons have become pencils have become pens have become keyboards. Now, doubt – that inescapable feeling inhibiting all good memories – begins to tickle my mind. The seesaw balances uneasily; a memory true to experience on the one side, and a reality merely adopted by a mind so desperate to preserve on the other. Memory is the glint of water at the end of a hot desert road. But there was a goat, of this I am sure.

I like to think that my memory is symbolic of my intrinsic connection to the wild-eyed beast. But when rationality kicks in, and my mind fastens the seatbelt of logic once more, I realise the memory is part of something more abstract. It is a window: I sat, perched upon the low stone wall, chubby legs hanging down off the cold ledge as I peered below me into the enclosure. The grass was brown. On the far side of the park, a row of trees shed their leaves, yellow, red and orange, droplets of fire dancing in the wind. Bland buildings rose up behind, row upon row, and a palette of tumultuous grey consumed the heavens above. My father was there. This memory, significant not to a soul in the universe save me, has become a gateway into my own childhood.

Think back to the time of childhood. Moments of pure, raw and unmediated experience are commonplace. There is a sheer fascination in following a thousand-legged shongololo on his meandering journey through greasy braai tongs and a weather-torn pool noodle. Crouched down, knees pressing hard against the hot, red-brick paving and hands spread out – the child is absorbed in this fleeting moment. Fleeting because, if we are to remain free from the white-walled rooms of our nearest insane asylum, we leave that child at the poolside. We become enemies to the imagination. We float away into the future.

But to the child this seemingly ridiculous activity is not only acceptable, it is essential. A child recognises desire not premised on the approval of others, but based on individual pleasure. Every day we are imposed with the expected norms of society, and true personal desire becomes difficult to locate outside the innocence of childhood – the uncontaminated mind. Yet conjuring up the image of innocence becomes harder as time goes by. I sit here, barely two decades of existence at my back, yet already the small wendyhouse in my back yard has lost its colour.

“You have to be like a role model.” The words roll off Sinethemba’s tongue as concrete flows, slow, calm yet assuredly. Recalling his times as an Upstart volunteer, he reclines casually on his side, fingers manipulating the swirling motion of his glass as the liquid sloshes languidly inside, epitomising a Roman senator from the pages of Asterix and Obelix. Then, in stark contrast to his reposed mannerisms, “I was shy when I joined Upstart. I had no legs in English and talking without stop was not my thing.” He sets his glass down – the cracking sound when sand is pressed between plastic and tile fills the silence. “Upstart has opened doors for me, I have got to meet people, and now when I need help those people can help me.” It is difficult to believe that this is the same person who considered himself shy, as he touches on the encouragement of his parents, his determination to use Upstart as a supplement to his schooling career rather than a replacement, and the respect he has subsequently gained.

“Most of my friends are not a part of Upstart, on holiday they just sit in the location doing nothing, some of them even smoke. I encourage them not to smoke… so they think I’m stupid.” A smile touches his lips, oval teeth, exposing tiny gaps at the crowns, gleam white in contrast to his dark skin, “Ya… it can be hard.”

“I love to be well-known”
– Sinethemba Baxana, scholar, role-model, future CEO?

As we grow older we begin to care. It is inevitable as the constant attempt to win the approval of our peers takes up its place in our lives, the first threat to fostering our true desires. But there looms another...

At our graffiti engraved mahogany desks, our surnames take precedence and, in between passing scrawled notes from one sweaty palm to another, we learn of the industrial revolution. In our grand lecture theatres, names reduced to numbers, we scribble notes of its importance, impact and implications. Sitting in our low-walled cubes, pictures of loved ones, smiling cats and birthday cards littering the walls – the workplace decoupage – we find ourselves ingrained within the system.

Steam. The industrial revolution. The rise of industry. These may be revered for their contribution in transforming a world of hardship to one which is enjoyed amidst a pizza box, glass of wine and LG’s latest flatscreen, but they possess a dark side too. We are born into a world geared towards industrial, capitalist, materialist, commercial (take your pick) progress. We enter a paradigm of incessant drive to become part of the system, earn money and take our expected place in society – upon the highest rung possible of the cold corporate ladder.

Money - the dirty and smudged rhinos, elephants stained with urine sweat and germ, the occasional leopard, creased and putrid smelling, our “glorious” Big Five. Money provides access. Access to happiness and this is how it goes: money lets us live our dreams, dreams that are forgotten in our venture for wealth, so we pick some new dreams, and are convinced of happiness. We are encouraged into a sphere of industrial driven knowledge under the guise of securing a place as successful and happy members of society.

Our tie-dye clad, bead-toting friends, sporting dread-locks and brown-cracked toenails – the self-proclaimed spiritually uninhibited – are aficionados of their currency-free lifestyles. But while they purport to live in harmony with all that surrounds them, harbouring nothing but love for the mildly poisonous nettle leaf, the only “toilet paper” around for miles, the rest of us must finds ways of supporting our more conventional lifestyles. I am not looking to blame society for indoctrinating us into a means of living that requires vast amounts of money to supplement a comfortable life. I am merely saying that money plays a relatively essential role in contemporary existence. And contemporary life destroys imagination.

“I interviewed Desmond Tutu.” A drawstring falls loose from Sanele’s blue hoodie as he leans forward describing the momentous event with an air of light-hearted intensity, “I thought, why me out of three hundred or so other Upstart members?” He ponders for an instant, “We made the front page of Grocott’s Mail.” He leans back as he talks, his right arm acting the pillar supporting his slender frame. “For me,” he pauses to smack his lips, “fame and fortune are not my priorities.” then, “School was not boring, but after Upstart I found it more interesting, I became more involved.” His hands, sewing an invisible cloth, aid his gesticulated account of how Upstart has enhanced his life. “I love journalism, I am intrigued when you mention the word, it is one of the things I want to pursue in my tertiary education,” his well-thought answers intensify as his explanations gain momentum and his small eyes squint and light up “Now I can research, I can write an article about something, about anything. I’ve gained a lot of skills.” He shifts his leg and continues, “Sometimes you are in a rush [before an interview] you don’t even have time to research, you have to be very quick. So in class when I don’t understand something, I’ll just ask.” He snaps his fingers for emphasis, smiles and continues, “You just have to be curious.” His slender fingers throw a handful of chips into his confident grinning mouth, but he does not hesitate to acknowledge that there are many who have not been chanced with such opportunity as he has, “Particularly in the previously disadvantaged schools, I find that many of their students are lacking in terms of independence.” The picture of motivation, his collected outlook on life is congruent with the “out of the box” thinking that Upstart has bestowed upon him.

“Journalism is something that I live.”
– Sanele Ntshingana, scholar, journalist, editor at large?

“Every day, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet, and we should tread softly.” Alluding to W. B. Yeats’ own heartfelt sorrow, Sir Ken Robinson, at a TED conference, challenged the dominant mindset of linear education. Education driven in one direction only, leaving little room for what the heart may desire outside of trigonometry and mixing sulphites. He went on, “Human communities depend on a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.” I think he is right, and this is where the dreams of an ambitious, snot-nosed and dirty child become something to think about rather than dismiss without further contemplation:
“What are you doing out there sweetie?”
“Watching the clouds…”
“They’re like a movie, when I grow up I’m gonna be the best cloud reader in the world!”
“Don’t be ridiculous dear, nobody has such a silly job, now come inside before you catch cold.”

Bill Watterson is a true revolutionary. His crude sketches of a young boy and his tiger do not suggest schizophrenia as the safe box of creativity, but rather portray a hyperbolic illustration of the freedom we lose as adults. Calvin epitomises the child of dreams and imagination, manifested most explicitly in his friend Hobbes, the stuffed tiger only ever taking life with mom and dad out of frame. We all have a Calvin lurking somewhere inside, yet very few of us have kept Hobbes.
There are always exceptions, people who have held tight to their dreams, people who have turned left while the rest turned right: The footballer who began his career with a string-bound ball of plastic, a pair of tattered trainers and a dusty street. The artist, who sees but a single customer all week, yet sits contentedly painting her umpteenth sky as seen through the cracked glass of her fifth floor window. But all too often aspirations borne in the years of pre-pubescent bliss are dismissed as being childish. Living in a land of dreams cannot be nurtured and realised in a world where economics, law and commerce rule the roost in isolation.

“I like things.” What begins as a giggle, snowballs into a loud chuckle as Sibusiso’s sparkling eyes pick out her peers and lure them into the gaiety. Her affinity to ‘things’ has given her a drive to embrace every opportunity she receives, and she has subsequently found herself the longest standing Upstart member in her school. “We learn to respect someone, that’s the main thing. When we interview someone, we learn not just to barge in asking for an interview.” She sits back nodding with acknowledgment to what she has just said. A tiny sparkling droplet sits on the lobe of each ear; they shine as her faces looks out, embracing the midday sun in the cloudless afternoon. “My teachers are proud of me, three years later I am still in Upstart, I still appear in the newspaper – they are proud of me.” She drifts away. A small smile exemplifies an attitude of comfort as she props her legs atop those of her adjacent friend. But her seemingly absent presence flies back into the conversation, hands flailing in descriptive dance, “In my previous school nobody knew me, but now, every child in Grahamstown knows Sibusiso Klaas.” her innocent chuckle of pride springs from her mouth again. And again she drifts.
Aside from her sporadically flamboyant personality, minute details suggest the presence of a young individual, from the lip of a green polar-neck sweater hangs an earphone, its thick black cord acts the puppeteer with her every movement. A design, not unlike streaky blue dye runs the length of her jeans, and in her black takkies, colourful laces weave their way down, one orange one blue. The smile hasn’t left her lips.

“I see myself a doctor or a scientist.”
- Sibusiso Klaas, student, socialite, microbiologist?

Sinethemba Baxana, Sanele Ntshingana and Sibusiso Klaas, three members of Upstart, sit and chat. They give their accounts of how the programme has benefited not only themselves but the greater community of schoolchildren involved too. In their mid years of high school, the trio displays an initiative to voice their opinions and a confidence rarely seen in schoolchildren, particularly in a region infamous for its dismal education and poor pass rates – the Eastern Cape. Up to this point I have harped on the tune of nurturing talent and creativity, and it was during my time with these kids that I realised a fundamental truth in what I was trying to discover. Things are not as easy as they seem. With my private school, Waldorf education sitting smartly three lines down my CV, my projections of an ideal system of education are premised largely on my own experiences. I have erroneously overlooked an aspect of education that is essential in its own right, education in the impoverished sectors. But while such a realisation had the potential to turn my argument into a crumpled heap lying next to the waste paper bin, it instead brought new glimmer of hope. These children have had doors opened for them, school exists and it exists strongly too, but they have been given a chance to see new horizons outside of the classroom.

I concede that the ideal of following your dreams to the T is not (yet) plausible in our contemporary society, yet efforts can be made. Our world is experiencing radical change; just the other day I read that the top ten most sought after jobs in 2010 did not exist a decade prior, and that we are currently preparing students for jobs still to be created. Well I see two options in response to this, we can either try to predict the future based on the monotonous jobs of the present, or we can teach a microchip to the boring stuff.

And live.

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