This March I had the opportunity to go back to my high school as a writer in residence to give writing workshops and have discussions around feminist issues with the girls there.
In 1997, the then Principal of Epworth, Geraldine Kerton-Johnson, had come to my junior school to tell us about what it was like there. From a fold up chair in a small school on the KZN North Coast I listened to her warm voice tell stories about the school far away in PMB. I came home that day and told my mom I was going to Epworth. There was no way we could afford this unless I got a scholarship, and so I wrote the entrance exams on what I remember to be a cold day, with a lot of nerves. A few months later I got in on an academic scholarship.
In early 1998 my mom and I rocked up to Epworth in our old red Nissan Exa with a boot full of the clothes I’d need and all the things from the very long list of hostel requirements. It would be my first time at a boarding school. I was already wearing my checkered dress and bright red jersey and was shown around the hostel I’d be staying in by the elderly matron, almost my height. She showed me to my tiny room with a curtain as a door, and told me we’d be getting up at 6.10 am, alerted by a bell.
When I had recovered from the shock of that news my mom and I walked around the school a bit. It was beautiful. When she left, she was tearful, but I was so excited to be there.
I spent five years of my life living at Epworth School. That’s the longest I ever lived in one place. In the hostel I made friends with people from all over the country, whose lives were nothing like mine, and yet because we were all in the same place and all teenagers, we all had things in common.
I learnt from teachers who taught with passion and enthusiasm, who encouraged us to ask questions and to listen respectfully to others. I became part of teams and we cheered for each other. We celebrated each other’s successes and we mourned each other’s heartbreaks and hardships. I also learnt to make my bed neatly – such a struggle that my progress in this regard was commented on in my reports by the matron – and I think of my hostel most mornings when I do so.
At Epworth my feminism found its roots and they went deep, not through lesson but through lived experience. There was never a doubt at Epworth that women could do anything, that we were as smart, as talented, as capable as any other person. Epworth taught me that female friendship is one of the most important things you can cultivate in your life. Our school motto was fida humana fortis – faith, compassion, courage.
At Epworth – an incredibly privileged school – I learnt about social injustice and how painful it was that money could shape your opportunities in life. We were encouraged from Grade 8 to participate in social development programmes, to take note of those with less than us, to not just empathise but act. We went out into the world, and tried to make it better.
There were many times during my school career when it was uncertain whether my family was going to be able to pay the outstanding fees that weren’t covered by my scholarship. I learned that you make the most out of the opportunities that you are given, and that when you work hard it helps to open doors that otherwise would have been closed to you.
One year when I was still there our former head girl (Nomalanga Mkhize) came to speak to us during end of year assembly. I was so proud to know her and to hear what she had to say and what she was doing with her life. I always thought – wow, I hope one day I am doing interesting enough stuff that they ask me back to talk. So when I got the email last year to invite me to come it really felt like an honour.
Going back to Epworth felt like going back home.
I left there feeling nourished and inspired. The girls asked me hard questions and weren’t afraid to put up their hand and give their opinion. They were socially aware and were kind to each other even when they disagreed. They listened and spoke with respect, conviction, and courage. In some of the classes I worked with them on writing – for themselves and for their teachers. These pieces of writing were earnest and honest and powerful.
On the Friday, eight brave young women stood up and did slam poetry in front of the whole school. They were incredible, and the screams of support and finger clicks of encouragement gave me goosebumps. These were young women rooting for each other. We need this. The world needs this.
I remember when I was at school that Baz Luhrman ‘Wear Sunscreen‘ video came out, packed full of advice we were too young to receive. I wondered what advice I could offer these young women that I am sure of now, 18 years after I left high school at 18. I realised they probably have more good advice for me. Still, I hope that they keep writing, keep speaking up, keep thinking about injustice, keep supporting each other.
These women weren’t even born when I left high school and yet, they have so much insight and courage and passion. If this is the future generation, we are really really lucky.