Category Archives: South Africa

Sheila – Woman on a Mission

We went to Lelapa Restaurant in Langa township tonight. This is not your ordinary place to drop by on a random evening. Arrangements must be made, plans put in motion in advance. The restaurant is located in Langa township. It takes a small army to keep it safe, to monitor the cars outside, to prepare the meals, to supply the music, to provide a South African dining experience.

The restaurant’s owner, Sheila, has a life story that would make most of our lives look flat. She came from the townships, learned how to be an entrepreneur on her own and over the past 40 years has established herself and her restaurant in her community as a thriving business.
Her home, the restaurant, has gone through many renovations, including growing in size, having the walls redone, concrete floor poured, and being wired for electricity. It is hard to even fathom the amount of energy it took her to raise that much money in order to keep growing and sustaining her ventures. This transformation started over 40 years ago.
Working as a housecleaner, one day she discovered a receipt laying on the table for R39.96 (~$4). The receipt was merely to purchase wine and cheese, yet was the equivalent of her weekly pay.
As she stated, “At that moment, I realized I was being valued the same as wine and cheese. I was not okay with this.”
Her story weaves the tale of a woman balancing two jobs, night school, finding imbalance and the need for change, making her own way, becoming a business owner – traveling to Bangkok, Thailand to purchase goods and selling them back in South Africa. After numerous trips like this, she was earning enough to keep growing the home’s capacities. Sheila did all of this in the middle of social upheaval and political unrest.
The life story continued, and as she spoke, weaving in dry humor and life observations, I realized behind the food and community and home renovations was a woman of steel and an all-too-relevant life lesson. Her persistence and work ethic enabled her to build the life she wanted. Nowadays we all are facing hurdles and obstacles from all directions. Teacher morale has been shaken and some teachers are not sure how to move forward in the face of such seemingly unsurmountable adversity. The lesson is this… if Sheila can build this fantastic space and community cornerstone out of nothing but her intrinsic drive and hard work, we can make a choice to not let the obstacles in education define or steer us. We can rise above.

An overdue letter

Realizing this blog is professional in nature, the following post comes during a time while I am experiencing a multitude of new endeavors and people. While away, a few things from home reached me and significantly pulled at my heartstrings. I am a firm believer in signs, cause-and-effect, and how one event can trigger a ripple effect. For a couple of years now I have been meaning to write a thank you note to my parents. And, as always, something else came up – I got distracted – and the letter went unwritten.

As I sit 8,000+ miles away, a few text messages arrived that shook me. Knowing I have missed a multitude of inspired moments, this letter is lacking in many ways, but the time is now. It must get written.*

Dear Mom and Dad,

As I fly around with the day-to-day, I find myself in moments thinking “if it weren’t for my parents, this would have never happened.” “If it weren’t for their consistent expectation of this [insert one of many family values], I would not have been helpful in this situation.” “If they didn’t take the time to teach me this [insert any number of life and social skills], I would have been lost.”

And since I have had so many of these thoughts… and I mean consistently am so grateful to have you as my parents, I am starting to think you may feel under appreciated – mainly because I really have not sat down written a lengthy thank-you note. And while small thank-you’s here and there are nice, I don’t think it encapsulates my gratitude.

Dad, growing up under your guidance was a struggle. We both have laughed over this in the past decade or so, but the high expectations and the voice of “you can always do better” was hard. Sometimes really hard. Thank you. Thank you for making it tough to meet those expectations. Thank you for making me edit and revise. Thank you for catching for me when we both knew I needed to pitch… for reminding me of what it takes to reach greatness… for giving me your honest opinion, even when we clashed heads.

With all that seriousness about work, you also taught me how to laugh at myself. Dad, living with you meant having to be on guard for whatever jokes may fly. It meant my stomach might hurt after dinner, not from eating, but from laughing. It meant that I would need to grow a thick skin in order to survive just growing up in the house. 🙂

This past year as I was teaching Book Thief to my freshmen, I was reading aloud the part about Michael. For the first time – in front of 30 adolescents – I felt like I was seeing through your eyes maybe just a little bit of what it’s like to be you, a Vietnam veteran. I was so sure that this is what you must have been thinking, as friends have passed, that I was crying as I was reading to the class. Literally, tears running, and I had to stop and explain to them what was happening in my head. I’m not sure if it meant anything to them, but it was a profound moment for me. I only had this moment because you shared with me over time how you had been feeling and what happened in Vietnam. I carry these talks, lessons, and shared experiences with me – please know this. They are never lost. And while you may have found peace over the past several years, I am your child, and as observant as children are, have watched you struggle at different stages in life and have watched you try to make sense of the world. Thank you for modeling that patience and understanding that we may not always have the answers right when we need them. It has been invaluable.

Mom, I am quite certain you may not ascertain how highly I think of you. I am a tough daughter. I get it. We get on each other’s nerves at times. But I also think we flow very well when we are clicking. But there is so much I have not said, that even this modicum of gratitude will only scrape the surface.

Watching your face as I said that I was heading to South Africa, it looked as if you may not have fully approved. And for a moment I was caught with a sudden dissonance. I couldn’t understand why, but after several days now, it is clear. I didn’t understand why you would’t want me to go – you have brought me up to try new things, to reach outside my comfort zone, to break barriers, and to keep learning and sharing. Some of the very reasons I wanted, no – needed, to go on this trip. We both are aware of when people fall into “bubbles” in society and how the lenses we see through can get foggy. Growing up, you consistently took us outside the bubble and have us extend ourselves beyond the local neighborhood. Part of why I am on this trip is to continue to learn the lessons you began way back when, and in turn bring those back to my kids – both my children and my students. And this is the same as you have done for years for your kids – both your children and your students. You modeled being a great teacher, learner, and sharer.

As an independent child, I have very bluntly at times let you know that I didn’t want any “talks” or “lessons.” And, instead of fighting me on this growing up, you developed a very refined way of working the conversations in different opportune times. I never have articulated that I noticed what you were doing, and often challenged you all the more, but you were good – really good. You kept your patience, and still managed to parent even the most obstinant of children. Years later, here I sit – as a teacher and as a mom, and find myself looking at mirror personalities of that same independent child. Oh, how, I know what I put you through. And, while at times, it is entertaining, it is also emotionally and mentally draining. You are a rockstar mom, and I take many of the lessons I learned from you and apply them daily to my parenting practices.

Being a mom is the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s hard to live up to the child’s expectations, one’s own personal expectations, and even society’s expectations. Mom, this may be the hardest for me because you made it look so easy. You were such a good mom. (And, yes, I know while we were in the thick of adolescence I was a kid with tough expectations.) Thank you for living a life of goals and achievements, learning, and sharing, altered housing, and revised itineraries. Those shared moments have shown when to afford patience and acceptance, and when to adjust and make strides. It’s given me a first-hand perspective that we can reinvent ourselves at any time – and change the course of our own lives if needed. I owe my success to you and Dad. With you and Dad, without the open discussions of tribulations and celebrations, life would surely look different for me and my family.

Dad and Mom, I know this moment that I would not be where I am today without you. And not just because of what you did when I was growing up, but because I find myself consistently leaning on you for support. Whether it’s to watch the kiddos for a bit, or take Murphy, or just to let me stop over and sip coffee. Your openness and understanding has been a life-saver – more than you know. Thank you for continuing to provide me a place of refuge and reflection.

To the both of you – many times while you are playing with the kiddos, I find myself so happy. Overjoyed, in fact. My kids bring such joy to you. It’s those moments that I relish and keep close to my heart.

I cannot wait to see you again when I get home. I love you both very much.

Kelly Girl

*One never knows when a moment to share might be missed. If you have the need to send a message to a loved one, do it.