By Elizabeth Voltman
Ubuntu is a South African term that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a quality that includes the essential human virtues, especially compassion and humanity. On Wednesday, June 7, Ubuntu permeated Montclair High School’s auditorium when guest speaker Dr. Mark Mathabane visited our school.
Dr. Mathabane is the award-winning South African author of numerous articles and books, including “Kaffir Boy,” his compelling autobiography. This powerful text has been part of the ninth-grade English curriculum for about two decades. In the book, he fosters empathy as he invites readers to bear witness to his family’s dire struggle to survive the debilitating oppression of apartheid. We see how his remarkable mother, who was uneducated herself, put her life on the line to ensure her oldest son and his six siblings were educated. We learn how education, tennis, friends (both black and white), and hope were also critical to his survival.
Because of the intimate way Mathabane informs readers about South African history, it remains one of the most popular books among students at Montclair High School.
As I introduced Dr. Mathabane, I looked out with pride and anticipation at the sea of students, so attentive and excited to hear his words. I thought, what greater testament to the popularity of his book than to consider that this school event was offered to students and teachers on a voluntary basis. The 1,000 plus students who attended were there not because the administration mandated it, but because they wanted to be there! Dr. Mathabane’s overall message to students was, in his words, “Have the courage to be human, to find purposes in life consistent with fostering hope, peace, compassion, and love. Be grateful for and make good use of the countless opportunities you have, as they are ones that many of your peers around the world could only dream of.”
After Mathabane’s presentation, students and teachers gave a standing ovation. Visibly moved by the crowd’s electric response, he stepped back to the microphone and, with unbridled enthusiasm, promised the crowd that he would hold a premier of the movie adaptation of “Kaffir Boy” at the high school once the film is finished.
The auditorium went wild! Swept up by the contagious positivity, I thought of the quote by William Butler Yeats:
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Dr. Mathabane’s talk certainly unleashed that passion in our school.
He remained afterward to sign books and take photos. No one was rushed. He took the time to look into the eyes of each student and faculty member and listen to the personal stories of how he’s touched their lives. I was grateful to tell him, in person, that he and his book “Kaffir Boy” inspired me to volunteer to teach in South Africa in 2011.
Many ninth-graders who brought Dr. Mathabane letters about how his book impacted them were thrilled to actually hand him their letters. In his letter, Gabe Wallerstein offered, “You did exactly what was required to stop apartheid and racism in its tracks by representing your rights by sharing your truth through honest writing.” Emma Kugelmass noted, “Your mother is an incredible force of nature. Despite her lack of education and limited resources, she taught you and your siblings so much about life and truly shaped your character.” Kathryn Brutzman shared, “Kaffir Boy has broadened my horizons, giving me a new lens through which to see the world and appreciate the opportunities
I am so lucky to have. I am amazed at your courage to share with the world the true, uncut story of your life. It has changed my life, as well as many others around me, and for that we thank you.”
Adriana Comini concluded, “All of the struggles you faced at an extremely young age, due to poverty and oppression, made me realize how truly blessed I am to live in such a diverse town with a great school district. I’ve come to further appreciate the people who provide me with the nutrients I need to survive and create the dreams you have inspired me to follow.”
Ms. Comini’s teacher, Mr. Jamie Siwinski, who has been teaching “Kaffir Boy” at MHS for 18 years, commented, “It was incredible to see so many students that excited about an author of a book they read in school. As English teachers, we hope the literature inspires and connects with our students. This event demonstrates the power of stories, and particularly Dr. Mathabane’s story, to do just that.” This is one of many teacher responses I received, explaining how moved they and their students were by this presentation, or more accurately, by this man who, as Ms. Comini so aptly put it, “has brought the world so much joy and courage.” She urged him, “Please send your love and pride to as many people in the world as you can because they deserve to experience your light and see how incredible a human being can really be.” To this, Dr. Mathabane already responded in an email, saying, “The contents of your letter compel me to believe that you are the kind of global citizen and future leader who, along with your peers, will help create a better America, where our differences are celebrated as the lifeblood of a vibrant and progressive society. Thanks to you and all who were present for listening to my talk with your hearts, and I look forward to meeting you when the movie is premiered at MHS.”
In a follow-up email to me this morning, Dr. Mathabane noted that “Montclair High School is a luminous example of what an American public school should look like and be.” He continued, “I saw reflected in the beaming faces packed inside the auditorium not only America’s marvelously diverse family, but also the empathy, tolerance, and love, which are at the core of this country’s character and key to creating a future imbued with justice and hope.”
Undoubtedly, Dr. Mathabane has imbued within us the precious spirit of Ubuntu. Leading by example, he has guided us to recognize and celebrate our common humanity, affirming that the more deeply and genuinely we foster this sacred quality, the better off we and this “besieged hut called planet earth” will be.