Learn­ing to trust cu­rios­ity over fear

Mail & Guardian - - Lifestyle -

Two days be­fore, I had had lunch with my 77-year-old for­mer English teacher. I try to see her ev­ery time I visit East Lon­don. Ac­tu­ally, she did not eat. All she or­dered in the hours we spent to­gether was a choco­late milkshake and a glass of wa­ter with a lot of le­mon. “Is this how you stay young?” I joked.

She has a snow-white bob and I’ve never seen her in a skirt or a dress. I or­dered break­fast and two black cof­fees, one af­ter the other. Both times, our wait­ress placed the cof­fees in front of my teacher even though they were for me.

Some­thing about our re­la­tion­ship con­fused her. The first time in hap­pened, it did not seem ac­ci­den­tal. I dragged the cup and saucer to­wards me while the wait­ress stood over us. The se­cond time it hap­pened, no words were needed to cor­rect this well-ex­er­cised South African­ism, but my teacher kind of in­audi­bly be­gan to ut­ter the words “But I didn’t order it” and, upon this ut­ter­ance, the wait­ress placed the cof­fee in front of me, as if she was wait­ing for a com­mand.

There was no ma­li­cious in­tent in her eyes. She did, and she did not mean it. I read the sit­u­a­tion with in­ter­est rather than judg­ment. I’ve be­come good at not be­ing of­fended and in­stead read small en­coun­ters like this as I would a book.

This mo­ment cre­ated an op­por­tu­nity for my teacher to say, much later on in the con­ver­sa­tion: “When a young black boy walks past me in the street, I’m sure he thinks of me as an old white woman and of course to him I was in­volved in apartheid. What he doesn’t know is that I am so in­ter­ested in get­ting to know him and him me.”

What a funny sight it would be to see power dy­nam­ics neu­tralised by some­thing as or­di­nary as friend­ship and a mu­tual knowl­edge of and in­ter­est in each other.

Two days later, when a white boy of about 10 sat next to me on the plane go­ing back to Jo­han­nes­burg, this fa­mil­iar at­mos­phere be­came ap­par­ent — on my part at least. I felt a pro­hib­ited de­sire to know and be known. White boys usu­ally ig­nore peo­ple like me, so I read­ied my­self to close up by look­ing out the win­dow at the dull scenery of the old Ben Schoe­man Air­port. I’m not one to start con­ver­sa­tions on flights but I get on re­ally well with chil­dren in that age group, so it was strange and a lit­tle sad to have to ac­tively an­tic­i­pate emo­tional with­drawal be­cause of our dy­nam­ics: I am a black woman in her 30s and he is a white child from a small town. I am not his care­giver, so there is lit­tle else that could con­nect us. My South African mind is cer­tain.

He was in the mid­dle, an un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nor, and on the aisle seat next to him was an­other black woman in her 30s.

“Whew, I’m so ner­vous,” he whis­pered, not speak­ing to any­body in par­tic­u­lar. I took a deep breath and turned my head to­wards him af­ter about a minute. “Is it your first time fly­ing”? I asked. “No, it’s my se­cond, but I’m not used to it yet,” he replied.

He was more ex­cited than scared. On his left wrist he wore the Sam­sung equiv­a­lent of the iWatch and on it his heart rate was 100. “My heart is beat­ing re­ally fast,” he said.

I stud­ied his face and the earnest look of it be­gan to pull my guard down. He kept lean­ing into my aura while look­ing out the win­dow at the dull scenery, which to him was to be mined for con­ver­sa­tion.

“Wow, the peo­ple who live here must be so tired of the noise,” he said about the houses that are sep­a­rated from the vast run­way by a “stop-non­sense” stone wall.

“What’s that?” he asked. We stud­ied the wings of the plane and I ex­plained to him what lit­tle I un­der­stood about aero­dy­nam­ics.

He asked an­other ques­tion and an­other ques­tion and I found my­self hav­ing more an­swers as the melt­ing of ex­pec­ta­tion helped the real me emerge.

He told me his sis­ter was on the same flight, sit­ting across from us on the other side of the aisle. “Why didn’t they put you guys to­gether?” I asked. He shrugged his shoul­ders and looked out­side. We were tak­ing off.

He showed me his heart rate again; 85. “Whoeee, it’s lower,” he said with a smile. As the plane turned to­wards Gaut­eng, I showed him the coast­line. “Look at the sea.” Later. “Look at the crop cir­cles.” “Look at the tiny river.”

But as soon as we were well into the air, I fixed my gaze out the win­dow, ner­vous that he would have more ques­tions and that I would have to ex­tend my­self more to this kid, whom I very much liked. I would have to ac­cept the treat­ment he was giv­ing me be­fore look­ing at the his­tor­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of this in­ter­ac­tion. How much trust had been lost be­tween my peo­ple and his peo­ple. I didn’t say any­thing else to him but nudged him when he could play on his phone when the seat­belt signs were switched off. He had won­dered when that would hap­pen.

An hour later we were pre­par­ing to land. The ques­tions be­gan again and I re­sponded this time with a lit­tle less re­serve. OR Tambo air­port was more suit­able for our avi­a­tion talk.

“Do you see that plane writ­ten Lufthansa?” I asked him. “Can you see there are two rows of win­dows?” “Yes, why.” I told him about the dou­ble-storey Boe­ings on long-haul flights. Aero­plane food. TVs on the plane. His eyes widened.

“What is this hole?” he asked. “It’s an ash­tray. Peo­ple used to be al­lowed smoke in aero­planes,” I replied. “What are those green ropes?” “I don’t know.” “They must be con­nected to the lad­der, for when we go off the plane,” he said in what I then no­ticed was an Afrikaans ac­cent.

We didn’t get off the plane when ev­ery­body was dis­em­bark­ing. I was sub­con­sciously wait­ing for the stew­ardess to come as I had over­heard her say he must stay in his seat un­til she came.

But as soon as he re­alised I was wait­ing for him, he un­buck­led his seat­belt and said: “Don’t worry, my sis­ter is here.”

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