A beacon of hope — in apartheid South Africa


In a Cape Town, South African Colored high school rife with the inequalities of apartheid, Mrs. Hilda Levin, my English teacher, represented a beacon of hope and encouragement. She was a White teacher, venturing each day into the Colored neighborhood where I lived (apartheid’s success was evident in our tendency to think in terms of racial categories); a courageous act in the volatile 1980s, when such teachers were compensated with danger pay. Barely five feet tall, she nonetheless made great demands on me and my classmates. She urged me to write creatively, and often. She proposed thought-provoking topics – or no topic at all. Once she got to know my interests and abilities, she offered suggestions of books to read. Thus I encountered the writings of Ayn Rand, and Harper Lee. She taught me the rules of English grammar and assorted writing styles – all of which stood me in good stead when, three years later, I entered a US university, and was able to edit papers for fellow students.
But Mrs. Levin’s support extended beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Amidst the many disruptions generated by student boycotts, she remained at school late into the day, to assist us with our lessons. Other times she would load a bunch of us into her car, and drive us to the University of Cape Town – to get a sense of campus life. From her we clearly got the message – higher education was possible for all of us, if we kept working hard. She also took us to the hospital where her husband worked as a neurosurgeon – to give us a taste of career possibilities. By the time I left high school, I was ready to enter university, armed not only with the skills to read, write and analyze, but also the conviction that I could succeed.
The oppressive political regime had worked hard to convince many of us that we were second class citizens. Mrs. Levin’s words, actions and support provided a different lens through which to view our world, one that stressed achievement, possibility, and hope. It is that vision that continues to sustain me, and inform my continued involvement in the world of education reform. And whenever I return to Cape Town, and reconnect with old high school friends, within moments we are recalling something Mrs. Levin taught us, or said. Her voice lives on in my head, and her actions and caring attitude remain my yardstick for what a true educator really is. Having lost track of her whereabouts, my only wish is that I could some day find a way to share these reflections with her…