Streetlight Stories 3: Spinning Silk From Rubbish

Before today's story, I'd like to thank you for your support and ask for your help. We still have a deficit for 2017 that we’re working hard to close, so we can go into 2018 with a clean financial slate. If you’d like to support us again, you can find just how to do so here.

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Welcome back to the Streetlight Stories! We're so grateful for your help in making the Streetlight dream a reality, and wanted to share some of the magic of our time here. Today's story is from our CEO and founder Melanie Smuts reflecting on what a year 2017 was.

Spinning Silk From Rubbish

“We shall spin silk from rubbish. And frame time with our resolve” 
• Ben Okri, An African Elegy

A beautiful project made during a thematic unit on mechanics, where Grade 2 learners designed an amusement park with rides using simple machines, showcasing creativity, teamwork, understanding, and design thinking.

A beautiful project made during a thematic unit on mechanics, where Grade 2 learners designed an amusement
park with rides using simple machines, showcasing creativity, teamwork, understanding, and design thinking.

When I was a young law student, I had this quotation written on my wall above my bed. It has come back to me many times in the process of starting and running Streetlight Schools. One time in the early years, this quote came back to me quite literally when one of our teachers Dionne took our after school learners into the scummy park across the street to collect bottle caps, leaves and other bits for a “trash as treasure” project. At other times, this quote comes back to me in a more metaphorical sense, such as when I watch the seven-year-old child of a Cape flats gangster produce artworks so lyrical that they would be right at home in some of the world’s best museums. Sometimes, it’s hearing about how one of our team members, who spent years doing piece-meal jobs before finally being given a chance to become a teacher, turned to an educator at one of the poshest schools in South Africa at a workshop and say, “Oh, you don’t know what enduring learning is? I’ll explain it to you.”

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In those years as a young law student, I was constantly frustrated by how far the Constitutional project I learnt about in class were from the realities of South Africa - they never seemed to connect to the world out there. Now, we as an organisation exhibit a beautiful, sometimes schizophrenic, existence where even the most serious spreadsheet or meeting is interrupted by the wondrous reality of the school. Every day at around 2pm, the same little girl sticks her head into the office and asks “what are you doing now?”. We are invariably emailing, but it’s an enduring fascination to her. Or, how often our meetings are interrupted by gentle thumping as a student gets excited in the adjacent computer lab and starts swinging their leg against the wall. No matter how serious our work, we are always minutes away from a hugging horde of children giggling into your midriff, a child excitedly showing us a drawing of her shadow, asking about a lego project, demonstrating a new reading skill, commenting on our fashion, or holding the world in their hands.

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Sometimes this connection is so real it becomes personal. Like the twinge I feel when our little girls play cricket with the boys (which I was never allowed to do at school), or when I observed a teacher lead a 20-minute long conversation with a class on every question they had about rainbows. Or, the fact that our Grade 2 learners can write essays of a page or longer, and do double-digit multiplication which makes me feel foolish, as a paragraph, and single-digit multiplication was an achievement for me at that age. Truth is, sometimes I am so happy about everything our learners do and achieve that I feel quite jealous!

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It is still dazzling to me that we managed to achieve this mad dream: to open a school in an area like Jeppestown, train our teaching team up from scratch, have children who could not cut with scissors or even hold a pencil now write essays, and create a legacy in a dangerous and complicated world. We have spun silk from rubbish, and we are framing time with our resolve. As we celebrate and review 2017, I am immensely grateful to all who have invested time and resources into making it a reality.

A heartfelt thank you,
Melanie Smuts

Imagine the kind of world we would be living in if this was the norm and not the exception. Imagine how powerful we would be if this is what our education system did for all our children. I’m writing to coincide with the U.S. tradition of Giving Tuesday, and to ask for your help to enable us to continue this work.

Most urgently, we still have a deficit for 2017 that we’re working extremely hard to close, so we can go into 2018 with a clean financial slate.

http://www.streetlightschools.org/donate/

PS: Want a more in-depth look? You can read our 2017 Annual Report here.

PPS: Want a look inside the school? In case you missed it, here’s a beautiful video made by our friends at SABC3 Expresso.

PPPS: Still can’t get enough? Here’s a story we published earlier this year about a special learner in the school. And one on heritage day.

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