What I want every SA matric to know
Top of the list is that you're much smarter than you think you are
Dear Grade 12 pupils,
Last week the mother of a matriculant asked me: “What do you now wish you knew when you were an 18 year old?” As you start this week to write the most searching examination of your young life, I would like to share some thoughts about this fascinating question. This is what I wish I knew when I came towards the end of high school.
The first thing I wish somebody had told me was that my matric results were not predictive of my future life. True, I attained Steenberg High School’s only “first-class pass” at the time though without a single distinction. My results were good but not outstanding. I did not feel qualified for university and when I treated the microscope in my first year botany class like a telescope, I felt the sting of my disadvantage.
I lacked confidence and joy in equal measure and felt intimidated by this new experience called university. At that point I really wish somebody had told me that what mattered was not my past but how I applied myself in the present; that things could go really well if I remained singularly focused on my plan to get a BSc degree no matter what. It worked.
I wish somebody had told me that blaming your circumstances only injures the victim. I did blame the long trek by taxi, bus, train and thumb to a university on the other side of Cape Town. I was angry that I could not get into the university much closer to home which, would have saved my parents thousands of rand in today’s money value.
Over time I came to realise that whether I worked as a machinist (no disrespect for the job) in the factories running along the Cape Flats railway line or whether I became a top-notch science teacher (becoming a professor was definitely way out of my reach) depended entirely on my actions, not my circumstances. I needed to hear that message early and often.
I now wish a wiser person had informed me that I had no idea how much academic potential lay within me. My Latin teacher did and it made a difference at school. But I still had no idea whatsoever how much talent lies within us as lifelong learners and as emerging leaders. This is why in hundreds of talks to schools around the country I play my one-string guitar over and over again – “you have no idea how smart you really are”.
Of course, our society and our schools are very good at telling young people, in ways direct and indirect, that not much is expected of them; we have become, as the highly talented journalist Redi Thlabi recently tweeted, “30% pass rate people”.
I really wish an accomplished person had taught me life’s most important lesson – that there is no shortcut to success. You really have to work hard. I thought I could study at university the way I studied at school – a few days before the exams. That, as well as the campus turbulences of 1976, ensured that I failed my first year. It was a serious wake-up call. Because I am not naturally smart, I realised I had to work harder than anyone else. Whether in SA or the US, I always did more than any other student. If my professor said read these three journal articles, I read six of them. When the task as a doctoral student was complete a major thesis, I completed an academic book in the same year on a completely different topic.
I found being taught in classes boring, so I got Stanford University to approve a course which I then taught to undergraduate students. As a result I might be the only university academic who became a full professor in the same year I got my PhD. I was not that smart; I just worked harder then, and now, than most people in my profession.
But there is something I was in fact taught as a young adult and for which I am forever grateful. That lesson was that no matter how much you achieve or how many awards you win or what people say about your achievements, keep your feet solidly on the ground. I thank both my parents, Sarah and Abraham, for demonstrating in their own lives that who you become, and what you can do, are ultimately gifts of grace. It really is not about you.