The 2021 academic year started nearly a month late. Many learners are anxious about the work they missed last year and many are sad that many extra mural activities have been cancelled. Some are disappointed with their results and feel despondent. Levinia Pienaar recalls a homily at a 2020 school mass and uses it to encourage South Africa’s youth at the start of the new school year.
COVID-19 changed all our lives, and as difficult as it is for adults, it is equally challenging for young people. The academic year has started later than usual. We do not know what this year will bring and whether there will be further disruptions to the school calendar.
A year ago, Fr. Luyolo Jacobs, the parish priest at St. Maria Goretti and Immaculate Heart of Mary, in Worcester and Zwelethemba respectively, celebrated the start of the new school year with a beautiful Mass for all school children, teachers and the professionals taking care of children. The context was very different and we could not imagine that just a few weeks later, all schooling would grind to a halt for several months.
Home is the first school
Fr. Jacobs began by thanking God for the ability to go to school, to teach, to heal and to serve. Fr Luyolo noted that all education — religious or otherwise — begins at home. The first school is the family, and the first church is the family. Over this last year, learners have had to study from home. Some had access to online learning. Many did not. Parents became the primary drivers for ensuring that some form of learning continued despite the circumstances.
Similarly, without catechism in the parishes or even the ability to go to Mass, families had to play an increased role in passing on and nurturing their children’s faith.
Persevere despite difficulties
Fr. Jacobs referred to an address that former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once gave to the graduates at the University of Oxford. Everybody was waiting to hear what this great man. Churchill started by saying: “I only have three things to say to you: Don’t give up.” “And he said again: “Don’t give up.” For a third time he said:” Don’t give up”. He then sat down, his speech concluded. This from the man who would often speak to large audiences for hours.
Fr Luyolo repeated Churchill’s words: Don’t give up.
Despite the uncertainties, the disrupted school year, and personal loss, the Class of 2020 showed that success was still possible with hard work and perseverance. You kept your dreams in focus and studied hard, often on your own, to make your dreams come true. Well done!
Maybe you did not perform as well as you would have liked. Don’t give up. Maybe your home life is disrupted by dysfunctional families, conflict, no bed to sleep or a lack of food: Don’t give up.
Give up toxic relationships
In contrast, you may be involved in toxic relationships with the wrong friends – please, give them up! You may have friends who force you to do certain things that you know are wrong and behave in destructive ways. Please, give them up.
Remember, not every friend is a good friend. Not every friend who gives you something is good for you. They might demand something in return for their gifts and attention. Not every friend who stands up against a teacher or brings groups together is necessarily a good friend or leader. Be careful who you follow at school and who you regard as a friend. Instead, look at the example they set. Is he or she a good friend?
Listen with the heart
We are encouraged to listen to the voice of God, not just with our ears, but with our hearts and how we live. We build our character when we listen to our teachers at school, and to our first teachers – our parents – at home. Life can be difficult with many things going wrong in our families and our schools. But your future is more than your present circumstances.
You are all future role models, professionals, religious brothers and sisters, priests, teachers, innovators, leaders, anything you want to be come. These dreams are good. But the dream of becoming great and earning respect can be side tracked by a stupid mistake. To enable you to make good choices, listen to the voices of your parents, teachers and God.
Great people were not born that way. It’s not about where you come from or how you were born, but where you are heading to. Focus on your future – the big goal. Ignore toxic friends and situations who only want to divert your attention to stop you from succeeding in life.
Each one of us can make a difference
We may be tempted to look at some of the things happening in our schools and families and become discouraged. Instead, we should ask ourselves: What can we do to make things better in our families, at our schools, in our homes, in our societies?
If one leg of a three-legged pot is broken, the pot cannot stand and it is useless. It is the same in our families and our schools. We all have a role to play. Like the legs of a pot, we need to use all of them if we want to stand strong. We cannot say: “It’s not my problem, it’s the responsibility of the teacher. Or for the teacher to say: “I can’t teach discipline because it’s not a subject.” We are not spectators at a game. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the entire world, but we can still ask ourselves: What can I do?
We often carry many “ifs” and they weigh us down. “If only I had done this”, “if only I hadn’t done that”, “If only we didn’t give up.” We become stuck in this cycle of negative thinking. To overcome that, we need to change our narrative. It starts with the decision to not give up.
May 2021 be a better year for all of us, where we will listen to the voice of God speaking into our hearts. The class of 2020, and especially our matriculants, did just that – they didn’t give up!