Sunday, September 7, 2014

An extraordinary teaching moment

From David Schalkwyk’s wonderfully thoughtful Hamlet’s Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare (2012) (at pages 75-76), this moment from a University of Cape Town classroom around 1991, when apartheid was dying but not yet dead: Schalkwyk’s students were discussing a poem by a white former prisoner, Jeremy Cronin, who describes hearing the singing of uMkhonto we Sizwe guerrillas facing execution. Cronin’s poem includes these lines:

            Three voices
Called or
Combine or responding

In the classroom the students began debating whether the white prisoners would really have been close enough to the black prisoners on death row to hear their singing.

Schalkwyk recounts: “In the midst of an earnest discussion, which had divided the class, a quiet reserved man put up his hand. I think Cronin is right, he said. This did happen. A pause. I was there; I am David Moise.”

The class and Schalkwyk were stunned. Moise’s name on Schalkwyk’s class list hadn’t caught his eye, and apparently Moise had, with the other students in the class, read a number of other pieces of prison literature that had not prompted him to identify himself this way. Schalkwyk writes that, “On reflection, I have always been struck by the fact that this revelation was provoked, not by the many memoirs of imprisonment on Robben Island, but by a poem.”

Schalkwyk’s book itself demonstrates, powerfully, that Shakespeare has a lot to say about Robben Island and South Africa. But perhaps nothing can prove the point that literature helps give meaning to life more vividly than this moment when life and literature fused in the classroom before everyone’s eyes.

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