i have written before about my journey with Lavender Hill High School via the Partners for Possibility programme.

Well, yesterday i was given the huge honour and responsibility of being the guest speaker at the Matric Valedictory Ceremony at Lavender Hill High School. The whole experience was mind-blowing, inspiring and completely uplifting. So i thought it would be good to share the speech i gave in the hopes that we can continue that story-shifting.

It began with me arriving at the school and being ushered to a VIP spot at the front with a programme that highlighted the new nickname i have in that space, which filled me with much joy.

Due to Covid_19 the matrics had not been allowed a matric dance and so they had been given permission to dress up for the occasion and had gone all out [in true matric ball style!] under their black graduation capes creating a stunning sense of both individual and collective in one!

Brett Fisher

The entrance of the matrics in their four classes was a triumphal procession with much cheering and celebration. Then a welcome by Acting Deputy Principal Mrs. Carnow. A singing of the national anthem and opening prayers, followed by a touching candle ceremony to recognise all those who had lost their lives in 2021 [one class had printed their classmate’s face on a pillow which they carried in with them which was deeply moving throughout the ceremony].

Then it was time for Mr Brett Fisher, although i was called ‘Mr Brett Fish Anderson’ in my intro and a brief bio of my writing and speaking work and even a mention of my new podcast, Out of the Fishbowl [teacher looks at me to make sure he has got it right? Head nod. Yes.]

A Lavender Hill Valedictory Speech

i was a little nervous about introducing No_bob [the world’s most famous stuffed dolphin] because i wasn’t sure how it would land in that cultural space [and to be honest, introducing No_bob by saying “I was going to call him Bob, but he doesn’t and so No_bob” never lands as well as it does when it’s in my head]. But last minute i thought it might somehow help break the ice and so i had him stuffed in my inner jacket pocket.

When pulling a stuffed toy out of my jacket arrived with super positive feedback i knew i was going to be okay. Perched him on the podium and launched into my speech.

Started by saying how Mr. Viljoen [the principal, who was sitting right at the front] knows me not to be a smart man. So i never wear a jacket or even a buttoned up shirt. And i never wear shoes. [And then moved my feet around the podium to ensure Mr. Viljoen could see i had worn shoes for the occasion, followed by a very sublte “for now” that i’m sure no-one picked up on.]

Not wearing shoes is not disrespectful. In fact, three of the major religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – share the story of Moses. Do any of you know Moses? [Cheers and acknowledgements from the audience] So there is a story of Moses wandering around the desert and he comes upon a bush that is on fire but it is not burning up at all. And it turns out to be God represented in this bush and God speaks out this message: Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

Holy Ground. When i say the words “Lavender Hill” to you, is that the phrase that immediately comes to mind? Holy Ground.

[i must just add that the beauty of presenting this speech to a predominantly coloured audience over a white audience is any rhetorical question or joke or statement that might get an inward response from white people gets an out loud communal response which just added so much power to the words and stories yesterday – what a gift!]

What about to the people out there? In the suburbs? [No!] In the media? [No!] In the police? The politicians? [NO!]

Let me confess that maybe a year ago, i would have thought the same thing when i heard the words ‘Lavender Hill’ – Gangs… drugs… poverty… violence… The statement: WHAT GOOD EVER CAME OUT OF LAVENDER HILL?

That’s the story, right? What we call the narrative. It’s an idea… it’s a prejudice… in some ways a sentence… “WE SENTENCE YOU, LAVENDER HILL, TO BE KNOWN AS THIS!”

i followed this by telling a few stories starting with a “But then i heard…” statement and mentioned Mark Nicholson who we connected with via the Community Action Networks [CAN] groups during the early days of lockdown who showed us stories of food distribution and sports teams. i spoke about meeting and being partnered with Fuad Viljoen [the principal] who shared stories of a five-year vision for the school and invited me to come and take a look. i spoke about the first time i drove into Lavender Hill High school and was welcomed at the gate by security to “The greatest school in the Western Cape”.

[And at each of these statements the audience is vocal and letting me know they are totally hearing my inspiration]

i spoke about meeting with the SGB [Sschool Governing Body] and SMT [School Management Team] and how i got to do some story-telling work with the staff and how i have now visited the school on many occasions…

And you know what i discovered here… 

[Move to the side of the podium and as i lean down to start taking off my shoes, the audience just explodes as they make the connection to the earlier story, and being the audience they are i hear the phrase “Holy Ground!” being echoed around the room.]

That i need to take my shoes off… because i am standing on holy ground. [Cheers and shouts from around the room!]

i then shared a quote by Rick Warren which goes: We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners to it. 

And spoke of how our past often has a lot to say about who we have come to be… but that it doesn’t have to dictate who we are going to be.

Matric photo spot

Then i addressed the matrics directly:

Matrics of Lavender Hill High School 2021… Not only have you lived or been to school in a place that so many people have given up on… or looked down upon… or judged… but you did it in 2020/2021… the years when it felt like the whole world was falling apart… The odds were very much against you in so many ways, and yet look at you, here you are…

But you are not done yet – there is one final hurdle to go as far as school is concerned… But for making it this far we salute you… and we celebrate you… and we applaud you… [Audience applauds!] And we stand behind you to cheer you on in this final stretch! 

You can’t make us proud! Because you have made us proud already. You can maybe add to that, but we are already so proud of you. [Mr. Viljoen mentioned later, in the principal’s speech, how their class had something like 200 grade 8’s and now they were about 140 matrics, so really in that context finishing matric is a huge win!]

Lavender Hill High School badge

i finished with a last point about success:

Different people judge success in different ways. Some see it as how much money you make, or how many things you acquire, or maybe trips to far-off places.

i imagine many people in this context would view success as leaving Lavender Hill – making it out!

But the biggest story i think i have heard about success since visiting Lavender Hill High School was about a teacher who replaced another teacher here at the school.

Mr J Petersen [who is a former Lavender Hill High School pupil] has gone to Bahrain and been replaced by Octavia Daniels. Is she here? What school did you go to? [Lavender Hill High]

Is Mr Sydow here? What school did you go to? [Lavender Hill High]. Mrs E. Brink-Meyer? [Lavender Hill High]. Mrs G. De Koker [Lavender Hill High]. Mrs M. Lewis? [Lavender Hill High]. Mrs N. Basadien, who is a fourth-year student teacher here? [Lavender Hill High].

What if… success is not measured by someone leaving Lavender Hill… but by someone who stays? 

Someone who says, “I want to see a different story told about this place… I want to be a part of it.”

There is a 5-year vision for this school… and there will be vision beyond that. What if you choose to support that vision?

Now, as you write your exams…

In the future, whether you stay physically – maybe some of you will be back here as teachers? – or stay connected in other ways [Maybe it’s through giving money or visiting or telling the stories or mentoring a young learner or volunteering your time or ideas] 

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” 

The best school in the Western Cape

Straight after i was finished, Keenan, a grade 11 learner, took to the stage, grabbed hold of the mic and belted out Demi Lovato’s ‘Skyscraper’ and blew us all away. i honestly believe that performance would have won Pop Idols, not even just made final stage. It was ridiculous where he went with his voice and the MC rightly told us to watch that name because it will be displayed on an international stage some day.

At some point, learners started handing out containers and we found out later that one family had supplied the entire hall with pretty much a three-course meal. First was little pies and pizzas and samoosa, followed by an amazing curry, and then a box of dessert treats like koesusters and doughnuts and chocolate cream puffs… there were fizzy drinks on offer as well…

Each matric class then came up and were awarded certificates and subject awards and then performed a class song/dance number which were also incredible. i found myself wishing all of the suburb people and media and police and politicians could be in this space watching these young people celebrate each other while being cheered on by teachers and parents.

There was a rap number and an incredible dance routine [apparently two of the girls are not only Hip Hop dance champs of South Africa but also two of the top gymnasts] and each class was given the opportunity for one or two speeches on behalf of their class.

It was a fairly long ceremony [at one point Mr. Viljoen came over and asked if i was staying for the whole thing, i think to give me an out, but there was no way i was going anywhere else!] but what an absolute celebration and even though in the final few thank-yous and closing statement it was obvious the kids were getting a little restless, there was no doubt as to what we had witnessed. We don’t need to be telling a new story about Lavender Hill and particularly Lavender Hill High School – we just need to start telling the one that is already there.

i could not have spent yesterday afternoon anywhere better in the whole world! Thank you Lavender Hill High School, and especially Fuad Viljoen and the staff, for inviting me in to that space to play the smallest part in what was an incredibly uplifting time. All the very best as you navigate these next few weeks of exams and meetings and planning and more.

Fuad Viljoen, principal