Ndikokele Bawo

Last week, I sprang a performance on my students. More than that … I taught them a completely new song … a cappella … in Xhosa … the day before they had to sing it … for the whole middle and high school. I’m not sharing this because I’m proud of this last-minute approach to teaching and performing. Neither do I want to defend myself by listing all the reasons why it necessarily ended up being so last minute. Rather, I have been thinking this weekend about the HOW of impossible things.

Here’s what I knew before I attempted the challenge:

  1. I knew that time was very short. One class period only.
  2. I knew that if I handed my students a new piece of music and introduced it by saying “Guess what? We’re performing this tomorrow on assembly!” they would have cried out in fearful protest.
  3. And fear is a powerful demotivating emotion.

So, I didn’t begin with the end result. I began with the first nugget.

When they arrived in class, we warmed up as per usual, then I pointed to the board where three short lines of music were already written in different colors. We identified the notes of the first line together and then sight-read it. I asked them to identify the notes of the second line and then we sang that together. Once they were confident on each separate line, I divided the group into two halves with one half singing the line in blue and the other half singing the line in green. We then repeated the pattern for the third line of music, adding it to the first two. Before they even knew how it would be relevant, they had sung in three-parts the main harmonies of the song I intended them to perform.

Teaching text was the next step. I handed them the music and began to break down the syllables before anyone could protest singing in Xhosa. We took it phrase by phrase and then looked for repetitions. Once they realized the text was pronounceable, we put it together with the notes. At this point some of them were surprised to discover the relevance of the first activity. They already knew most of the notes on the page! Suddenly they were singing on text a new 3-part song, and the harmonies were beautiful. The look of surprise and joy on some of their faces motivated those who were still unsure — in that moment, their perception of their own strength as a group changed. I only told them of Friday’s assembly at the end of class, when they already knew they could do it.

I cannot help but think what a mercy it is that I do not know in advance all of the struggles and challenges I will face in life. God — the perfect Teacher — knows what I need to know well before I need to know it. There have been so many struggles (cancer being the only the most recent), and so many little lessons to prepare me for those struggles. What my heart and mind would see as impossibly challenging, God prepares me for one step at a time. Victory doesn’t happen in a moment, but in a series of moments. Every so often, someone will try to be nice and say something along the lines of, “You’re so strong!” And I sort of stand with mouth half open, wondering how to explain … if I make it through a challenge, it’s not because of any inherent strength, but because I have a Teacher who is better than I can ever hope to be. A Teacher who dissolves my fear by preparing me for and sustaining me through each challenge. While others see only the final success, I know how many lessons came first.

The song my students learned together last week, we sang in celebration of South African Freedom Day – the day in 1994 that marked the end of apartheid when all citizens got to vote in a free election. The Xhosa text is a prayer that is as meaningful to me personally as it is relevant to South African history and culture.

Lead me, Oh Father, lead me.
In all the sorrows of this world, lead me.
Father, I thank you for you protect and keep me.
You calm all my fears.
Father, I thank you for you protect me still.

The recording below is performed by the Mzansi Youth Choir – a group that inspired my students when they came and worked with them a few weeks ago. We reduced the harmonies for our own performance, and though I didn’t record my students singing it, they did well and I was proud of them.

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