Good material and good company

| November 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Simone Meintjies

As I walk into St James Preparatory School, I am aware of quiet and stillness. Not the stifled silence denoting an authoritarian presence, just all pervading tranquility.

Iattend the morning assembly. No notices, no fixtures, just a simple assembly to offer prayer, to sing praise, and to provide an allegory for good company. The Headmaster, Mark Grace, recounts his story to a rapt audience: “Two sibling infant parrots were removed from the nest at a tender age. One parrot went to a home of abusive behaviour, of shouting, bullying and swearing. The other went to a refined home of courtesy and gentleness. Each parrot grew up to emulate its surrounding environment. The parrot in an abusive home mimicked shouting and swearing. The parrot in the courteous home made sweet and gentle sounds. Yet both parrots came from the same nest.” So the headmaster has depicted for the children the effects of company on one’s character. Thereafter, he requests a twofold pledge for the week, “to observe who is looking through your eyes”, and for quiet mindfulness to be observed whilst the senior grades write exams. No child finds the first request unusual.

The allegory of character based on company attests to a founding principle of St James: to provide good company to children on the basis that they learn most from real examples. To provide this good company to the children, all St James teachers are on a spiritual path and meditate on a daily basis. The spiritual path is the philosophy of Advaita or unity (nonduality), and this is taught to the children through the systematic teaching of scripture, and oral, democratically orientated, inclusive philosophy classes, which provide a footing for reasonableness and good judgement.

Good material The principle of good company assured, a foundational principle underpins it: the provision of good material. The finest sources of literature, music, poetry, drama, epics and myths form the material of education, so reading and writing are taught from the Bible, the Upanishads and Shakespeare. All subjects are taught as mediums for truth. Truth is the Unity of One Self of All. In the Foundation Phase, Sanskrit prayers, fine poetry and the times tables are learned by heart. At the same time, teachers apply the dictum to avoid all pressure. As each child masters the alphabet, so reading is introduced, individually, following the aptitude of each child.

In Art classes, children are exposed to great paintings and develop a love of observation and expression. Likewise, in Drama, each child’s dramatic spirit can expand fully. I watch a play practise for the upcoming school play. As they rehearse ‘that Scottish play’, the children engage with enthusiastic vigour. I partake in half an hour of choir practice with the whole school (before each class has a music lesson), and 120 clear voices sing under the baton of Mr Kieswetter, who draws from the children sounds of tender purity and praise. During human movement, little bodies stretch, sway, contort and relax, ending with deep breathing and a visualisation of a rainbow emitting love to all. Each child emerges relaxed and invigorated.

Dedication

In the classroom, each lesson begins with a pause and a dedication, with hands together as in prayer and eyes closed. Each lesson ends likewise. This allows activities to arise from stillness and return to stillness on completion. The discipline of this practice is the source of the tranquility which fills the school building, the constant return to stillness as a source of rest and origin.

Throughout the school, children engage in the study of Sanskrit, first learning the sounds of the alphabet, then simple words and phrases, then chants and invocations and thereafter, systematically, Panini’s grammar. The material provided is fun and the children engage with the Sanskrit with delight.

At break, youngsters eat fruit and drink water. At lunch, a wholesome vegetarian meal is served with the emphasis on the finest civility: to serve others before attending to oneself. Fresh salad, cooked vegetables or pasta, plain yoghurt with nuts and honey form the daily fare. No tuck shop. No packed lunches loaded with trans fats and sweeteners. I watch as each child observes her or his neighbour with attentiveness to ensure that each is enabled to sufficiency.

School motto: truth, love, service Throughout the day, the maxim of total care of the child is evident everywhere, from the happy sounds of the youngsters, to the careful, confident demeanour of the teachers. Through a measured balance between love and discipline, the teachers establish respect for authority and develop an understanding of the relationship between duties and rights. At all times, there is an emphasis on the teaching of good manners so that children may conduct themselves with dignity. The school rules and motto are learnt and put into practice:

  • truthfulness
  • magnanimity
  • never careless
  • harmlessness.

Stong character and meditation

It is the aim of the school to produce people of strong character who are self-reliant, self-disciplined, upright and truthful with the ability to fulfil whatever they undertake, making them invaluable to family, friends, community and the nation.

Fifteen minutes before the end of the school day, I attend a meditation session held by the headmaster for the Grade 7s. Peace emanates. I rest deeply. School ends at 14:20, followed by extramural activities such as ballet, karate, soccer skills, netball, baking, art and chess. Forty children receive private music tuition.

Care for others, and care for oneself

The school provides 13 scholarships for children on a material needs basis. Situated in Belgravia, adjacent to Jeppestown, St James children are bussed in from Soweto and Lenasia, others travel from the suburbs, and some arrive from the surrounding inner city of Johannesburg. This school does not seek to emulate the sporting prowess of other nearby schools, but instead teaches youngsters to look within, and seek the resilience therein from knowing oneself.

A simple, elegant model of schooling is offered to prepare children for a world of many challenges, which they will engage with wholeheartedly, and return and reinvigorate themselves with stillness.

Category: Summer 2011

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