One of the great joys I discovered upon leaving school was the realisation that I was never ever going to be forced to run again.
I was never ever going to be chased around a rugby field again in 40-degree heat by an unfit and slightly overweight teacher with a whistle and too much time and power. Fast forward 25 years to a COVID-infested 2020 and I had to seriously reconsider my decision.
Bringing up the rear
Many schools in South Africa were confused about the amount of sport that was allowed under COVID-19 post-lockdown 5 restrictions, and at my school, Bedford Country School in the Eastern Cape, I had a very enthusiastic, frustrated and fitness-crazy sports coach on my hands. If we weren’t allowed to share bats, balls and sticks, then a good alternative was, yes, you guessed it, running!
So on a frosty morning, a couple of temperature- and symptom-checked children and apprehensive teachers assembled in front of the school building for what was to become the first of two runs every week. I volunteered to bring up the rear and guide any strays safely back to school. This didn’t require running on my part, so safely tucked up in my tight pants and oversized sweater, I was in my comfort zone.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about a child or teacher being run over, as rush hour traffic in our neck of the woods consists of the Eastern Cape small village five: a cow, a goat, a pig, a donkey, and a dog with the odd bakkie thrown in for good measure.
Our route was a simple one – up the gravel road in front of the school to the outskirts of town and then in through the imposing gates of the neighbouring farm, Maasstrom (original home of Sir Andries Stockenström). All in all, a distance of about 2 kilometres. Our game plan was even simpler – go like the clappers!
Outside in the fresh air
We greeted and waved and explained that this was unfortunately going to be a regular occurrence. I busied myself with helping to tie shoelaces and listening to the typical stories of Grade 1s, which ranged from cute puppies to (hopefully) embellished near death experiences. I often had a couple of heart-stopping moments and they weren’t just because of my being unfit! We stopped at the stop streets and I couldn’t resist the temptation of a quick lesson on ‘left, right and left again’.
By the time the front runners were on their return run, my charges and I had barely gone half the distance! But this precious time with the little souls meant more to me than the rest of that whole day.
We arrived safely at school and just in time to greet other parents who had come to drop off their children. Over the ensuing months our numbers grew, until it was quite a crowd who gathered every morning for their daily fix.
A chore becomes a passion
The days grew longer and sweatpants made way for shorts and t-shirts. Spring had sprung in our beautiful town and a transformation was happening right in front of my eyes.
The boarding house adjusted its times so that the boarders could join and parents reported that their children were chivvying them along in the morning for fear of missing their run. Even taxi drivers were chuckling at the earlier pick-up. Healthy competition among the stronger runners, now egged on by loud cheering from the odd veranda, caused me a couple of panic attacks and I issued warnings, but no matter – we were all hooked!
Different personalities and character traits hitherto largely hidden from me, were starting to emerge too. There were of course the natural athletes who jogged alongside their coach and completed their run barely out of breath. But there were also the lazy ones, the determined ones, and the ones who started with a burst of energy then ran out of steam. There were the kind and caring ones who stopped to walk with a friend, and the chatty ones who didn’t let a run get in the way of their social interaction. There were the lovers of life and the tortured souls, the oldest, the youngest and the ‘middle child’. I got to know them all…
The results of our morning endeavours were also becoming evident in the classroom with bright-eyed children who were ready to learn. Our standard white takkies made way for running shoes on the regular two running days and we even had the odd barefoot runner who ran unencumbered by the restrictions of modern day inventions.
It’s always all about the journey
Through sunshine and through the rain that fell on our parched and drought-stricken district, we ran. Yes, my days of walking were by now something of the past! I had moved up in the ranks to jogging in the middle of the throng of runners and had placed another sentinel at the back. I was far from fit, but I could hold a serious conversation mid-running and that’s something!
On recommendation from our still enthusiastic coach, we extended the route so that we were running well into farmland. This in turn opened up learning opportunities about nature conservation, global warming, litter and other pressing problems that these carefree children will inherit one day. Everyday concepts such as: Get up when you fall, never look back and look where you go, had new meaning and became valuable lessons in life.
I found myself coveting the half-hours with the children and learnt anew to see the world through their eyes. Their fears and anxieties are as real as ours. Their hopes and dreams are fabulous and untainted by the oppression of everyday life. Running through a puddle of water and splashing mud on a fellow runner gives them as much joy as can ever be had. I am reminded again that every cloud has a silver lining and that life is made up of the important things: family, friends, and beloved pets.
By the time the last term of the year had arrived, we had not only established a competent core of runners, but we had also formed strong and unbreakable bonds, which gave me immense pleasure and sometimes also gave me early warning signs.
Surprisingly, over time I had come to realise why grown men and women through the years put on their trainers to go for a jog. Maybe it is less about keeping fit and healthy and more about leaving your worries behind and becoming a child again – about being chased around a rugby field by a teacher who has long ago realised (maybe from experience) that it’s the best cure for anything. Maybe it’s more about the journey than the destination, and arriving at the finish line exhausted but intact – ready to face another day.
Setting healthy examples is key
I have also learnt that we, as educators, must never underestimate the power of a small and simple idea growing into a phenomenon that has the potential to change lives. In this regard, I will be eternally grateful to our coach, who saw a golden opportunity to create lifelong runners. She was there every morning, ready and waiting with her digital thermometer to conscientiously scan every child before we went for our run. In rain and shine our coach set the example and ignited an enthusiasm for running among children and teachers alike. She led the pack past the school, up the pot-holed gravel road and out into the countryside every morning and never defaulted. Under her guidance we all thrived and literally ran away from our problems.
The December holiday made us all lazy again. I was bursting out of my tight pants and so excited to start our runs again when school re-opened. There was work to be done – new children to get to know better and more heart-warming and hair-raising stories to make the road ahead shorter.
My sincere wish is that our children will one day look back at these precious moments, especially when life out there gets tough, and remember their teachers – slightly overweight and sometimes pressed for time – who ran with them through the streets of Bedford.