I detested Thando-Lerata from the get-go in high school. The feeling was mutual. Imagine the quintessential “it girl”. Crowds pooled around her.

All of that was undone in one day. We went on a school trip to a children’s home. I could only describe the entire bus ride as long and noisy. Thobile was stomping her feet to the music. Sandile and co were dancing and nodding their heads to the lively beat. My eyes travelled farther down the aisle, back where the “it group” was huddled up. The crew was beaming at Thando-Lerata, who seemed to be retelling her best story ever. The fascinating tale of how she was saved from drowning.

“I almost died!” she squeaked.

Wow, I thought in disbelief, her voice had overridden the blasting music. Thithu, beside me, took off his earphones and gave me a look.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“With what?” I responded.

“You look like you have a mouthful of lemons!” he exclaimed.

“I’ve had it! She’s just so…” I fisted my knuckles. No words could describe how she made my blood boil. “…so ugh!” I continued. Thithu laughed as usual.

We pulled up to an estate. “INDAWO YETHEMBA,” was written on the gate. A child’s painting was also on display. I smiled at that. “A place of hope…”

We rushed out in a disorderly manner. Ma’am Mdletshe called for our attention. “You will stand in line and be silent! Now!” she ordered. Talk about a drill sergeant!

The petite teacher was ruthless. And boy, could she give a good hiding! It was in every learners’ best interest to listen. All thirty of us went in, in our straight lines.

As if on cue, a bunch of toddlers came running our way. The older children were lagging, but steadily coming. I hugged one who I later found to be named Peaches. The name probably stemmed from her skin tone, or her plump cheeks. We played games, ran around, and did crafts too. Those kids were bundles of energy! By the afternoon, we had one more activity – a bonding session.

We sat on padded pillows strewn across the floor. Thando-Lerata and her entourage strolled in last, like showstoppers. Surprise, surprise, she had grasped the attention of the room

“Uhm,” she scanned the area, “I don’t know where to sit.”

Mrs Mdletshe firmly put up her no-nonsense face. Her eyes squinted, her eyebrows scrunched up, and her arms folded slowly.

“Never mind,” Thando-Lerata fake-laughed. Smart girl to anger our teacher. In her rush, she sat on the nearest cushion. To my dismay, she was next to mine. I huffed and inwardly groaned.

“I know it’s been an exhausting day,” Hannah, one of the caregivers spoke melodiously. Everything about her was motherly. “But this is important. We all come from different backgrounds. Do you know the person next to you?”

I scoffed, “Of course, the great Thando-Lerata!” I mumbled under my breath.

“No you don’t!” Thando-Lerata herself cried out. Did she look… hurt? She rose.

“You know what? I am tired! Of all of you!” She pointed accusingly at me. Her withheld tears glistened in her eyes. “My mom tried to drown me as a toddler. My father never loved us! I suffered because of that. I suffered!” She beat her chest. “I suffered! My only crime is being strong! I chose to focus on my rescuer. The only one who stepped up to the plate and called a stranger like me her daughter!” The dam walls broke. A flood of tears flowed. She ran out, not minding the few she kicked along the way. I couldn’t roll my eyes at the action anymore.

She was human too – a burdened one. She had made mistakes. She had emotions. She was sensitive. That “never judge a book by its cover” quote wasn’t a naïve saying. I cannot believe I had to shatter a phenomenal soul to learn that and realise everyone has their own story. We ought to judge not!