Jake spits on Sipho’s face. Sipho doesn’t retaliate. He just takes his handkerchief and wipes the slimy goo off. Then he walks up to the podium and opens the paper containing his speech.
Sipho stands in the front of the assembly and waits for silence to address the school. When a remnant of it comes, he clears his throat and says directly into the mic, “God hates me-”
Jake screams, “So do we!” A few people laugh and teachers try to quiet the crowd. Sipho takes a deep breath and bites back the threatening tears.
“I am different,” Sipho says softly.
“Stabane!” someone shouts.
Principal Lesego tries to find the student who said it. Everyone points to the person next to them and bursts into boisterous laughter. Sipho feels himself slipping away. No. He can’t do this.
The reassuring smile that his English teacher, Ms Zee, gives him restores his confidence. The commotion is still going on, and the noise hits its max. Sipho has had enough.
“I am different!” he screams. He is met with 368 pupils’ eyes. Everyone is silent. The tension is palpable.
“Everybody calls me offensive names just because I walk differently and my voice is feminine. I often wish to die. The teachers notice all of this happening but never did anything until Ms Zee. She is kind and caring. She talked me into giving this speech at this morning’s assembly.”
Sipho recalls the time Jabu’s gang waited outside his house to beat him up. His five year old neighbour always threw stones at Sipho. Jake stole his school picture to stick his head on an image of a girl wearing a bikini and passed it around the whole school. A classmate told everyone that Sipho was gay.
“People don’t like others who are different,” Sipho says. “It makes them scared. They are afraid of what they don’t understand. Even I am afraid. Afraid for my life. I fear stepping out of my house every day.”
He could see some of the pupils with tears in their eyes. They feared the same things too.
“I’ve been through a lot,” Sipho continues. “But it has made me stronger. I am different, not abnormal. I have rights.
“We all have imperfections. That’s what makes us unique and special. I used to think that God hated me. Because if I hate myself, then surely God hates me too.”
Sipho waits for some insolent remark from Jake. None comes. He goes on.
“But that’s not true. I learned to love who I am. No one can change that. We all feel rejected and lost. Let’s help each other to be better people. Together.”
Ms Zee stands and starts clapping. So do the students. He can’t help it now. The hot tears rush down his face. They liked what he said! He can’t wait to find out if things will be different from now on. He hopes they will.