I didn’t see Palesa for the rest of the week and I began to think she had forgotten about me and that she wasn’t really serious about the youth programme. Maybe she had better things to do and decided she didn’t have time to be my friend any way. Part of me was relieved … but part of me was disappointed. Then I told myself that I didn’t really care anyway.
But on Friday there was Palesa, waiting by the school gate, with a big smile.
“Hey chommie. You ready?”
“I don’t know … I don’t think … what time does it end anyway?” I thought of Mama. What if she came back early today? Sometimes if Mrs Abrahams went away for the weekend and if she left early Mama was allowed to leave early too. What if it was one of those days?
“It ends at five. Where do you live?”
“Better Life,” I said and smiled.
She laughed. “I know. We are still waiting, ne?”
“The funny thing is I live there too, so I can come home on the taxi with you. Have you told your mother?”
I shook my head.
“Can’t you send her a text? You can use my phone if you don’t have data.”
“It’s okay, I have some data left.” But I knew I wouldn’t text Mama.
I walked with Palesa down the road towards the community hall. I could still make up an excuse, but I didn’t have much time. We were close now.
Then we were at the door and Palesa was introducing me to a lady who was the coach. We went in and I helped Palesa and her to arrange the chairs in a circle.
I whispered in Palesa’s ear: “Why is she setting up the chairs like this?”
“It’s because it’s easier for us to all talk to each other and share ideas if we are in a circle,” Palesa said. “This way we can see and hear and all listen to each other better.”
I felt sick with nerves. I really didn’t want to be there. If I told her I was going to the toilets I could run back to the road and get a taxi home. But now there were other kids coming into the hall. I recognised a couple of girls from my school, but some kids must be from other schools in the area.
The chairs were in a big circle and everyone was greeting each other.
“Here, sit next to me,” said Palesa, tapping the plastic chair next to her. I sat down. There was no escaping now.
“Hello guys. We have a new member of the group today,” Tasha said, and turned to me. All eyes were on me. “Do you want to introduce yourself and tell us how you heard about the group.”
I felt like saying, ‘I wish the earth could open and swallow me’. I started to stand up, but Tasha waved me to sit down.
“You can stay sitting; it’s very informal here. It’s not like school,” she said with an eye-roll.
The group laughed. I could see that they had fun – but I could also see that they respected Tasha, and that she could be firm when she asked them to settle down again.
“Hello. I am Lizzy,” I said so quietly that I saw Tasha leaning forward to try to catch my name. I looked at the floor. “I heard about the group from Palesa at school.”
“Welcome, Lizzy,” she said. “Anyone else new today?”
One of the more giggly girls put up her hand. “Hello guys. I am Pinky, from Bongolethu.”
I recognised her as one of the girls in Grade 11. “I’m here to learn to be more outgoing and confident,” she announced.
Everyone laughed: Pinky didn’t seem to lack confidence. The laughter made me relax.
After she spoke her friend stood up. “Hello guys. My name is Dineo, also from Bongolethu.” I recognised Dineo from school. “I need help to be more confident and to feel better about myself,” she said quietly. “Also, I want to help my friend. She is being bullied … and–”
“She must klap them!” Pinky shouted out. “Bullies are crazy mos.”
“Hayi, violence is not the answer,” said another girl in the group.
Everyone stared at Pinky, and some of the girls started to giggle.
“But what if nothing else works?” interrupted Pinky, throwing her hands in the air.
“Let Dineo finish speaking,” said Tasha. “We need to listen to each other in the group and not interrupt. When you interrupt it makes the other person feel that they are not being heard.” She said it firmly and I could see that Pinky had taken notice.
Tasha went around the group until everyone had spoken, except me. She turned to me. “Do you want to say something, Lizzy?”
I started to shake my head, but then I thought of how the girls bullied me, and how I didn’t think I was good enough, pretty enough, thin enough …
“I am being bullied at school by a group of girls. They sometimes ask for my lunch and they say I am fat.”
“I am sorry to hear that Lizzy. I hope what we do here will help you to believe in yourself and help you to stand up to those bullies.”
When we had all had a turn to speak, Tasha split us into pairs. We were to do role-plays to show how we could practise standing up for ourselves. I was with Palesa.
We talked about what we would do. Palesa pretended to be one of the bully girls and demanded my lunch. “No, I am not giving you my lunch today,” I said as firmly as I could and walked right past her. Pinky, from the pair closest to us, wanted to come and punch her, but Tasha told her to sit down, firmly.
We had a lot of fun and laughed a lot, and listened, and gave suggestions to each other. I thought of how my mother didn’t listen to me and how I couldn’t tell her how I felt, but I felt comfortable talking in the group. Tasha made us feel comfortable.
At the end of the session she handed out strips of paper and pens and we wrote down something nice about our partners then swopped them. I didn’t know Palesa very well, but I did know one very nice thing about her. I wrote ‘Caring’ on the paper.
She handed me her paper and it said ‘Brave’. That made me feel so good!
The time went so quickly I was sad it was the end of the group. As I was leaving Tasha called me over. She gave me a lovely notebook to write down my thoughts and feelings.
“It’s a journal, just for you. It’s private – you don’t have to show it to anyone. But it might help you to work out how you really feel about things.”
She also gave me a form.
“This is for your parent or guardian to sign,” she said. “They need to know if you want to join, and I need their permission. Did you tell anyone you were coming today?”
I shook my head. I must have frowned because she said, “What’s the matter? Is it hard to tell your mother about this?”
I nodded. “I don’t think my mother will understand. She will think it’s a waste of time.”
“But you won’t know until you ask her,” Tasha said. “What if she knew it was important for you to be here, and why you want to join? Why would you like to join Lizzy? What do you hope to get out of the group?”
“I want to stand up to the bullies and I want to tell Mama how I feel about things and … I want her to listen, like we listened to each other today.” It all came rushing out. “I find it difficult to talk.”
“That’s what I am here to help you with,” said Tasha. “But your mother needs to know you are coming here. You need to tell her why it is important for you. Can you do that?
“I think so …” But I really couldn’t imagine it.
“I’ll make her some coffee when she comes home from work,” I said.
“Here’s the form.” She handed it to me. “I hope to see you here next Friday, Lizzy.”
Tell us: Is Lizzy right or wrong in imagining what her mother’s reaction will be? Do you agree that most of us don’t listen enough?