‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’.
When do we first begin to remember? When do the waving lights and shadows of dawning consciousness cast their print upon a child? For me, my earliest memories are of Africa. I remember my early childhood: bright carefree days under the African sun, and warm nights under the luminous moon. I remember a place where life is never certain, but the souls are free. A place that is home to the sweetest peace, the darkest nights, and the toughest fights. I remember the days of kindergarten and the first days of school aged six with my grey shorts, long stockings, stiff collared shirt, tie and blazer. I remember leaving the warm embrace of familiarity, coming here to New Zealand into the struggle that became of a childhood, constantly trying to find my place. I became acquainted with loneliness and the ever-present feeling of being a black angel in a sea of fair-faced and freckled cherubs. Worse still, my mind quivers at the memory of that summer day, five years ago, when I came here to Macleans and entered into this most inhospitable region of regimented routine, examinations, and other manifold yet pointless anxieties.
Looking back to my thirteen-year-old self on his first day here at Macleans, lugging a bag as heavy as the sins of the world, or, like our blessed Lord dragging his cross. If I could write to him I would say:
‘Dear Johnnie Boy,
Nice Hair By The Way
I hope you are well. I know you’re not. You poor dear thing…The eternally unhappy, nervous, wild, wondering, and despairing John: among other things you are angry, angst-ridden, but, wondrously alive. School will never be your thing, you won’t fit in much, books will be your friends, and you’ll get into trouble often, but, you’re a survivor. To live is to conquer. Stay true to yourself, and keep the faith.’
Yet, for all the toils, trials, and tribulations that have often characterised my journey through this college, standing here today, I am both proud and grateful to be among the second from thousands and thousands of generations of Sibandas, to have had the opportunity to attend high school, let alone graduate. I am the grandson of a sugar cane plantation worker, a market seller-woman, a domestic maid, and a farmer. I come from a long line of men who spent their lives on battlefields, farms and and ancestral lands, fighting and farming, living and loving under the African skies. Let’s face it, in the great scheme of things, my presence before you today is unlikely. I owe my existence to the hills, valleys, mountains, glades and ever-changing seasons that have defined the native land of my ancestors. But I also am a New Zealander, my body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter-day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine, and melted in the heat of the midday sun. Where I come from, and where I have been, have shaped me into the person I have been up to now, and the person I’m in the process of becoming.
My life is a story of opportunity, optimism, and hope. I come here as one, but I stand as ten thousand. I am the hope and the dream of my ancestors and my time here at this school has helped me mould my intellect, temperament, and character. The way that I see it, we are all butterflies; colourful, distinct, and unique. Having come through into the chrysalis of school as caterpillars, we have pushed through, evolved, transformed, and morphed into the versions of ourselves we have today. From the rageful, somewhat arrogant, and miserable child that entered through the gates of this school, at risk of self-aggrandizing, I think that I’ve become a kinder, more generous and empathetic person, who is optimistic and embracing of diversity. At times during our metamorphosis, we struggled to push through, but we have learnt that the worse it gets, the better it gets. The darkest hour of night, is the one before dawn. Moreover, through the struggles that we have at times experienced in pushing through school, we have had to learn to ask for help. Sometimes, through this journey, when I felt I could hang in no more, and I was tempted to throw in the towel, I had to ask my friends, family, and teachers to hang on for me, hang on with me, or to hang on to me. Sometimes, I have needed others to be there for me, and at other times, I have been there for others. To invoke the apostle St Paul ‘When … I ask out of somebody else’s treasure, it is a promise that when I feel treasure rising in me, I will be able to give it to another’. We don’t live and die alone. We haven’t gotten through school alone, and, we will not get through life alone. To quote High School Musical, ‘We’re all in this together’.
As I stand here, I’m still coming to terms with the realisation that the glittering, naive, and august days of our adolescence, are drawing to a close, and giving way to adulthood. Right here and right now, as we find ourselves at the summit of a mountain that we have climbed for half a decade, we look out into the uncertain, mist-veiled horizons of our futures and we hear, calling for us, the mysterious rhythms of destiny. We have have climbed this mountain that once seemed insurmountable. We have tried not to falter; indeed, we have made missteps along the way. However, we now only realise that after climbing one mountain, ahead, there are many other hills to climb. Soon we shall take a moment to rest, to steal a view of how far we have come. But, we can only rest for a moment, for soon we will realise that with freedom comes responsibility. There is beauty in where we have been, there is also beauty in where we are, but even more beauteous are the places that we will go, and the people we can become. The Excellence Endorsements, the Scholarships, academic, and cultural prizes that I’ve achieved throughout my school career, or even, the Scholarship and House Prefect roles in which I’ve been privileged to serve are significant accomplishments, but the achievement of which I’m most proud from my time at this school is the person I’ve become and the person that I am becoming.
BECOMING. What a beautiful word, in its simplest essence, I believe that life is about becoming. Every day, we wake up in the most connected society, the most innovative world, and the most consequential time in human history, and we ask ourselves ‘what am I going to do?’. Every day we make choices, take, risks, and create moments that become memories. Ultimately, how we spend our days is, of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. Seconds become minutes, minutes become hours, hours become days, months and years. ‘Dost, thou love life?’ Benjamin Franklin asked? ‘Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of’. The business of living is about mastering the art of being. By being, we’re are on the journey of becoming. Life is a journey from here to there and coming to care deeply for what we find along the way. To be, or not to be, that is is the question. Life may give us ‘a sea of troubles’, ‘heartache’, ‘a thousand natural shocks’, and send our way the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, but I suppose these are a part of the journey, for a good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination. Sadness and sorrow are part of the tapestry of a life well lived. There is no shortage of good days, it is good lives that are hard to come by. I think that the key to a good life is ‘To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you somebody else. This is the perpetual struggle that we will have to fight on our journey of becoming.
If you will indulge me for a little while yet, let me share with you a few lessons that I think could help us on our quests to live a life less ordinary. FIRSTLY, we must explore adventures and allow ourselves the discomfort of changing our minds. We should allow ourselves to form opinions that are ours and not inherited, borrowed, or based on superficial thinking. It is enormously disorienting to say ‘I don’t know’, but it is infinitely more rewarding to invest the time to and effort necessary to cultivate true conviction even if that means changing your mind.
FURTHER, we should be generous with our time, our resources, and our kind words. It is much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. BUT, we must remember that there is a human being on the end of every exchange and behind every artifact, article, or creation being critiqued, somebody was vulnerable enough to put a piece of themselves out into the world.
ALSO, as Maya Angelou profoundly advised, when people tell you who they are, believe them the first time; just as importantly, when people try to tell you who you are, disbelieve them. We are the captains of our ships, and the masters of our destiny. We shouldn’t allow people who misunderstand us, define us. We are the custodians of our integrity.
MOREOVER: Presence is more valuable than productivity. Ours is a culture that seeks to measure worth by our efficiency, our earnings, or our abilities to produce or perform certain functions. Don’t get me wrong, before we can ‘play hard’ we must ‘work hard’; the cult of productivity has its place, but, worshipping at it’s altar robs us of the capacity for joy and wonder that ultimately make life worth living.
FINALLY, we should expect anything worthwhile to take a long time. Once again, in our culture of immediacy, it is important to remember that the myth of overnight success is just that: a myth. The flower does not go from bud to bloom in one sprightly burst, and yet as a culture we’re uninterested in the tedium of the blossoming. That’s where the real magic unfolds and the making of one’s character and destiny comes to fruition.
The conclusion of high school is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end, but instead, we can think of it as an end to a beginning. As the day draws near, when we shall have to part ways, let us vow to live noble lives in pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. Let us dream wildly, work devotedly, and love tenderly. Let us be generous, gracious, and kind. Let us treasure our joys but not bewail our sorrows, instead, let us face challenge and adversities with courage and sureness of spirit asking; ‘try me’ not ‘why me’, like people who fear God and nothing else. Let live lives of purpose and make the journey worth making — once. In the idiom of the people of the Limpopo – a river that has given many of my ancestors life – Woza Mfana! Asambe! Hafambeni, Rise up, let us go! ‘Ours is the earth and everything that is in it’.