a life that matters

BY Mrs Natalie Stear

Madam Principal: Kieran Stear; Madam Governing Body Chairman: Ronel Brink; Riebeek Staff; Special Guests; Old girls and present girls, it is such a privilege to be among you all on this very special occasion.  Thank you for asking me to speak today.
There is a saying that old teachers never die; they simply lose their class. Now that we’re living in an age of spreading social media: facebook, twitter, Instagram and so many apps coming into their own, we have wonderful opportunities of staying in touch with each other.  So we teachers haven‘t lost our class after all!  How exciting it is to see so many re-union girls – classes from the past – and how happy I am that our first founder’s day, when the school was 113 years old, was in my first year as head of Riebeek.  The speaker on that day was my past school principal of Clarendon Girls’ High, who was an illustrious old girl of Riebeek College.  When we met her at the airport, she said to me, “Natalie, you are the last person I would have guessed would one day be a school principal.”
You never can tell – can you?  What pupils will do with their lives!  Sometimes it’s the naughtiest ones who make a positive difference in the lives of others.
And that’s the theme of my talk today – making a difference – a life that matters.  I am a Rotarian and this year the Rotary theme is also “Making a difference”
And of course it is the central theme for 2018 at Riebeek – Ubuntu. “I am because we are”.  “What does it mean to be human?”  “How should we behave towards others?”  These thoughts are all captured in the word “Ubuntu” which as you probably know originates in the Nguni languages (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi and Ndebele).  It refers to the connectedness that should exist between people.
This is also the year when we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birth – 100 years ago. How proud we are of that world hero born in our own Eastern Province and loved well beyond its borders.  His larger-than-life bronze statue which dominates parliament square in London, England, is a symbol of how much the world beyond South Africa reveres him. If ever you wish to choose to follow in the footsteps of any human being, start reading about that man – so wise and so forgiving.  He once said, “We can change the world and make it a better place.  It is in our hands to make a difference.”
The interesting thing about making a difference is that anyone can manage it - young or old; healthy or sick; brilliant or average; rich or poor; educated or uneducated.  Anyone can be part of a life that matters.  When a good friend of mine had only a few more days to live she asked me whether I thought she had made a difference in the lives of others. She had been a school principal herself – and to this day people tell me stories about what she had meant to them. That is what we all desire - to leave some kind of legacy that someone lives a better life because of us.  The strange thing is that we don’t always know for sure.  Perhaps a passing word has helped someone – perhaps we will never know how significant that word had been.  The most important thing to remember is that we shouldn’t seek for recognition.  If it comes, it must always be a bonus.
There is a famous 100-word story, which I’m sure many of you already know but is worth repeating.  It is called, “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eiseley. (It has been borrowed by many and even Gandhi’s name has been added to the list of authors.) Here it is:
One day, while walking along the beach, a man noticed a boy hurriedly picking up and gently throwing things into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “Young man, what are you doing?”
 “I’m throwing starfish back into the ocean. The tide is going out and if I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
“There are hundreds of stranded starfish,” the man replied. “You can’t make a difference to all these poor creatures.”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the surf. “I made a difference to that one,” he answered.
I love that last line, “I made a difference to that one.”  Even it if is to help only one fellow human being, it might be the most important action you have ever taken or the most meaningful words you have ever spoken.
Only four months ago a wonderful event occurred which is changing the life of a five-year-old little girl called Lexie who was born with non-functioning kidneys.    She could not survive without receiving a kidney that matched her immune system. Her grandmother, who is 70 years old, was found to be the only suitable match to donate a kidney to this little girl. Jenny, the grandmother agreed although she was aware that it would be a major operation for both of them.  The two operations were successfully performed – Jenny to lose one of her kidneys – little Lexie to receive it.   All is going well and the specialists are confident that Lexie can look forward to a normal life.  How wonderful for a grandmother to know that she has made such a difference. 
One word might make a difference. Professor Jonathan Jansen (who spoke to all the girls at Riebeek over a year ago) writes in his book, “As by Fire”, about one word that changed his life. When he was 8 years old, a teacher told him that he had “potential”. He went home, not even knowing what the word meant.  He found out that it meant “an ability that may be developed and lead to future success”.  This spurred him on. He used to say to himself, “I have potential,” and today he is a highly respected professor, author, public speaker and wise educationist.  One word can make a difference.  It might make you start believing in yourself.  It may help you build a dream that one day will come true.
Teachers are among the lucky ones.  They sometimes hear about the difference they have made.  Years later some of their past pupils might send emails to them or express their gratitude in on facebook.  As I have said, that is always an unexpected bonus.  I know for sure how precious it is to hear something like that.
In my early days of teaching, I remember saying in passing to a parent of a boy who was clever with numbers but struggled with writing words, “If your son had a private secretary he would realise his potential.” Years later, I met his mother at a function.  She said, “We took your advice, you know, and gave my son a personal assistant!”  She told me that the university had granted permission for her son to dictate his exam responses to his personal assistant who typed these on a computer under supervision. Words were his problem but not non-verbal characters as in Maths and Science. The point is that he was awarded his degree with distinction!
Later on when I was the principal of Riebeek College, a young pupil made a difference in my life.  I called her in to speak up for a friend who had been particularly naughty and who was standing in line for serious consequences of her actions.  After hearing all the things that she had done, the friend said to me, “Mrs Stear, I can hear that she has done things which have caused a lot of problems in the school, but my mother always said that everyone deserves a second chance.  I’m asking you to give her a second chance.”  Those words changed my outlook on the way I should be running the school.  I said, “We are closing the book on what has happened because of what your friend has said.  You can choose whether you wish to open that book again and then there will be no third chance.”  We never had occasion to open that book again.  
When my husband was very ill, we needed a carer for him in his last few weeks of life. The carer told me that she had trained as a teacher but just when she had completed her final year the teacher training colleges were closed down.  Although she was awarded her teaching diploma she could not get a post as schools were being instructed to cut back on their staff numbers and were not permitted to take on new teachers.  She needed a job and became a carer.  I asked her whether she would like to teach but she didn’t think anyone would accept her as several years had gone by since she had qualified and she had no experience.  To cut a long story short I arranged for her to be registered with the South African Council of Education and drew up a CV for her, and today she is a top-class teacher in the Eastern Cape. In addition, she has studied further and gained an advanced qualification.
My son, Rory, and my daughter-in-law, Kristine, have done amazing work in Africa – particularly in helping child-headed households to receive help by means of educational programmes on wind-up radios.  One such household, headed (at that time) by a 12-year-old boy, was helped to survive and that same boy now has a college diploma in hospitality and works at a leading hotel in Kenya.  He, in turn, is assisting his siblings with their education. Ubuntu.
My late son, Robert, never spoke to others about all the ways he helped people in need.  Sometimes I was lucky enough to hear about something he had done either through a friend he had helped or by means of my beloved daughter-in-law, Mrs Kieran Stear.  He is no longer here to know about the difference he made but that is not what he would have expected.  The lives of others might be changed long after- wards – all because someone cared.
My talk is about a life that matters, BUT – and this is a big but – I must mention that   making a difference can also be seen in a negative light.  An unkind word, mockery, bullying – can all make someone’s life a misery.  In the years that follow the victim of such meanness might never stop hating herself because she had once been the butt of someone’s cruelty.  She might even repeat that type of cruelty to others, thinking that it would give her power.  And so the chain of ugliness might continue – because of something done or said to her in the past!
 I hope that all of you listening to me will never be responsible for making that type of difference in one’s life.  We should all desire to be part of a life that matters. It doesn’t take any particular skill – all it needs is caring and kindness.
 “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person,” said Mother Theresa.
Awaken the greatness within. Don’t expect thanks or recognition. You may become the reason for someone else’s greatness. Perhaps you’ll never know.
Nearly 300 years ago a man, a Frenchman, Stephen Grellet, wrote the following words – I close with them now:
“I shall pass by this way but once.  Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Natalie Stear

 May 10, 2018
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2018 continued
Mrs Natalie Stear

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