My boys started out their schooling careers like all kids, by going to pre-school, primary school and high school. We were fortunate to have them attend some really good schools, both state and Islamic.
My two elder boys were high-flyers, always competing for the top spot in their grades, while my youngest preferred the creative side of things. He began writing and illustrating his own stories from around 6 years old.
The trouble is, my youngest was always compared to his elder brothers because he was not as good as them in maths, science and the mainstream subjects. This began to affect his self-esteem.
Fortunately, is mother and I caught this fairly quickly, and worked hard to counter the negativity coming from school. We constantly re-enforced him, and supported his creative side. We managed to avert a disaster, but I knew that this was a major crack in the system.
Then there was my own life experience. Having been a computer coder since the early eighties when I was around 9 years old, I was really into it. Naturally, on completing matric I went to university to study towards a B.Sc. degree in Computer Science, thinking I was setting myself up for a top-notch career in IT.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I neared the end of my studies, I began to hunt for a job as a Java developer. Long story short, it was a depressing episode, because no one was prepared to hire me. The reason? No experience. My excellent university results counted for nothing.
I approached a friend who was already a Java developer, and he gave me some golden advice: go teach yourself Java coding, create some projects, and then come see me in a couple of years.
I did as he advised, but it was extremely difficult teaching myself all those skills. We never learned anything like it at university. But I persevered, even doing free work for companies and organisations, until I had the skills. I felt confident, and I presented some of my work to him, which he presented to his company, and that got me an interview. Not a guaranteed job, but an interview.
I did the interview, and got the job, but the pay was pathetic.
When I started work, I realized something even more depressing: everything I had learned at university and on my own was just the tip of the iceberg. I had to spend the better part of the next year just learning enough to be an entry-level developer. In essence, I was not much use to the company for the first few months.
After all that time and money spent on tertiary education, this was my situation.
Then, when things were finally going well, my eldest son began to have problems at school. A straight “A” student until grade 9, he was now failing maths and physics at grade 10 level.
He was in an excellent school, with really good teachers, so that wasn’t the problem. The principal and teachers were, and still are, personal friends of mine. They were very concerned about him.
No one could figure out what was wrong with the boy, and things became confrontational at home. It was an ugly situation.
After one really bad confrontation which left me feeling terrible, I realized that in my concerned state I wasn’t giving him an opportunity to talk about the issue, to make his side heard.
I took him for a walk, and we talked like friends. When he felt comfortable talking, he made a revelation that was stunning, but one that I should have seen: he said he had no interest in school because he wanted to be a computer programmer just like me. And when he saw what I had to go through to get a job, he became despondent of the system.
I could now see the light. I was blinded by the need to toe the line, to follow the crowd, to live up to expectations and push my kids through a system that had let me down.
After my son’s revelation, I gave him the option to join my college, IT varsity. It was a new institute where we offered vocational IT qualifications. Vocational schools are the equivalent to the old trade schools and technicons, where the focus was on employability through practical training, rather than on academics.
My son relished every moment, and flew through his studies. He finished his NQF level 4 certificate, which is the vocational equivalent of matric except that he now had marketable IT skills rather than a meaningless matric certificate.
The following year, he and his team participated in the IBM Youth Innovation App Challenge which was held at the University of KZN’s School of Engineering. They were the only team that did not have Masters degree and doctorate holders. They were a rag tag team from my little college. But this didn’t stop them from wiping out all the other teams and winning the competition.
Today, my son develops systems for some big companies, but has decided to put his focus on education rarther than on app development.
We decided to pull the two younger boys out of school and to home school them. We were very nervous, and took our fair share of criticism and worst case scenarios. According to some naysayers, my boys would certainly starve to death because they didn’t attend school.
But we stood by our decision, and boy oh boy, what a wonderful time we had! Not only did our family bonds go stronger, but we now had the opportunity to teach our kids what they needed to learn, and how we wanted.
We did not shun the existing curriculum altogether, but because the boys were working at their own pace, there was time for a lot more. They were soon reading fiction and non-fiction books that were far ahead of their age rating.
We taught them public speaking, critical thinking and debating skills and the like. We incorporated practical skills like cooking, basic finance, home maintenance and car maintenance into our curriculum.
On the sporting side, they joined a karate class and are now second dan black belts.
On the Islamic side, we incorporated Arabic, tafseer and Islamic history into their learning routines. After the seerah was complete, we progressed to stories of the Sahabah, and then to the post-sahabah era until modern times. Some of their favourites were the Mughal Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of the Moors in Spain. They enjoyed every moment.
We were free to use creative ways to teach the