I grew up in a colored high school in apartheid-torn South Africa, so my learning took place outside the classroom as much as it did inside.
I lived in Cape Town, in the shadow of majestic Table Mountain, and surrounded by white, sandy beaches. The natural beauty of my hometown contrasted sharply with the political reality of the time. Neighborhoods and schools remained segregated.
Our schooling was constantly punctuated by boycotts, and students frequently registered their protest against the harsh regime. I remember watching marches where participants were drenched by "purple rain," a tactic in which the police sprayed dyed water in an effort to mark protesters for easy arrests. Chants of "Free Nelson Mandela" -- who was still languishing in prison, on nearby Robben Island -- resonated through our classrooms.
Amidst this atmosphere, Mrs. Hilda Levin, my English teacher, represented a beacon of hope and encouragement. She was a white teacher who ventured each day into the colored neighborhood where I lived. Barely five feet tall, she urged me to write creatively, and often, even though my mother worried about the hidden meaning of my stories' subjects.
I wrote about terrifying creatures and dangerous events, a direct result of the hours I spent each Sunday evening listening to radio dramas, captivated by the power of words and voices to transport me to unknown places.
I longed to create similar experiences for those reading my words. I wanted to write in a way that would unsettle my audience, or at least make them think differently about ordinary experiences. I had no idea how to do this, nor could I, at the time, come close to understanding what my longing was about.
Mrs. Levin challenged me to push beyond that discomfort.
"Write what you're passionate about," she would tell me. "Don't worry about what others are thinking. Just pay attention to what the words might be telling you."
Mrs. Levin's influence extended beyond the boundaries of the classroom. "You must learn more about the world around you," she declared one day, before piling my classmates and me into her car and driving us to Groote Schuur, the hospital the foot of Table Mountain. "This is where my husband works," she told us. "Which of you is going to join him?"
Growing up, I had always assumed I would follow in my parents' paths and become a teacher. The walk through the hospital challenged that assumption for the first time. I started to imagine new possibilities, and new possible careers flowing from that decision.
The oppressive political regime of my youth had worked hard to convince me and my classmates that we were second-class citizens. Mrs. Levin's words, actions and support provided a different lens through which to view that world, one that stressed achievement, possibility, and hope.
It's that hopeful vision that keeps me doing what I do today.
And whenever I return to Cape Town, and reconnect with old high school friends, we often recall something Mrs. Levin taught us, or said. Her voice lives on in my head, and her actions and caring attitude remain my yardstick for what a true educator is -- and what she does.
This series on lifelong learning is a partnership with the Faces of Learning Campaign -- to share personal stories of powerful learning experiences.