It’s lunchtime, and they’re already waiting by the vans. Fifteen students, who will spend the next hour being prodded, dragged around, grilled and cajoled by the most demanding of all critics – primary school children – and they can’t wait!
This is Over the Fence, a service programme initiated and executed by Chaplain Reverend James Stephenson, which sees St Paul’s students visit Fairfield and Bankwood primary schools on a regular basis as a way to connect with the community.
Rev James Stephenson sums it up succinctly “the happiest people are those who serve others” explaining it’s not those who have the most who are happiest, but those who offer service.
He’s also quick to point out that while Fairfield and Bankwood are low-decile schools, this is no modern-day almsgiving; the St Paul’s students get as much, if not more, from visiting the primary schools than the youngsters do.
Over the Fence student leaders Michael Turnbull and Emi Ng agree.
“For most of us, we’ve grown up well-off and sometimes without siblings, so we can be a bit self-involved. This is a new experience and it’s been incredibly rewarding,” says Michael.
Emi adds, “It’s great for us; we live in a reasonably sheltered environment at St Paul’s and Over the Fence has really opened our eyes to a different part of the city. “It’s also giving us the opportunity to learn skills we may not get anywhere else.”
Giving service is obviously addictive, Michael and Emi were part of the 19-strong contingent who visited Cambodia in December last year on a two-week programme to help renovate a children’s club in Phnom Penh.
Teacher-in-charge Carl Neethling says while it’s possible some students may have initially signed up to the programme for the potential benefit of being able to add voluntary community service to their CV, the idea that this is a just-show-up programme is quickly dispelled.
“We require a commitment from those who join the programme, they have to make themselves available on a regular basis, and take an active role with the young students.”
Not that they have much of a choice, once the van rolls into the Bankwood School driveway. Little eyes light up and smiles are wide as the big kids arrive from the school up the road.
A table of seven-year-old girls with easily as much sass as the American R&B singers they emulate, pounce on the two boys as they enter the classroom and help with schoolwork is temporarily abandoned while the boys are quizzed about haircuts, pre-weekend stubble, and why there aren’t more girls visiting today.
Taking the barrage in characteristic good humour the boys help colour windmills until the bell rings and a swarm of children head outside for lunch.
Eating lunch from a rainbow of lunchboxes and drink bottles, kindly donated by Sistema for the programme, the kids finish quickly so the real fun can begin.
Games of tag and basketball begin spontaneously along with shared play on the adventure playground and general chaotic activity.
There are no shrinking violets among either group and the aim for both is to have as much fun as they can in the time they have.
“More than anything it’s an opportunity for kids to be kids — ours and theirs,” Carl says as he too, is surrounded by youngsters who tag him and run off giggling.
The younger children love having these older boys and girls around, and the teachers too.
Bankwood teacher David Chamberlain, whose father Pat will be well-remembered by generations of Old Collegians, is a keen supporter of the programme.
“It’s not a disruption to the classroom when the older students arrive. We’ve just made small adjustments to the teaching programme to make sure our students are doing reading or something the older students can help with rather than writing where they couldn’t get involved as much.
“My father said during his tenure there were a few attempts made at community service type programmes but the momentum never lasted so it’s great this is so successful.”
And successful it is. From around 240 students being involved in 2016, Carl reports 330 signups this year and considering it is only Year 11–13 students who are able to take part, it’s a significant proportion of the senior school.
All too soon the fun wraps up as the seniors have to be back for periods five and six. “You can’t go, my hand’s stuck to you,” one young stayer offers as the big kids meander reluctantly back to the van.
The mood on the short trip back to school is buoyant. When asked if the amount of time spent at Over the Fence is too long, just right, or not long enough, the response is unanimous.
“Definitely not long enough. We should stay all afternoon.”
A sideways grin and shaking of the head indicates this is something Carl has heard before, a lot.
GARRICK LAING (CLARK 1983–87)