Potholes, dongas and roads less traveled

Author: AM Scott

On hearing the 2020 budget announcement the former CEO of the Post Office, Mark Barnes, commented, “We are so busy filling the potholes that we are not focusing on building the road.” His statement is poignant, and perhaps applicable to all walks of life, not just financial projections and the economy.

Let’s consider a pothole: a depression or hollow in a road surface caused by wear or subsidence. The very definition of a pothole speaks to despair and despondency. This are the lows in life, deep and wide or shallow and plentiful, we are often trying to fill the pothole so we can move on to the next stretch, and more potholes. Potholes represent erosion or disrepair.

Let’s consider a road: a way on land between two destinations that has been improved to allow travel by foot or some form of transport.  Some say roads are the life flow of an economy, the arteries through which an economy pulses. A positive economy depends on a solid, intricate and efficient road infrastructure. Throughout time, economic empires and super powers have set about installing roads as a priority. Footpaths became dirt tracks when communities started using these frequently. As society’s needs changed, the materials that paved the pathway changed too; for example, dirt roads became paved with stone with the invention of the wheel more than 7 000 years ago. The earliest of these roads have been traced to about 4,000 B.C. in the Indian subcontinent and Mesopotamia. In a callous act of dominance over captured regions, the Romans built durable roads using multiple layers of materials atop of deep beds of crushed stone for water drainage. Some of those roads remain in use more than 2,000 years later, and the fundamental techniques form the basis of today’s road construction. The world’s economy benefited from a move that was designed to commute legions across occupied areas in the Roman empire. Hot and cold wars and new settlements across the globe have all seen intrinsic road networks established, to the extent that it is an urban expectation that these are in place and intact. If the purpose or need is to get people or goods from one place to another, roads are the default carrier.

Let’s think about this in the context of a child’s school career and life journey. Specifically, let us consider a child who sets about the road called schooling to journey from infant to adulthood, and along the way, gather skills and knowledge that will take them to their to their future. There are certainly potholes on this road. It is possibly, ‘the one less traveled by … And that has made all the difference,’ as Robert Frost once penned in his poem, ‘The Road Not Taken”.

A fresh bundle of toddler joy enters preschool. In a short while, the school starts reporting ‘problems’ against developmental benchmarks for a child that age. Hitting that pothole as a parent is intense and distressing. Often, the guardian is caught unaware, like a motorist smacking a pothole on a dark, wet night. Bham! After righting the ship, the potholes are patched with ‘just in time’ therapy and intervention and the caregivers agree to assess in a little while, to see if things have ‘smoothed’ out. Sadly, as children age by year, the concerns are being measured against developmental markers that are changing too. The next pothole looks deeper and wider, and gravelly. Facing it is often disheartening and overwhelming. But, the caregivers rally and increase the effort to clear out debris and fill the pothole. All the while, conversations turn to the nature of the pothole, the impact of the pothole, the emotion of the pothole. The team cannot yet look ahead and envisage the child’s future or destination. Parents hold out optimistically but few reciprocate with hope. Those closest to the child, and some walking with them on this journey, cannot see the road ahead or believe there may not be one if they don’t get out the donga quickly! The forecast is as poor as the Finance Minister’s 2020 budget speech. It feels exhausting.

The deterioration of the road is relentless and faith sinks. Once entering formal school years, the hole that is the pothole widens to include anxiety and failure to progress academically. The demands of a nebulous, generalised curriculum prescribed to fit all children regardless of their unique learning styles increases. Sadly, some children thud through one gaping hole to the next, skating precariously on deteriorating road surfaces until something starts to collapse. The system or current school says, “She can’t continue.” The child says, “I can’t go on.” The parents and guardians cling on to hope and reach out. They seek a comprehensive ‘status’ check, a global assessment of the whole child. More professionals take a look at the potholes and the state of the child’s emotional world. If the parents have found the right view, hope is rekindled. There are strengths and talents to focus on, there is a future to consider, there are stories of courage and bravery, effort and victory to reflect on and take heart by.

Looking forward to the road ahead, holding a vision for your child’s future is the view that must supersede the reality of a dent in the road. Every child has a place in the sun. Every child has hopes and dreams and a fulfilled life to live. The news of Bellavista pupils as they close out school in matric or reach their graduation and employment goals is testimony to this exhortation. There was a turning point for each of them – to look up – to see the road ahead  – to be driven by a goal – to use this vision to propel them up and out and over the barriers to getting there. We don’t fix children (https://bellavista.org.za/2017/03/01/sorry-we-dont-fix-kids/_), we do punch holes in the darkness (https://bellavista.org.za/2018/06/05/punching-holes-in-the-darkness/). There is life beyond potholes!