Sapang, a tenth grader, is taking physics for the first time.

Sapang, a tenth grader, is taking physics for the first time.


Anders Kelto

This blog post is part of a year-long series, School Year: Learning, Poverty, and Success in a South African Township. Read more on the School Year Blog.

During the first week of classes, I noticed an interesting debate among students at COSAT: what’s the hardest subject?

I spoke with a ninth grader named Sisipho, who was taking chemistry for the first time, and she told me that chemistry is the hardest.

I spoke with a tenth grader named Sapang, who was taking physics for the first time, and he told me that physics is the hardest. (His exact quote was, “It’s like you are dying when you are doing physics.”)

I found the same pattern when I asked students which grade level is the hardest. Ninth graders said ninth grade. Tenth graders said tenth grade.

Sive, an eleventh grader, told me, “Everyone says eleventh grade is the hardest.”

Some of the hype seems to be deliberate, on the part of the instructors. Sapang, the tenth grader, says one of his teachers told him that physics was going to be incredibly difficult – and that person was a physics teacher. When I sat in on a meeting of twelfth graders, their supervisors (the “grade heads”) emphasized the difficulty of senior year.

You can understand why teachers might do this: if they constantly remind the students of how difficult their work is, they might work especially hard.

But I’ve also wondered if what’s happening here is a kind of self-imposed motivation. Students at COSAT, it seems to me, choose to believe that the challenges they’re facing are unusually difficult. It makes their success that much sweeter, and their failures a bit more tolerable.


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