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A journey of love and learning

Oscar Gordon-Smit is the founder of the Skhumbuzo Foundation, an initiative born from his and his son Leander’s experience navigating basic education as a family living with learning disabilities.

Having fought and conquered the uphill battle that was his schooling journey, Leander is now a first-year student at the renowned South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance (AFDA) and is hoping to join the South African National Defence Force someday soon. And Oscar, a father who has been by his child’s side every step of the way, can now use his years of experience and his network to help other parents and children successfully navigate their learning journeys and access the resources they need and deserve – and without the many, many obstacles Oscar and Leander encountered along the way.

The Gordon-Smit family’s story begins in 2000, when Oscar’s partner, Hilton, got a job at a private college in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga. Three months after the appointment, Oscar travelled from Cape Town to Nelspruit and, in 2001, the couple began the process for adoption through Johannesburg Child Welfare.

They’d make the almost 400-kilometre journey from Nelspruit to Johannesburg for the assessments and to meet with the caseworker and with the social worker. Then, on 11 September 2001, the two travelled to Johannesburg for their final interview and to receive the results about whether they would be placed on the adoption waiting list.


As fate would have it…

On that day, Oscar entered the babies’ play area and was instantly drawn to one of the baby boys. But knowing that getting attached could end in heartbreak, Oscar forced himself to move along around the play area. Hilton and Oscar returned to Nelspruit to await the results of the process.

Then on 15 October 2001, the couple received that life-changing call: they were about to become parents. A little less than two weeks later, they returned to Johannesburg to meet and pick up their child. To Oscar’s surprise, his baby boy was the one he was drawn to in the play area.

“It was fate that we had to be together,” said Oscar.

With the adoption process wrapped up, Oscar moved back to Cape Town with his son and in 2005, enrolled Leander at a private school in Rondebosch. Having already realised that his son had a unique way of learning, Oscar asked that the teacher “keep an eye on him”.

“At the time I didn’t know what it was, but I could see that he became bored easily,” said Oscar, adding that Leander would also become frustrated when things didn’t work out the way he wanted them to and that there was evidence of hyperactivity.

Soon after, the Grade R teacher recommended that Leander undergo an assessment. However, this recommendation was only made after Oscar had heard from other parents that Leander was often seen roaming the corridors because he’d been kicked out of the classroom.

“No communication was given … I was obviously livid”.

Nonetheless, Oscar agreed to the assessment and Leander was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This, Oscar said, was the start of an uphill battle to ensure that his son received a quality education.

Leander began therapy but this was “extremely costly”, especially as theirs was a single-income household at the time.

Frustrated with how Leander was being treated, Oscar had even, at one point, threatened to stage a sit-in protest outside the principal’s office. It was a constant fight: teachers labelled him a “challenging parent”, they refused to meet with him and some had even conceded that they cannot deal with Leander and so they kicked him out of their classrooms.

And despite his young age, Leander was aware something was not right: Every night he’d be riddled with fear and anxiety about school and about getting into trouble yet again.

“The treatment he experienced obviously played on his mind,” said Oscar.

“Not many teachers were nice to me. They didn’t really try to help me,” recalled Leander.

And so, wanting to do what was best for Leander and the family, Oscar decided to move back to Nelspruit and enrolled his son in another private school.

Endless fights, heartache

“You’d think private schools are more tolerant and inclusive but that wasn’t our experience,” said Oscar.

Again, there were endless fights, meetings, instances of Leander being kicked out of the classroom, heartache, and tears.

“I felt guilty, I felt pressured, I questioned my parenting skills … which is sad because no parent needs to go down that road of feeling that they are responsible if it’s a medical condition,” said Oscar.

The proposed solution from the principal, teachers and therapists was transferring Leander to a remedial school and getting him on Ritalin. Neither of these was acceptable to Oscar at the time and one of the reasons for this was that because Leander was adopted (and it was a closed adoption), it was not advisable that he be put on Ritalin without full knowledge of his medical background. Instead, Oscar decided to start researching ADHD and associated learning difficulties.

At the same time, the private school in Nelspruit decided they could no longer accommodate Leander and referred them to a remedial school in the town. However, the principal there concluded that Leander was not “remedial school material” and in turn recommended that Oscar take Leander to a neurologist to ensure there hadn’t been any misdiagnosis. With the assessments done and with the neurologist’s advice, Leander started on Concerta.

“It helped him tremendously in terms of concentration and sitting still in the classroom,” said Oscar.

Armed with information

Then, when Leander was in Grade 4, Oscar decided to move them back to Cape Town. The remedial school in which he had tried to enrol Leander was too expensive and so Oscar decided to take the home-school route for the rest of the year.

“I actually realised how smart my little boy was, especially when it came to mathematics,” Oscar recalled.

Through home-schooling, Oscar discovered that Leander could provide the answer to a sum – and it would be correct – but he couldn’t give you the steps to get there.

As the year came to an end, Oscar approached the Western Cape Education Department’s (WCED) Specialised Education Support Services section while also beginning the process to enrol Leander at a public school in Diep River. While Oscar encountered difficulties with the school, he was now armed with information from the WCED, including what he refers to as the “white paper trail” and information about how schools are supposed to assist children with learning difficulties.

Leander also started seeing a private educational psychologist who confirmed the ADHD diagnosis, approved the medication he was on and found that he also had mild dyslexia. With this knowledge and confirmation from the “expert”, Leander was finally given concessions for reading, writing in cursive, spelling, extra time and having a reader and scribe.

At the same time, Leander was also receiving speech therapy, occupational therapy and help with hearing.

While things moved along relatively fine over the next few years, an incident occurred when Leander was in Grade 7, away at a school camp.

Oscar had instructed the teachers about Leander’s medication and asked about who would look after it and ensure that he received the correct dosage. The teachers effectively told Oscar that he was “hovering”, “nagging” and that everything would be fine. But when Leander returned from camp, Oscar could see his son was “as high as a kite, on a sugar rush”. Despite having instructed the teachers on what was needed, Leander couldn’t find his medication and the teachers never thought to check if he had.

‘People like different’

Leander’s journey in high school was a lot smoother. He enrolled at Norman Henshilwood High School. The principal at the time was, said Oscar, “very accepting” of Leander’s need concessions. However, some of the teachers were not as accommodating and some of the earlier challenges in Leander’s learning journey once again reared their ugly heads.

But there was an improvement and it helped that Oscar was now fully equipped with the information to ensure his child had access to the quality education and fair treatment he deserved. As Leander moved to a new grade, Oscar was ready with a portfolio in hand, covering everything his new teachers would need to know.

It also helped that Leander was a lot more comfortable with himself and discovered that his “difference” was part of his strength.

“I realised that I was different and that people like ‘different’,” Leander said.

Come matric, new challenges arose but none that Oscar and Leander could not overcome. These included needing to secure alternative venues for examinations, struggling with outside noise when those venues were secured, and, because it was during the pandemic, a need for social distancing between Leander and the reader and scribe.

Despite the challenges, Leander prevailed and passed matric.

“When he got his result, we were overjoyed,” said Oscar. “There were tears and there was laughter … It was just overwhelming to think that this journey is over, that he made it”.

Paying it forward

With his schooling complete, Leander is now in his first year at AFDA. His plan is to complete his degree and then enlist in the SANDF to protect and serve his country.

As for Oscar, while he is ensuring Leander is keeping up-to-date with his assignments, his focus is now on paying it forward to families who find themselves in similar situations. Oscar’s aim for the Foundation is to support parents and children with learning disabilities successfully navigate their schooling journeys.

While Oscar is thankful for the WCED’s work in assisting children with learning disabilities, the reality is that they cannot reach and support everyone. That’s where the Foundation will step in, catching those outside of the WCED’s net. He hopes to share his knowledge and experience, as well as provide access to the necessary resources and services, including treatment, readers and scribes and assessments.

“I want to ensure that these children get the help that Leander had and that they deserve,” said Oscar.

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