LIVING IN FLOW
At 16, Grace Eteta is a phenomenal student at her high school. The lapel of her blazer is decorated with various accolades, including the Future Leader 2015, Library Steward, Life Sciences Merit Award and the Western Cape Education Department Peer Educator, to mention a few. She shares her story of how loss and the pressure to succeed pushed her to breaking point, and how letting go of high expectations has led her to be the greatest person she can be.
Born in the Congo, Grace and her family, including her three siblings (her two brothers aged twelve and five and her eight-year-old sister) moved to Cape Town shortly after her birth. She was raised in a nurturing environment with both parents who have academic backgrounds. Her dad was a Maths and Physics major at university and her mom is a businesswoman who specialises in African art.
Grace described her early life as one that has some of the best memories; as the youngest child she says that she was doted on by her entire family.
“It was the best time because my sister was also like a mother to me, she looked after me and always made me laugh. My mom was away a lot for work, leaving me and my siblings to spend much time together, but the bond my sister and I had was always special. I think it was because we were the only daughters. I remember on the first day of Grade R, my siblings took me to school and they made a great fuss and kept saying: ‘Our baby is going to school.’ They always made me feel really special.”
Sadly, Grace’s family life changed when her sister fell ill.
“I was about six when she started getting sick. We were at home and she fainted, and after that she was always sick and missing school. I was sheltered by my older brothers and parents so I didn’t know much about what was happening to her. When she wasn’t at home, I would ask everyone where she was and they just told me that she was sick in hospital but that she was going to come home soon.”
“For the following four years she was in and out of hospital. When she came home she didn’t let the sickness get her down; she was sassy, and straight forward. Our relationship didn’t change either, she kept everything the same and would talk to me about school and how I must always do my best.”
“As a family we were always aware of her not being well, and by that time I also knew that she was suffering from a liver disease.”
Grace says that a visit her sister made to the doctor gave them hope.
“I came home one day and heard that my sister had been to the doctor and he said she was getting better, so we were all very positive.
Unfortunately for Grace and her family, her sister passed away unexpectedly a week later.
“It was a terrible shock. She got sick at home and was taken to hospital and we all thought that she would recover and come home again as usual, but this time she passed away in hospital. They didn’t want to tell me, but when they came home from the hospital my mom was crying. I asked my eldest brother where my sister was and he told me that she was still in hospital. I knew something was wrong because of everybody’s behaviour. They eventually told me and it was a very difficult time.”
School became Grace’s sanctuary.
“A few days after my sister passed away I returned to school. For me, going back to school was fine because it was a different environment, it distracted me. I deal with things better when no one knows what’s going on. At home, everyone was going through the same thing so it was really difficult. At school, other people were not feeling what I was feeling, so it was a place of normality.”
“That year was hard because it really took my mom a long time to heal. She was acting strange and whenever anybody would get sick, we would fear that they might die. Feelings during that time changed from zombie-like to extreme pain.”
“As a family we chose to look at the positive side, and to remember her.”
“When I turned 12 things were much better at home, mostly because my eldest brother’s fiancée helped me deal with my sister’s passing.”
Preparing for High School, Grace says that she felt pressure to really succeed because she was the only daughter and her sister had performed well at school.
“At the beginning of the year, my parents made it clear that school grades are very important. They would compare my marks on an ongoing basis to what my brothers and sister had achieved when they were my age. That created continuous pressure.”
“One day when I was in Grade Eight and my brother was Grade Eleven, he came home with medals for top achiever and my mother looked at me and said ‘I want you to get it too.’ It’s like it became a life’s purpose for me. When I saw the comparison and saw the difference between my siblings and I, it made me doubt my capabilities. What went through my mind was that I wished to make my mom happy – make everyone happy, but I was unsure that I could. “
“I felt the pressure because our family is academically focussed. I was always supported, but everyone made me aware of the high standards I should meet.”
“They always said that I had potential, but I wasn’t achieving the best marks, so I continuously felt frustrated. I would study harder and harder, but at the end of each year I would not even be close to what my siblings had achieved at my age.”
“I studied, I became more aware of my school work, I cared about the quality. I looked for pointers and I would show my dad and brothers and they would help me but I wasn’t top in my grade. It was agonising. What was wrong with me?”
“Even though I was working so hard at getting into the Top Ten in Grade Nine, I didn’t succeed. In Grade Ten, I gave it another try, as I did not want to disappoint my family.”
Things change when Grace met a friend who noticed where she was going wrong with her studying – she was trying to memorise instead of understand.
“My friend had qualities similar to my sister so we just connected.”
“For the first term I gave it my all, but I didn’t make the Top Ten, which really annoyed me and I almost gave up. I let go of the idea of being in the Top Ten in the second term but still tried my best.”
Grace says that by letting go of the expectation to succeed – both internally and externally – helped her feel lighter and less stressed.
“I had to let go of the high expectations because they were strangling me. I just couldn’t handle the pressure anymore. I gave up the idea of being a top student as it felt like it was not for me.”
Grace says that, after she changed her thinking, even though she felt like a coward about giving up, she also felt lighter.
“I started to enjoy studying more because I was focusing on learning, instead of just achieving high marks. Surprisingly, in the beginning of the third term, while we were in an assembly and the Principal was calling out the name of the Top Ten students, I kept hearing the usual names. He called out from tenth place to first place, and I was shocked to hear my name. I was the top student for that term.”
“All my life I had worked so hard for this moment, and I expected to have feelings of fulfilment – but they weren’t there. I was happy, but I thought I would feel a greater sense of achievement. It felt as if what I had been pursuing was not for me, but for others. It made me reflect about the way I had been living my life and how I was treating myself.”
Grace’s experience made her search for what was important to her.
“The library was my special place at school. I loved being there, it really helped me through everything. I used to feel bad because of the way this space was neglected. It was mainly a place where naughty children were sent when they didn’t want to behave in class. I wanted everyone to experience the library in the same way as I did.”
“I had the idea to renovate it and I spoke to everyone about it. The library had so much potential, so my friends and I cleaned up the place, but then a week later it was dirty again. I did not give up and, supported by the vice principal and the other teachers, we held a drive for old books.”
“It turned into a big event and we were on radio stations and in newspapers. We changed it from being a detention centre to a library. I felt so happy because, as a bookworm, I knew the value of reading. We now had a resource for people in the community.”
“On the day that the library was re-launched, I felt a great sense of achievement. I was finally experiencing the sense of fulfilment that I had always pursued.”
Grace concludes by saying, “There is no such thing as healthy pressure. If you feel too much pressure, it’s because something is wrong. When you are pursuing what you are passionate about, pressure is not part of the journey. You might find yourself challenged on certain occasions, but because you are pursuing what is true to you, the journey flows easily into completion.”
Grace is a Leaders’ Quest participant.