Catherine Lamberti Chief Executive Officer, Exercise Technology Inc.
Suddenly realizing that she was about to be murdered in a horrific apartheid riot, Catherine, a young white teacher in South Africa, felt “her spirit fall back inside herself” and tapped into a source of divine inspiration that saved her life.
I was a twenty-three-year-old white teacher walking into a prefabricated classroom without air conditioning in South Africa on a blistering hot summer day. The energy in the room immediately frightened me! I asked my students, thirty black tenth-grade young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty, what was going on—but no one answered.
Something was very wrong. Shutting the door and windows, I said, “Now you can speak freely. Whatever we discuss here today will not go anywhere.” A wave of fear swept over me when someone mumbled, “We are going to burn down the school.”
Growing up in a privileged white community in the 1970s, I didn’t really understand the pain of apartheid, a government sponsored system of legal racial segregation that sparked violent civil unrest throughout South Africa between 1948 and 1990. “Okay,” I said, “Tell me why you want to burn down the school.”
An angry student stood up and threw his books at me. “Look at these marks,” he shouted. “100%! 85%! 90%! 95%! What does it matter? I’m black!” “Yeah! Yeah! We’re black! We’re black!” the rest of the class agreed. “What does it matter?”
I quickly realized what would happen if my students carried out their plan. A terrible riot would occur during which I and the other two white teachers would be murdered in a brutal method called necklacing. A car tire would be placed over my shoulders and arms, and a gallon of gasoline would be poured on my body. Then someone would light a match and set me on fire! That was the way enraged black students dealt with white teachers during an apartheid riot. It had been happening all over the country.
I don’t remember if there was any physical movement on my part, but I felt my spirit fall back inside myself as I flashed on what I knew was coming. From the depths of my soul I prayed, “God help me”—and in that moment of absolute terror, I tapped into a source of divine inspiration that saved my life.
Calmly, I walked to the front of the room with my arms at my side and said, “If I was black, I would want to do what you want to do. I have never understood how painful it is to be black in this country, and I am so sorry. But let’s look at our options.
“There is a military barrack ten minutes away. If you start to riot, one of three things will happen: the military will arrive, and some of you will die. Some of you will go to jail, and some of you will run into the hills. But all of you will have lost your school. Think with me. Maybe there’s a fourth option.”
There was a lot of grumbling. I had caught their attention and needed to keep talking. “Apartheid,” I continued, “will not last. The day is coming when it will be over. Where will you be when apartheid ends? Will you be in jail as a convicted felon? Living in the hills without an education? Will you be dead? Or will you be highly educated and ready to take the lead when our country needs strong black leaders?”
The room became silent. Reminding the students that they would be writing an exam in three months as part of a national test for tenth graders across South Africa, I said, “Let’s make a contract. If you decide to be highly educated, I promise that as hard as you work, I will work harder. I will be there every step of the way to make sure you get the marks that you deserve.” The students accepted the contract, and I walked around the room shaking hands with each one. Then we set to work.
When the test results came in at 92%, the senior teacher said my marks were too high and told me to lower them by 20% because the national board would reject them as lenient. No way! I made a commitment to my students! These marks were earned! Digging in my heels and refusing to back down, an independent evaluator was flown in from another part of the country. After reviewing my students’ work, he said I was strict, not lenient. He fully endorsed the marks!
Looking back, I could have been killed in a terrible way. Putting aside my self-centered view of the world and crossing over into the hearts and souls of my students is what saved my life. But in helping them to deal with their pain, I learned about the joy of serving others and realized there is no other way to live.
Catherine Lamberti, Chief Executive Officer of Exercise Technology Inc., is the inventor of the Sportswall play-based fitness technology and is the driving force behind the company’s infrastructure, product concept, design and development in thirty-two countries. She has twenty-five years of international entrepreneurial experience creating and selling successful companies and is a recipient of the 2011 National Association of Women Business Owners’ Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award in Santa Barbara.