Upstate New York, December 1976
I was fifteen years old when I came across this picture in LIFE magazine. When I say I was captivated by that picture, that is a major understatement.
I returned to that magazine, day after day, staring at that scene. I stared at it for so long that I merged into the picture, was standing on the street, was looking at the houses in the background. I had no idea why. I remember the room I was sitting in, the stillness of my house, and the cold, wintry air outside the window. Maybe it was because these kids were about my age that I was so struck. There they were, a world away, in a kind of anguish that I could not understand. I had my own anguish – my mother was in unbearable physical pain as she was dying of cancer, and other things were going on in my life that were less than idyllic.
But the kind of life where children die in the street was far away from my conception. Maybe that picture was the awakening of my compassion, where I could reach out to people so far away. I especially connected with the school boy carrying the other, because his face was the most clearly visible, and the tragedy was most clearly depicted in his expression. I could actually feel the trembling of his mouth.
I stared at them, over and over and over and….
Soweto, South Africa, April 2000
My then-husband and I were nearing the end of our journey around the world, making a documentary for world peace. Our journey was many years in the making and full of challenges, hardships, and doubts. There were quite a few “Are you sure you got the right person for this job, Life?” kind of days. In the quiet moments, the answer was always yes. And sometimes Life showed me the answer in Its own way.
I went to a memorial for school children who were killed during an uprising against the apartheid system of teaching. Around the memorial were about a dozen market stalls; only three were open that day. I had successfully avoided market stalls up until this time, because souvenirs were not a line item on our tiny film budget.
A woman called me in, however, and instead of my usual “No, thank you,” something told me to go in. As she eyed the huge camera hanging around my neck, I said, as I frequently did, “I know it’s a big camera, but we’re traveling on a very small budget.” “That’s OK,” she said. “There are some postcards by the front door if you want.”
Well, I can handle a postcard, I thought. I turned around and there was that picture, on a postcard. A tremor went through my body. I picked it up and immediately lost at the time between age fifteen and then; my mind reacted as if I had just seen the picture five minutes ago. “This picture!” I exclaimed. And I told the woman a little of what I just told you above, about my reaction to it so long ago. “That’s my son,” she said quietly. Yes, that was her son Mbuyisa, the one carrying the younger child.
He had to leave the country because of that picture. The government thought he had been involved in the formation of the protests and his life was in danger. He left for Botswana and then Nigeria. 1978 was the last time she never heard from him. Given the political climate in South Africa in the years after he left, he could’ve come back or at least called with no fear for his life or of those he loved. But he didn’t. So, with her mother’s sixth sense, she thought he died. The younger child was Hector Pieterson, the first student killed in the protests, and the girl was Hector’s sister Antoinette. The memorial is named for Hector.
I’ve been staring at that picture again, realizing that all those years ago I couldn’t ever have imagined I would’ve ended up standing on that street. That moment of meeting her suddenly made so much make sense: why I had to give up everything I had in my life to go out and talk to the people of the planet about world peace, why I couldn’t quit doing this project even when I wanted to.
And I thank Life with all my heart.
This was Grace.
To see the picture, please visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hector_Pieterson.