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Mark isn't impressed when Mama tells him he'll be going to school. He believed school was a waste of time, a lesson he learned from the gang of boys who lived in a junkyard and spent their days searching for food and stealing things for money. Where the boys were growing up, education wasn't valued, but figuring out how to fight and steal was.
Mama woke Mark up one morning at 4am. She orders Mark into the bath and starts scrubbing him with a hard brush. Granny arrives with Mark's aunt Bushy and asks if they're ready.
Mark wonders what's going on as he finishes his bath and dresses in the clothes Mama gives him.
The clothes are too big, but Mama says she'll make them fit. She folds the shirt and tucks it, smears Mark's face and body with Vaseline and pig's fat, telling him it will keep him warm.
Mark asks Granny where they're going, and Granny tells him she's taking him to school.
Mark tries to make a fast getaway but Aunt Bushy gets to the door first. Mark heads for the window, but Mama grabs him from behind.
Granny and Mama drag him to school. As they go, they encounter a woman who tells them that she wishes she had forced her son to go to school before he became a tsotsi (a gangster). Now he's dead – he was killed in a knife fight.
After she leaves, Mama screams, asking Mark if that's what he wants to happen to him. Mark is confused.
They arrive at school and the Principal notes that Mark is tied up. Mama admits he gave them a lot of trouble, and the Principal says they should untie him now. He won't try to escape with everyone there.
On the back of the door hang canes of various shapes and sizes, and the Principal tells Mark that if he behaves, he'll never be whipped.
Mama explains that it took her nearly a year to get the paperwork together. The Principal, Mama, and Granny discuss the fact that the birth certificate is as important to children as the pass is to adults.
Mama and Granny express their dissatisfaction with the system, but the Principal says it is merely the law and he has to follow it.
Then he learns that Papa is Venda and Mama is Shangaan, and there is a momentary hesitation. The Principal says that this is a school for Shangaan children, and unless Shangaan is their primary language, they're not allowed to go there.
But when Mama says that they only speak Venda when Papa is around, the Principal says it's fine. In fact, he tells them, there is no school for Vendas in Alexandra.
Mark is to return in two weeks, when classes begin.
As they leave, Mark reflects on the reasons he doesn't want to go to school. He doesn't want to lose his freedom, he had heard bad things about the beatings children receive at school, and he didn't want to lose his life in the gang with whom he was running around.
But hearing that woman's story about her dead son makes Mark reflect that maybe he should go.
That night, Mark returns home to find out that Papa has beaten Mama badly and chased out his siblings as well. Mama is at Granny's house. The neighbor warns him not to go home, but Mark goes anyway.
Papa tells him to go away and threatens to kill him if he comes inside.
Mark wants his things, so he keeps yelling at Papa, while Papa yells insults about Mark's "whore mother."
Mark threatens to kill Papa someday for what he's done to Mama. Then he runs to Granny's house.
There, he learns that Papa had beaten Mama for taking Mark to school. He said he didn't have money to waste on giving Mark a white man's education.
Mama admits she would like to leave Papa, but she can't because Granny had already spent the lobola money that Papa had given her in order to marry Mama. Unless they give the lobola money back, Mama can't leave him.
Mark asks Mama why it's so important to her that he go to school, and Mama tells him that she wants him to have a future. Papa didn't go to school, and as a result he drinks, and gambles, and neglects the family. An education, she says, will give Mark a decent job. The only way to get anywhere in the world was to play the white man's game, and the only way to do that is to get an education. It will help Mark become a good and decent and proud person
Mark wants to know how Mama knows all this, since she never went to school herself.
Mama says that she never went to school because her father didn't believe females should be educated. But she always wanted to go. She says that if Mark will promise to go to school, she will do everything in her power to keep him there.
Mark starts to cry and promises that he will go to school forever. He is 7 ½ years old, and he realizes that he has chosen his mother and her ideas about life over his father's ideas about life.