10 Points to Consider when Reference Checking in Schools
Most schools have a process for selecting staff that includes checking references for very good reasons: interviews are false situations in which sometimes people present themselves as way better than they are (especially if they are very confident); or they can tank the whole thing because they are too anxious, no matter how much the interviewer puts them at ease. Sometime people hide things, or avoid certain topics.
I have been interviewing staff for almost 20 years and have made both good and poor decisions afterwards, however I have been saved from one or two disasters, as well as made sure we did not miss out on good ones.
Here’s what I have learned:
1. Always do a reference check.
Besides being good business practice, it’s just sensible. No matter how certain you are about a candidate. Check the person out. You’re not psychic, so you can’t know everything there is to know about a candidate. (And even if you do own a crystal ball and beaded curtains, no ways are you omnisciently foresighted.)
It seems like a no-brainer that someone seeking to employ a teacher would do this, but I have realized that some people couldn’t be bothered or perhaps are so rushed that because they perhaps know the previous institution or trust the former school’s head.
In at least three instances, I know heads who have employed former staff of mine, all of whom, caused us to breathe a sigh of relief when they left; yet none of my colleagues called me to check on the teachers’ time with us. I would have told the headmasters not to touch them with the proverbial barge pole. In all instances, they didn’t last long, but I could have saved my colleagues some pain and suffering (and money).
2. Do the reference check after the interview
I don’t like to prejudge the interview and prefer to check information and queries I have after meeting the prospective employee. A reference check is a confirmation of what you have decided after the interview, not a shortlisting technique.
3. Ask difficult questions
Remember to follow your instincts about certain areas in the interview that perhaps you weren’t so sure about. I have a reference form which has standard questions on it, but there is a section for the ones I want to check with a referee. If my probing in an interview still leaves me with question marks, I make a note and ask the questions outright of those offering a testimonial.
4. If you can’t reach a referee, contact the previous school
You’ll be surprised at what you learn. Sometimes all they can do is confirm that a teacher worked there (and the fact that they only have minimal info on the educator also tells you something); sometimes you learn a whole lot more, that a personal referee perhaps won’t tell you, especially if you suspect a disciplinary issue that might have existed. Listen for what they are NOT saying.
Be leery of staff who haven’t informed their current employer they are looking – this is not a deal breaker though.
5. Watch out for Euphemisms and Hesitations
That pregnant pause when you ask about how the educator relates to her charges or whether there have been disciplinary instances can tell you more than words. You have to be a voice sleuth. Listen for the nuances and delays – they are telling.
6. Always do a criminal check
The group of schools mine belongs to has a tight background checking procedure for this reason. We check a person’s references and we do a criminal check that involves a computer search, a police clearance and sexual offenders register check.
My team once interviewed a person called Michael Engelhart (not his real name of course, and not quite the one he gave us.)
His criminal check came back with convictions to do with the Suppression of Witchcraft Act. It made sense when I realized how many questions he’d asked about the Christian ethos of the school I was at. And then I looked at his name – which was an alias…look again…) Clearly a nutter!
7. Check their Social Media Sites
Look at groups they belong to and read their personal posts. People reveal so much more on Facebook and Twitter than whether they are a cat person or football fan. Look at the jokes they post; their friends pages and the groups they belong to. Even young people are careless about privacy. And if you are doubtful, Instagram is worth a thousand words.
8. Sometimes get a second opinion
Once a superb teacher who impressed us no end in the interview received a damning reference from a headmaster who described her as a troublemaker, which seemed just a bit overdone. We did a second reference and took a chance on her. And she was a remarkable educator.
People lie – even heads of schools can be venal.
9. Be suspicious of Applicants who list a colleague, not the head of the institution, as a referee
Almost every poor appointment I have made has been based on the affirmation of a peer, not the boss. Go to the top.
10. Trust your gut
Ultimately all interviews are a bit of a crap shoot. As much as you must do your homework, eventually you have to trust your gut and make a decision.
My school has just had a week’s holiday (well 9 days with the two weekends), when normally we would have had three weeks.
I joke about every holiday being one week too short, no matter the length of the vacation and I stand by that, but the truth is I divide every break into 3 parts: for the first third, I sleep – all day and night if necessary, but essentially if my body tells me ‘nap,’ I head for my cosy bed and nod off happily. In the middle week or section of the holiday, I sleep and do all those jobs you put off for your leave, like having a haircut, visiting the traffic department, taking the next child to get an ID or apply for a driver’s licence or university. In the final part, I aim to do only self-indulgent fun things, like motoring in the country with The Maestro, clothes shopping, special time with my children, reading…and sleeping of course.
This mid-year break I have had to divide the time into three days for each of my holiday divisions: so, I have had 3 days for each. I’m into the final third tomorrow and still feel I need to be sleeping 24-7.
But I can just tuck into some cheese with this whine, because at least I have had a break. The teachers I really feel for are those in the public sector who are not getting a holiday at all, not to mention their students.
You see, they haven’t had a holiday since December. Do not believe officials who say that they were off during lockdown. They were not. They may not have been able to reach all their learners digitally, but they supplied them with work before and during lockdown, many hand-delivering tasks and textbooks to their children’s homes. And in many schools, they did just keep on teaching.
Teachers are going to burn out.
How are they going to reboot, and ‘sharpen their swords,’ as Stephen Covey speaks about, when they are exhausted; they need to rest. Every teacher grinds her teeth when the ignorant masses who believe that they know how to be teachers because they once went to school, say that teachers have half-day jobs and too much holiday time. (One deputy I knew once said that’s a bit like someone who drives a Mercedes thinking they have shares in Daimler-Chrysler, but we won’t go there.) Teachers don’t have half-day jobs and fyi most work through their vacations, both marking and prepping ordinarily. Generally they have worked the hours of a holiday before they get there.)
In April, educators were frantically reinventing themselves as IT gurus and restructuring their teaching programmes. State school teachers are not getting any holiday now. And they, and all independent school teachers, will be working right through to December with a couple of long weekends to break it up. We need to find ways to look after their health, both mental and physical.
In the Department of Basic Education’s commitment to completing the school year, I don’t know that they have considered the teachers (who are dying at their desks btw – just look at the country’s COVID statistics: as at 30 June 2020, 775 state schools across the nation are affected by the virus, and 1169 teachers have been infected – more than twice the number of children who have contracted the disease – 523; but in the Western Cape in the last week we have laid to rest 2 teachers, as has Gauteng; in the Eastern Cape the count is 18 – that is eighteen – who have died. And that is only 3/9 of the provinces.)
We are concerned about the frontline health workers who are at risk from this virus, and rightly so, but teachers are at risk of becoming the latest, silent group of victims. Many educators suffer from so much stress simply from being in the classroom, let alone all the other attendant pressures like socio-economic crises in their communities. How many are walking around with undiagnosed, stress-related co-morbidities like hypertension, putting them at greater risk, without them even being aware of it?
And tired teachers get sick. Our educators catch every virus around in an ordinary year, especially in winter. This year they are bone weary. With no real holiday in April, nothing in June, and no break of any significance before 15 December, the government is stretching one of its greatest human resources to breaking point.
Even in the independent school sector, where I work, where many schools have at least had a small break, we have identified this as a problem for us. I think we need to think about it more, before we either break our teachers, lose them to other professions or attend their funerals.
This is the biggest challenge facing schools in the next 6 months. How we address it will determine how we keep our teachers (alive).
My job in the next months is going to be focussed on my staff.
The Maestro and I had a delightful over-fifties (his comment) stroll along the beachfront today. (Well, he ambled, while I jogged to keep up – it sucks to be short.)
What we noticed on our route march was how many good citizens of Bloubergstrand are not wearing masks in public at all. (And I’m not talking about just pulling it down to defog your Armani Sunglasses, or when you are dying of heat behind it, when no one is close) It’s a bit scary especially with the wave of new infections washing over our country. Beds are filling up around the country’s field hospitals and ministers are whispering about reversing lockdown levels. Yet ordinary Joe Soaps are tired of it all, perhaps because the invisible virus doesn’t seem realistic to most folks, or we’re just bored of the regimentation caused by COVID regulations.
Yet anyone who has been to a doctor’s room recently will have noticed how different everything is. My son, Michael, suffers from regular, intense migraines and last week had to be rushed to the emergency room at our local hospital. He arrived while the migraine aura was just starting, normally plenty of time to get heavy painkillers and sleep it off. This time though, in the middle of a work day, the queue to be triaged was out the door. So, poor Michael, while not dying, certainly suffered a great deal standing outside in the sun, and reached the vomit stage of his attack before being allowed in, fortunately making it to the loo and not the flowerbed.
The problem is not just corona cases, it’s the protocols requiring complete decontamination of every emergency room cubicle before the next patient can be taken. But what Michael said afterwards, resonated with me: He said he didn’t mind having to wait, even though it was horrible for him) because at least two people bypassing the queue were a small child who couldn’t breathe and a cyanotic, old man … (or 2 COVID-19 patients?) neither of whom could have their family in with them, because of the new rules…and the nature of the disease.
The World Health Organisation says this pandemic is still in its infancy. Yesterday marked 6 months since the WHO was first alerted to a cluster of COVID-19 cases in China and now, with over 10 million cases worldwide and 500 000 deaths, they are saying it is far from over.
I’m just not sure that the good people of the Blouberg quite get it. It’s insulting that people don’t wear their masks to protect other individuals. My mask protects you; your mask protects me. So will you please flippin’ protect me!
My sister says that people are crazy to go to restaurants during this time – I didn’t dare tell her that we visited our home-away-from-home, News Café after our beachfront dash. But they are being conscientious about hygiene that’s for sure: Patrons are screened, tables are sterilized and marked as such, and staff are masked and gloved. Eateries the world over are trying creative ways of controlling social distancing like this Parisian restaurant which is using giant teddy bears to occupy banned seats:
This German establishment also decided to have some fun to remind people to keep apart:
A Dutch diner is using robots to do screening checks and serve customers:
This restaurant, also in the Netherlands designed little cabanas for each table:
And clever masks are also being designed: Gotta love this one which allows you to open it when you want to eat:
It seems that restaurants are really trying to protect patrons as they begin their post-lockdown life.
The question is: what are Jo and Jozi Public doing to protect themselves?
According to health officials, this virus is quite a wuss when it comes to Jik and sanitizers. And masks work. But the WHO reminds us that the pandemic is speeding up. It is not even close to being over, so we need to get over our boredom with the rules, suck it up and think about each other. Because next time it could be one of us in the queue at the hospital.
In our home, we have had four generations under one roof: a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer, Generation Ys (millennials) and three Generation Zs. One reckless Gen Z kamikaze-child (who shall remain anonymous, but is my 20 year-old daughter, named Shannon who lives at…) with uncharacteristically scant concern for her immediate environment, dared to say to me tonight how ‘awful’ it must be to be a boomer nowadays because ‘you have to scroll so far down when you are looking for your birth year on electronic forms.’
Sadly, she is not wrong. And that’s not all. Last night I played one of those stupid Facebook games in which you had to put in your birth year and see what was hot on the charts back then. So, I tested the fun on my own wall by putting in my birth year (1964). But damn, it made me feel old. There were all my FB friends with their disco songs appearing on their posts. Not me…
I got The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night – in black and white. Not even a grainy, colour album! I have never even been a Beatles fan.
It made me feel old and I guess I’ve been feeling that unconsciously for a while lately. Just this week I went down a FB wormhole about what to wear, what make up to use and what hairstyles to choose to make a woman look younger. What a waste of 30 minutes of my ever-shortening life!
But today I went off to the lovely Aruna and had my hair trimmed… actually, I asked her to lob off about 15 centimetres of fading lockdown golden locks. And I love it!
I do actually look younger, but my new coiffure hasn’t magicked away the post-lockdown belly blubber or smoothed away the mid-fifties wrinkles, more’s the pity.
Truth is, my mom passed away at 56 and I have 3 short months to reach that ceiling before I have to enter unknown territory. It’s a scary thing; hence my over-focus on age.
Growing older does have its benefits though because now that I am …. um of mature years… I have the confidence to be more myself even though I realize that I only have a few more years in the workplace before I get put out to pasture. (Mind you, if my children had it their way, they’d have taken my car away and relegated me to the cottage in the garden already). But I have reached the age that I finally like myself, warts (or should I say liver spots) and all. And actually believe I have something to offer the universe.
I wish I had had this self-belief 20 years ago, but life had kind of beaten me down into self-doubt at one stage. I used to be terrified of public speaking for example, and having all the eyes in a room on me. There have been moments when I have entered a room of my peers and heard that song from Prince of Egypt thumping in my head, ‘You’re playing with the big boys now…’ But I like to think I’ve held my own. I even once forced myself to speak at an International Conference I was invited to present at (on educational technology nogal!).
Whatever I may have done in my own life though, I have realised is the truth of that old saying, that it is your children who are your life’s work. I can certainly say that my best achievements have been my children. It is exhilarating to see how they are changing the world in their own unique fashion: in film, in commerce, in football, in art and in full-on passion.
‘Sometimes, your greatest contribution to the universe may not be something you do, but someone you raise’
So, you know the longer your Memory Lane, the richer it is with moments of growth and triumph. I may have been born in the year the Beatles sang about working your guts out and coming home to the joy of loved ones (I was born on a Saturday and ‘Saturday’s child works hard for a living,’ the old rhyme said too, so what chance did I have in life?), but the joy IS in the coming home. It’s in the laughter at the dinner table; the sparkle in his eye; the feelings of pride that bubble up in my chest so often when I watch my children (and I include my schoolchildren in this); and the knowledge that there is still some life left in this old ‘dog’ of which the Fab Four spake.
I have been thinking a great deal about my mother lately. I suppose because I shall soon bypass her in age. I hope she would have been proud of me. She’d not be impressed by my liberal use of Anglo Saxon words, of course, nor my still too-loud voice, but I like to think she’d love the way her grandchildren have turned out – not too many obvious tics on display, and young people with compassion and commitment.
I used to feel horribly jealous when I saw women with their mothers out and about and still wish I could have had that for longer with my beloved mother. I wish we could still discuss literature and howl with laughter until our stomachs ache. She had an amazing laugh which belied her serene facade. She was a gifted writer, who put my sister and me before everything else. She showed her love by feeding people and had an inner goodness that I permanently aspire to.
I could live to twice her age and never be the woman she was.
She used to joke that only the good die young. And then she did.
She did say I’d get my comeuppance one day, so no doubt she fell off her cloud laughing when Shannon commented on my age tonight, especially because I am almost hers!
But if only the good die young, I have many years left to live – long enough to watch Shannon get her just deserts when her daughter laughs at her. (I’m not vindictive or anything…) My mother may have been a member of the Silent Generation, but her legacy of fun lives on. Just much louder.
… and my new haircut makes me look younger. So this is 56th-anniversary-restoration-album time…
It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log But when I get home to you I’ll find the things that you do Will make me feel alright
You know I work all day to get you money to buy you things And it’s worth it just to hear you say you’re going to give me everything So why on earth should I moan, ’cause when I get you alone You know I feel ok
When I’m home everything seems to be right When I’m home feeling you holding me tight, tight, yeah
It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log But when I get home to you I’ll find the things that you do Will make me feel alright, oww
B-L-A-S-T: 5 Steps to building instead of breaking relationships
A colleague’s young daughter once told her mother that the principal just sits in her office waiting for trouble. It can feel like that sometimes (except we don’t have to wait…)
In a customer-centric world, it’s hard to negotiate the displeasure of those we intend to serve, especially when they may even be mistaken, wrong, or downright unfair in their complaints.
Albert Barneto is an entrepreneur who started in the restaurant business and makes his money now ‘Creating online tools for entrepreneurs and small business owners to reach, grow, and cultivate their customer base,’ according to his bio. In English, that means he knows how to work with clients and serve them well. We can certainly learn from him in the education space, which more and more needs to become more ‘customer’ focussed.
His manner of addressing customer complaints in the business world (using the acronym BLAST) is effective in dealing with both parent complaints, staff grievances and learner conflicts in schools.
BLAST stands for:
B – elieve
L – isten
A – pologise
S – atisfy
T – hank
When that parent storms into your office, or a staff member cracks up in front of you, or a student brings a complaint to you, it’s never a convenient time and often you don’t necessarily have reason to entertain the matter they raise with you because you may consider it somehow lacking in legitimacy.
And yet, the first thing you must do is believe them. Someone who is angry enough to raise a concern believes there is cause enough, whether they are flat out wrong, or not, and has a right to be there. Other conflict management processes use the LAST concept, but most exclude the ‘B’ which is sad, because it excludes the reason behind why one would do the rest.
People speak about attributes like empathy as ‘soft skills,’ but ensuring you believe the complainant actually leads to the rest. You see if you have enough appreciation for how the other feels, then half the job is done, because they will know you understand them. Believe the emotions: believe the anger; and attempt to see what lies beneath it and then you will see the matter from their point of view. That’s a strength – no ‘soft’ involved
Back in the day, in an old episode of Suits (before Meghan Markle dropped them for her real prince) Donna, the actual star of that show (because she is redhead-fabulous), tells the IT guy that the ‘key to having empathy is making people feel supported in their feelings, not just trying to solve their problems.’ ‘Platitudes,’ she said, just won’t do. Believing someone involves really seeing them.
And you can’t know and understand them, unless you have truly listened to their story. Often, I know what’s coming in a complaint because someone else may have alerted me already to the problem, but it’s important to hear it from the person who is actually affected. The temptation to form a conclusion before they have aired their views must be overcome if I am to truly listen.
I worked once for a headmaster who took the side of the first person who approached him with a problem, and that became his viewpoint. You can imagine how that lead balloon went down with people with genuine grievances.
Part of listening is waiting out the venting, (sometimes) swearing, and even personal attacks, and not defending or justifying whatever the school is accused of doing/not doing. At this point in the conversation, it is not a good idea to share your own problems, or make excuses. ‘What can I do for you?’ is the only approach to take.
Don’t ever rush such a meeting. In order to get to the heart of the problem (and yes, there is a problem if someone is upset) you have to take time to hear them out. I usually warn parents that I am taking notes so that I can fully understand them; otherwise I face them, make eye contact and generally make sure my body language is not conveying that I am closed to their concerns (no crossed arms). Ask questions (not loaded ones) for clarification; otherwise just let them speak.
One way of really listening is to re-state what you are hearing until the person acknowledges the statement with a ‘yes.’ (after you have listened without interrupting of course.) Sometimes that is all it takes. Sometimes a person just wants you to acknowledge what they are feeling. And you can’t know what that is unless you suspend disbelief in ‘your side’ of whatever is at issue.
And sometimes when you repeat their opinions to them, you’ll find you got it wrong, because perhaps you haven’t properly heard them. Don’t stop until they agree that you understand. That ‘yes’ is a magic point in the conflict – it is a signal they know have been heard.
I have a saying with my staff that ‘sometimes only grovel will do.’ Because sometimes things do go wrong, and people are human. We mess up. Lawyers will caution against apologising in certain circumstances, because that can be an admission of liability, but I must say that a sincere apology goes a long way compared to a refusal to take ownership of the issue. Sometimes an apology is simply an acknowledgement that we didn’t know.
Apologising is another way in which we acknowledge the reality of the other’s experience, even when (and especially when) they may have the facts wrong. I do not want anyone walking away from my school feeling let down.
There are times when that is not enough for some complainants, but at the very least, they can never say that ‘the school did not even apologise.’
I think it is important that we apologise to students when we let them down too. To me, modelling regret teaches young people that they are worthy as human beings to be treated well, and should also encourage them to practise penitence in their own lives. I have made a point of apologising to my own children when I have been in the wrong, especially when I have lost my %^$# with them (and there have been some choice moments with my beloved offspring, some even justified).
Some outdated thinking has apologising as a particularly loathsome form of losing face. I disagree. An apology restores dignity to the other, of course, but it does not reduce yours at all, not if you are a person who is genuinely humble.
If you have established enough of a rapport with your parents, staff or learners via the first few steps above, the next step, while possibly most difficult, should at least be easy to identify.
‘How would you like to see this resolved?’ or ‘What can we do to fix this?’ are good questions to ask of the disappointed party in front of you. If you have carefully addressed the emotions of the person, they should not be demanding unreasonable public-hanging sort of solutions, and you should be able to generate a way forward together.
If they do insist on something that is not possible, they should be receptive to an alternative solution. If the problem is a systemic one, inviting them onboard to partner with the school in addressing the matter is also a way forward.
With youngsters, as with adults, the solution needs to address the emotion that has been generated as much as it responds to the crisis that caused it. A child upset over a low mark may express anger at an educator, but the underlying emotion of fear of failure for example must also be unpacked so that another critical moment does not occur later on.
Sometimes you can’t solve the problem, but note that this stage of conflict resolution is not called ‘solve.’ It is called ‘satisfy’ so that you can reach a mutually satisfactory resolution, because it may be that the problem is a consequence of an event or law that is beyond your control, or something caused by external forces, or could be an historical event which may even predate your presence in the institution. The way forward should be the focus of this step.
It is important to indicate clearly what you may be unable to fix in order to prevent further conflict down the line when expectations are not met. For example, you cannot allow parent presence in a disciplinary action against an employee or someone else’s child; nor can you expel or fire someone at the mere say-so of an aggrieved parent. Various acts of parliament preclude such actions, as well as information sharing. You can promise that the matter will be investigated and limited feedback given following the investigation. This is especially important if bullying of any kind is alleged.
Manoeuvring around in this legal space requires a delicate touch because all sorts of rights come into play, but don’t shy away from explaining clearly what you can and can’t do. And then ensure that you follow up regularly so that they do not feel as if the matter has been swept under the carpet. Often when a parent’s complaint results in disciplinary action of some kind, the focus automatically shifts onto the alleged perpetrator and is no longer directed at the alleged victim. Both sides need to be looked after throughout what can be a long process. It can be like walking on eggshells, but one must never forget the original, aggrieved person. Otherwise, you may feel the matter was dealt with, especially when there are extreme outcomes for the accused, but you could end up losing the whistle blower as well because of lack of appropriate feedback.
Sometimes the incident being brought to your attention is in fact not the real issue at all. It may be something deeper or even unconnected. (That’s why you have to listen for what lies at the heart of their disenchantment).
I shall never forget engaging with a learner who was repeatedly late for school and had been giving those on late duty a hard time about this being recorded. In the course of unpacking his fury at the matric learner recording his tardiness, I discovered that there was a special needs child in the home who frequently held up the family departure with unavoidable tantrums. His defiance was a projection of his frustration with his young brother. Not only could we engage in other ways to address the latecoming, we were able to get him the emotional support he needed as a sibling of a child with a disability. And that was actually way more important.
Always end an encounter with annoyed stakeholders by thanking them (in fact when I present this method to staff, I sometimes call it T-BLAST: start and end with thanks. Thank the disgruntled before you do anything. ‘Thanks for coming’ shows you welcome the concern and communicates your openness to consult.)
Thanking the person for raising the issue, even after it is resolved, shows you value their contribution. And you should…. Even if they are dead wrong or really irritating, they have had the confidence in you to come to you, and in these days of Social Media Complaints Departments, that is a mark of faith in you. Thank them for that.
Then ensure you keep your word. That way you will earn their trust again.
And make sure you have a good way to let off your own steam safely. Absorbing other people’s stress can suck the spirit out of you.
A tribute to the staff of my school and all teachers around the globe:
A few weeks ago, I started a post called, ‘A Fly on the wall in a Lockdown Classroom.’ It was a reboot of an article entitled, ‘A Fly on the wall of a 21st Century Classroom,’ which I had started just a week before we shut the schools due to COVID-19.
Now the buzz word being flown around by that pesky flying insect is ‘hybrid education’ and the ones swatting it like Novak Djokovic on steroids (before he messed up and infected a bunch of people at a poorly screened tournament) are the neglected heroes: teachers.
You know, even when I studied (one hundred years ago) lecturers were warning us that ours was the ‘Cinderella’ profession. Yet the problem is educators don’t seem to even have a chance to dance with a prince these days. And I think the attractively-challenged siblings of the fairy tale are all the more set to spoil their day; yet our pedagogues are cleaning more chimneys and firesides than ever as they put the shine on the nation’s youth.
Let’s recap: in March this year, before the world locked itself away, 21st century skills consisted of technology in (some) classrooms, depending on the status of the school in this unequal world, and an effort to develop the 6 C’s of education.
We were toying with the concept of allowing students to tune in from home if they were sick, because we had the infrastructure at our school, but it was more like a well-fed house-cat toys with a beetle, than an alley cat going after a dozing bird. There was no real need; no hunger. Sure, we thought it was a good idea, but there were problems – other more pressing needs; no data on how parents would respond; educators’ core beliefs that we function best in person (and by ‘we’ I mean teachers and learners – I still believe that btw); teacher reluctance to ‘perform’ live online; additional technologies needed; teachers’ online skills; data costs; learner connectivity (The digital divide is still a major impediment: in India, for example, only 8% of schoolchildren have internet and a device at home; it’s not much better in South Africa at 11%) …the list goes on. Factor into this, that educators, as low-end income professionals themselves, do not necessarily have uncapped internet or data at home.
But there was a trend towards online learning and homeschooling among the middle class because of the increased focus on the individual and scorn for mass education. And independent schools were starting to see that exodus, a trickle sure, but it was there.
Then COVID-19 happened.
And global Lockdown.
And all hesitations were swept off the table like the victims of an angry politician.
And ‘Cinderellas’ all over the world stepped up to the new job. Our teachers spent the April holidays cramming remote learning strategies; necessity being a far better IT peer coach than any school or corporate programme to upskill staff. They did it on their own (unless they were lucky enough to be a part of a larger organization, like the group of schools we belong to), in their own time and in some schools, or countries, at their own expense. And they didn’t go to the ball with a handsome prince; they sat at their laptops and studied and then delivered, at times rewarded merely by the criticism of parents who saw only the tip of the work-iceberg and thought the live online hours were ‘all teachers were doing’; spending hours playing IT techie to get children connected and as usual going above and beyond. They shed the Cinders’ rags, suited up and cloaked themselves like the heroes they are. No need for a saviour prince swooping in to the rescue. They went from fireside to frontline IT gurus in a few days.
And they stayed on track with the curriculum, like models on the catwalk, who maintain their sashay, despite losing a heel.
Some schools in our group even turned into factories using 3D printing to produce shields for healthcare workers and for our own staff.
Then the presidents and health authorities unlocked our front doors and school gates and we came back to school. Now that ‘fly on the wall’ sits there watching half a class of masked teens and small children while teachers go back to their natural environment without the physical structures 21st century skills flourish in. No more learning hubs with groups huddled together to problem solve. Our youngsters sit in rows now to ensure social distancing like a throwback to old fashioned, industrial revolution-style regimentation. We do have fun wriggling eyebrows to communicate, trying to be heard via accents, masks and shields like medieval fighters. But we can’t hug them or see them properly so teachers develop robot systems to gauge comfort levels and wellness. We’re using sign language to communicate.
Imagine being able to look over a doctor’s shoulder or peer into a lawyer’s inner sanctum while she works? Or hang onto an accountant’s every telephone call? That’s how teachers work in the hybrid environment: live on TV with all their vulnerability and privacy on display to every parent (some even interrupt their lessons (I kid you not). A few years ago educators would have been up in arms about having cameras in their classes for this reason. Now we’ve put them live on TV and they’ve adapted. What heroes! It gives ‘a fly on the wall’ a whole new meaning.
A note of concern here is the vulnerability of learners as well in this exposed environment where any parent in the class could theoretically be watching from their work or home computer. We may need to consider only posting recorded videos of lessons, even though it would mean that those at home with health concerns would not be able to connect live. If we regulate anything after the COVID crisis abates, we should consider this carefully. Classrooms are safe places where an element of intimacy and trust needs to exist between teacher and learner. There is something voyeuristic about the possibility of this unseen audience at home. As much as we can continue to teach like this ad infinitum and it will be of great benefit going forward for housebound learners to connect remotely, this should be judiciously used in the long term in order to preserve the sanctity of that classroom relationship.
The remote and online spaces have blurred the boundaries even further for teachers who battle to say no at the best of times and educators are finding themselves assisting learners late into the early hours of the morning, especially in cases where children only have access to data during off-peak hours (read; middle of the night). And they do that because they care. It’s that simple.
And as the online-classroom-hybrid term draws to a close, for those whose schools are lucky enough to be taking a breather, our study superheroes are tired. Deep, in-your-spirit exhausted – so that forcing yourself out of bed is an act of sheer courage.
And they still arrive at school this week to motivate their equally stressed and fatigued students with smiles of greeting, with a Monty Pythonish ‘expect the unexpected’ mindset as they adapt… because teachers refuse to be beaten by a wee virus.
So when you see such a masked and caped classroom hero, do not even dare to breathe a critique that they are taking 5 days off (instead of the usual 15 at this time of year). They worked every single day of lockdown even though the schools were closed. Salute them – they have prevailed and will live to fight another term soon, armed with so much knowledge and experience gained, they could write a book… if they had the time!. Because of them the next generation will not be found lacking. Respect is due.
Forget the glass slippers of Cinderella – just bring them fluffy slippers to match their gossamer capes (They are elegant still, despite their paralysing tiredness) …and chocolate and wine…Teachers like wine.
I have been enthralled by the series Billions over the last week or so. For those who haven’t seen it on DSTV or Showmax, it’s a series in which a ruthlessly flawed hedge fund manager is pitched against an equally determined and unrelenting US States Attorney.
Now, far be it for me as a liberal arts major to fully understand the intricacies of the stock markets and the algorithms and economic sleights of hand that go with it. But I have certainly been learning about shorting stocks and going long on information both in the public domain and info obtained via devious means.
This series though, like all shows about people in professional positions like lawyers, doctors, the press and politicians, is about people. It reveals the nuanced protagonists as both heroic and venal; yet their decisions and maneuvering are motivated by personal interest before all else.
What has struck me, with this production, is that it suggests that once you have suspended your faith and desire for honest justice, situational ethics, guilt and desire and the balancing of favours seem to operate in this society as a more powerful currency than the ‘mighty dollar.’
How true is that in the ‘real’ world, I wonder. Well, I have certainly seen what one of the Billions characters, Brian Connerty, calls ‘political fluidity’ in operation in life, sometimes in places you’d least expect it. That’s one of the reasons I like the group of schools I work in. I respect the person in charge as one of integrity. And that makes all the difference.
The characters in this series are in so many ways morally bankrupt, despite their billions. Their honour is as fake as John Malkovitch’s Russian accent. As much as everyone on the planet ultimately sees themselves as the hero in their own story, moral turpitude is all too often downplayed when people’s personal interests collide with doing the right thing.
And it’s so simple to choose expedience before integrity. Because it’s easier. How tempting it is to give a glowing reference to a person one wants to encourage to leave; how easy to overlook malfeasance in someone one feels sorry for, or bend the rules for someone you like. It’s jolly hard to be fair to everyone. I have sleepless nights sometimes trying to decide the fairest way to treat people. But, I have to live with the choices I make and face myself in the mirror.
Billions explores loyalty and betrayal and assumes everyone is guilty of something. And that is certainly true. All people are flawed in some way. The characters in the show leverage the peccadillos of the players, even those close to them, to wield power. And I guess that’s what it comes down to, far more than money: power.
I am glad I don’t live and work in that sort of wild west, but every institution has the potential to be run like that: using and trading on secrets and inside information and pitting people against each other and the worst of moral ambiguity: rationalizing it as being ‘for the best,’ the end justifying the means. It’s hard to be a straight arrow, but I think it’s important to be honest, especially to myself.
Like the traders and lawyers on Billions, the temptations remain in any institution, because when you have authority over people there is always the possibility for corruption and pursuing self-interest above what is right.
So, we must guard against it. Transparency and honesty are essential. Knowing what is right is important. A moral compass and careful adherence to the core of an organisation’s ethos keeps you on the straight and narrow. In some faith-based schools, there is a position dedicated to such oversight. In many cases it doesn’t have enough teeth, but it is one way of keeping a school on course.
A leadership team that is allowed, and in fact encouraged, to challenge the leader on matters of moral direction is also important. Good advisors are invaluable. I am lucky. I have such a team.
And I’ll keep rooting for those with a conscience, even on television shows, if I can find them.
Besides, no one can actually spend billions and there is no price on peace of mind.
“Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, and treating people with respect.”
‘Beware of the half-truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.’
The Western Cape is no longer testing patients who present with flu-like symptoms. So sick people have to assume they have COVID-19 until they are well and are often quarantined for up to 14 days, even though they only have normal flu, because those other nasty germs haven’t gone away because Big Brother Corona is on the rampage.
Consequently, a week or so ago, we had so many facilities staff members absent and booked off for a significant period that we were forced to contract with a cleaning company for a few days, for additional staff to ensure the school was clean, given all the additional hygiene routines that are required with the new protocols connected to protecting our school community from the COVID-19 virus.
Although this was mentioned to a small group of staff, the reasons behind the move were not understood or properly explained (I realise now) to the staff in all three schools on campus. The next week we began hearing rumours that our facilities staff were looking into signing up with unions and there appeared to be general unrest on the staff, which surprised me because we have had a peaceable, open relationship with our staff in the time I have been at the school. It was only at a routine meeting a few days later that one employee eventually spoke up and asked, ‘What is this with these other cleaners?’
In a moment of clarity, I saw the cause of the misconception. The staff thought we were planning to outsource our cleaning function permanently. Fortunately, I was able to explain the misunderstanding easily enough and reassure them that their jobs were safe, and our institution’s relationships returned to normal. However, I realized then how a simple misunderstanding can have massive consequences whether at work or at home. Trust takes ages to build up and one miscommunication or misunderstanding can destroy it.
In other news, my child who shall remain anonymous, was instructed last week to give away packets of old clothes I’d collected from the early days of lockdown when I was gung ho about tidying. ‘But not the coats and evening dresses in the cupboard,’ I said (several times). Needless to say, I got home on Friday to find the entire cupboard bare of not just the old clothes but all my winter and evening wear.
What I learned from these two experiences were the following three things:
Communication is so important – and, as leaders we should consider in advance how decisions may appear, in order to forestall possible panic (not to mention losing one’s coats).
Honesty and transparency are essential for trust.
Get the whole story.
Fact check everything – surely Trump’s aversion to the truth has taught us that!
Apologise when you break rules one to three.
And forgive others when they get things wrong.
If only characters like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello, to name but a few of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes had had the benefit of hindsight and an opportunity to make good. Then again, what the appearance-reality theme illustrates in so many of his plays is precisely how ruinous misunderstandings can be.
The magnitude of Shakepeare’s genius is in his depiction of the genuine human condition. Unfortunately, we often react (and overreact too) before checking whether we have been properly informed. It’s not necessarily the equivocations of our enemies which cause such misunderstandings, it has also happened that major events in history have resulted from misinterpretations caused by mistranslations:
Did you know that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, because of a mistranslation of the Japanese word ‘mokusatu’ (‘We withhold comment’) as ‘We are treating your message with contempt’ (in response to ‘Will you surrender?’). You’d think they would have checked such a thing, but President Truman essentially ordered the deaths of a quarter of a million people because of that!
History is littered with such poor translations, from Krushchev’s Russian as more threatening than he was being, to the Maori’s being shafted at Waitangi by the Brits. Mars was identified as potentially having intelligent life after the ‘canali’ (which an Italian astronomer mapping the planet’s ‘seas, channels, continents’ called them) were translated into English as ‘canals.’
We all know about the concept of ‘broken telephones’ where hearers repeat a story slightly differently each time in the retelling, sometimes to the point that the original meaning is completely distorted. It’s how rumours spread and very few check with the original speaker to corroborate the accuracy of what has been quoted.
‘Nice guys finish last’ is a misrepresentation of what a baseball manager (Leo Durocher) actually said and Sherlock Holmes never said, ‘Elementary, dear Watson.’ Nobody says, ‘Play it again, Sam’ in Casablanca. The much-maligned Marie Antoinette probably never said ‘Let them eat cake (‘gateau’)’ although the person who did, used the word ‘brioche’ which is a type of bread enriched with butter and eggs so the intention was the same, but still.
One has to ask how many men have felt encouraged to explore their baser instincts because of that inaccurate reflection of Leo Durocher, who was not encouraging negative behaviour when he pondered aloud that an opposing team had really ‘nice guys in it.’ How many patronising mansplainings or putdowns have concluded with ‘Elementary, my dear Watson?’ I wonder how many wannabe seduction moments have included the faux quote from Casablanca.
Sometimes of course misunderstandings are just incorrect use of grammar: Neil Armstrong’s famous ‘one small step for man; a giant leap for mankind’ is nonsensical and should have been ‘one small step for A man; a giant leap for mankind.’
Computer algorithms are not exempt. The Mariner 1 crash in 1962 was caused by a missing overbar (a small line placed above script). I wonder if that’s what happens to the bank code when I use my card at the grocery store?…
One of the problems facing educators in this Age of Corona teaching is the inability to read the faces of our students, because of the mandatory, ubiquitous masks. Unless a person has extremely expressive eyebrows, has expressive forehead furrows, or crinkles their eyes up when they smile, it’s really hard to know what they are thinking and we cannot tell how they are feeling. Since relationships are so important to us in education, I think it’s time we encourage bushy eyebrow exercises in Life Orientation classes to accommodate the need to project and interpret brow gymnastics.
Life is so fraught with miscommunication, one could be forgiven for feeling paralysed by indecision at times. Take marriage for instance, where we often end up in arguments over silly misunderstandings. But there is another way to look at it: in the words of Oscar Wilde,
‘The proper basis for marriage is mutual misunderstanding.’
The Maestro thinks I’m beautiful – I’m going with that…
What a beautiful name for a beautiful woman, who was about to give birth to another beautiful girl-child.
And yet she won’t because both were murdered.
I am sickened by the inability of our society to rid this world of gender-based violence. All these cute little catchy phrases like GBV and BLM mean nothing to Tshegofatso’s mother. I don’t want to hear anyone say, ‘All lives matter’ or ‘’ it’s not all men.’ That means nothing to Tshego’s mom either. In fact it is downright insulting. It’s an outrage.
It is time that men owned this problem. I am impressed to hear Tshegofatso’s uncle speak out in this vein. Just how are we raising our sons that they have such contempt for the sanctity of life? And lawyers (men) like him need to stand up and be counted now.
I have just watched the Jeffrey Epstein documentary on Netflix and again I am sick to my stomach at (male) lawyers who stand accused of at best not doing their jobs, and at worst collusion and guilt of abuse of so many young women.
What struck me was one survivor saying, “you won’t remember me because there were so many, but I will be forced to remember you for the rest of my life.’
And what about the others who stand accused: the powerful Bill Clintons, ‘Prince’ Andrews? Donald Trumps? Harvey Weinstein has at least gone to jail and fallen from grace, and back home Uyinene’s murderer will never see the light of day again (we hope). But all those famous ones…? Will this all be swept under the carpet and are they hoping the dust will settle so they can just carry on as before? Like ‘Khwezi’s’ infamous violator? He certainly has. Has anyone investigated Alexander Acosta? Will they?
What about the #MeToo Movement, #TimesUp, and in our own country, The Rhodes Reference List and all the female-led protests? How successful have they been in changing the narrative of femicide and rape in the world?
But the real question is: where are the men leading the way in combating the abuse? I am sick of hearing the gaslighting that goes on around this issue, like ‘men also get raped you know.’ That’s not the point and just as it’s gaslighting to say that ‘all lives matter,’ so does that argument not hold water when women are not safe anywhere, even during lockdown. In 3 weeks of lockdown, gender-based violence units recorded 120 000 calls. Let’s just unpack that: 120 000 in 21 days…5714 women per day! And that’s the ones who were able to seek help.
And we’re worried about COVID-19?!
None of what I am saying is new or startling and that is the greatest tragedy. We have heard it all before. Every now and again a case will grab the headlines and people will march and protest and then it’s back to business as usual. In fact, in Gauteng, people returning from an anti-GBV rally in Gauteng last week, found the body of yet another woman near Soweto. She is still unidentified though, so no headlines for her…
It’s these murders and rapes that make me extra angry. It’s not just famous actresses crying out it’s a young woman at a festival, a schoolgirl walking home from school, a child in her home, refugees and war victims. I have listened to and read the essays of too many students over the years to have patience for this anymore.
After Uyinene died, my school took a day to purge social media of posts, jokes or anything that smacked of rape culture in an effort to examine our own culpability; yet toxic masculinity is more pervasive and ingrained in the human race than that.
I once watched a father berate a young female teacher with vile language in front of his own son. Needless to say, he didn’t last long at my school, but I often think about him and his son, and wonder what kind of adult that young man will become.
A word to the women who defend their sons and lovers : shame on you. When you raise your sons by different standards and indulge that ‘boys’ will be boys’ mentality, and let them believe they are little princes in your home, you are guilty of encouraging rape culture.
But what I really want to know is what men are doing about it. All those people who worked for Jeffrey Epstein knew what he was doing; yet did nothing; even if, like the man who managed the island communications, they resigned, they still didn’t stop it. I don’t get that!
I have been sexually harassed in the workplace (it ended badly for him); I have had men try to intimidate me physically and mentally and I have even had someone try to kill me, but as Maya Angelou says, ‘Still like dust, I rise.’ As Sylvia Plath (who was abused by her famous husband too btw) also said, ‘we shall inherit the earth’. But at what cost?
Silence gives consent, gents. It’s time you spoke up; stood up and grew up. This is not a female problem. It’s a male problem. YOU fix it.
Don’t you dare comment on women’s bodies or laugh at sexist jokes; don’t you dare use female body parts as pejoratives, because then YOU are part of rape culture. Don’t you dare victim blame or defend men’s actions. Don’t you dare patronize women you work with or assume that a ‘yes’ to dinner means yes to sex. Don’t you dare think that your punching her is her fault, or that you have ANY right to her body, married or not.
Because then you might as well have stabbed Tshegofatso yourself.
Aristotle believed that there are seven causes for the changes in human behaviour.
COVID-19 has certainly been a major disrupter. I saw a TED Talk once about how to form positive habits in just 30 days. So, I thought, ‘Ok I shall make some positive changes while we’re incarcerated at home.’ Some have been good changes; others… through no fault of mine, I declare… not so much.
This is what has changed since lockdown for me:
1. I’m writing
On the plus side, I am writing again every day, which is for me like going to gym…without the gym. I feel rejuvenated afterwards, and it’s fun.
I have ring-fenced me-time slightly better, although I can see this resolution slipping since the return to school process has started. I have enjoyed getting more sleep than usual and hope that I can try to limit the number of nights I burn the midnight oil.
Traffic is better -I am hoping that more companies have realized that they can in fact trust their administrators to work from home. Please. I’d like to be able to sail through as we are able to do now – gives me an extra 15 minutes sleep every morning.
Unfortunately, I have given up reading books temporarily. Well of course that’s because the library is closed and I just cannot do online books. Not with our wifi. Just when you get to the end of a page or an exciting part of the narrative, damned if it freezes and then when it finally reloads it’s back at the point you were when you picked it up. And it’s hard to get quality books for free on the internet, and I just can’t get myself to spend money on a book which I am only going to read once. I’m tightfisted like that. Having said that, If I can solve my data issues, this could be a revolutionary change in my life.
5. My car is dirty
This is a sad story. Car washes are not yet open so picture my excitement when the oil change light came on. ‘Oh good,’ I thought, ’I can get my car cleaned at last.’ Not so lucky: the service centre was operating on skeleton staff and so no non-essential stuff (like car valeting apparently) was happening.
I got even though. Unintentionally I swear…
After dropping off my car and having to rope in my husband to transport me further, I received a call informing me I’d been in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 (Fortunately all is now well with said-person, so I can tell this story). As a good citizen, I now needed to inform the garage that there was a chance that I had contracted the virus and that I’d send in my husband to collect my car later. Well they weren’t having any of that – they delivered the car, hooted and left the keys on the roof… It was a little disconcerting I must say, although I can totally understand their temerity to come anywhere near me, but it did make me think I should buy a bell while I was out having a COVID test so I could yell ‘unclean’ as I walked. Of course, I didn’t need to …I was driving for one, and secondly my car was also still ‘unclean.’
Not even all this rain has sorted it out.
I guess I could wash the car myself; but, well…perish the thought.
Spending so much time at home has made me realise how inhospitably cold it is in our house, so I have allowed the heaters to go on. We’re spending a fortune on electricity, but it is so cosy – at least we shall be warm and poor.
7. Grocery Shopping
… because we are going to be poor. Has anyone else found they are spending so much more on food? My grocery bill has skyrocketed with all of us at home constantly. I used to be able to buy clothes every month. No more. I’m barely breaking even. Now it’s biscuits and chocolate and other exotic snacks I don’t usually buy, along with fancy juices and lots of everything in case we need to hunker down again… And that darling little suit I nipped into Zara to purchase just before lockdown, is never going to fit me now!
Education will never be the same again. There will be a clear BC (before Corona) and AV (After Vaccine) in the timelines of every organization. At this stage, at my school, we are adjusting to a hybrid form of teaching and learning with some learners and others logging onto our livestreams from home. With no gatherings in the immediate future, events like valedictory and matric dances present real challenges, which we shall have to meet with some creativity. The coronavirus has single celled dragged us into the 21st century technology-wise and that’s a good thing, but I am sad to see us reverting to industrial-age rows in an effort to social-distance and losing the collaborate hubs we were using. We have to be creative about that too going forward.
I just hope that all the positive changes that have taken place in our society, like appreciating medical staff more than celebrities, lower data costs, families revelling in their home activities and banks being kinder on debt repayments, will remain, but I fear that once things return to some semblance of normalcy I fear that selfishness and sloth will return… just as the urge to exercise has diminished now that it is no longer forbidden fruit to jog.
I’ll leave you to decide which of the above changes fall under each of Aristotle’s headings. But, no matter the cause behind the positive changes at least, it is definitely time to turn some into excellence:
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.”
We’ve had a hectic few years but at least we’ve learnt some science and a few new words.
How I have loved the storms of the last couple of days! As a Capetonian, there is nothing quite like snuggling down in your warm bed as the tempest rages beyond. Hearing the rain lashing the windows when you are warm and safe indoors heightens the sanctity of your haven. At last we are having the winter storms again that I remember from my childhood, with thunder and lightning, and driving rain .
At home, where I sit at my desk, I look out onto our front garden and the road beyond it. Yesterday as I worked on my laptop in the late afternoon, the storm winds were propelling the deluge across the balcony and the road was flooding from the many sudden downpours that had already dumped more rain in one day than we had the whole year in 2017 when we had such a drought in Cape Town.
Remember when ‘Prevent Day Zero’ was the rallying cry to save our province from running out of potable water and we came within a month or two of doing that? We had to change the way we did things at school then too. Who remembers having to work out how to wash all those aftercare dishes without covering the earth in the plastic and disposables we’d been avoiding up until then, (because we’d always ensured we ‘re-used’ rather than chucked); or figuring out where to sink a borehole; learning words like ‘reticulation’ and learning how dams are made. We showered with a bucket (we still do, good citizen teachers that we are); and of course we didn’t flush! But we got used to it. And we survived to stand in delight under the first showers which broke the drought.
Then came that euphemism to beat all others; ‘loadshedding’ (It’s a ‘power failure‘ damnit!’) And we learnt terms like ‘grid’ and ‘overloaded;’ we tried switching off the geysers to save power and got into trouble with the landlord for damaging the switch. We discovered the horrors of the Eskom financials and at school we installed solar lights in our driveway and sourced generators to ensure we could run a school dependent on technology, not to mention examinations. That is what I was busy with when COVID-19 sashayed across the globe.
And suddenly, we were thrust into a world of epidemiology and virology and have learnt about face masks and what the correct concentration of alcohol in hand sanitizer should be (70%); and terms like ‘social-distancing,’ ‘flattening the curve,’ ‘floor decals ‘and ‘lockdown,’ not to mention my own worst one: SOPs.
What do these crises all have in common? Us. People that’s who. Humans over-farm; crooks rob our state-owned entities blind and if we didn’t invade animals territories we wouldn’t have viruses jumping species (We won’t get into that the little corona bug could have been manufactured, because there’s just no way someone would do that… is there?… is there?)
It’s one thing to have these crises in successive year, but since we’re talking about storms (well I was, but became horrible sidetracked), what it happened that a perfect storm of events resulted in
What do these crises all have in common? Us. People that’s who. Humans over-farm; crooks rob our state-owned entities blind and if we didn’t invade animals’ territories we wouldn’t have viruses jumping species (We won’t get into that the little corona bug could have been manufactured, because there’s just no way someone would do that… is there?… is there?)
It’s one thing to have these crises in successive years, but since we’re talking about storms (well I was, but became horrible sidetracked), what if it happened that a perfect storm of events resulted in all of these things happening at the same time: you know a deadly virus, running rampant around the country, in the midst of a drought and then we run out of electricity…You think it can’t happen?
Well almost exactly one year ago we were watching Notre Dame burn; then three major reports published in journals “Nature” and “Nature Geoscience” declared that global warming is the fastest it’s been in 2,000 years and scientific consensus that humans are the cause is at 99%; exactly a year ago, tens of thousands of people began to riot in Hong Kong; just six months ago the majority of Brits voted for Boris Johnson. And you think it’s not all our own fault?
We’ve brought it all on ourselves.
For now I’m just happy to have a good old Cape squall. How much worse can 2020 get?… Perhaps I shouldn’t ask. But then again:
‘Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart.’
I get very little sleep at night more is the pity. And yet when I am done with my work, I just can’t seem to simply climb into bed and pass out.
I mean, I can, but I don’t.
I’m wondering whether any other night owls are the same. I don’t have a problem falling sleep so I am not an insomniac. I just have me-time FOMO. I know I should be grabbing what precious hours are left before dawn to take a trip to visit Morpheus, but I delay that wonderful surrendering of self to the oblivion of sleep, like a child refusing to nap.
And what do I do? I scroll aimlessly through my social media. It’s not exactly a meaningful activity, I know. Before the world was turned on its head and libraries shut (gasp!) I would read at least one chapter of my current book, fighting the natural desire to nod off, just so I could grab some pleasure in the long-dead day. So, I dawdle and do thinks like paint my nails or go down some Facebook wormhole that I have no interest in at all.
And I think that’s the problem: I feel so deprived of leisure time that I punish myself still further and get even less sleep. I can just hear my mother scolding me about ‘cutting off my nose to spite my own face.’
And the worst is that I grow more agitated the later (or earlier) it becomes, knowing that I am missing out on sleep. I can’t win. And it’s a foolish pastime because… well time passes as I delay the gratification of sleep in order to feel that the day wasn’t all about work.
I am not afraid of sleeping. I love sleep. I simply want to have some time to feel I did something for me before I go to sleep.
Another article refers my weird behaviour as ‘bedtime procrastination.’ And draws connections to poor self-control (nonsense I say as I pop some more choccies in my mouth.) and one’s circadian rhythms. https://www.popsci.com/why-you-stay-up-too-late/
So, turns out I’m not that special – loads of others also suffer from this silliness (in fact I’m a bit troubled to realize that all these articles mention ‘sleep disorders’ in the same breath, so perhaps it’s time I sorted my $$#% out. My competitive nature cannot bear to be ‘disordered.’) The good thing about living in the Western Cape during stormy winter nights is that after a while you have to snuggle down…and I have the Maestro there too… so I never stay up all night.
But turns out I’m in good company:
‘I tend to stay up late, not because I’m partying but because it’s the only time of the day when I’m alone and don’t have to be performing.’
The Dalai Lama was once asked if he could reduce the essence of all that is common to major religions into one word, and legend has him saying that that word is ‘compassion.’
This has stayed with me for a long time and underpinned what I find so powerful in my own faith. It’s something others have shown to me and which, as I grow older and hopefully a bit wiser, I am growing to see as singularly important in my dealings with others.
It requires a gentleness and empathy and a slowness of pace, a giving of your time to someone else’s world. And compassion defined as ‘feeling with’ another, an entering into someone else’s suffering.
Here are some things I have learned about compassion:
1. Compassion upholds the dignity of another
If you treat people with mercy and gentleness, you have recognized the humanity in each. It gives life to the Hindu greeting of ‘Namaste,’ (The sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you.) It’s saying, ‘I see you’ when an individual may be feeling invisible.
2. Suffering can increase your compassion
The more hurt, grief, betrayal, penury and bullying you endure, the greater the potential for deepening your own compassion.
After my mother died I became intensely aware of how desperate people can feel when they lose someone they love and I became much better at helping my students and their parents (and indeed my own friends) through their times of grief.
When my first marriage broke up, I became more understanding of the aching paralysis experienced when one stands bereft of the love of your life and its meaning, not to mention the poverty that often accompanies betrayal and abandonment.
I’ve survived toxic work environments and determined never to pit employees against each other and always to remember that staff members are human beings, not numbers to discard on a whim. I have seen both in various settings.
Recognizing the humanity in other people actually allows you to forgive your enemies because when you imagine them as suffering fellow travelers in life, it’s easier to let go of hurt.
3. You need to have an imagination
The Age of Corona has heightened the need for both empathy and compassion for people we’ve never met. I must care about people I don’t know. I must imagine what situation that person in the shop is going home to and be moved to wear my mask properly, stay on my own jolly decal on the floor and sanitize, not to mention refrain from going out when I’m sick. (Of course understanding how others may feel can lead to unnecessary guilt in an empathetic person. The other day, I had a tickle in my nose from my allergies, not the virus, in the queue at Woolworths, and had an urgent need to sneeze, but for the first time in 55 years, I swallowed the sneeze in terror that I would be thrown out of the store or lynched by fellow shoppers.) But I digress…
There is a huge need for the gentleness of compassion in this time when people are struggling with anxiety and when many are staring financial ruin in the face. It’s tempting to respond to outbursts from other people with our own annoyance in equal measure, but trying to recognize that they are just projecting their own fears onto you, helps you keep your temper and soak up their rage.
4. Compassion isn’t a feeling, it is a conscious decision.
Compassion is love in action. Therefore, it can be learned. It’s no good knowing something or feeling sorry for someone. Compassion requires the devotee to reach out to someone to help. Don’t feel bad that someone has been retrenched; buy them groceries.
5. COMPASSION DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN necessarily FIX things.
This may seem to gainsay the previous point, but sometimes you can’t fix someone else’s problem; sometimes things are beyond fixing. But the compassionate person is the one who sits and passes the tissues as the sufferer cries her way through her grief or becomes the kitchen help when there is a death in the family and just makes the tea for all the visitors. If I think of the people who heard me vent over the years about things they had not control over, who heard me say the same angry words over and over until I had expunged the ache, I am so grateful to have been blessed to have such friends.
It may be that you have to be a firm presence and not help even when you could, in order to empower someone needing to grow. Again compassion doesn’t prevent you doing this gently. One of my teachers who had the greatest impact on me when my parents divorced and I was acting out (Mrs Paveley at Springfield Convent Junior School back in 1976) held me to account for my cheeky behaviour, but understood and acknowledged (if a little gruffly, as was her way) that I was hurting. That’s all it took. I would have walked through fire for her afterwards and I cleaned up my act very quickly. And I never forgot.
6. Some people in business think compassion is a weakness
This annoys me no end. Just as hardened business consultants will pooh pooh qualities like good communication as ‘soft skills,’ they will also see a focus on people, as distracting when it comes to making ‘those tough decisions for the good of the business.’ And that’s rubbish.
It takes great emotional strength to put your own feelings aside and cross a psychological ravine to connect with another human being.
A compassionate person might need to make decisions which affect people negatively, but they can either find people-friendly solutions or manage the situation in such a way that the person involved maintains his dignity. Richard Branson says ‘Look after your staff and they will look after your customers.
In the end compassion makes us better humans:
“There is a nobility in compassion, a beauty in empathy, a grace in forgiveness.”
These are 10 things I’ve learnt about wearing a mask for up to 10 hours a day.
1. Beware of bad breath
Invest in breath mints, especially if you are a garlic aficionado – you’re going to be far more aware of yourself and you don’t want to survive COVID-19 only to succumb to Halitosis.
On the plus side your mask will protect you from the onion odours of other people too.
2. Perfume is best kept for romantic evenings at home.
Don’t waste your time wearing perfume – it will be diluted by Eau de Sanitizer. And if you’re hoping to lure someone closer with it, he can’t smell it if he’s wearing a mask, so save it for after a vaccine is found or for a love fest at home..
For perfume enthusiasts, do not despair, Louis Vuitton is making hand sanitizer now. The bad news is: it’s not perfumed, merely an effort to re-purpose their factories to assist the French war effort against the virus. But still…
3. Lipstick sticks to your mask
Lipstick is optional, but you may need to remember the face paint for Teams meetings, or opt for ‘no video’ and claim to be saving data. Uploading a pretty picture to your profile will keep people thinking you are still at your pre-lockdown gorgeous. (This also helps if you need a cut or colour). Just a heads-up though, if you do wear lipstick, be careful it doesn’t smear the lipstick all over your face: you could end up looking like the Joker when you do switch on your video. And you have to wash it all off your mask later.
4. Focus on eyes
Eyes are the windows to the soul they say (Well, Shakespeare suggested that in both Romeo and Juliet and Richard III) so we are going to become more literate in each other’s souls when speaking, because that is all we have to look at – worth noting for the daily make-up regime too.
5. Watch out for eyebrows
Eyebrows are important for communication now. As a redhead who doesn’t have eyes without an eyebrow pencil, I am working on remembering to draw them in each day. Possibly trim the unibrow if that sort of thing bothers you; otherwise this is a grand opportunity to chuck the gender-oppression of make-up entirely.
If you’re wanting to learn a new skill, work on raising one eyebrow at a time for effect – it will help to prevent boredom during off-camera Teams meetings too. Just remember to switch off your video!
Remember people can read many things into your expressions above the mask; make sure your face is saying what you intended it communicate.
6. Masks mist up glasses
Wearing a mask that’s snug over the nose and wearing your specs over the fabric helps. But if you breathe like Darth Vader, expect to be fogged up often. And don’t believe those life hacks about shaving cream and other lens cleaners. Soap and warm water cleansing of the lenses works best, but you’ll just have to try to prevent sending out so much hot air (double entendre intended). The good news about being bespectacled though is that no one can sneeze coronaviruses into your eyes.
7. You’ll get more exercise
You’ll get in more steps in the day because inevitably you will have to dash back to collect the mask you left behind when you left for work/school.
8. Look after your ears
Make sure the mask is not too tight or we’ll all end up with ‘bakore’ by the end of this pandemic.
9. Keep your social distance
If you’re slightly deaf like me (my mother warned me about all that rock music), you may have been unconsciously reading lips for years. It’s harder to hear someone through a mask and one has to be careful of inadvertently stepping closer to catch the gist of the conversation, especially if someone has an accent). Remember to keep your social distance and own up repeatedly to not being able to hear – blame it on the mask.
10. Look after your skin
Skin allergies from washing powders or merely teh fact of having something over your face for long periods can affect your skin. I discovered to my horror, that you can still get pimples in your fifties! So, watch out for skin irritations – teenagers guard against outbreaks of acne by careful cleansing and drying of skin to prevent bacterial infections becoming acne. Perhaps bring spares to school and change mid- schoolday to prevent dirt building up.
On the plus side a mask is a good way to hide those pesky random zits.
Notwithstanding all of the above, if you want to live and save lives, consider your mask your superhero costume: Up, up… and away!
At long last we’ll be welcoming back our matrics and Grade 7s to school on Monday, after 73 days in Lockdown!
And for our Grade 12s, matric will suddenly get real!
Be prepared for increased levels of schoolwork stress in your children. That is to be expected. As each grade phases in, it is likely that certain other fears will be experienced, especially concern about contracting the virus or anxiety over little things, like: ‘Will I “pass” the screening?’ ‘How will the new systems operate?’ and ‘Could I infect someone?’ ‘Will my friends still play with me, or want to speak to me?’
‘Am I behind in my work or not grasping key concepts enough to cope with my final examinations?’ as well as thoughts such as ‘’Will I be accepted into my chosen field of study next year?’ which are usual worries at this time of year, may be uppermost in the minds of our seniors.
We are ready to deal with all sorts of trepidation in both our staff and learners as we navigate the new way of doing things. Our counsellors and School Based Support Teams are on alert, because, as a school with an ethos of looking after the body, mind and spirit of our children, we are so aware we need to nurture them emotionally through this period also. (We are also aware that you, their parents, are also anxious about sending your children back into the world. We understand because we are parents too.)
Our school is fortunate in that we can offer a hybrid form of learning whereby students who cannot return yet or whose parents want to keep them at home for a while longer, can live stream the day at home.
Even learners tuning in from home may not be immune (if you pardon the pun) to some anxiety, however. They may suffer from FOMO and parents of such children should also watch out for what psychologists are referring to as the ‘Lonely Children Effect’ which according to Maria Loades, a clinical psychologist from the University of Bath, UK, interviewed on Cape Talk today, says ‘can manifest itself for years’.
Social interaction is critical for the intellectual and social development of young people, so do factor in some additional data costs, for your youngsters at home to spend a bit more time talking to their friends. Yes, I am actually telling you to let them spend a bit more time online; you have not misread. It’s how they socialise. For example, gamers shooting things with their friends is not necessarily the worst activity for them, because if they are playing online, they are also bonding, which at this time is really important. Unless that’s all they are doing, or you need them to take out the garbage, in which case turn off the router (or just threaten to, if you are in need of some entertainment at their expense, as one does when one is an evil parent like me.)
You may think your children can’t be lonely because they have you or their siblings to spend time with, but Loades says that peer play is what is important, not only DMCing with the ‘parentals.’
The other thing that will add to their stress is the fact that once more there will be change in their lives. Remember that resistance to change is a form of grief. Our staff and children will go through all of these processes as they come to terms with the next new normal. It will be both your job and ours to help them to reach acceptance and acclimatize themselves to the new protocols. Mourners can go through 5 stages of grief, not necessarily experiencing all of these or even moving in this order:
shock and denial
And when there is organisational change, people can go through similar phases:
Identify them either to yourself or with your child and help them through the hard stages. Because, eventually, we can get used to anything. Humans are clever that way. Knowing what you are dealing with, should empower you to make the tough calls, (especially if you encounter some ‘school’refusal’ but it should help you also to love them through the shock and denial stages. Good luck with the bargaining stage if you have a wannabe lawyer or lobbyist in the house though!
We cannot wait to meet our masked warriors of the New Age of Hybrid Education and welcome them home, as well as meeting some in your homes on our live streams. If you are lucky enough to be able to work from home still, think of us in this brave new world while you lounge in your pjs. I just hope I can fit into that darling little suit I bought before lockdown…
“I was a little excited but mostly blorft. “Blorft” is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”
Remember Y2K and all the fears that the world’s telecommunications and banking systems would come crashing down at the stroke of midnight? I can measure the passage of time and world events around which of my babies I was pregnant with or feeding at the time.
I watched the start of 2000 from Baby Shannon’s rocking chair in her beautiful nursery, in our home on a hill in Johannesburg, with a spectacular view across to the fireworks in Sandton City. Besides all the conspiracy theories and apocalypse predictions, it was an exciting time to be alive, with much anticipation about the dawn of a new era, even if there was much disagreement about whether 2000 was the end of the millennium or the beginning of the 21st century (it’s the former fyi).
I was nursing my newborn daughter when the night sky was illuminated by the magnificent display of pyrotechnics. It was as if the heavens were celebrating her birth, this tiny princess who was already a celebrity in the house with her delicate features and easy nature (well then, anyway.)
We had measured record rainfall that summer (the highest in over 20 year), so much so that Shannon was nicknamed ‘Mapula’ which means ‘rain’ in Setswana, but on that night the sky’s curtains opened on a perfect evening and the vison of those fireworks remains imprinted in my memory, like a happy portent that the 21st century would be better than the previous one. I was overwhelmed with the pleasure of my life.
Of course, I was relieved to have shed the swollen ankles that went with carrying a baby through a hot, muggy summer on the Reef. My misery was topped only by a mother at the older children’s school who was carrying twins. When we bumped (literally!) into each other at the year-end school concert, I was chastened at the sight of her, for feeling grumpy over my own discomfort: by then she had abandoned any attempt at haute couture and waddled into the auditorium in a tent dress and her husband’s bulky size 10 running shoes.
“I was full of self-pity in this heat, until I saw you,’ I whispered, ‘but now I just feel so sorry for you.’
She didn’t even bother to be poised about it and, beyond dignified denials, merely hissed, ‘Yes! You should be!’
My mother used to say that you can always find someone better off and someone worse off than yourself in this world, and on that evening, I realized the truth of it. And a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve 1999, I felt my life could not get any better.
I had no idea of course what the future would hold, and how my world would come crashing down around me just over a year later. Who could have foretold that I would lose it all: house on the hill, imported 4×4, husband, and even my birthplace.
Perhaps it’s better we can never see into the future – we’d wouldn’t be able to face the harrowing days if we could see them coming and I think we wouldn’t appreciate the good times either, if we were living in dread of what was to come.
I didn’t lose what was most precious to me though. Even though, I was heading into a time of dark despair and incredible loss. I just didn’t know it. I also didn’t know that I would one day experience the unbounded joy of both another child and new love.
But in that moment, on the edge of the era, as the lights from outside flickered over my sleeping baby, I was content.
“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on.“
Since I’ve already written reflections around the birth of each of my sons, I should reference the girls’ births, lest I be accused of favouritism, or horror of horrors, gender prejudice.
The story of Caitlin’s imminent arrival does involve prejudice against women though, but it’s also a story of triumph over that, in one of life’s delightful ironies.
It was Christmas 1993. We had been transferred to Johannesburg “for one year, I promise” (We were there for seven.) and I had just been offered an English teaching post at a private boys’ school, in what would become Gauteng in a few months with the dawn of New South African Republic.
My sister arrived to spend Christmas with us and while we were sunning ourselves on Christmas Eve, the phone rang. (Remember when phones used to ring somewhere in the distance and you had to go inside to answer them?!) I came out stunned. I was pregnant. Not part of the immediate plans, but a blessing nonetheless.
After the celebrations and announcements were over, I realized the tricky situation I was in. I was due to start at the college in the January, with a matric class, and the baby was due in August – mid-prelims. With some trepidation, I called the head of the school to inform him, and stupidly admitted I wouldn’t blame him if he fired me. He promptly did. Of course, he couched it in terms which probably sounded kind to him: ‘We…eell, we would prefer then that yah didn’t start at all,’ he said in his lilting Irish voice. And that was that. There was no contract to dispute. The legal advice given to me was that I’d opened the door by saying I wouldn’t blame him. So, I was out.
This was a time in education when schools were not only racially segregated, but women also had an unequal deal as employees. When I started teaching I earned R900. My male counterparts with the same qualifications and experience were gifted R1 100 per month. I lost my permanent post in a state school when I got married and no longer qualified for a housing subsidy. And here I was being screwed over by an independent school too.
At the time, I shrugged my shoulders, sold my little blue Suzuki Jeep (Okay I cried about that) and realized that I didn’t want to be a part of a system raising boys to think like that anyway and a few months later found the perfect post at Holy Family College in Parktown, an institution which housed the best head I ever worked under, Alastair Smurthwaite, who later promoted me to my first HOD position. He was a person of compassion and believed in giving his leadership team the room to grow.
I am a firm believer that when we don’t get what we want out of life, we often find our hideen, deepest desire. This is a lesson that I have learned over and over in my life.
HFC was a significant place of learning for me. I had a fabulous subterranean classroom, which must have been part of the old convent building. It was massive and airy and even though it was situated beneath the front stairs, it had a lot of light that came in from windows at the top which looked onto a carpark and enabled us to listen unseen to all the parents gossiping outside. It had huge hooks that we made up ghost stories about, and I rummaged around in unused rooms of the rambling building, braving the odd lurking aged nun, and discovered an old carpet and footstools which we put cushions on and used as a comfy corner for reading setworks and chatting.
The school was also a place where I was witness to great suffering among young people who travelled for miles on public transport, some being victims of unspeakable violence.
I will never forget a young man named Nokwanto whose growth was stunted because of his kidney disease, that forced him to undergo two transplants. His body rejected the second transplant; yet with every day that drew him closer to death, he lived life with a joi de vivre that would shame the most truculent adolescent. My last image of him before I left the school eventually was of him standing arms akimbo, laughing delightedly as soft snow fell on one of those rare Johannesburg days when the sleet is in fact snow.
Then there was the young woman who was gang-raped on her way home because she ‘had airs and graces because she attended a fancy school,’ who gave up her plans to become a lawyer and chose social work instead. And the tall, thin, tortured Nkululeko who postured aggressively in class and drew tormenting demons in his diary, and who slipped one of the most beautiful thank you notes I have ever received under my office door, in which he reflected that I had loved him just as he was. The social worker at the school voiced prophetic words when I left: “This is the letter which will bring you back to teaching.’ And years later when I did return to the classroom, I remembered. I still wonder what became of him.
The school was a fascinating combination of new and old, and the energy of the young people was contagious. The staff was largely female; strong women who were clearly leaders, at least one of whom went on to become a principal in her own right. The Science teacher, a heavy smoker and nearing retirement, was the first female engineer to graduate from Wits University, so there was no shortage of great female role models.
It was a place of healing for me when I lost my mother, and I am still in touch with a student who was delighted to hear that Caitlin was born on her birthday. Caitlin herself has grown up to be a woman of deep compassion and generosity of spirit, and is embarking on her career as a chartered accountant. She rescued me from becoming mired in a school whose male leadership would have crushed me, and enabled me to find one where I was liberated. It is fitting that the child who was born during my time there is forging ahead in what is still a rather male-dominated field, despite have been seen as an inconvenience by a school when she was still in the womb.
Thank you, Caitlin for being God’s instrument in leading me to profound happiness and setting me on my own path towards leadership.
I had to have a COVID-19 test on Friday. It really made me contemplate my own mortality and the angels who care for the ill.
In the first 24 hours in which I self-isolated even from my family, I realised a couple of things:
I’m quite boring company, but that won’t come as much of a surprise to most people.
I would hate to be in hospital alone and away from my family.
My thoughts of being potentially abandoned in a hospital ICU (Yes, I am bit of a drama queen) reminded me of a time I was forced to do that to one of my children.
Michael, now 23, was four days old when he was re-admitted to hospital and stayed in the neonatal intensive care for another three weeks.
He was born on the Monday before the Easter weekend in 1997, a sweet little brown-haired baby boy who surprised us all after two redheads. I think all the gynaecologists in the province were planning to enjoy the long weekend and so were inducing their mothers on the Thursday which is when My wee bairn was waiting in the nursery to be taken through for a little procedure (yes… that one!). As a result, I hardly saw him on that day, and until early the next day, when we were discharged.
I couldn’t believe how good this little boy was being as we introduced him to his big sister and brother: he slept through it all. He just kept on sleeping…all day and I was having to wake him to feed. In fact, when I look back, I realize he was pretty much comatose.
Fortunately, he was not my first child, or he might have died (just remember that when you’re choosing my old age home, Michael!) but I knew something was wrong, so in the middle of the night, we called in our babysitter and did some low-level flying back to the hospital to meet the paediatrician.
He was clearly trying to soothe my postpartum hysteria, as he patiently explained he was going to do a lumbar puncture (spinal tap, for my US readers), but gestured to me that I should wait outside. So, my poor baby had a massive needle inserted 0.5 cm into his back in order to withdraw spinal fluid, and I wasn’t there.
The diagnosis: bacterial meningitis! The funny thing about the types of meningitis is this, the viral kind can’t be cured by drugs (bloody viruses!), but the bacterial kind, while it can be treated with strong antibiotics, it can be fatal, especially for a neonate. Dr Greef’s grave tone informed us that he was ‘pretty sure’ he’d survive, and ‘cautiously optimistic’ there’d be no brain damage. I’d have said, ‘well that’s just swell!’ but the horror was that my tiny baby was suffering from a gargantuan headache caused by inflammation of the meninges, the membranes which protect the brain and spinal cord, so ‘swell’ it was most certainly was, but the irony was too awful to joke about!
Michael was admitted into the neonatal intensive care unit at the clinic and spent the next three weeks there. I spent that time commuting between my children at home, who cried when I left and my newborn in ICU who, when I left did not, because he was so desperately ill. I cried both ways in the car, aware that wherever I was, I was abandoning someone. In fact, if you look at photographs of me at that time, you can barely see my puffy eyes from all the weeping.
One outrageous moment of our time there was the soap opera eGoli‘s casting director asking us to allow him to be used as a prop for an episode. you can guess what my answer was, cheeky thespians! (So sorry, Mikey, you could have been famous.)
When I am think of that little mite, abandoned to an incubator, in an isolation ward each night, I reflect now of how dreadfully lonely and frightening it must be for serious COVID-19 patients, to be attached to machines and surrounded by the starkness of a hospital, and how impossibly sad it is that so many people are dying alone, without their families beside them.
To be fair, the intensive care nursing staff was phenomenal with Baby Michael. I still remember one named Andre, who took it upon himself to call me regularly when he was on duty with running commentaries of how Michael had decorated his incubator, necessitating regular changes, much to Andre’s amusement. I often think of that young man and wish I could thank him again.
We speak a great deal about the courage and dedication of health care workers during this pandemic, and it’s worth pausing to comment on the fact that besides their medical duties, these heroes are deathbed comforters too, as well as motivators and cheerleaders of recovery.
Back in 1997, it was an annus horribilis for us as a family (mind you there was worse to come, if only I had known). We’d been private patients and had not anticipated the need for such expensive, specialist post-natal care. I can remember how upset I felt upon receiving the credit control calls, before we managed to pay off the account. It was made known to us much later, that a similar case had preceded ours, in which the child of an attorney also contracted this hospital bug. His legal team apparently closed down the operating theatre and found the bacterial cause. The clinic settled out of court. We were not so fortunate. (Just as an aside, let me tell you, it is intriguing how the medical profession closes ranks against patients when one asks questions of liability…)
But it didn’t matter. I am eternally grateful that Michael survived, healthy with no lasting damage. When I think of how bland life would be without his droll humour, casting hilarious shade at everyone at the dinner table or his writing talent which entertains millions every day; and let’s not forget he was a fair footballer in his day (having recently retired to semi-sloth at age 23). When we have our midnight chats as the only two night owls in the family, I sometimes reflect on those late nights and how I longed to bring him home, as I pictured his tiny form alone in the hospital.
Of course, when I did finally carry him home triumphantly like Simba in The Lion King, I fed him so much in the next few months that he could have won a baby sumo competition, sporting jowls that would have impressed even Winston Churchill.
Tonight, I pray for COVID-19 patients in their solitary suffering and wish that they will also have an Angel Andre to bring healing to their bodies and spirits, and who will find the time to console their mothers.
Oh, my test was negative btw – I’m too wicked to die just yet.
For Malcolm, and all the others who have reported to me and gone on to be better at it than me:
When you reach a certain age and level of experience in any field, especially education, you realize that it’s important to mentor the next generation. Just as when karateka reach black belt level they are called ‘sensei’ which means ‘teacher,’ so too do those of us who reach senior positions in school leadership have a responsibility to pass on what we have learned. We must teach our teachers to be leaders.
It struck me this week when I said goodbye to a young man going off to head up a school of his own, how I hope I have passed on some wisdom to those who have worked with me, and for me, over the years.
I always joke to student teachers that we need them because one day we would like to retire, and while that is correct, the truth is we need to inspire them as much as we need to nurture our school children, because they will steer the next generation of students.
I told the new headmaster that he needed to remember the most powerful tools he would have at his disposal would be his own personal example and his integrity. I said to him to guard them both and make sure they always align.
“The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.”
– John Wooden. Basketball Coach
It’s lonely and windy at the top because that’s where the gales are. As leaders in a tempest, we must therefore have the strong roots of integrity and the proof of example in our branches. This is especially true now as we lead our schools through the COVID-19 crisis.
Calamity is the test of integrity.
– Samuel Richardson. 18th Century Writer
We should remember these two things:
1. PERSONAL EXAMPLE
How we deal with storms dictates what kind of a leader we are and what kind of leaders we shall inspire.
In a crisis and even on a good day, everyone looks at you if you are in charge. When I first became a head, a retired principal told me that the one thing to remember is that it’s all on you, when you’re in charge.
It’s hard, but you have to be the calm one, the decisive one, the brave one and the strong one. You have to be the one they all look up to. No matter how hard it is, you have to be a model of grace under pressure (fortunately for shorties like me, not a ramp one.) You must inspire, no matter how tired or low you feel. How you respond to everything dictates how your staff and therefore your pupils will behave.
If you haven’t run away yet, or become lost in the labyrinth of admin that may overwhelm you, remember that your vision must be clear to your staff.
If you want your staff to be creative, you have to be innovative; if you want them to work harder, you must set the pace and if you want them to be well-groomed, so should you be. (I use this one to fuel my Zara addiction.) If you want them to be compassionate educators who build relationships with their learners, you must get to know them all.
What I have learned on my own though, is that if you are really lucky, you will have a team around you, who will help you. If you empower them, they will be your eyes and ears and assist you with decisions, but you also have to trust them in their own departments so they have room to grow. I have such a team.
I may be accountable, but they make me look good.
Integrity requires us to truly know ourselves and remain faithful to the core values and principles we espouse. Know what you stand for… because you will be tested on it. These are what anchor your leadership tree to the ground and hold it firm no matter what the weather may be.
Your integrity will be what determines the example you set. It will describe the measure in which you lead with compassion, your style of management and how consistent you are.
Integrity is about being truthful and honest in what you say and do. You cannot be a hypocrite if you have integrity and it’s worth noting that insincerity will be spotted a mile off. So, your personal example must be aligned to what you say you stand for. You must know what that is first though.
In my career, I have left two institutions when it became clear that we stood for different things or when I realised that what a school said it stood for, could not or was not being maintained in practice. When you run your own school, you are it. A colleague once said that when you are a head, ‘YOU are the brand.’ So aligning your beliefs and the school’s mission become paramount.
While you may feel the storm at its fiercest, at the top of the leadership tree, that is also where you feel the sun first. And it’s a place where you can look down at the glorious blossoms that are the products of your institution. Don’t forget to pass on the sunshine to those who assisted to produce the flowers and celebrate the fruit of their labours.
When you see how well your alumni do, and how they are changing the world for the better, as they blossoms in the spring, you will know you are on the right track.
It’s also true that you may get it all wrong at some point, but just as you may have a poor harvest one year, and then produce a better yield the next, there are times when you have to do some pruning, and some shaping, some manuring and some frost-shielding. Plants grow better when the farmer is attentive.
It’s also important to be kind to yourself and know that you can always improve and that no one reaches perfection…ever. You may have passed on some less-than-idealistic traits. You can fix mistakes you make though if you are transparent and honest, and have the will to keep growing.
Remember finally that farmers get an early night so they can be up at dawn. So make sure you find time to rest.
“Sleep. Nature’s rest. Divine tranquility, that brings peace to the mind.”
We’re breaking new ground next week as we return to school with our Grade 7s and Grade 12s phasing in. Change is hard and, for parents and teachers alike, it is stressful.
We shall indeed be doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our learners and staff in the days and weeks ahead, and I am fortunate to belong to a group of schools led by an executive with people-management skills. Navigating through the storms that threaten us as we re-open our schools is going to require strong leadership.
I’d like to share some insight from a leadership forum I attended this week:
As you know, in past years we used to speak about the 3 Rs of education:
aRithmetic (I know -the R’s have never worked for me either.)
This has of course changed with 21st Century Education which focuses on the 6Cs (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Critical thinking, Character, Citizenship).
Here are the 5 Rs of this new stage in our post-COVID-Lockdown schools. (The list is purloined, but the interpretations are mine, I should stress.)
We are having to take many decisions and many are hard ones in the shifting sands of the pandemic landscape. Information is a swirl of changing facts and our Standard Operating Procedures can never be a fixed, lifeless document. We are learning to live with constant, rapid change and must be adaptable and flexible, like palm trees in a cyclone.
But we must make decisions. We cannot stand around dithering. Not even Nero’s supposedly musical fiddling helped to save Rome from fire (if you believe that legend.) We must be resolute in our desire to forge ahead now and serve our school communities So we must be both strong and decisive, and supple in how we navigate the way ahead.
We must stay the distance. My school will still be here to tell the tale when COVID-19 is as distant a memory as smallpox, but we have to take careful steps to adjust how we do things in order to make it through this time. As Michael Bolton tells us in the lyrics from his song in the cartoon, Hercules: ‘[We] can go the distance!’
3. Return (Renewed with Remote)
We are like heroes returning to the winter of school like bears disturbed from hibernation. Education will never be the same again. If it’s more of the same, we shall have learned nothing over this time. And that will be to our shame. We have been forced deeper into the technological era and developed remote learning and teaching skills no training programme could have achieved, because necessity is the mother of invention. Not only have we developed new expertise, which we shall continue to develop with the new hybrid model of teaching, we must continue to expand our technological capabilities. With the first new visualizers being installed in classes from next week, enabling us to better project our live streaming to children at home, as well as actively teaching those in front of us, we are heading into new territory.
That there will be teething problems with this, I have no doubt, but I am certain too that we shall overcome these challenges also. So, I hope our community bears with us in the days to come as we settle into an entirely new way of doing things, yet again.
This is the new normal.
4. Re-imagine (Re-invent, Re-interpret)
Our growth and development will not stop with these advances, we must continue to re-imagine our school. We have some exciting things planned around languages for 2021, and our burgeoning film school also has new horizons to explore. All of these will be developed around the new reality that COVID-19 has created globally.
We plan to push into the next normal.
As we experiment and develop education in the years to come, it is all rather pointless if we do not reform the community (and indeed the world) we live in. We must not merely re-make education; we must make it better. We must change the world, no matter how lofty an ideal that seems.
What has not changed in my school’s mission is to constantly remind young people that they are part of something bigger than themselves.
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’
Acronyms and abbreviations are the next contagion. They’re the next-generation viruses.
I’m not sure about you, but I’ve kind of had enough of the latest alphabet soup of acronyms. SOP is one I spent much time with today.
SOP is not the Afrikaans word for what I am having for supper, which is delicious vegetable soup.
SOP actually stands from Standard Operating Procedures and it’s what most schools and businesses around the world are grappling with in a post COVID-Lockdown world. Every institution and enterprise globally will be enacting innovative ways to navigate the new society we find ourselves in.
The Health and Safety SOP may have something in common with my daughter’s homemade sop. It’s also a careful blend of a mixture of ingredients, all aimed at making us strong and keeping us alive. Our family dinner fortifies us against the cold, and in the same way, all our planning will offer protection.
But what I can’t get used to is the hand sanitizer. It’s true that after the alcohol fumes have evaporated, some of the sanitizers actually smell okay and the one we have at school doesn’t dry out your hands either. But to be honest I’ve stopped putting on perfume to go to work, because one squirt of Eau du Désinfectant and my Yves St Laurent (fifty bucks a droplet) is overpowered and I am… Germex Girl! What worries me more though is that I drink an enormous amount of tea and I am wondering how many cups could put me over the legal limit from the hand sanitizer I’ve just used before touching the teabag!
They can be found in every conceivable place now, these ubiquitous little bottles of Virus Vanquisher. I wonder whether one day when COVID-19 has been defeated by vaccine cocktails, they will fall by the wayside like swords did when we stopped actually clutching our enemies’ hands and dropped our swords at peace parleys. What will the universal gesture of greeting become, sans spray bottle? A little touching of the forefinger to the thumb in a cute spraying gesture?
The other acronym that is starting to grate is PPE. It sounds like a horrible combination of needing the little girls’ room and my least favourite lesson at school. Don’t get me wrong, but burly women in bulky, padded jackets (long before K-Way dahling!) blowing a whistle in my face until I leaped into an icy swimming pool was not my idea of intellectual pursuit. After school, I promptly gave up swimming and now only dip my toes in the shallows in late Feb, if at all. Mind you, I live in Cape Town: if you dip your toes into our ocean on any day they are likely to come back seconds later as pre-packed frozen pork. But I digress…
We’ve always had Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) but now the term conjures up images of hazmat suits and gloves, which is not far wrong of course. While it may save us on lipstick, it is playing havoc with my hearing as I can no longer read lips – clearly something I have been doing unconsciously for a while. My mother always said I’d go deaf from playing all that rock music so loudly!
It’s a weird kind of formal dance we are developing: first the spray-bottle greeting, then we do the chicken neck extension as we lean in (keeping 1.5m apart of course) to catch what someone is saying and finish the sequence by doing the double-take shake as we try to ascertain whether we actually do recognize the masked ‘stranger’ before us. The COVID Tango.
Even COVID is an acronym : CO’ stands for corona, ‘VI’ for virus, and ‘D’ for disease. Idnkt. (I did not know that!)
They’re everywhere these nasty little acronyms and abbreviations of words. Acronyms are the more evolved of the two because they have really taken over the sentence by swallowing up the nouns. They are spreading fast and attacking the nervous system, causing sudden bouts of uncontrollable screaming. (Often patients can be heard yelling, ‘WTF!’ at inopportune moments.) No need to wait for a vaccine against these critters though – tea, chocolate and a good book in bed – that’s all it takes to cure the Acronym Virus.
Post-2004 in the US, this mnemonic became the FBI’s standard protocol in response to ‘active shooter’ situations or other general emergency attacks. And the ABC is used to train employees and school children across the US (sad, but true).
In many ways, this is what our COVID-19 response has been:
Avoid: social distance, wash hands, sanitize
Confront: Emerge from Lockdown and face the virus down, by re-opening
It’s a good modus operandi for many dangerous situations. I knew a black belt karateka who was a South African All Styles Champion, whose sage advice was always: run and only fight when you’re cornered.
But it does suggest that sometimes in life there is a time to come out fighting. Sometimes we can’t hide or just avoid battles and sometimes we have to come out and face down the enemy.
I’ve peered into the nasty visage of several enemies: disease, divorce; unemployment, toxic bosses; single parenthood, depression… and no chocolate.
My solution is a little simpler and less likely to get you killed:
Wearing body armour and coming out shooting, both literally and figuratively may be necessary at times, but the nature of the ‘fight’ or ‘confrontation’ doesn’t always have to be violent or aggressive. To me, the best revenge is to be happy and sometimes a benign response is better.
Oncologists will testify to how a positive attitude benefits cancer patients; Oscar Wilde says to ‘forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.’ Killing ‘em with kindness can be way more kick-ass than being a bitch. Even lack of chocolate can make you smile when you look at your ass in the mirror.
Not everything needs to be a fight. Sometimes you win by smiling.
I heard a report on the radio yesterday that the #1 item being bought by South Africans on Takealot since online stores could sell anything (except sinful things like cigarettes and alcohol of course, but we won’t go there!) is… drum roll… vacuum cleaners.
Now really! I’m all for cleanliness being next to godliness and all, but really, if I were to go to all the trouble of ordering something online, it wouldn’t be a cleaning appliance. To me those are grudge buys, like underwear, stuff you need and which is important, but no one really sees.
Not that I am into lowering standards mind you: I wear lipstick under my mask and I have a chart for the resident elves who (in my fantasy) would clean the house like small, useful, versions of The Borrowers, but who, despite their loud, haunted-house-like groaning, do in fact assist with cleaning the Mad Mansion.
But it does leave me wondering about the hygiene of South African homes pre-lockdown. I mean, did people not clean up after themselves before? Or, worse, were they expecting someone else to do it for them without the proper equipment?
The rest of the list is pretty understandable, with folk working from home and having the littluns needing school stuff, so: electronic devices and stationery supplies, including #3 (after laptops) which is gaming equipment, as sports and entertainment go virtual.
#4 takes on a more whimsical note (treadmills and home gym equipment), however I am rooting for these gym-bunnies and hope that their initial eagerness for self-improvement doesn’t result in yard sales of dejected, white elephants by December. On the plus side, I am looking forward to seeing all these folk on the beachfront in summer, sans tops please, as we clean up all the usual blubber and slothful strollers from the boardwalks. Clearly these are the types who cannot stir themselves before the 6:00 – 9:00 exercise window on Lockdown Level 4, or else they are the same ones who placed their orders during Level 5 and haven’t even opened their toys yet. I suppose it is possible that there might be some lunatics who do both, but those are just worthy of my couch potato pity. (We all know I believe working out is a little rash though, so perhaps I’m biased.)
#10 is just sad: non-alcoholic beer! I mean, non-alcoholic wine is fine – it’s grape juice which I prefer to drink anyway, but a good lager surely requires a bit of kick? Otherwise, you’re just drinking starch, and frankly, in that case, I’d prefer a toasted cheese sandwich, thank you. Unless beer drinkers have become devilishly clever and have found a way to infuse this supermarket sludge with raw alcohol or something.
Whatever happened to online clothes shopping? These items didn’t make the list, possibly because they have their own delivery systems. I have targeted a couple of darling little items for purchase from the Zara electronic store (yes, of course I subscribe to their online magazine, although Zara models are a trifle intimidating and rather aggressively emaciated, clearly have Elastigirl genes.) But it’s not the same as the chance to see the majesty of the whole boutique in front of you, with quality lighting (dimmed to make us look better of course, along with carefully angled mirrors to make us taller and slimmer) and the hours to wander at one’s leisure, and appreciate the beauty of it all. (I think I may have a little problem, arguably worse than the country’s drinkers going through the DTs).
I suppose it’s because shopping for clothing is an experience, not a mere practical function, along with attendant cappuccino-sipping.
I bought a new phone the other day, my last having had an overnight cerebral haemorrhage (which was sudden, and came as a huge shock to me, taking with it all my treasured memories and telephone contacts, with no time to say goodbye.) I had to shop online to check out the latest devices and I found it a rather stark experience. I like the sensate experience of shopping (to the chagrin of The Maestro, who constantly parodies my wistful path through such stores, which is why it’s better to leave him in Exclusive Books while I satisfy my frivolous leanings). Perhaps it’s the difference between men and women because Andrew was thrilled to help me the opening of the box and the setting up of the phone. I’d rather have been trying on winter boots.
Online or not, Lockdown is costing us, but as Oscar Wilde said in a foreshadowing of a capitalist’s dream sap.
“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”
Are you also analyzing every tickle of the throat and ache in your limbs as potentially presaging general pulmonary collapse and ague, related to COVID-19?
I think I am either becoming a hypochondriac or hoping to finally contract the jolly illness to put me out of the agony of suspense caused by expecting it at every turn.
But let’s face it, it’s not unrealistic anymore to suspect one might have succumbed. In our metropol, they have begun to identify cases by ward. There are 38 cases in the streets around us. %^&$ gets real when you realise this is not something over there in Wuhan or even across the peninsula at Groote Schuur Hospital. It’s in our neighbourhood. These are the people we shop with and jog with (okay so I don’t jog, but you get the point.)
‘So, this sore throat could be the start of my decline… Diarrhoea? Probably just a bug…but hang on that’s also a symptom…. oh my gosh, oh my gosh…. I’ve got it!’
And we confirm our self-diagnosis after consulting Gray’s Google by reading that an employee at the Checkers store we visited two days ago has tested positive… ‘so that settles it. I must have it!’
But if we take the panic pot off the stove for a bit, we’ll remember that just because COVID-19 is doing the happy dance through the air, it doesn’t mean that all the other bad boys in Da Flu Gang have stopped stalking us in the malls and taxis.
Sometimes a cough is just your allergies and sometimes a fever is from one of the other many flus that float across to us from the east every year…. I also sneezed… so it can’t be COVID, hey?!
So it might be merely something minor. Not every cold or coronavirus is COVID-19. Not every sore throat foreshadows the deadly flu.
However, no one told Cancer and her Mean Girls to leave town while we dealt with Corona.
Just this week, a friend’s nephew was diagnosed with leukaemia, a colleague’s mom had a malignant growth removed from her thyroid, and health authorities tell us patients are not turning up for TB and HIV treatments because of this pandemic. And those gangsta-germs are killers too.
… But this tiredness could be serious… I mean just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I’m not being hunted down by swooping microbes who’ve been lurking on trolleys, waiting for my sweet blood (okay it’s a little acidic because of all the lemon tea I drink, but you know what I mean.)
My mother used to joke that only the good die young, and then she had a heart attack at 56… I’m nearly 56… perhaps that tightness in my chest is actually a heart attack…it’s genetic…
Then, as I peer into the mirror to see whether the itch around my eyes is conjunctivitis (another symptom), and hence a clear sign that I am COVID positive, the Celtic Queen Maeve of my ancestors rebukes me for such foolishness. It’s actually a slap in the face for people with real illnesses to carry on like this. Even hypochondria is a real anxiety disorder, and I don’t have that. I think I just have COVIID -19 fatigue: the only thing I’ve ‘caught’ is the unease of others. All the preparations for healthcare at school, and coping with so many other people’s anxieties about the re-opening of schools, and the financial worries of my school community have exhausted me. I am in danger of jumping into the trauma terror train of needless panic myself. It’s time to put on my warrior armour and fight my own demons.
So, I am taking a cautious step back this weekend and switching off from all things COVID.
… If I do catch it though, just remember you heard it here first…
“After obsessively Googling symptoms for four hours, I discovered 'obsessively Googling symptoms' is a symptom of hypochondria.” ― Stephen Colbert
The Real COVID-19 symptoms:
COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. Most infected people will develop mild to moderate illness and recover without hospitalization.
Most common symptoms: fever, dry cough, tiredness
Less common symptoms: aches and pains, sore throat, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, headache, loss of taste or smell, a rash on skin, or discolouration of fingers or toes
Serious symptoms: difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure,loss of speech or movement
Seek immediate medical attention if you have serious symptoms. Always call before visiting your doctor or health facility. People with mild symptoms who are otherwise healthy should manage their symptoms at home. On average it takes 5–6 days from when someone is infected with the virus for symptoms to show, however it can take up to 14 days.
How accelerating change affects leaders and 5 things that are helping me.
I don’t know about you, my gentle readers, but I have sent so many emails in the last few days that open with, ‘I am so sorry to change this meeting time/start date/start time/rule [select relevant option]’ so that I have begun to think I should sign my name, ‘Angie Motshekga’!.
We all know that modern life requires us to be flexible and learn to cope with change, but I think it’s the rate of change that has increased so much since we have entered the Age of Corona (forget Aquarius, this one needs its own title). We need change management techniques on speed, literally and figuratively.
The Effects of the Rapid Rise in the Rate of Change:
1. We need to be more flexible
The acceleration of changing information requires us to be instantly adaptable, with the dexterity of a taxi driver changing lanes. I had occasion to thank a staff member today, our imminently organized high school secretary, who had just been told one thing by her manager, only to have me alter the plan as new decisions were made. Her gracious shrug of ‘No problem,’ was so gratefully received because I didn’t have to placate, console or explain anything. (I would have hugged her if I could.)
Not everyone is that resilient.
Adapt or die may sound pithy when contemplating Darwinian theory, but when faced with the possibility that choices we make may well have life or death consequences, taking time to pause and choose wisely, then adjust your approach when new announcements change our underlying assumptions, takes a new kind of rolling-with-the-punches kind of thinking, which can be exhausting especially for those with a need for tidy, stable structures.
2. Clear, Accurate Information is difficult to Communicate
COVID-19 statistics are changing almost as fast as the numbers on an Eskom electricity meter in winter, and so does the information available, which makes it frustrating when trying to communicate effectively with our parent-clients who are crying out for clarity about so many things, not least of which are dates for the phased re-opening of schools.
Knowledge is power, so when it keeps changing, so does our confidence in being on top of things. No one likes feeling stupid, and if we are caught napping with ‘I don’t know’ it doesn’t feel good. I have started tacking on ‘at this point,’ ‘according to current information, ’and ‘as far as we know’ to my statements, for plausible deniability.
Unfortunately, scientists are a bit like expert witnesses – you can always get one to back up your opinion. And everyone who has a viewpoint has a scientist to back up their view. We are bombarded with these twin talking heads, each crying fake news at the other and we as educators need to sail a path of sense through it all.
How I have managed to cope with the speed of change
I try to distil the myriad of articles, videos and documents into the essential snippets. However, anyone who has ever sat through one of my meetings knows that précis is not my strong point, but the ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ technique would be a good one to follow, if I could.
I have been blessed in the course of my headships always to have good management teams, with whom to grapple with decisions. There is so much benefit to be derived from collected wisdom, and fortunately what we call the 5 Cs: CCCCC (CCC (School’s name) Command Council – we could have named it the 6 Cs: CCC Covid Command Council, but that would have been a bit much) has been tremendously insightful in unpacking the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP – my new, least favourite acronym) and all the new protocols to be observed when we re-open our schools.
My leadership team has worked tirelessly to transition our school from being a conventional educational institution, to a remote learning school, and… coming to a theatre near you… a hybrid, combining physical lessons and the remote offering for those who can’t or don’t want to send their children back.
Note to all leaders: if your team is strong, you always look good.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed or irritated with the content overload and perpetually altering circumstances, not to mention having to absorb the anger and anxiety of everyone else like SpongeBob superheroes.
That is when the ability to appreciate another person’s viewpoint enables you to maintain a certain amount of humility and gentleness in your responses, all the better to diffuse antagonistic situations. People are stressed. It helps to visualize what that feels like.
If ever we needed this 21st century skill, it is now, in this crisis. The trick is ensuring we have fun even in the dark days. The entrepreneur, Sam Cawthorn believes that
‘Crisis moments create opportunity. Problems and crises ignite our greatest creativity and thought leadership as it forces us to focus on things outside the norm.’
As a school we have seized on some things we’ve wanted to do for a while, and the change has allowed us to do them.
Billy Joel thought that honesty was hard to find; wisdom is even harder and when everyone is looking at you for the oracle moments and quotable quotes, it can be a bit daunting. See #2 above. Thank goodness for teams.
When all else fails in a crisis, my mother’s favourite prayer (and also funnily enough the prayer of addicts) is what keeps me going:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
I am not in any danger of being addicted to change, but I certainly need the serenity of the Mona Lisa (although I sometimes think she was a schoolteacher thinking ‘%^&*& I don’t know what to do with these new-fangled methods – I’ll just smile and perhaps they’ll think I’m on top of it all’) and the guts of a Man United fan at Anfield. (FYI I’d never be a Man U fan.)
But perhaps the Good Lord will grant me the wisdom I so badly need. If not, see #2 above, repeat…
That means (gulp) that I am the mother of 5 adults. Yikes!
But it seems like just a few short years ago that he was born. His eldest brother was half his present age then, with the others various ages in between (decently spaced I assure, you, gentle reader – I wasn’t that Catholic!)
In fact, I actually thought he might fall out in those last few days, but he was so small that my doctor wanted him to stay in until 40 weeks (Let’s just get it straight: human gestation is 10 months – do not listen to the misogynistic propaganda that it is 9 months! I think that idea was first promulgated by men centuries ago, while trying to hide the fact that there’d been some nooky before the nuptials). However generally doctors who are doing a caesarean section (yeah like disection – section) will take out the wee bairns at about 38 weeks to ensure there is no premature labour, especially if the mother and baby’s health would be affected by early labour, as in our case.)
He didn’t of course (fall out I mean) and on a dark autumn morning, my sister fetched me; and I kissed the other sprogs goodbye for a few days, leaving them with Lego that ‘the baby bought for them’ (How much we lie to our children!) and their grandparents, who supervised them until Brigid returned to spend the next few nights.
At the Milnerton Medi-clinic, it was business as usual for me – I had of course done it all four times already, but Brigid marvelled at each stage (and naturally told me from time to time to keep my voice down.) To hear her tell the story of Liam’s birth it’s hard to remember that I was there at all, because she was so wrapped up in the glory of seeing that new life emerge from his cocoon, all swamp-thing and goo, only to hear him cry lustily (as he has done everything in his entire life since) and be placed next to us all clean and sweet.
I say it all with no disrespect because I loved it that she was there to see him and while she tells it as if I were merely a part of the operating theatre machines, in reality, she was checking up on me every few seconds with regular: “are you alright?’
‘Well of course, I’m only having my innards sliced open (‘sectioned’ remember) and I can even feel all the pulling in a kind of rubbery way – just peachy, Brig!’ (I can understand why she’s blanked me out of her story.)
Liam was such a bonny baby, always smiling and so easy. His siblings all had gastro while we were in the clinic and poor Brigid was repaid for her kindness in babysitting them during this time by being vomited on and having to comb the detritus out of both her and Caitlin’s hair. Sean was the only one who didn’t catch the bug, and gleefully announced that he would be the only one able to hold their new brother. Fortunately I disappointed him by rushing the newborn to his beautiful wicker crib and closing the door on all the children, because no sooner had Brigid departed to be ill herself in blissful peace in her own apartment, than Sean became violently ill himself. So Liam’s first night home, I spent cleaning up after my little big boy, as well as feeding his baby brother.
On the Sunday, Brigid came to fetch the children for mass and left Liam and me behind. I took that opportunity to change the outside light bulb by climbing up on a chair on the patio (I was a bit of a bangbroek and didn’t want it to be creepy outside when I was alone with the children.) Of course, having climbed up on the chair, I realised that I still had to get down again – a bit tricky on a Caesar wound. I didn’t dare tell Big Sister Brigid about this when I needed to go back into hospital with Liam overnight with a bladder infection, because she’d have told me that was why and had no sympathy. At least we had a porch light when I returned 24 hours later and could finally enjoy my beloved five children. And hold them and cherish them.
And now I am amazed that it is 18 years later! I’d say it’s safe to finally stop living in dread that something would happen to them but that’s not true – it did, many times including nearly losing Liam to an attempted kidnapping two years ago. I’d like to say that I can stop worrying now that they are all grown up. But the truth is I don’t think you ever stop breathing in fear for your children with every breath you take. Or ever stop exhaling fire with every escapade they entangle themselves in.
These last eighteen years have been eventful to say the least. I do hope the next will be slightly more peaceful. I plan now to live long enough to be a real problem to them all.
It seems that won’t be too hard. They already speak about me in troubled tones, as if I am not present in the room…. So perhaps they’ll put me in a home soon and bring me cute babies to play with on Sundays. Either way I relish the anticipation of the next chapter of the motherhood book.
I may have given them life, but really they gave me the reason to live mine.
A reflection on change and what we face in our return from lockdown, like paroled prisoners
Aunty Angie has finally made the announcement: it’s back to school we go.
This is an appropriate season for us to be facing the uncertainty of re-integrating our learners into the wild, that’s for sure. It’s around this time that, as you dress for work, you contemplate ‘open toe? or closed toe?’ (Well if the weather is warm and your summer peep-toes are all worn out or packed away, you can’t buy more, just remember.) It’s also the time you get caught out sans umbrella, or a warm jacket for the late afternoon’s chilly breeze or downpours.
In many homes, parents will be contemplating how to return their wildlings to their natural school habitats and weaning them off the home environment.
So much of our return is uncertain. We still don’t know how other grades will be phased in and for our students it’s going to be hard to acclimatize themselves to new regimens of health checking and social distancing. And for our matrics, the added trepidation that comes with firstly being in matric and facing the unknown future of their tertiary studies and adventures, is exacerbated by the fact that now matric is almost as variable as the Cape weather, and as hard to predict.
Wearing masks all day will take some getting used to, because they are hot on your face and fog up glasses so there can be no heavy sighing. Different break time routines and washing procedures will become part of the fabric of the autumn time.
The Keats ode to the season of change, ponders the sliding transition as Summer slowly draws to a close and autumn sets in. Our youngsters will find themselves in this chilly term in socially distanced classrooms, and the jerky teenage hug-athon that usually presages the return from a holiday, will not be allowed. (The Pres did say the time for kissing and hugging is over). Pity these poor teens trying to get a date now too! But the warmth of the social embrace will be missing for them and we must be prepared for their reaction to the starkness of it all.
It will be up to us to make this new normal (I hate that expression already) as painless and as natural a process as possible, like the turn of the seasons. And fun – we must have fun too, just as Keats suggest autumn brings her own beauty.
The ode reflects on the fact though that Autumn’s music is just different from Summer’s and yet it has its own lyrical voice and cadence. I hope that when we return we shall have a new appreciation for our learners and they of their teachers. We shall still be playing music; it will merely have a different sound.
On my brief forages into the shops, I have noticed that wearing masks draws your eyes to other people’s eyes and this masked season in our schools may give us a new look at each other – I am hoping we shall see our children more clearly even though we shall have less of their faces to see (and we know of course that there will many a bearded young man hiding his lack of a razor behind his mask). Perhaps this will be a time of closer contact soul-window to soul-window, as we need to peer more intently at one another. Lord knows, we shall need to watch closely for signs of trauma.
Some of the sound of our return may be more groan than song however. Change of any kind brings with it attendant traumas, and these children may well not have been outside the confines of their homes, even to exercise, for 65 days by then, especially if they are the couch potato type, because, other than the hours to exercise, children have not had a chance to go to the shops like their parents.
When prisoners are released back into society, there are psychological adjustments to be made to adapt to their newfound freedom. (In the case of schoolchildren returning, some comics may say they will have swopped one prison for another, of course) but the fact remains that the elements present in the body and mind’s response to change will be reflected in our returning parolees.
Learners with pent-up emotions within the confines of the homes, like prisoners who bottle up their feelings and present bland exteriors in prison for the sake of keeping the peace, may well be prone to greater quarrelsomeness as their emotions have a little more space to be vented; ‘pecking orders’ will have changed (no matter whether the home or school is the more egalitarian) the rules will be different and learners will discover themselves on a different side of the heap than at home; some will have been able to avoid facing up to the reality of impending matric exams (as well as the likelihood that feelings of dread,both real and imagined, may abound around how little they may have worked ) and will now have to confront matric, in the same way that an ex-con has to face what he has done when he sees his family again.
And, of course, not one child’s experience of the changed environment will be the same, nor will their responses be timed to make things easier. And we may well have days when we have the perfect storm of them all acting out differently on the same day. And like all prisoners they will regard the teachers (and their parents) as jailers, and rebel accordingly, playing us off against each other.
Some will struggle with leaving their comfortable prisons where they have been cossetted. The challenge of trying to teach teens who have become accustomed to beginning their studies after 9:00 in their pyjamas, with hot chocolate or coffee on tap, is going to take some counting to 10. They are going to be grumpy. In some homes, there may have been little oversight and so educators may suddenly be seen as the abusive prison guards.
It is not going to be as smooth a transition of seasons as Keats describes in his poem, but I am comforted by this reality: the human spirit has the most wonderful power to adapt to changing circumstances, and I am sure that soon the new way of doing things will become as commonplace as wildlife in our towns these days and our resilient learners will flourish once again.
But… forget about autumn and mellow fruitfulness, …winter is coming…. the next grades have to return … and we shall start this rollercoaster again…. and again…. until we are all back.
And learning to be comfortable with change, we need to be fluid, like water. As that great philosopher, Bruce Lee says:
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” ― Bruce Lee
There was a young man walking past outside my window as I was dressing this morning, and I had already opened my curtains. If he had looked up he would have had quite an eyeful (and needed some years of therapy too, I imagine), but fortunately for my modesty and his medical aid savings account, he was so engrossed in his cellphone (never mind that since it was during the exercise hours of lockdown, and he should have been jogging) that he did not notice the matron in her knickers in the house across the road from his morning constitutional.
But as I streaked (literally) into the bathroom, I contemplated what I had seen: a pedestrian on this glorious morning, face in his phone, not noticing the colourful dawn (or even where he was going). Much has been said about the zombie apocalypse of technology at our fingertips and I don’t want to comment on that, but I worry about our children in these times when all they are doing is on their devices – even school now.
The socialization of young people is being significantly affected the longer we stay in lockdown, in that they are not spending time in the same spaces as one another, because physical presence is so important for appreciating the nuance of meaning via body language, tone and pitch, as well as social development within groups. This is something that homeschoolers recognise and ensure that they take their children out of the home to places and activities where their children can mix and mingle.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for social development above health and safety from the virus, but I am saying that this is an area to consider when it is time to return to school. Pre-school age children are particularly likely to show social lags if they do not return to school with their mates after lockdown. Of course, some children are physically vulnerable, because of pre-existing conditions, and one can appreciate the need to protect their health above all else, but none is immune to poor socialization following long periods of isolation, so parents who choose to wait some months before ‘re-introducing their young into the wild’ should consider finding ways to do ‘virtual play dates’ or ensuring they spend time in unstructured play in the same space (with their siblings at least).
Children in lockdown are missing out on collaboration that is a very real part of the creative process and of 21st century education. Peer learning is vital for childhood development. Studies show that children with better social skills in pre-school, perform better academically in Grade R (Kindergarten) and are better adjusted to Foundation Phase, are better able to regulate their emotions and maintain more positive friendships in later years.
Long term social isolation leads to loneliness and can affect brain development, and mental and physical health. I am sure that parents are tired of their youngsters underfoot already, but more and more I am reading about children really missing their friends and weeping from the sheer stress of being stuck indoors with the same people, no matter how loving we may be. We are starting to see really increased stress levels in children and must beware of depressions, especially in teens.
I have a son in matric this year. This was supposed to be the year he played his last season of hockey for the school; he was cast as the Mad Hatter (why am I not surprised?!) in Alice in Wonderland and was looking forward to his matric dance. Now most if not all of the magic of matric has been stripped away from the Class of 2020 and they have been left in a ‘winter of discontent,’ a barren year of stress and study.
That is really hard for them emotionally but there is a vicious cycle happening here as well: their social isolation at a time when they most need to have some belly laughs, a quick game of football at break, or a round table on the latest gossip, has been taken away. And I am not sure that a nightly game of whatever murdering adventure is popular in the gaming microcosm of their network counts as true socializing, with its attendant eyeballing of mates and endorphin release. You definitely cannot be socializing properly over the ‘gram or WhatsApp because we all know what happens to tone and context in those virtual worlds. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations abound.
Without the release found in the fun part of matric, students’ stress levels are likely to rise considerably and they now have only the parentals at home who are putting additional stress on them because we are stressed for them and the looming examinations sans class time..
This will inevitably lead to inability to concentrate and process information. My high school has added a free social session on Microsoft Teams for a kind of virtual break, so that the teens can interact, but of course some are still keeping their videos off (because – ‘pyjamas and bed-hair- duh!’) so they are still not receiving important social cues such as body language and tone, nuances that are so important for maturing social intercourse.
As much as educators allow for some fun and chatting in online classes, you either have lethargy and apathy from your audience or giddiness with junior school learners which is draining for an educator to control and far more difficult than when they are all in the same room:
With prep school children who are having great fun waving their virtual hands and commenting online, to the chagrin of the odd parent who happens to peer over a shoulder, it’s tricky to ensure they are focusing on the content delivery. But that’s also an elementary school child mindset. We need to let them have fun. We all learn when we are having fun. But it’s also why too much live online work can impede learning. Having said that, online etiquette has certainly improved as the weeks have passed, as we’ve navigated the remote learning space and children are co-operating with correct online decorum.
With high school learners’ videos and mics off (to save data) who knows whether the blighters have gone back to bed even?! It’s tough enough getting signs of life out of teenagers on a Monday morning at the best of times, but now a question such as ‘’You all with me?’ which in class is easy to observe, even if all the responses you get are adolescent grunts, is really hard for a teacher to measure when faced with a blank video wall of cute profile pics.
The moment when a teacher does this sort of informal class benchmarking, is when some of the best learning happens – when an individual ‘fesses up to not having a clue; there is some laughter and everyone refocuses and learns after additional assistance. There is a clinical nature to online ‘live’ teaching that cannot replace the human relationship element so vital for teaching. After all, we teach children, not subjects. School teaching is not lecturing. We need group work and personal interactions to bring lessons to life. So, it’s not just the peer relationships that are being missed out on, it’s the mentor-learner ones too. I salute teachers who have abandoned their human form and overnight out-transformed Optimus Prime, and who are still ensuring that they nurture their relationships with their charges despite the challenges they face. (Can we clap at about 23:00 for them, when they finish their workday?)
Even the second-year university student in my house, who is a true introvert, is missing the subtle social interactions that happen mid-lecture, which aid learning and build the kind of connectivity that can never come from MTN or Vodacom.
So, as much as I know that we can continue with remote learning for as long as it takes (well at least at my privileged school we can) I look forward to the day we can teach flesh and blood human children, not their screen avatars.
In the meantime, parents, I beg you: send them outside to play and exercise, but if they cannot see other youngsters in the flesh, be a little more lenient with screen time. Facetime and Zoom calls are better than nothing. It may be the only social interaction they are getting.
And tell them we miss them.
Or just show them this:
Perhaps we should give in. Who needs great rhetoric or literature. Move over Cicero and Demosthenes. Sit down Marlowe and Plath. We’ve gone back to hieroglyphics:
I just hope we don’t go back to this:
At least there’s one for me (the specs are Versace):
A tribute to my family and friends who walked beside me on my journey through single-parenting.
When I arrived back in the country with my 4.4 children, I hadn’t planned very far ahead.
Other than get back to Cape Town; find a place to stay; and see an obstetrician, I didn’t have too much on my calendar. It was just so good to be home again though. And looking at my mountain. There is no other like it. I had begun to fear that I would die in the American mid-west and never see the spectacular sight of God’s granite masterpiece again. I still breathe in deeply and gratefully when I look at Table Mountain and thank the Lord for bringing me home.
The first few nights we squeezed into my sister’s tiny two-bedroom apartment in Blouberg. I don’t think she had quite anticipated the chaos of our 4.4-person-four-suitcase home invasion. But there, camping in her sophisticated home, we started a new family of two moms and five youngsters.
Brigid selflessly gave up her bed for me and the toddlasaurus, while she and four-year-old Michael shared the lounge and I think we were able to just fit ‘the big kids’ into her spare room, around all our worldly possessions in the five pieces of luggage we’d hauled across the Atlantic.
We had never been very close as children, Brigid and I, but she became my fiercest defender and closest ally from that time on. It has been as if she stepped out of the shadows as my guardian angel and ever since has been a phone call away when the children’s ward at home became overcrowded, or when someone needed fetching from school, and I couldn’t make it. If Super Sister were a Marvel hero, she’d be her, swooping in with her capes (and second-hand ones for sharing), not mention little treats for the gannets who flocked to greet her at the door every time she appeared.
She was in the operating theatre when Liam was born and at every important awards evening through the years and sometimes even at sports matches, although she was not too keen about the rainy ones – bad weather minces her hair.
I didn’t know at the time that before we arrived, back in Cape Town my uncle had rallied the family together and decided on how they would look after us, who could provide shelter, and who would feed us for the first while.
My cousin Grant had recently moved into a small semi-detached cottage in the area and was due to go away on business so we were able to move into his home for a couple of weeks, and to our delight there was a patchwork garden out back where the children could let off steam.
It was a beautiful little home: everything was new with stylish cushions and photographs artfully curated around the living room. There was glass everywhere.
So, the first thing I did was re-curate things in frames that might break out of the reach of the junior wrestlers and we set about unpacking our bags for a while (after a lengthy lecture about this not being our home, so please play outside and take care of Grant’s things) Then I cast my eye over the ingredients I had at my disposal (delivered in boxes by my aunts to see us through the week) in order to make a birthday cake for Sean who turned nine the day we arrived back in the country.
While I was hunting around in the bachelor’s kitchen for something to bake the cake in, I heard a loud crash and, racing into the lounge, I found my two sons’ guilty faces raised in abject remorse (and not a little fear), a soccer ball and a broken photo frame… I had forgotten that balls bounce.
I suppose I yelled and ranted a bit – I can’t remember, but what I do remember is how sad I felt for them – they had been cooped up for days, first in planes; then in an apartment and now in the confines of this ultra-mod pad. That was when I knew we’d need a big garden if we were going to survive… and a glass repair shop.
My cousin Gail arrived with a car for me which she had had in her garage for a time, and which had been driven by a friend who’d borrowed it before leaving for overseas, and Gail hadn’t got around to selling it. It had been in an accident previously and the driver’s seat was angled slightly down to the left, but it was for us a luxury we hadn’t expected (even though anyone spotting me wriggling my pregnant belly around the steering wheel like a sumo wrestler, would have had a good laugh).
We drove that car for several years before I was finally able to purchase Le Moto, the family bus, which served nearly 15 more years hard time with the Mongies. Although, I very nearly killed my whole family in it once:
Back when Parklands Main Road only extended as far as the circle at the Woolworths Centre (and long before the Centre was built) I wanted to see the new school that was being built down that road and spotting that the road past the circle had just been tarred, I drove on round and onto the new road, to the delight of the boys (who cheered at the jolt) and the horror of the workmen there, because it had not actually been finished properly and the car bounced down a good 15 centimetres onto the new road.
The car seemed to be alright and I turned around and drove gingerly and shamefacedly past the roadworkers who shook their heads patronizingly.
That afternoon we took a drive through to the Southern suburbs to a Spur birthday party for one of another cousin’s sons. As we came down the Blue Route towards Constantia, Caitlin, perched in the middle of the back seat between her brothers, to keep the peace, called out primly, ‘Mommy, there is smoke in the car. Should there be?’
And indeed there was: the car’s ramping of the roadway earlier must have damaged the exhaust pipe and I was slowly asphyxiating my beloved children on carbon monoxide fumes. We decamped quickly to the edge of the freeway, a rather risky exercise with all the nippers, but we needed to clear the smoke. And all I could think was: ‘What will Gail say when I tell her, I broke her car even more?! And how will I find the money to fix it?!’
My beloved cousin Susan and her husband, Sean came to the rescue and while they looked after the children at the party, I took the car to be repaired. And Sean insisted on paying for it. They like Gail, will never know how their generosity was appreciated and how much I still think of these acts of kindness that saw me through the tough times.
There were so many people who pitched in to help, to listen and to boost my drooping spirits in those early days. People say to me ‘How did you manage? Well I had help!
And when I failed to realise that I was being carried on angel’s wings, The Good Lord sent me a cuff-to-the-head reminder that I was not alone. I vividly remember weeping in the garage one night after finally getting the last ill child to sleep, in the middle of a virulent family stomach bug that tore through the nippers like a stampede of shoppers through a bottle store after lockdown ends. Every sheet was fouled and every child had been crying for me. And then the washing machine broke down mid-cycle.
That was when the camel’s spinal cord snapped. I shouted at God, demanding to know where He was when I was so alone in my struggles. Just then I heard the phone ring in the kitchen: my friend Bernie was on the line. “I just called to see how you are, because I was thinking of you,’ she said.
I have never dared question God again.
And that is why, notwithstanding their winning form pre-lockdown, I support Liverpool FC. (That my son writes a football blog https://www.anfieldcentral.co.uk may have something to do with it. Their anthem is a constant reminder to the lonely:
7 things to know about surviving hurt and trying to forgive.
I have faced my share of betrayal and spite, and sadly I have realized over the years that it seems to be a part of the human condition, this coming to terms with the damage others inflict in our lives.
I once asked for a formula to follow to try to forgive someone who had hurt me badly, and not even priests could give me a how-to guide. I think it is a path we often travel alone, but one can produce a joy more profound than the hurt.
These are the 7 things I have done and what I have learnt about surviving hurt and about forgiveness.
1. I kept an angry book
When I first realized I would need to raise five little tykes on my own with little or no consistent financial assistance, I was filled with soul-penetrating hurt and an impotent rage, that I thought would overwhelm me.
So, I wrote it all down. I filled a cheap little brown exercise book with my profound personal hurt and the rejection which threatened to destroy my fragile sense of self. And I scribbled vile words in several languages in an attempt to purge the acid that burned inside me.
Late at night I vented into that book every impassioned thing I wanted to say and needed to say, yet was unable to because I was unable to address them in person, in the knowledge that even if I could have reached his voice, I could not reach his spirit.
One day, I came to the end of the notebook. And I realized I didn’t need to buy another. I was done. The poison was out.
And then I found love
I put the book aside and some years later when I was packing to move into a new house with The Maestro, I threw it away.
2. Everyone is the hero in her own story
This is especially true of people who inflict pain on others. Some years ago I worked with a colleague who made my life so unbearable, I was forced to leave. I was filled with the penetrating pain at being falsely accused, as well as anger and anxiety at the loss of my livelihood, and concern for my children who were innocent victims yet again.
It was at this time, that I tried in vain to google ‘forgiveness for dummies’ because I knew that the hurt would crush me and demolish my serenity if I didn’t.
Then I realised something: she actually thought she was right. In her mind, she was the avenging angel, and I was a cruel woman who had to be vanquished.
In my newfound empathy for my tormentor, and her cabal, I was able to understand her a little, and in the end, I felt sorry for her. Because she was simply wrong.
‘Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.‘
3. Forgiveness is not about the abuser
Letting go of anger, no matter how righteous the rage may be, is a healing process and brings true serenity. When you are angry with someone, that person neither knows nor cares how you feel. So, your feelings are an invisible toxin that kills only you.
Physical action helps to externalize the ache. That’s why often jogging or cycling till your drop helps some people. I am not that crazy. However, I did find that walking alongside the sea gave me a sense of perspective on my life, measured against the ebb and flow of the eternal tide.
4. It’s much more difficult to forgive someone when the abuse is ongoing
If you are able to walk away from a situation or draw a line under toxic relationships, it is much easier to let go of the emotional damage they cause, but when you face the same day-in-and-day-out bullying or verbal abuse or permanent penury that often accompanies great betrayal, it is not so simple.
There is recourse in the law for some things naturally, but I found that the legal route is almost as brutal as the original crime, and I had to look inside of myself to find solutions for the problems. Being honest with myself about how and why I felt unhinged by my emotions allowed me to park the anger temporarily so that it has eventually become a side-blur as I journey through life.
5. Time heals
It is true that time takes some of the sting out the raw pain you endure when first you are wounded. And I have found that suffering has made me more compassionate towards others. You just have to wait it out.
6. ‘The truth will out’
As Shakespeare tells us in The Merchant of Venice (and many other of his plays), ‘the truth will out.’ And it really does in the end. It is good to be vindicated, but the waiting to be ‘exalted above [your] foes’ as the psalmist promises, can be long and requires patience.
Far be it for me to suggest we should wish for such vengeful deliverance, but it is human nature to hope for it when we have been wronged. I have found though that the truth has a wily way of popping up to haunt those who abuse it.
7. The greatest ‘revenge’ is to be happy and successful
Laugh long and often. Life is absurd, but there is much joy and friendship to be found, even in your darkest hours. You can experience profound joy in the midst of your suffering.
This is how I have found my peace.
‘Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.’
President Cyril Ramaphosa was criticized by a caller on a talk-radio show this week, as ‘being weak’ for apologising for mistakes made in the process of addressing our country’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
I completely disagree. I think it is a sign of strength that a person can apologise (and a rarity from a politician). I think it shows an acknowledgement and empathy for other people ‘s feelings and opinions if you can say you are sorry to someone who has been hurt by your words or actions. And in a leader, that kind of humility is important.
I have a saying with my staff that‘sometimes only grovel will do.’
Because we mess up – like all people – and much time is saved when the offended party is given that recognition of their hurt or inconvenience.
Here are some tips about apologizing (with a disclaimer that I don’t always get these right either):
1. Believe you have offended. Apologise even if the mistake or slight was unintended.
There is nothing worse than being gaslighted by the very person who has caused you hurt, or upset you. To have one’s offended feelings then denied, adds insult to injury. The first rule of conflict management is to believe what the other person is saying. It is not for you to judge whether a person is over-reacting either.
2. Relationships matter more than your ego or being right.
A servant leader knows the simple truth that ‘it’s not about me.’ Expressing remorse shows your partner or client that the relationship you have with them is more important than your ego or being right.
‘When you’ve done something wrong, admit it. No one in history has choked to death from swallowing her pride.’
3. Mean it. Only two year olds are ‘sorry, not sorry.’
We all remember being made to ‘say sorry to your sister!’ and hearing that muttering ‘Sorreeeee!’ which was a clear sign that you were not! We’re grown-ups now though and admitting regret should be sincere and humble.
Recently after a spat between two of my my offspring, that had become particularly personal, had been calmed down, I asked each to say something nice about the other. My daughter told her brother he had nice eyes. His retort: ‘I like your glasses.’
Clearly ‘Not sorry.’
4. Don’t ruin the apology with a ‘but.’
Likewise, saying ‘but’ after an apology is just another version of saying ‘sorry, not sorry.’ See point 2 above.
5. Apologies do not absolve you of responsibility/blame/legal ramifications
Even when a criminal apologises to his victims in court, he is not excused his sentence because he is remorseful. There is still a consequence that he must accept. The same is true when we screw up. We still need to fix what we broke.
In South Africa, not enough people apologised for Apartheid, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s noble aims, let alone spent their old age making amends, (or licence plates in prison).
Of course, sometimes you can land up in court for apologising because you may have admitted legal liability, but I really hate it when companies or politicians use all of those euphemisms like ‘it was a regrettable incident (that 100 of their employees died down the mine that they did not ensure was safe, or contracted cancer following their factory’s effluent poisoning the drinking water’ …
Avoiding acceptance of responsibility is cowardly. If you stuffed up, admit it! That’s the honourable thing to do, however unfortunately, honour, like cigarettes during lockdown, is hard to come by when a company is facing financial losses through litigation. Sometimes they apologise but add those little disclaimers such as ‘while the company regrets…. this in no way is an acceptance of liability…’
Large underwear is needed: confess (It’s good for the soul – trust me I’m Catholic so I know), apologise and face the music.
6. Don’t wait
Express remorse immediately when you discover you printed someone ‘s name incorrectly on the awards ceremony programme, or before someone sees the scratch on their car, or when there has been a delay in response time to an issue. Make contact even before the injured party becomes aware of the situation, if possible. That shows you’re sincere and not hiding it. It also tends to take the sting out of the error or insult and can calm down a furious client and gain their respect for being someone who owns her mistakes.
‘When you realise you’ve made a mistake, make amends immediately. It’s easier to eat crow when it’s still warm.’
7. There is always something to be sorry about in a conflict situation
Even if the angry customer in front of you is dead wrong. There is always something to apologise for such as a miscommunication that has led to the misunderstanding. If you take ownership of even a part of the complaint, the complainant may be slightly mollified at least.
Always acknowledge their feelings as valid.
8. Apologies heal relationships and build trust
Humans are weird about ‘losing face’ and being the first to apologise. In fact, to me, that is the moral high ground and shows a stronger person, confident in herself because true strength requires humility. How many of us know families who no longer speak because siblings or children or parents refuse to be the first person to ‘give in’ as apologising is considered a surrender.
In the end, we all want to feel validated. Likewise, if someone apologises to you, apologise back for your part, enabling both parties to heal and feel forgiven.
9. Take the long view
Be prepared to lose the battle in order to win the war. If your goal is to win over a group of people to co-operate with you, it can be of strategic importance to suck it up and apologise unreservedly in the small things so that they will believe you and respect you in the long term.
10. Apologies take courage
It is not always easy to apologise because it often involves facing the wrath of the offended party, and that is another reason why I say that it is strong leaders who are able to do this. An apology makes one vulnerable in the relationship (or so many think) and so they avoid doing so which is sad because the courage to own up to being flawed is both liberating and empowering.
‘The first to apologise is the bravest. The first to forgive is the strongest. The first to forget is the happiest.’
11. Don’t respond to anger or annoyance in another with reeling out a list of their own similar crimes
While it may be true that you may have experienced similar treatment at the plaintiff’s hands, now is not the time to say, ‘well you always/never do that either’
(btw ‘always’ and ‘never’ should never feature in arguments.)
‘I am so sorry! I know how annoying this is when it happens to me,’ is a far more conciliatory response and won’t escalate the conflict.
12. Don’t expect forgiveness
Don’t apologise because you want to be forgiven. Apologise because you want to heal the relationship.
13. Apologise to children.
That is how you teach them to be sorry too.
14. Sorry means I won’t do it again
My mother always told me that ‘Sorry means you won’t do it again,’ and while this assumes a path to perfection that is not always possible for horribly flawed humans, it should cause us to pause and determine a way to at the very least try to avoid the behaviour, or in business (and at home) build structures and procedures to prevent a recurrence of the error. Otherwise, you run the risk of being (or being seen to be) once again ‘sorry, not sorry.’
15. Make amends
As much as it is a powerful means of spiritually cleansing oneself, priests who prescribe prayerful penance sometimes let we sinners off the hook a bit. Saying a few ‘’our Fathers’ will not build the bridge again with one’s husband and is not as effective as going home from Confession and baking a cake for your beloved or washing his car. Showing and not just telling is a powerful way to prove repentance, and it takes more effort.
Chocolate and flowers help too:
16. A good leader apologises for the team without shifting the blame to the individual who may have caused the fault.
Not only will this gain you the thanks of your team for having their backs, it is important to remember that as a leader you may not be responsible for the mess, but you are always accountable for it.
17. Apologising is empowering
When you realise that in fact you lose nothing by apologising, there is profound sense of peace and inner strength, which leads to greater resilience.
“Apologies aren’t meant to change the past, they are meant to change the future.”
Remote Learning during Lockdown is the pits – but that’s okay if they’re Learning Pits.
I thought I’d take pity on all those parents resorting to TikTok and YouTube to post parodies of their children working at home and who rant about reaching for the Valium to get through the school day with their own beloved offspring who have turned into spawn of the Remote Learning Apocalypse. So I am letting you in on a teaching secret: the Learning Pit. Understanding this simple model may assist you and your child with school tasks at home and let you in on (some) of the magic educators learn when they study pedagogy.
It is a feature of 21st century learning and teaching that students are required to grapple with the unknown; face the fear of ignorance and learn to overcome.
The Learning Pit is an immensely empowering concept.
And it applies not only to a concept at school, but to all problems needing solving, so it is a guided way to coping with the problems of life (like avoiding opening the wine before lunch while your child is working on parts of speech.)
Now more than ever, during Lockdown, when children are learning remotely, this is a way to focus your youngsters and assist them to be self-sufficient. Besides reading, teaching a child strategies to learn is one of the most effective ways to equip a developing mind for a lifetime of successful learning.
Nottingham’s model suggests that real learning what we call ‘deep learning’ only happens when something new is learned and that can be a scary experience (almost as scary for parents who are facing similar pits during their ‘homeschooling experiments’ during COVID-19 lockdown at the moment.)
The concept is simple: if a youngster encounters a new section of work (the learning pit) and he ‘gets it’ easily, he can leap across the chasm like an avatar with that faux loping stride leaping across gorges (unrealistically) in Fortnite and can hurry on to his next challenge. He hasn’t learned anything new yet though. FYI Bright leaners do this often through school and often battle later on because they haven’t learnt HOW to navigate learning challenges so it’s important to stimulate them all the time (extend them until they face something hard) to ensure they learn the skills. All too often I have seen rosy-cheeked Dux scholars in prep school turn into average achievers later on in high school because they never learned about the struggle that is the learning pit. But they make great collaborators and cheerleaders in peer teaching -see ‘Collaborate’ below – if they understand both the work and the process.
So how does it work?
I love this child’s depiction of the pit:
When our intrepid warriors arrive at a pit that looks too dangerous and fear and confusion sets in, it’s game-on. I urge teachers to encourage our learners to leap into that pit with both feet, as soon as they recognize that they don’t understand something, we want them to feel a sense of adventure and excitement, as if they are going on a quest. A key factor in 21st century education is also the demystifying of the learning process so we point out each phase of the learning pit a child is in so they can chart their progress.
‘Having a go’
This diagram above illustrates the dangers at the bottom of the pit and challenges to be overcome like on an epic journey. (like those moments when your drooping Petal whines ‘I can’t! I don’t know what to do? And you’re thinking the same only with a few Anglo-Saxon words in between). But they are encouraged to jump on in and ‘have a go’ like the valiant gladiators of old.
A Leap of Faith
Tell them: The work may be tricky but the first important question to ask yourself is: ‘How can I do this’ – that is almost the key to crossing the bottom of the monster-filled abyss. I remember a scene in The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones (oh so young Harrison Ford) takes a leap of faith into the unknown and finds that there was a way across the impassible ravine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-JIfjNnnMA
That first step shows the way, but the adventurer still has to climb up and out of the learning pit.
Notice that nothing new has yet been learned, but the student has already started to climb out of the pit, because attitude to learning is so important. This is why we believe in making learning fun. If a child is playing, he doesn’t realize that he’s already crossed the chasm and is climbing.
Try something else
As with all climbs, things can be quite steep and so a good pupil should know that there can be different ways of solving things: ‘What else can I try?’
Recent problem-solving by clothing manufacturers who were forced to shut their doors overnight and stop trading due to the lockdown, have re-designed and developed their sports masks into fashionable and effective alternatives for the COVID-exerciser. Instead of focusing on products they can’t sell they have focused their marketing and sales on these much-needed current products, and become essential services in the process. This kind of creative thinking is what keeps businesses afloat when times change, so when your child is struggling with a Mathematics problem, don’t show him the way you were taught – if you can even remember(!) and not at first anyway. Encourage him to try different ways because this is part of developing creativity, which stand him in good stead when his career faces a challenge.
A child must own the problem; WANT to solve it and struggle with it a bit. We all know what happened to Kodak, The Concorde, Blockbuster Video Stores and Blackberry. They would not/could not innovate. There is nothing wrong with using the fruit and veges to work out answers to basic arithmetic. Make problems relevant to real life so they have a connection. So if all you do is guide them to see a link to their own experience, you will have helped them focus on alternative ways of looking at things. Just don’t do it for them. (Walk away and mix teh margaritas for later.)
Innovation is a vital skill to learn and it’s the first step of that upward climb to problem solving so give your child lots spare paper or let her open lots of word docs and keep trying different things.
Trying can be exhausting though and is not necessarily immediately rewarding. Learning warriors need courage and resilience and what we callgrit to believe that they can. (like that little train we all remember from our youthful storybooks: ‘I think I can…’) There is a dawning hope, with each small success. Encourage her to push herself just a little bit harder, for just a little bit longer. Athletes understand this about training – the brain must also be trained to think. And sweat is involved.
Again I plead with parents not to give in and tell your child the answer. We see too many high school students these days whose parents have given them everything on a plate and they have never learnt the simple truth that success does not come without hours of (their own) hard work. They throw their hands up in despair, blame the teacher, the school, the government and everyone else because they simply don’t know how to keep at something. Things like re-writes, editing, touch ups, second drafts, conceptualization, planning are all part of keeping at it; they need to keep slogging away, and not accepting pedestrian prose or mediocrity. Cheer them on when they do.
10 000 hours at a task brings you professionalism in something. Sadly, too few students these days know how to keep at something for that long. It’s not their fault. Everything in their world is ‘insta’ – the ‘gram, their cappuccino, the news, and take-aways to their doors; binging on series has prevented us from yearning and imagining, and even gaming teaches devotees to use the cheats. Without sounding as old as my own children say I am, have to confess that I worry that we are growing a nation of quitters and lazy thinkers who want instant answers. There are loads of fun ways teachers encourage children to stick at something: competitions, promised rewards, clues and even a simple thing like timing them gives them an end in sight to strive for, so draw your child into the game of learning and keep them on track. (It will work for yourself too, especially if your choice of the fruit of the vine is the prize). Let them play music if that is their poison. (Earphones are a wonderful invention and protect us from said noise pollution).
Having said that, it is possible that you are experiencing a more genteel time at home with your family, (if you’re not exhausted from multi-tasking – running your home and empire AND Junior’s Work programme) and that can allow learners a chance to explore tangential interests and it’s consequently a great opportunity for them to go slightly off track and discover things they are really interested in. We all know this is when the real learning happens, so allow them a little intellectual bundu bashing. (They may develop an app in that time that will make them famous and you rich – more wine!)
Collaboration is one of the fundamentals of 21st century education and even during lockdown it can be achieved via Teams and WhatsApp calls. Our offspring are connected. They know how to crowd-source ideas. One of mine decided today a name change was in order for her next birthday so she threw a few ideas at her friends and bingo she had her new name. (and it wasn’t B-I-N-G-O … now there’s a blast-from-the-past kiddies tune!) So they know how to connect. It’s our job as educators and parents to guide them into using these skills to co-operate on learning tasks the same way they collaborate in their social lives. ‘Phone a friend’ is a good catch phrase to have in your classroom or on the fridge – and it’s not just a phone call – this applies to all those lifelines : teacher, google, friend, parent, asking for clues. Re-watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ and draw up your own set of lifelines to point them at when they get to this stage. ‘Read a book, search for other resources, make an appointment for a one-on-one with your teacher on Teams, You Tube videos’ – all of these are important. YouTube may well replace tecahers one day – you can learn anything on there. My eldest son watched something on ‘how to escape from a hijacking’ and it worked two weeks later when someone started shooting at a traffic light. You can learn a lot from the Tube, not least of which is how to research.)
By this time of the day, you may have your wine in hand and all you will have to do is wave your glass at the fridge to point out the ‘Phone a friend’ options.
I have always believed that a ‘lazy’ teacher is an effective educator if he is steering his students into self-discoveries and can be a profound influence on his charges. (I use the word ‘lazy’ hesitantly and for effect because I mean it in the sense that he doesn’t spoonfeed his pupils with dished up answers on the set platter of pretty notes and worksheets. In fact much time and forethought goes into planning a lesson that requires the children to do – to struggle, engage, chew on the pencil (not the stylus please though), scratch heads, stare into the vistas of space, doodle, cross out and keep trying. That is facilitating discovery. That is teaching).
Collaboration through peer-learning is important to facillitate – it empowers both teacher and learner and encourages empathy and altruism, qualities that are in rather short supply. Suggest siblings help each other, while you finish your own work (or wine).
You have almost summited the mountain if you reach the point that a child is thinking ‘I am getting there.’ This is that heady moment when a learner picks up the pace, and feels the adrenalin of final summitting the Everest of his subject. This is self-belief and is so vital for self-esteem. This is where the teacher/parent is the cheerleader, the folks back home waving the flag of support. So, don’t rob them of this high by giving them the answer because next time they will expect you to do it again. This is when you tell them they are fabulous and you knew they could do it; when you paste their artwork on the fridge/wall outside to motivate passers-by like my neighbor did with her daughter.
Give them that buzz of accomplishment and let them own the ‘Eureka moment.’ Because next time they will jump into the pit more eagerly because they know they can do it and they will need you less and less and eventually, if you are very lucky, and lockdown ends, they’ll leave home, buy you a wine farm and support you in your old age… because you taught them to solve problems on their own. School is a place and time to prepare you for life and let’s face it life is hard!
You will have taught them to think.
And you gave them an even greater gift: confidence to do it all again.
So that is the secret from the oracle today:
When it all gets too much for you, tell them to go and jump into the pit…. and resist the urge to bury them in there. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll find a way to dig themselves out anyway!
How many times have I wished for time off where I could stay at home and sleep! Despite not sleeping too much during lockdown due to my permanent state of angst, not uncommon I believe, there are a few things that would have made it bearable:
I am a touch-it-turn-it kinda reading gal. The libraries closed for lockdown too quickly for me to stock up, even though the seven books they allow you would have been finished in the first week anyway. And of course I couldn’t have used Shannon and Michael’s cards as usual because there are fines on them (again). Yes, the shame! I don’t learn. And it’s not that I don’t read fast enough; I just don’t get around to returning them, despite ‘holiday’ stamps and amnesties.
I love the comfort of holding a book, and being able to page back to check on facts or reread lyrical passages. And since I could never afford to buy all the books I read, the library is my place. Mind you, some of them do reek of old ladies’ cigarettes and there a few unidentifiable (thank goodness) food stains on them from time to time. But then to be honest, I have probably been guilty of dropping a teeny bit of avo from my pizza onto an Elizabeth George novel on occasion.
Once I had finished Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (enjoyable, even though he pooh- poohed the idea that it was actually Marlowe who wrote all the great works, or the sonnets at least) and Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (gripping with a powerful anti-colonial, anti-war message, and part of my ongoing love affair with modern African literature), I had nothing. Unless I wanted to lose myself in The Maestro’s tomes on Liszt (I didn’t), I had to do as my girls had insisted and try online.
Well. That’s been a disaster. First of all, our wifi is about as inconsistent as an adolescent love affair and the adverts… really they could make a maiden blush! I have started two books both by Harlan Coben, another favourite of mine, but I keep losing internet, which freezes the narrative at a critical moment; then the page refreshes to forty pages before where I actually am, and I have to wade back through it all so much that I need to splint my wrist from all the swiping. And I do not need to be looking at penile extensions more than once a day thank you (who does that to themselves anyway?!).
The girls say I am using the wrong sites. Andrew says he’ll pay for me to download better versions, but honestly, I baulk at paying for books.
2. Sunday Lunch
Sunday lunch is a tradition in our home even more important than Friday pizzas. Now don’t be mistaken we’re not being starved of our sabbath prandials (far from it – the fair Caitlin, our resident Masterchef, has stuffed us like willing Christmas turkeys with so many delectable vittles that the family scale has signed a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ form.) But Sunday lunch at our house usually involves all the special people in our family who don’t live in the Mad House with us, arriving in a cacophony of hellos and hugs and we all catch up.
It’s when the children’s other mother, my sister Brigid, debates with The Maestro about which news channel in the US is more biased, whether capitalism is better than communism (every Sunday); she admonishes the young people about the dangers of jumping stop streets, walking alone, locking doors, and taking Sandown Road late at night. She warns Liam that Nellie is not getting enough exercise and that I work too hard. I miss her nagging love. And she always brings those scrumptious tiny Doughnuts from Woolworths.
It’s when Michael and Gabby, and Lizzy and Dylan sail in when they can and the love gets louder. Sometimes we Facetime Sean and Jordan and before he left fot the UK, Mika’s dry humour also graced our table occasionally, especially if there was lamb.
I miss my other family. My people. I miss the noise. (Ok not the noise – there’s still plenty of that.)
3. Cappuccino, Hot Chocolate and Haircuts
Okay so I might as well get my middle-class entitlement out of the way, but I really do miss popping into The Mugg for a cup of chatting and only News Café can make Hot Chocolate that special way – they use cream of course. And Aruna the Lion Mane-Tamer is much missed.
While smokers and drinkers are venting about draconian shopping rules, spare a thought for the other addicts – the shopaholics among us. I know we can shop for clothes now, but you can’t try on in most places and what’s a girl to do if she’s not sure?!
Also, I bought two darling little suits before lockdown and now I feel like a jilted bride with nowhere to wear them. Never mind the fact that I probably can’t fit into them anymore (thanks to the fair Caitlin’s culinary excellence) and will stumble around like a nerd on a first date in my high heels.
I miss dressing up.
I know I’m shallow.
But not entirely:
5. Live Mass
I miss going to mass and being physically present to worship with my community. The online thing just doesn’t do it for me. It’s like watching a film and playing church-church when we were little. I hope I don’t sound blasphemous, by saying that, but I want to be in God’s house with my family of believers.
It’s tough being on time for church now because Fr Carlo can’t see you race to your laptop to join in (or not) and the guilt of being late for mass is greatly reduced. As any good Catholic can testify to, we are a guilt-driven bunch. It also doesn’t seem quite right to be in your pyjamas in front of the Lord. (I know I know, God doesn’t mind, but still it feels unseemly). And the temptation to boil the kettle for a cuppa during the sermon quickly is quite strong…
I’m not crazy about exercising, as my pristine gym outfits, shiny white cross trainers and the exercise bike, formerly-known-as-the-clothes-horse can attest to, but I do like to go for a stroll on the weekends. Mostly if I walk at all though (when it is an azure, wind-free day that Cape Town is renowned for) I amble along the beachfront path anyway: I avoid walking on the beach itself. But being told I am not allowed to put my tootsies in the icy water of Table Bay, makes the thought of being on the beach all the more alluring.
It’s the forbidden fruit syndrome I suppose.
I like being able to just pop into the shop quickly on my way home. Now I have to be home by a certain time, and the shops are closed after a particular hour. I miss the whole concept of flexi.
Normally I’d love to be told I have to work from home. Now I am bristling at not being able to go into school. I want the choice.
Mind you I am such a goodie-two-shoes I would never dream of disobeying the law. I’m blaming it on my convent upbringing combined with my rebellious Celtish forebears for making me so conflicted. I hope their inherited genes are just as warlike in antibody production when it counts.
7. Guilt-free Rest
We’ve essentially been working every day since lockdown and have missed out on the April school holidays in the race to ready schools to morph into online institutions overnight. Don’t get me wrong, there has been some down time (especially because I haven’t had frequent interruptions – you know those – ‘Have you just got a sec?’ inserts that tend to catch you mid-email or profound thought, and result in multiple open Windows in your brain crashing into early onset dementia, never mind the software ones which make your laptop slower than morning traffic on the N1 (pre-lockdown of course).) But I cannot seem to shake this permanent state of anxiety. I think it’s guilt (blame the Catholic in me again) that I should be in my office, or with my children, or working harder, or watching a ministerial update, or doing something I’ve forgotten… like going to work.
Much has been written about how hard it is for affectionate people to social-distance. How we are going to avoid dishing out such love to our school children is going to be a real challenge. But it is really hard, even for us. I touched a colleague’s arm in thanks today and felt as if I’d committed attempted murder. (I had just sanitized my hands, but the guilt was huge.) And to avoid natural gestures for a tactile person is tough.
I suppose we’ll get used to social distancing. I mean we do that don’t-come-in-my-space dance in the shop with strangers, but it is more difficult with those we love and haven’t seen for a while.
I also noticed a weird (in a good way) phenomenon on the road driving home today: cars are keeping better following distances – it’s as if we have grown accustomed to keeping an eye on the spaces between us in queues and we have extrapolated that into traffic. Long may that last!
But I miss a good hug though.
All this missing things shows that I’d have made a terrible citizen in wartime, and I have to remind myself that eventually we shall have all these things again. This is a war though and we simply MUST. So others CAN. Altruism may be in short supply, but now is the time that those of us who are leaders should be modelling it.
There is something unique to humans, even those of us who may be champing at the bit: we can and do adapt to change. And remarkably quickly too. (The Maestro did the washing today so evolution is real). Darwin would be proud of us.
Not for sensitive readers. (I’m serious – this one is a bit icky.)
This COVID-19 lockdown has stirred up memories of another period of self-isolation I experienced, back in 1991, also not of my own choice.
When Sean was born, almost 28 (Yikes!) years ago, someone commented that he was a miracle baby.
He wasn’t really (any more so than other newborns who survive at the hands of bewildered maternal academics who don’t realize that babies cannot and have not read Marina Petropulis, The Baby and Child Care Handbook, cover to cover like them). He survived birth despite a massive head (It has since proved to hold a magnificent brain at least) that required a caesarean section to prevent us both from becoming maternal and infant death statistics (12 in every 100 live births in 1992 in South Africa – not including HIV/AIDS stats).
His Great-Aunt Jean’s remark was not referring to these facts however. She was in fact reflecting on how a year previously I had been recovering from some rather unpleasant chemotherapy after a hydatidiform mole in my uterus.
At a time when I have been googling coronaviruses and other such nasties, I finally took the time to have a look at the suckers that took over my innards like grotesque, water-filled red bunches of grapes. Hideous:
I’ll spare you the real-life photographs because there ain’t nothing pretty about the condition, which arises from an aberration just after conception and results in the chorionic tissue around the developing embryo, going into hyperdrive and blowing up like balloons, resulting in the natural abortion of the embryonic life and causes extensive haemorrhaging, which in my case necessitated chemotherapy. (pardon my lay(wo)man’s biology, my dear medical friends)
We’ll never know how long the early life within me survived, but what should have been a happy visit to the doctor to see and hear the heartbeat of the baby that would make us parents, ended in tears (even though I’d been unprepared to be pregnant in the first place). All I remember from that occasion was the awkward silence that greeted the radiographer’s first enthusiastic movements of the sensor around my already swollen belly (a symptom of this condition btw, in that a woman presents with larger-than-normal uterine growth at an early stage because of the explosion of beta-HCG hormones). Then she stammered that she would call the doctor, and he confirmed our fears: no heartbeat, the miscarriage already showing as a Milky Way of snowflakes.
So, we went home to grieve and get used to the idea that the previous weeks of trying to come to terms with an unexpected pregnancy were over, and the realization that there is something worse than unplanned parenthood– not being pregnant anymore. And a sense of defeat. And guilt. No amount of soothing from the gynaecologist who tried to console me that 25% of first pregnancies abort spontaneously, could prevent that combination of loss and failure.
There was a sense of relief when I actually began to bleed, but that soon turned to fear as the bleeding continued over days and I had to abandon my final examination invigilation of the 1990 Grade 10 English examination my students were writing, mid-exam, and race home, where clot after clot soaked into our new grey carpet.
The resultant procedure was quick, if unpleasant, after a nightmare drive through to the hospital in mid-morning traffic atop a pile of towels which fortunately I never saw again. I remember awakening from the anaesthesia in a foetal position on a gurney, in an awful mockery of what should have been growing inside me. I was crying for my mother from the pain, and, noticing the fingerprints on my stomach the next day, it’s not surprising – they must have pressed really hard to scour out the remnants of the miscarried pregnancy.
It didn’t end there though, because, as it turned out thanks to the instinct and foresight of my doctor who dispatched samples for biopsy, a diagnosis of hydatidiform mole was possible… and treated effectively over the next four months. It was no consolation to hear that this was a very rare condition (One in 2 500 women in those days were the proud sufferers of the special privilege of being this unusual!)
But that’s how I happened to have a front row seat on the First Gulf War because I was booked off during the treatment, which was progressively more debilitating as the weeks wore on with the last couple of sessions necessitating my husband who was not very tall, having to stagger to the car with me (no light-weight, despite my small stature) in his arms, in a comical parody of a romantic hero carrying off his princess, following a drip containing Actinomyacin (I still remember how it looked, a substance kindly Professor Bloch jokingly referred to as pricier than VAT 69, obviously his Scottish malt of choice! I didn’t care then…(or now).
On good days, I sat in our small lounge (the marks of my miscarriage now hidden under a strategically-placed coffee table) sorting out teaching resources and glued to live reports on the first war to be televised live, like a sick action movie.
This was the age of war correspondents like Christiane Amanpour, Peter Arnett, and Bernard Shaw. (In a feminist aside, it is interesting to note that it is Christiane Amanpour I remember the most, although you won’t find her in the Wikipedia pages on reporters during that time!) I, like so many other watchers, stared in fascinated horror at the destruction of Baghdad and the human suffering that resulted. In a macabre way, it distracted me from my own unfortunate situation.
Eventually though, the effects of the chemotherapy became too great even to sit, and the last couple of weeks I spent in bed, unable to get up and go down to the lounge at all.
Sadly, chemotherapy does not involve a romantic, Little Women-ish state of fatigue. It is accompanied by horrible side-effects which made the knowledge that this was supposedly good for me, seem like a ghastly, dishonest joke and further punishment for being such a rubbish incubator of life. I suffered from mouth ulcers that made eating impossible so I lived on a diet of Ultramel custard and yoghurt. When my veins collapsed they sourced places all the way up my arms, but to this day when someone flicks the top of my hand, I devolve into paroxysms of panic.
The worst was the acne. It seems foolish now with the distance of wisdom and age to remember that disfigurement with so much agony, but for an insecure young woman it was devastating. Painful, angry red blotches in a rash of leaking cysts covered my entire face and chest and spread all over onto my back. (it is not called acne vulgaris for nothing). I have never felt so ugly and consequently have always felt exquisitely protective of my school pupils over the years who have suffered from this condition. I suppose this suffering was worth it to deepen my compassion for teenagers.
My sanity-saviours during this time were my friends, Traci and Jean (who would later become godmother to Caitlin) and my mother’s daily ‘just-popping-in-for-tea’ visits. I am forever grateful for their ‘not seeing’ the vileness, and loving me through it all. The memory of their care is the one positive memory I carry from that time of struggling through the pain and exhaustion and the unspoken fear that I would never have children of my own.
Months of regular testing (ironically the same as a pregnancy test) followed the chemotherapy and so the transfer of my husband to Port Elizabeth, away from my support system, was especially hard, along with the realization that career trumps wives for many couples in the cold world of businessmen.
…And then there was Sean, who came along after we were given the all-clear. Many think that having a (now) large family was an unconscious desire to prove that I could have babies. They may be partly right, (Perhaps I’m just greedy) but all I know is that Sean was the first of the five best things I have ever done… and a special kind of miracle.
I wish my mother were still with us to see the wonders that are her grandchildren (She saw only two, who were infants when she passed away).
Happy Mother’s Day, especially to those mothers who have triumphed over miscarriage and disease to find that indefinable joy of motherhood, and cried along the way.
Tonight I decided I needed to work on ‘my fabulous.’
Since #masks is trending, I used a beauty mask gifted to me by the lovely Gabriella for Christmas 2019, which I have been meaning to use one evening ever since. It was touted as a ‘de-stressing mud mask for a revived healthy-looking complexion.’
This is what I thought I looked like:
This is what I actually looked like:
Not my best look!
Now my devilish clever plan had been to apply the mask, then wait out the 10-15 minutes finishing off my emails. But I really didn’t think it through properly. It’s all very well playing spa girl, massaging in the green mud (a delightfully creamy substance), being careful to avoid the eyes, admiring my peppermint complexion, and frightening my family, (Okay they actually just laughed, and The Maestro merely glanced at me, and commented drily, ‘Now really! Was ist hier los?’ The Mad Lab thumped her tail patronizingly at my vain attempts at vanity. Thank God the Cat was outside hunting pigeons (her only use) because I didn’t need her sneering derision as well.) But when I got to my laptop, I realised that neither Spa Girl nor Jim Carrey need glasses to see. And I couldn’t put my specs on while the mask was still wet.
The Mask: 1; Aging Matron: 0
Undeterred, I used the time to send photographs of myself to the family WhatsApp group to see whether I could at least frighten my sister and my sons who have left home (and I wonder why!). This is what I got back:
The Mask: 2; Failed Scary Monster Mom: 0
As the substance dried and tightened on my visage, leaving me looking like a chalky green clown, with huge lips, I realized a second thing made impossible by this so-called ‘de-stressing’ (more like ‘distressing’) concoction: you’re not supposed to speak with a mask on. For FIFTEEN minutes! Now, anyone who knows me, knows how difficult that is – well-nigh impossible. I did survive of course, albeit peering myopically at my screen while using my ventriloquist skills to mutter at whoever was listening (no one, as usual.)
Sadly, I looked no different after removal of the ogre-gunk. I was expecting more of a facelift – I mean, doesn’t ‘de-stressing’ imply uplifting something? But not even my spirits were lifted and I remain the same old witch as usual. So much for fabulous!
My only consolation is the third thing I realized:
Even though I wanted to look Vogue-cover vibrant, it doesn’t matter because even if I did, in Lockdown:
No one could see! Saved by the COVID mask, a covert way to hide one’s blemishes! And the irony? The only part visible above this mask?..my eyes, which were never part of my beauty treatment at all!
Perhaps I should be working on my inner-beauty instead – sadly there is no ‘de-stressing mud mask’ for that!
“There is a face beneath this mask, but it isn’t me. I’m no more that face than I am the muscles beneath it, or the bones beneath that.” ― Steve Moore, V for Vendetta
I miss News Café. I miss Mugg & Bean.
These are local hangouts for the Maestro and me, although he is also crazy about La Forneria, which he refers to as La Fornicatoria(!)
I think about the staff of our neighbourhood bistros quite a bit, not only because I am dying for a cappuccino, but because I miss the ambiance and the ‘outing.’ And I wonder how they are surviving during this shutdown period.
Mugg and Bean is our go-to breakfast, tea or lunch venue. If we’re meeting there, I try to arrive first so I can grab a people-watching possie, and if Andrew beats me to it, he can be found in a dark corner somewhere as far away from sight (and other people) as possible – and therein lies the difference between us. Jean-Paul Sartre and Andrew believe that ‘Hell is other people’ and I am fascinated by humans and energized by being among the throngs.
Of course, this fact about me drives my children to despair because no trip to the shops is ever quick. We are bound to bump (in a socially distant way, post-COVID) into acquaintances, fellow parishioners, past pupils, or their parents, or former colleagues. Liam believes this is no excuse for stopping to speak to them all, which is a cheek coming from a chap who makes a point of striking up a conversation with every cashier as if he has been starved for human contact. But my children’s reluctance to join their loquacious maman allows me to sneak off and date my husband. And if he is not chatty, I can always watch the crowds. Not in a creepy way of course. I am fascinated by observing and imagining what their back-stories might be.
You can’t people-watch nowadays of course, because the genteel art of coffee-sipping, while stalking-shoppers-with-your-eyes, is denied us thanks to the virus. Which is such a pity. I mean I have developed my sartorial style over the years from watching my fellow humans wear things well and well, … not well. How will I know what is in if I can’t watch? And how can I be in, if I can’t be watched. Mind you, I am looking forward to our first visit when they reopen because I can ‘window shop’ for funky masks while I drink my latte.
Then there is our evening haunt: News Café. You cannot beat the view from this establishment and the waiters greet us like old friends, so it feels a bit like a Cheers set and you don’t have to start googling Trip Advisor to get good service. The waiters are charming and good fun. Andrew always goes for the happy hour cocktails – ‘James Bond lifestyle,’ he says. We have good laughs over the various football matches we watch there and debate politics and philosophy, sometimes even with each other. Because we occasionally meet up there after work, I wonder whether the staff think we are having an affair. It’s fun to pretend we are.
Before I met Andrew, I could never have walked into a bar on my own (oh what an admission for a feminist!) but at News Café, it is so welcoming it’s easy. Although we never venture upstairs when the techno beat vibrates at night – that’s where the view, especially at sunset, is magnificent. And the people-watching there is spectacular. All the beautiful people going upstairs to see and be seen have to walk past where we sit (yes, we have ‘our table’) so it is like watching a fashion show. Scratch the thought that the waitstaff think we’re dating. We have ‘our table,’ for goodness sake! We must have ‘old fogey’ written across our faces. But still, a girl can pretend.
We have watched many a sunset from this restaurant and I hope they survive the lockdown period to open their doors again to us. I’m getting bored with my husband. It’s time to meet my lover again.
At least we’ll change out of our pyjamas then.
It’s a war out there. Venturing forth from lockdown today felt like creeping out of my foxhole or trench to sally forth to do battle with the enemy army, a covert (get it?) force of invisible soldiers.
Not that I have the faintest idea what it feels like to be an infantryperson on the front line of a battle, and the only thing I know about foxholes is ‘foxy’ ladies’ in jodhpurs chasing wee creatures to death. The closest I have ever been to death itself was when someone tried to strangle me once (No doubt others have wished they could do me in, but someone actually tried once. I’m still here, however, so guess who won that fight?!… but that can remain a story for another day.) Then there was the chemotherapy…but that was more like imagining death as an option because chemo was so agonizingly unpleasant… again a tale for another fireside though.
But the elements of a movie about twenty-first century urban conflict are all there in this death-dance with a coronavirus:
For the first time in centuries the world war is one in which all countries share an enemy. And the virus has no alliances. It is an axis of evil all on its own, unless you consider Diabetes, Hypertension and Asthma its allies. There’s no shortage of finger-pointing at possible partners in crime, mind you, with Trump vacillating between blaming China, The WHO, the Democrats and the media for being in league with the virus.
2. War Correspondents/ Propagandists (and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference)
As with any modern war, events unfold live on TV. So, you have your obligatory war correspondents: those talking heads on TV who spout commentary all day and night are worse than googling your symptoms for frightening the bejesus out of you. It’s only when they interview the likes of Professor Salim Abdool Karim that I realise we shall be all right with him at the helm of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19. (Prof K has been voted the sexiest COVID-19 scientist by some ladies in the deep South – well they put it a little cruder, but still, not only is he a measured and eminently lucid academic, he is rather cute in a grandfatherly way.) From someone who watched the first Gulf War unfold on TV (That was when I was going through my chemo) as well as living through 9-11 and its aftermath in the US, I find these reporters often spread panic far more than information. They have to fill a 24-hour news cycle and so much of what they do is speculate…and confuse.
Choose wisely who you watch. Avoid almost all politicians. They are conflicted between the health and economic crisis, and their own next election. And yes, I know I sound a little Trumpian in my criticism of the media, but choose carefully which ones you take your truth from. Remember ‘Pravda’ means ‘truth.’ Remember Squealer in Animal Farm and choose the views that do not defend or glorify politicians.
In fact, the press plays a massively important watchdog role in a war. They are the ones who warn of excesses by authoritarian forces and remind us that emergency measures should not become the norm in surveillance and curtailing of freedoms and abuse of power. Study who owns media houses to see whose interests are being served.
These are different from political allies. They are ordinary folk and in the COVID War they are ordinary citizens who just Won’t. Stay. At. Home during lockdown. You know the ones who don’t wear a mask because they ‘can’t breathe nicely’ with it on or aver they are ’not scared to get this virus, because they are young/healthy’…. (insert other obnoxious, entitled utterings). These are the ones who defy the regulations and who in two weeks will either be ill or have passed on the virus to some poor cashier at the supermarket or their elderly parents.
We won’t mention Nkosazani Dlamini-Zuma’s dodgy dealings with illicit tobacco kingpin Adriano Mazotti because the ANCasked us not to pick on the ministers. But, ja… There will always be those who profiteer in a war.
Any conflict involves a complex network of spies on both sides, scurrying around gathering information and exposing the underbelly on both the human and alien invader side. And they are spending lockdown with binocs surveilling their neighbourhoods for humans out after curfew and joggers nipping over the dunes for a quick paddle in the sea, posting their pics on Facebook Neighbourhood sites like ‘Wanted’ posters, shaming the offenders and turning in the collaborators.
The important spies in this fight are the scientists and doctors who are devoting their waking hours to finding a vaccine and uncovering how this little bugger works. Move over James Bond and Jason Bourne -these are the spies we really need.
The enemy spies and reconnaissance guerillas are unseen, jumping easily from one coughing cyclist to the next one in his unprotected slipstream. They live among us, invisible until we touch our eyes or scratch our mouths. Like Mata Hari, they lurk on our lovers’ lips and in their hair, but they are scarier and more prolific than the Army of the Dead in GOT, because they are unseen and unstoppable.
As so many times throughout history the easiest cannon fodder have been the drafted serfs who are forced into a war not of their making to serve on the frontline and take the brunt of the distant generals’ and nobles’ wars. Spare a thought for the poor who didn’t bring the virus here (they can’t afford to fly) but will ultimately pay the price of the virus just as they have with HIV. Think of them in your safe, air-conditioned car on your way to your salaried job, while they commute in crowded public transporters (Oh, come on taxis are definitely going to try to defy the regs!) and return to their tiny homes to take the advance guard of corona to their elderly parents and tuberculoid roommates.
6. Foot Soldiers
Then there are the foot soldiers, you and me who ‘also serve who only stand and wait’ in lockdown and the advance guard in the hospitals, petrol stations, shops, police stations and clerks in government offices; teachers in their nests; farmers in their fields; truckers on the road. Don’t forget security guards and sanitizing company works who can be seen spraying down offices like the nuclear scientists of science fiction movies, in their Hazmat suits. I really hope all the essential workers will finally be rewarded financially for being the cannon fodder of this disease.
When this is over and people no longer clap at eight o’clock, please vote for salary increases for them. Like soldiers in combat, many will not receive medals and state funerals. And they are dying for us, folk. Doctors and nurses are bearing the brunt of enemy fire: by mid-April, 17 000 Italian doctors and nurses were infected with 159 medical personnel being among the dead. And that’s just Italy. Sadly, they seem to be operating like the field hospital in M*A*S*H, using their wits and making do sans proper PPE.
When we go out in our masks we circle other people warily like combatants in a fencing match or Star Wars Jedi knights, facing down our nemesis on a narrow ledge, our hoodies our cowls, and hand sanitizer our lightsabers. Please don’t believe Mr Trump that Lysol injections are the way to go if you’re scratching around for an adequate weapon (that one is firing blanks, my friend), or the Madagascans peddling untested plant-remedies like Thabo Mbeki on steroids. Please don’t fall prey to the anti-vaxxers refusing to contemplate a vaccine cure in the future. How do they think we got rid of smallpox, for goodness sake! You don’t need a ray gun. Just wash your hands!
8. Body Armour
A word on masks: there is an entire universe of sub-cultures evident in how we are wearing masks: from the disposable medical ones; to the pretty, lacy, hand-made ones or the crudely sewn efforts of the needlework-challenged. Then there are the wannabe bandits with their bandanas tied cowboy-style across their faces like train robbers.. Trendy people don a variety of snoods and infinity scarves in multiple colourful shades and fabrics from surfer cool to cyclist flashy. The ‘boets’ of course stride through the shop in their artisan masks for chemical spraying with all sorts of filters and respirators. My favourites so far have been the old lady I spotted at the pharmacy in her ingenious McGyver-inspired mmmshield fashioned from staples and one of those plastic envelopes you put in office files, and the man who went shopping with his tiny boys armoured up as a miniature stormtrooper and some masked Marvel creature that was scarier than Joan Rivers sans make-up (Okay that is a bit mean, but if she can dish it, she should take it too).
We cannot fight on the beaches (well, not in Lockdown Level 4), but we shall fight on the school grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
With apologies to Winston Churchill
I like Picasso. His paintings anyway – he himself was rather a womanizing SOB.
Despite having two particularly arty children, I can’t say I know much about cubism. But I like the angular, sharp edges of the style. I like the seemingly jumbled aspects of the same object because I think that is often how ambivalent we feel about life.
My life is a cubist painting. Especially at the moment with lockdown and its attendant multi-facetted emotional experience. The jagged, glass-like slivers of reality fit together, not always neatly juxtaposed or aligned, but often in a higgledy piggledy fashion in a collage that sometimes piles elements on top of each other.
How do we make sense of it all?
I find my competing responsibilities working overtime in a stressful, shifting montage, even more demanding than usual and I am sure others must be feeling this way too.
As a head of a school, I am returning to my school tomorrow to receive our supplies of PPE for staff and to assess our readiness for re-opening and oversee the disinfecting and deep cleaning of all the buildings. It’s a daunting responsibility and I feel it keenly – the health and safety of so many beloved souls that I am accountable for. Me.
I must juggle this with responding to our parents’ real fears and concerns and financial predicaments, as well as a staff of gallant educators who are in danger of burning out as they live remote teaching and learning well into the evenings, having not really had a holiday in April. What heroes they have been in this time, some bewildered at first, but changing tack mid-curriculum to reinvent themselves as online interlocuters, while juggling their own unique family circumstances.
My Picasso painting has overlapping shards for each of children and my worries and guilt over whether I have done (am doing) enough for each to support them. Or have I hovered awfully?
How will poor Liam negotiate this matric year: is he getting enough sleep; doing enough schoolwork; being careful when he walks Nellie each morning now that we can exercise a bit? I have random thoughts like how many razors will he need to de-fuzz for school and should I buy extra hair elastics, because those lovely locks of his will need to be tied back in (gasp) a man bun, until barbers re-open. What is he thinking?
Just how soul-destroying is Mika’s telesales job in the UK?! He left on his gap-year adventure so full of hope and enthusiasm for his opportunity to remake himself and now stuck in digs outside London, I hope his satirical YouTube channel is taking off. Will we see him soon? When? I hope he’s eating and is not living an emaciated, Withnail and I sort of existence.
Is Shannon reading too many romantic gothic-fantasy novels and how will she accomplish Year 2 of a Fine Arts degree from her bed, where she reclines like a Greek goddess? She’s definitely not getting enough exercise but considering she received more than her fair share of the clumsy genes, perhaps that’s a good thing. She appears to be able to roll out essays easily enough (although rather vocally).
Lizzy’s moved homes from boyfriend’s family to her mom. I hope she’ll be able to study there. At least she’ll be in familiar surroundings. I miss her too. I wish she’d come here.
Michael is the earthling most suitable to lockdown since his business is online, but without football matches happening it must be hard to weave new stories and articles, even with the transfer window looming. I hope his advertising contracts don’t disappear. He has cleverly taken this time to get his other sites up and running though and is hiring new writers so he should be fine. And since I can’t see whether he and his flatmate are washing dishes, and using clean towels, I don’t have to worry about him. (Even though his emotional state is low because Uber Eats is not delivering to his complex!)
How can I keep up with Caitlin’s cooking sprees and reduce the size of my waistline in time for Sean’s wedding in the spring? I mean, malva pudding and custard is a scrumptious dessert and if I don’t have anything else for supper, it should be okay…shouldn’t it?
And, of course, I’m wondering whether the airlines will be operating and whether we’ll be able to travel by September for Sean and the lovely Jordan’s nuptials. No way can I miss that! How we’ll get there and where we’ll stay are still unknowns.
To be truthful there’s a little cube in my artwork that is rather sad to be ending this forced stay at home. It’s been pleasant to work around the maestro again and hear his genius at work, and I am not a little apprehensive to be venturing forth into the new way of doing things, given that as an aging matron, I suffer from hypertension and so am at risk from this virus.
But I shall be donning my mask both literally and metaphorically and pretending I am a surgeon sailing into an operating theatre, like the best of Greys’ Anatomy prima donnas. I do have a wrinkly face more suited to radio (especially since Woolworths is not selling foundation make-up yet – surely face putty is an essential item?!) so a mask is not a bad idea. I’ll have to take my tea intravenously or via a straw (Don’t tell Caitlin about the straw).
Picasso’s Madonna looks a little like my quizzical self and it looks as though she too is having trouble keeping her mask on. But that sideways sliver of her face reminds me that every now and again, I intend to move my mask away and breathe in great gulps of fresh air.
And smile. Even if they can only see my eyes.
We only ever see a fragment of other people anyway.
Altruism – that’s what the coronavirus crisis requires of the human race.
But we just don’t seem able to do that:
Not anywhere in Cape Town:
We can get into complicated debates about the rise of the individual in society and how this has actually been good for altruism. But I am unconvinced by their conclusions.
Modern studies indicate that altruism increases as individualism rises in society. I’m not seeing it. I’m seeing toilet paper wars (reminiscent of the bottled water wars during the drought); disregarding of regulations on the wearing of masks in public; abuse of exercising regulations – I mean, what part of ‘don’t walk on the beach’ do the ‘joggers’ who nipped over the dunes yesterday not get?!
Then there is the bootlegging and illegal cigarette sales, and profiteering in general at a time when we should all be pulling together – well up to a distance of 1.5m apart of course.
As far as the smoking debate goes, don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for Nkosazan Dlamini-Zuma’s draconian anti-smoking laws back the late 1990s. I gave up the tobacco weed over 20 years ago thanks to her, but both she and JuJu currently have problematic relationships with Adriano Mazzotti, a corrupt cigarette manufacturer, too much so to be advocating against legal tobacco sales. Follow the money: who is making a killing during times when the sale of tobacco is banned? We know Mazzotti helped the former Mrs Zuma in her unsuccessful (thank all that is holy) bid to be president of the ANC. Julius Malema lives in a house owned by Mazzotti. Make your own conclusions…
I am of course more than happy not to have my air polluted by the foul odour of fags, (Those who knew me in my youth are crying ‘hypocrite!’ right about now, quite rightly I suppose) but I must protest smokers’ right to ruin their lungs beneath the yellowed ceilings of their own homes if they choose to. I don’t buy the argument that smoking is assisting the contagion. While it may contribute to smokers’ comorbidity, it’s not affecting non-smokers’ contracting the virus. But someone is getting rich on the clandestine market off the gasps of millions of smokers as they attempt to avoid forced cold turkey withdrawal by shopping on the shadow economy.
I don’t think the ban is to save lives. Although the fact that the body begins to recover immediately from the damage caused by smoking when you stop may make the act of giving up now a pro-humanity choice, because ex-smokers will perhaps less need of medical equipment than those still in the grip of the devil’s leaves. Such a choice will require self-sacrifice for the good of others though.
If only we could get the exercise fanatics to ‘withdraw’ from their obsessive need to practise their ‘right’ to flock to the promenades like greedy seagulls on a sandwich…
The paradox of being united in our fight against this disease means we should be distancing ourselves from each other. We have to counter our natural desire to be with others in order for those others to live. I think it’s that denial of self that is in short supply these days and unfortunately, that’s the real measure of generosity – not how much you give to charity, which is what many of the psychosocial studies use as a measurement of altruism. (And let me tell you, if the empty donation-to-the-poor trolleys at Pick ‘n Pay are anything to go by, we are not doing too well on giving from our surplus either)
Real altruism requires self-sacrifice, a denial of self for the benefit of others, and a relinquishment of self-interest.
And that is what’s absent in this century generally. Take the recent drought in Cape Town: it was only when it became obvious that we might actually run out of water that Capetonians curtailed their showers and preserved water in buckets, actually driving around proudly in dirty cars. And still there were those who simply did not care and merrily wasted water and hosed down their pavements while illegally filling their pools – because their self-interest was more important than the general need to conserve! (There is also no cure for that kind of suicidal selfishness.)
Those profligate water wasters may well have engaged in philanthropic acts at the same time – giving to beggars or even buying a 5-litre bottle of water for someone who worked for them, but that doesn’t make them altruistic because they didn’t go without to execute their generosity.
The I’m-all-right-to-hell-with-you thinking is what makes taxi drivers so infuriating. Why wait in that long snaking queue down Sandown Road, like the other law-abiding citizens when you can endanger them all (and your frightened passengers) by flying hell for leather down the wrong side of the road – and then have the cheek to require someone further down to let you in, to avoid a head-on collision?! I am sure many of these transport drivers are kindly uncles in their own homes, but altruistic they are not. Their reckless driving is self-serving. No doubt this kind of thinking will prevail when our daring exercising droves end up in hospital and push in front of innocents in the queue for breathing aids.
It’s hard to stay at home. But that sacrifice is needed now to save other humans. I wished this afternoon that I could have shouted out my window ‘Selfish covidiots! Stay at home!’ at the three rotund suburban moms, no mask, shopping bag (or lycra) in sight, as they strolled past my house, flouting the no-exercise-after-9am ban. It’s that rules-don’t-apply-to-me egomania that has me grinding my teeth in fury. (Convent girls, taught in French class about Joseph Joubert’s belief that ‘la politesse est la fleur de l’humanité’ are not raised to yell ‘Hugo, bel die polisie,’like a fishwife out of the window.) But I wanted to. And they knew it when they saw me glaring at them like a nosy neighbour with a twitchy curtain. And they laughed.
There will be no laughing when they are lying alone in a hospital with a tube down their throat, but I think this kind of selfish lacks imagination too (and there’s definitely no cure for stupid!) Yet they are not just dancing with their own deaths, they are risking our lives too. Why can’t they just stay at home so someone else doesn’t have to die alone on a ventilator, if we even have enough by then.
I mean do they think they have fairy magic (ok wrong image – they were not very sylph-like); have they drunk a potion to make them immune to the virus; do they think because they can’t see it, it can’t see them, like some children’s game? Or do they just not care – not even about each other. There are well over a hundred positive cases of COVID-19 in this area according to my sister who stays on top of such stats. We are all at risk.
I know that my anecdotal evidence is hardly learned research, but I can attest to a change in new-millennium thinking. I started teaching in the middle of the state of emergency in the late eighties. When we studied war poetry then and even in the nineties when we could finally contemplate struggle poetry as a genre, there were many things that students said were ‘sweet and fitting’ to give their lives for, and many declared they would die for their country. Fast forward to the first two decades of this century and that same question, ‘Who or what would you die for?’ is met with blank stares or blunt answers like, ‘I’m not prepared to die for anyone (okay maybe my family)’ but they never say they would put their lives on the line for a cause like freedom anymore. The Why-should-I’s have it over the What-can-I-sacrifices. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for country’ carries no weight and Martin Niemöller’s ‘First they came for the Communists…’ confession falls often on deaf ears.
The lack of imagination and empathy in society can be addressed by encouraging reading or even film, and by teaching ethics and developing an ethos of generosity of spirit, but if we are to survive this and future pandemics, we need to embrace the what-I-do-today-affects-your-tomorrow kind of thinking as a matter of urgency.
As a family we recycle religiously, and what we can’t recycle we shove into coke bottles to make ecobricks (It drives me insane to see the damn things taking up space on the counter, but I understand that it is important.) We pop our vegetable waste into the compost, so that our refuse is minimal. (Thank you, Caitlin, once nicknamed Garbage Girl, for making us do that!) In that way, we are doing our bit to limit an environmental catastrophe. But… I have recently discovered that my shopping addiction is damaging the world’s resources. Can I go without my Zara shop to protect the environment?… You see it’s more difficult when it involves our giving up something we love. I was horrified to read this article: https://www.businessinsider.com/fast-fashion-environmental-impact-pollution-emissions-waste-water-2019-10?IR=T
I’m going to have to make some changes.
Global warming and pollution have not gone away for good just because we are at home. Will we be this committed to environmental issues after COVID-19 is brought under control? Will governments throw the same amount of energy and money at environmental controls for companies so that the window of hope opened up by the reduction of toxic fumes during lockdown will be continued and further reduced?
South Africa’s government is taking global warming more seriously, in theory at least, but is thankfully working with scientists to find solutions. But we have so much poverty eradication to address and this naturally (pardon the pun) comes first. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/wcc.295.
We can only hope that governments will take a long, hard look at themselves and make the necessary sacrifices to ensure our grandchildren will have clean air and water to breathe and drink.
But first things first: can the covidiots at least wear a mask when grabbing their Macmuffins from the Uber Eats delivery person?! Otherwise it won’t matter how many pristine rain forests there are on the planet – we’ll all be dead.
Soap and laughter – that’s how we beat this virus!
I want to laugh. I want to be amused. I want to be entertained, amused, delighted, distracted and diverted… so I can escape the oppressive weight of lockdown problems.
I have a good book to read – Bill Bryson’s eminently readable Shakespeare, but yesterday I really wanted live actors. Last night I made a quick circuit of the house to see whether there were any talented comics willing to be my fool, but they’re all just boring in the evenings. Liam’s light was out already; Andrew was running an airport; Caitlin was re-watching Grey’s Anatomy, and Shannon just played possum when I entered her room – I think she tought I was calling her to do dishes! Even the Mad Lab had lost the will to play, listlessly stirring her tail as I passed. I dared not go near the Cat. All just boring, boring.
So I fell asleep to Joan Rivers’ stand up. I mean I was that desperate for comedy that was not about lockdown. The sad thing is that all my usual comedy shows are not really running now. I mean QI has just stopped and Graham Norton without his couch is like Elton John without glitter. Trevor Noah is funny, but all about the US so…lockdown.
What is a girl to do?
“I’ve tidied my cupboards already, given myself a foot spa, re-done my nails, called my sister for all the minutes left on my airtime, and I have even hefted my weight atop my exercise bike, formally known as The Clothes Rack, for some daily cardio. But not even the foot spa evoked the slightest giggle or sigh of contentment.
Why am I so desperate for comedy? Well laughing at humour whether it’s dark and twisted, witty or gutter makes us feel better about the problems of life which it is poking fun at. In a perfect world there’d be no jokes, because we’d have no difficulties to make light of.
But I’m sick of lockdown – nothing’s funny anymore about being stuck in a nice enough house with a bunch of clever people who aren’t bored in the evenings and have no desire to cheer me up.
And then I watched the Education Minister’s address. And as her dulcet voice slipped seamlessly into her mother tongues from English, the auto-subtitles, clearly not South African programmed, ran amok, throwing in any and all most recent words in the global English lexicon in a hilarious potpourri of vocabulary, trying to transcribe her Setswana and isiZulu as English words. This linguistic muddle, while it may have been annoying for those who couldn’t understand the audio, proved a salutary lesson to all those who pooh- pooh folk who are not fluent in English. Now they know how it feels for learners who are second or third language speakers of English. Serious technology fail though! It may not have been amusing, but irony is comedy too.
A girl’s got to get her laughs where she can.
Tomorrow I am sitting at my window to watch everyone waddle past on their lightened-up-Level-4 exercising excursions between 6 am and rushing to get indoors again by 9 am. That should be worth a gander. (Slapstick is not my comedy of choice, but I’m hoping to identify with the COVID-comfy bodies on display). Personally, I’ll stick to the Clothes Rack Tour – I can earn a yellow jersey in that, even if sunny is not my colour.
Liam is having the last laugh though – he put a mirror in front of my bike. It has given home entertainment a macabre turn.
According to Dr Bryan E Roberson writing for Psychology Today and Forbes, the brain prefers to know an outcome one way or another, even if the outcome is unpleasant. According to him, scientists have discovered that job uncertainty, for example, is worse for your health than actually losing your job. British researchers discovered that study participants who were told they would definitely receive a painful electric shock felt ‘calmer and less agitated’ than those who were told they only had a 50% chance of getting the electric shock. So uncertainty is problematic.
This puts us at a slight disadvantage during the coronavirus lockdown, when even if we’d prefer a negative outcome that is certain, we cannot get absolute answers, because so much is intangible and uncertain.
For example, knowing schools will only re-open in September, horrible though that thought may be for parents struggling to teach their offspring the intricacies of long division and educators being jettisoned into the morass of remote teaching who hope parents don’t teach them old-fashioned long division methods), is preferable to this are-we-aren’t-we opening-in-May twilight zone we’re occupying at the moment.
My friend, Frank said the other day he almost wishes he could just get the virus and be done with worrying about getting it whenever he goes out. His view, though a rather desperate response to uncertainty, is not an isolated one.
Many people are recording increased insomnia, brought upon by fears of what might happen. I am battling to fall asleep of late, and upon my enquiring about her ‘wellness’ in this time, one of my colleagues told me she is waking up at 4 am worrying about a multitude of things, running a myriad of awful scenarios in her mind. Many others are similarly lying awake imagining the worst-case situations which may or may not in fact ever come to pass (what my aunt calls ‘borrowing tomorrow’s troubles’). My insomniac friend can attest to not being alone in this midnight mental morbidity, because when she goes online in the witching hour, she sees how many others in her network are also online at the same time.
And that raises another contributor to our uncertainty angst: watching too much news. I remember being in the USA after 9-11 and psychologists telling viewers to stop watching 24-hour news channels because not only do they stream permanent panic, the dramatic music and tone of newscasters and talking heads amplify stress levels. And they seldom agree with one another so the channels tend to exacerbate uncertainty.
I want to put in a word here about children and stress: be careful of projecting your anxiety onto your little ones. The generation of young children living through this year (and what follows) will almost certainly be somewhat scarred or unlikely to escape unaffected. Infants (and their older siblings) cleave to our emotions instinctively and know we are stressed even if we don’t know we are. They know when our toddler-tolerance has reached its capacity and they sense we are uncertain, even when we pretend we are not.
And children are still learning to process emotions so are less adept at prosaic acceptance of things. Someone on my neighbourhood Facebook group posted the other day about her 10-year-old who burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably about how afraid she was. So, talk to your children about fears. It’s okay to own up to being a bit worried, but be sure to say how you are going to overcome your disquieting thoughts, so they know it is possible to cope.
Owning your uncertainty with them also empowers them by allowing them to see you overcome being less than perfect and dealing with the nebulous nature of uncertainty. I’ll never forget when my eldest son failed his driver’s licence in matric, and shared his emotions in an inspirational speech at school. He was one of the ‘cool crowd’ and by owning up to being less than perfect, he gave so many others permission to not be perfect also. But he gave them a way out of the pit he was in (his mother bought him lessons!) and that is how we can assist our beloveds – own it and make a plan to overcome it. Just don’t brush off their fears. They are real.
‘You can be both a masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously.’
– Sophie Bush
The effects of COVID-19 lockdown will not vanish when the nurseries re-open. Who knows how our children’s early development will be impaired by being surrounded by adults in masks, not seeing their smiles to respond to, or their lips to mimic sounds. Baby class educators will be torn between doubling down on face protection or only perspex covering to allow their charges to imitate them, as they need to. There are no easy answers to these predicaments, but the schools that know about these potential problems though, are the ones which will make provisions to counter such obstacles. We cannot become bogged down in these fears of what could go wrong.
There is a definite link between emotions and negative thoughts, but likewise there is a link between imagining positive outcomes and being less anxious. That makes sense of course – and my mother always said psychology was just common sense. In other words, in order to reduce our anxiety in uncertain times, we need to think of positive potential outcomes more deliberatively to improve our mental health and assist in coping with uncertainty.
The much-maligned little Pollyanna of literature, she of the count-you-blessings sunshine philosophy actually had it right when she said:
“And most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.” ― Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna
If you don’t believe her, Oprah said it too:
“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” — Oprah Winfrey
(Of course, if your couple of ‘blessings’ happen to have two feet and two arms, runny noses and badger you with endless questions while you are trying to tele-conference, this might be a difficult strategy to reduce your stress about uncertainty – especially if Oprah’s suggestion is you’ll end up with more ‘blessings’ and you had given away the black motorbike!)
[Aside: If you don’t want surprise babies/blessings: never give away the black motorbike. I should know].
But I digress.
How can we combat uncertainty? It’s not just about being positive and hopeful, although I laughed out loud at Jennifer Saunders who declared that the good thing about the delay of the Olympics is that we now all have a chance to train in time to qualify! (Not even Pollyanna would agree with her on that!)
According to Lorena Pasquini, Anna Steynor, and Katinka Waagsaether of the University of Cape Town, there are 3 strategies humans employ when dealing with uncertainty:
1. ‘Strategies of suppression refer to the denial of uncertainty, such as ignoring uncertainty, relying on intuition, or taking a gamble.’
People like my friend Frank who are wanting desperately to put an end to the tension of will-I won’t-I get it, are in danger of engaging in risky behaviour like purposefully not washing hands (just urgh) or refusing to wear a mask, in order to escape the stress of not knowing. This thinking also explains why some people are calmer about death when they know they are about to die than the anxiety they experience before a diagnosis; why parents of children who have gone missing in many cases suffer more than those whose deaths have been confirmed.
Gambling intuitively or risk-taking in business may be exceptional qualities in the normal business world, as exemplified by the likes of Richard Branson and his ilk, but at a time of crisis, these same mavericks are crying out for government bailouts.
Leaders who respond with intuition and gamble on outcomes of herd immunity, like the leaders of the USA and Sweden at the moment may live to regret not being more measured.
2. ‘Strategies of reduction involve trying to increase information or predictability.
Some examples of reduction tactics include collecting more information, asking for advice, or delaying action until more information is available.’
This is what the South African education departments are doing at the moment: consulting, researching, delaying decisions of when and how to return to school. Companies, shops and schools will be delaying re-opening strategies until they have a better idea of what lies ahead. This is obviously a practical way forward and a more scientific approach, but can cause a hugely emotional response from clients and employees desperate for certainty. However, as New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo (one of the only American politicians making sense at the moment) said today at a press briefing:
3. ‘Strategies of acknowledgement take uncertainty into accountin selecting a course of action or preparing to avoid possible risks.’
When society does unfurl itself from the lockdown-hibernation, allowing for uncertainty is so important. The plain sense of South Africa’s planned return from lockdown takes this into account, with its multiple stages, allowing for upwards and downwards movement between levels depending on changing circumstances. It involves managing change.
I am so glad we have someone with emotional intelligence and psychological insight leading us through this crisis. Thank you, President Ramaphosa!
In the end, we are alive. And that is the whole point of this exercise.
So, be calm; think of opportunities which can be had out of this difficult time and act on them, and be grateful to be alive. Stop worrying and try multiplication at 4 am – like how many sheep are needed to make a Zara jersey – that’ll be better than counting sheep:
“But I have my life, I’m living it. It’s twisted, exhausting, uncertain, and full of guilt, but nonetheless, there’s something there.” ― Banana Yoshimoto,The Lake
 Ntate Cyril – Father Cyril – a reference to President Cyril Ramaphosa
A Freedom Day Reflection during COVID-19 Lockdown 2020
I was born in 1964, three months after Nelson Mandela and seven comrades were jailed for life.
What is now the Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital, but then was the St Joseph’s Nursing Home, run by German Catholic nursing sisters, at the foot of Devils Peak, Cape Town, sounded like a strict place to be, from my mother’s telling of it. The fact that the nurses hurried her out of the loo, where I was nearly born, gave my existence an almost unseemly start, perhaps that’s why I was constantly found guilty of behaviour ‘unbecoming of a lady’ by the nuns who educated me. I was too loud. But not loud enough when it mattered.
The historic tragedy of the Rivonia Treason Trial that year though was unlikely to have been marked in my white, middle-class family, where my father was more conceivably focused on reading in the newspaper about the Springboks’ victories against touring French and Welsh rugby teams, or his own cricket matches at the club, while my mother was almost certainly consumed with caring for a toddler and a new baby. Johannesburg and race politics of the time were not even on their radar, both seemingly thousands of miles away. That’s one of the shocking realities of South African apartheid-era history: white people in the main, were not affected by the brutality and racial injustices being perpetrated in the country and life went on as ‘normal.’
I first heard about District Six when my father, a formidably fierce man, yelled at some pesky children taking delight in walking atop his newly constructed boundary wall in middle-class Pinelands, ‘What do you think this is?! District Six?!’ he roared out the window at them. I had no idea what District Six was but it seemed to be, from his attitude, a place where children got away with doing fun things. He of course had bought into the propaganda which saw the colourful, cosmopolitan area on the slopes of Table Mountain as a slum, resulting in the horrifying social and economic disaster of forced removals of black and coloured people in 1968. (Not that as an English-speaking United Party supporter, he would ever have seen himself as pro-government, an irony still playing out still in the English-Afrikaans divide in older, white South Africans.)
District Six’s fate was sealed in October 1964, a week after I was born when the Minister of Community ‘Development’ (one PW Botha!) set up a committee to re-plan and ‘develop’ District 6 and surrounding Salt River and Woodstock. The plan fell under CORDA, an acronym for the Orwellian Committee for the Rehabilitation of Depressed Areas, a plan which left communities decimated and precipitated ongoing poverty and crime although its stated intention was to eradicate crime ‘caused by inter-racial mixing.’
30 years later, however, on 27 April 1994, pregnant with my own second child, I stood in one of thousands of snaking queues in our nation’s first democratic election. Even though at the advanced stage of my pregnancy, I could have voted days before, I wanted to celebrate that special day and make sure my small son and unborn daughter would be there as part of the moment when we stood on the head of the snake of apartheid.
The people I queued with are dead now, the old man in front of me, almost certainly from old age, but my companion for the day, Kefilwe Ratsweu, passed away in 1999 from AIDS-related illnesses, following her rape in a field by a mindless, opportunistic thug, one mild Sunday afternoon.
She had five short years of ‘freedom.’
She, like so many women in our country, had lived a brutalized life of poverty and spent much of her divorced life away from her children. She recalled for me once how when she first moved to Johannesburg to find work, police vans would routinely pick up young women supposedly on pass law offences and remembered the absolute terror she felt in being considered one of the ‘young, attractive ones’ who were offered an impossible ‘way out’ of their arrest. Many women saw the option of being gang-raped by policemen as a better option than imprisonment and loss of income for their families.
The abuse she suffered at the hands of authorities didn’t end there though. She married a taxi driver, who, when he drank, assaulted her repeatedly. Eventually, when he began to inflict his violence on her five children, she took them one dark night and fled home to her mother, who raised them in the country, while she worked in the city. And yet if I remember one thing about her, it was her capacity to throw her head back and laugh.
I visited her the day before she died in the Johannesburg General Hospital, stepping gingerly over used syringes on the lift floor of a state hospitial groaning in its need for public funds, not wanting to acknowledge that she was dying. We held hands, hers always so elegantly long and soft, despite her years of physical labour, like her once rotund body was even thinner from the ravages of her disease. And we wept quietly together. I wept for the system that made her vulnerable; I wept for the children she was leaving behind; and that I couldn’t save her. Mostly I wept because I had been part of that system, simply by being white. No amount of university protest or liberal thinking and teaching prevented me from saving her.
And hers is just one story.
The AIDS pandemic has caused so much human suffering in South Africa. Just as PW Botha’s men razed District Six to the ground, so HIV and AIDS bulldozed through townships and families, orphaning countless children in the process. And today we face a new, more threatening disease.
At its height, nearly 3 million people died in South Africa, but so many deaths were recorded as TB–or-other-related that the figure is probably far more. Nearly 250 000 new cases of HIV infection are recorded annually, with over 70 000 deaths still in this brave new world of post-apartheid South Africa.
Today is Freedom Day, being celebrated in Lockdown from a new enemy, set to ravage our nation. COVID-19 is not Die Groot Krokodil, so openly evil that we can launch an armed struggle against it. This time we are faced with another unseen nemesis like the HIV virus. The coronavirus is a tiny microbe spreading its invisible armies throughout our cities and towns, swifter and more easily even that HIV. And the people it is set to destroy are again the poor and broken of South Africa.
But this time we know what can happen if we don’t fight. This time we have a president who is leading from the front.
This struggle ironically cannot be fought by mass gatherings of protest or by an armed struggle. This enemy thrives on our togetherness, something the apartheid regime recognized about our struggle for freedom and that’s why they banned public gatherings.
But this time for the sake of freedom (and life) for our people, especially those we have failed, please heed our president’s call to stay at home.
I was a child during apartheid; I stood by while HIV ran rampant and killed Kefilwe; I did not protest her brutalization.
This time, I am staying the fuck at home so my country(wo)men can live to see another Freedom Day!
How’s that for being a lady?
‘They also serve who only stand and wait’
– John Milton, On His Blindness
 The dompas in apartheid South Africa required black people to carry identification at all times, including permission to be within (white) urban areas.
Lockdown tempers became a little frazzled in our little suburban paradise this weekend. The Maestro and I had a ridiculous (now) set-to about tissues, pockets and washing machines; and in general even light-hearted banter between the siblings was a bit strained.
The only one stalking through life with an air of indifference is Sophie the Psychopath (sorry, Cat)
This is the only resident ginger who still dares to make demands: ‘Feed me’; ‘Open the door – I want to go out’; and 2 minutes later, ‘Open the door – I changed my mind, damnit;’ ‘Run the tap, Bitch – I’m thirsty -that bowl you gave me is for unter-creatures, like dogs.’
And what bugs me is that we oblige. And we don’t expect thanks, like meek slaves of Sophie the Sphinx. Then, like a sulky ramp model, She sidles past, as if She just happened to be there when we were doing said menial chore for Her.
She has annexed my happy chair and glares balefully at me if I disturb Her naps. (Did you know that cats sleep 60% of the day.) She has no taste in dancing or singing (She doesn’t approve of mine) and has a raised-eyebrow stare without having eyebrows, worthy of a mother. Even Shannon apologises to Her. She refuses to cuddle and be stroked… or be held, but if we are gardening outside, or in the kitchen together having fun, She’ll attend the gathering (in a supervisory capacity, of course).
Andrew is a dog-only pet owner. He and the Cat hiss at each other in passing and now that we have moved my happy chair into his den while we wait for his new couch to arrive, Sophie is highly put out that She can’t sit in it anymore, because he keeps the door firmly closed against Her. And I am childishly thinking, “At last! Humans: 1; Tiger: 0.’
Caitlin and Shannon are threatening to move out next year, and my price is: the Cat goes too.
We have such a benevolent gees going in our street, and it has been most encouraging during this time of lockdown.
Every time the air force does a fly-by of our area with its impressive fleet of one black helicopter, we all race out to wave and cheer our essential services on. Well, we would have if it had flown over our neighbourhood. I see that chopper every day around the same time and then it returns around sunset. I’m convinced the crew pops across to Langebaan for a day in the sun and then flies home in the evening.
It must be a bit boring now though for our police and military in (mostly) law-abiding suburbs, where crime stats are almost negligent due to most of the criminals also stuck in lockdown. I mean, if you enter the armed forces for the adrenalin rush, you can’t be getting much of a fix at the moment in suburbia.
The emergency services did a parade of force through the suburb a few nights ago and I nearly choked on chocolate I’d nicked out of the snack cupboard. Police and armed response vehicles drove up and down our roads with lights flashing and sirens echoing off buildings in a frightening manner. I was convinced there had been a five-car pile-up down the road, but it was merely our public defenders, doing an honour lap of the neighbourhood.
And our community obliged by rushing out on our balconies and curbs to cheer and clap for them, remaining a while to wave and cheer with our friends across and alongside us. Anything for a view of people other than those we live with. Don’t get me wrong – I love my household, but am wearying of looking at them all a tad, so it’s exciting to see what other people look like.
I mean Andrew only has a couple of tracksuits that he wears like a gangster in the Sopranos (fortunately without the bling); I’ve seen all of Shannon’s pyjamas and Catlin can’t be seen because she wears a blanket over her clothes, because she seldom stirs form her laptop. Liam is similarly disguised by his Abraham-Lincoln-meets-hobbit hirsute look. The only one who is shedding clothing is the Mad Lab whose coat we sweep up all day. But there’s only so much variety to any of the above.
I am enjoying the casual wear though, and I think I have forgotten how to wear high heels. I draw the line at no make-up however – there are too many mirrors in the house to avoid seeing a putty-less visage without screaming, so I get dressed comfortably and mascara these lids. One must keep up one’s standards. Like ironing. They keep threatening to wear their clothes un-ironed, which works wonders in getting mom to haul out the ironing equipment with a sigh.
So, it’s good to have other folk to look at.
A few nights back, someone played some great rock music in the street, to pay tribute to health workers, and again, out we all popped like tracksuited glockenspiel figurines, chiming our enthusiasm gleefully.
Our road’s neighbourhood watch leader, Shaun, efficiently posts fact-checked government announcements and keeps us on track against that other pernicious virus, fake news. In fact, Shaun has been such a good leader in all the nearly 9 years I’ve been resident here, if he decided to move to greener (or quieter) pastures, the residents of the street would probably blockade the road to prevent the family from leaving.
Then there is Jess whose singing recordings sometimes filter across the street in pleasant sound bites and alternate with Bandile next door’s soul music, and Donnie the DJ’s radio station, in keeping us entertained. My family’s contribution to the music of the thoroughfare: The Maestro’s beautiful Chopin Etudes or snatches of whatever pieces he is teaching; Liam’s plinking beginner practising and the loud debates between siblings that rival any powerful operatic death. It’s no wonder our back neighbour has taken to smoking his homegrown weed supply.
It’s good to know that we are confined in a community of houses, not unconnected silos. This is not a time for stepping out of our comfort zone, but for finding comfort in the zone.
Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.”
“Dryware, wetware, hardware, software, blackware, darkware, nightware, nightmare . . . The modem sits inviting beside the phone, red eyes. I let it rest— you can’t trust anybody these days.” ― Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors
People from all over the world are responding and posting their pictures on the page and I am realizing how fortunate some are during lockdown. Unless they have copied and pasted something from a local travel mag (I’m always suspicious of the lie factor), people on this Facebook group seem to live amidst great beauty in infinite variety. Some of those vistas make me a tad jealous; I’ll be honest, especially with spring blossoms emerging in Northern hemisphere gardens in flamboyant, living defiance of the COVID-19 virus’s silent death march through countries.
The green-eyed monster in me was pacified however when I reflected on how privileged I am to be able to step out onto my bedroom balcony and see all of Table Mountain, Devils’ Peak and Lion’s Head, silhouetted by the setting sun in the distance.
However, as spectacular as some folk’s panoramic, views may be, it struck me that we don’t know what lies behind them as they take their shots: what sadness, what fear, what violence lurks in their households. We don’t know whether they have washed the dishes in their kitchen; or made the bed in that boudoir; or what books lie on couches in the lounge behind them. We don’t know what their stories are. And rightly so. That’s something we in South Africa fought so hard for in our struggle. Privacy is a right enshrined in our constitution. It’s to stop heavy handed wannabe-totalitarians from spying on us.
I get that this site is to encourage lockdown-prisoners to look beyond their current confines and see the world beyond, in order to stay connected, as well as in order to appreciate the tranquil beauty of nature – and haven’t we seen how pristine a state the ravaged earth has restored itself to, with opaque polluted clouds of smog no longer obstructing God’s creation in cities where industry and human traffic have been suddenly switched off by COVID -19?!
But I confess I am reluctant to post a pic of my own iconic view due to internet paranoia (okay and I am a rubbish photographer!). That whole Big (Orange) Brother is watching idea via multiple conspiracy theories has some substance when one reads the terms and conditions of social media sites. Let’s face it, if a service is free, YOU are the product. (Of course, this doesn’t stop me posting copious family snaps on my Facebook feed and being pretty open about my life, to the horror of my social media lawyer-friend. I suppose it must be possible for spies to obtain my IP address) Mind you, good luck to anyone trolling through my stuff. Pretty boring. While they’re in there if they could just answer some emails for me it would be great. At least they can read what I write. I can spell. But it’s the principle of privacy that’s at stake here.
It’s the advertisers who are benefitting of course. Even the microphones on our phones and cameras can convey information to certain websites unless you change your settings. If you don’t believe me, listen to what Microsoft support services says about how to limit it:
George Orwell predicted it in 1984. Margaret Atwell’s ‘eyes’ in A Handmaid’s Tale allude to spies abounding; even Sting promised to be watching me every step I took. (Sadly, I don’t think he meant it.)
Just the other day we had a random conversation about skin tags in our house – you know those teeny tiny mole-like growth one gets sometimes. Now that was a truly arbitrary conversation, but blow me down if I wasn’t sent adverts about skin tag removal the very next day!. Your phone is listening to you – at least mine is. Now if I could get the children to…
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a total conspiracy theory fruitcake (that moon landing though?…) But if this Big Brother surveillance is a thing, it could work to our advantage. I am hoping for magic medicine for cellulite now so I have told all my devices about my quilted ass. I’ll let you know what they suggest. At least such descriptions might put off the alphabet-soup agents from listening in too.
Anything would be better than all this indoor cycling I’m forcing myself to do. So, COVID Lockdown/Covert Surveillance – bring it on!
I had a killer of a match with technology today. Technology: 5 – Colleen: 0. To be fair all five of Technology’s points came from own goals (I got the illumination wrong for a video; ran out of power mid-meeting; broke Liam’s camera tripod and then ran out of data on both my phone and tablet)
But it is the rematch tomorrow and I plan to win on goal difference.
Still, by the time the daylight faded, it became obvious I’d have to wait for better light in the morning to film my presidential address to my parents (sans sign language interpreter, because only Liam is able to do that, but he is not really camera-ready: Having avoided the holiday barber visit, he looks like a sort of New Romantic Wolverine, with his foppish hair and ginger beard. He says he prefers to see himself as brave Mr Tumnus, the Narnian faun, but still he’d need to shave to be my presidential sidekick) My anxiety levels rocketed, following my frustration, as did my asthmatic cough, and I felt my heart racing. I had to force myself to breathe deeply and lighten up, but I realized just how much angst we are all living with, during lockdown, and how easily that can spill over.
I gave birth to five children! I don’t generally scare easily, but I have to admit that lately, when even inconsequential things pile up, I start to feel really fretful.
I have heard from folk living on their own that they have experienced panic attacks, during this time, even though they are not usually the nervy type. I can believe it.
This virus may be an invisible threat, but so is stress and we should recognize that our cortisol levels are probably heightened at the moment. And we can’t fight (except with our family and that’s all rather blah now) and flight is not possible because we are stuck in lockdown. I read an article today about how people are recording raised levels of insomnia too right now.
So we all need to calm the farm, but I find myself worrying about so much all at once: how my four children who don’t live with us are doing; how my sister is coping on her own in her apartment; when and how we’ll return to school; how much or how little to involve parents in our remote learning; which parts of the curriculum to cull; planning for 2021; how to get through the scores of emails in my inbox; whether we’ve flattened the curve; what Bra Cyril will say tomorrow. Then my thoughts deteriorate into a panic about where the hell the ‘nasty hobbitses’ hid the chocolate; whether my tea bags will last if the lockdown is extended; whether The Maestro will notice that I illicitly washed his Bayern Munich top with all the other clothes; how many bananas Liam can consume in a day without popping; and oh hell did we put out the bin today, and other such weighty matters.
I need to take my own advice: exercise more (sigh); reach out to others; sleep more; be kind to myself. My aunt has always told us not to borrow tomorrow’s troubles, so I’m off to get that exercise going downstairs to hunt for the chocolate to eat before I go to bed for a good kip.
As that great philosopher Scarlett O’Hara said, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’
I am in lockdown in a nice safe, middle-class suburb, which unfortunately allows me to be locked away from the reality of my neighbours’ lives down the road in Dunoon, no matter my lefty leanings. Some days I forget why we are even in lockdown because I am so busy I don’t see the news.
Because we are only travelling the short distance to the shop once a week or so, not seeing the suffering of the shack-dwellers on the other side of the railway line, and not encountering and engaging with their reality at the moment, we run the risk of living purely in our TikTok-challenge, foodies-Instagram; and meandering-mindless-meme feeds (no matter how clever or funny they are), stuck in a sort of rarified closed-system that is incestuously self-centred.
Similar to the way the algorithms on sites like Facebook and other platforms control what we see on our newsfeeds and screens, based on what we search for, making us run the risk of receiving only information that corresponds with our world view, like a kind of inbred feedback system, echoing back on itself; so does Lockdown prevent us from engaging outside our socio-economic bubbles, as we live in our own private terrariums.
For example, in my home, the five of us are happily co-existing in our individual work hubs. The Maestro and I are focused on the work of our two schools, me at my window desk in our bedroom and him galloping between his piano in the lounge and his laptop in his den.
Caitlin, as an accounting trainee for one of the major accounting firms in South Africa, continues to do her number magic (well it seems so to ignoramuses such as me) disturbed only by her mother’s rant at the person who left a sticky hot chocolate spoon to attract flies on the counter (in the middle of an online meeting with her partner! Oops, Mom.)
Shannon’s Art classes continue, albeit in a slightly different form and I hear her mutter that her lecturer’s belief that beetroot and shoe polish are not naturally occurring substances in her home!
Liam is committed to his matric curriculum, delivered via live online classes and project work, earphones perched on his woolly head like a disc jockey. He has been rescued from the evil Edward-Scissor-Hands of the local barber, by Lockdown and alternatively yells expletives to his brother as they game themselves out of boredom. (I hope Caitlin’s partner didn’t hear that!) and exercises the now-fat Mad Lab. Liam has also called in our resident musical expert so The Maestro is guiding his beginner piano lessons – I realise now why learner-pianists are called ‘plonkers,’ although in Liam’s case, it’s more like plinking. (No left hand involved in his music yet!)
We come together at mealtimes or to bully and be bullied into exercise or chores and we talk about – our lives. Then we carry on. There is not enough cross-pollination of thought outside the home. We are not hearing the tales of people struggling to scrap together enough for food with the collapse of the informal sector. And we can’t see its absence either. Because, worse even than during apartheid, we are here and ‘they’ are there. Lockdown has prevented us from seeing the raw need of indigent workers congregating on street corners or bin people rummaging for food.
Liam came to me today though, and proclaimed his disillusionment about the injustices in our society and he wasn’t just speaking about the naked ugliness of the digital divide, exposed so clearly in this time of national crisis. After his Business Studies lesson, he came upstairs and vented about how selfish business is in its ultimate goal only to benefit itself. We discussed the way he can do things differently one day by becoming a social entrepreneur as opposed to a rabid capitalist. I was grateful for that moment in his education where I was able to engage him about the concept of King IV and ‘people, planet, profit’ (in that order!) – see even an English major knows something about accounting principles.
But he also nudged my thinking about how Lockdown tends to make us selfish and drains our generosity of spirit in this closed-circuit living we are experiencing, which has prompted this post. So how can we overcome the tendency to be purely inward-looking at this time?
If you can, contribute towards the SA COVID-19 Solidarity fund. https://www.solidarityfund.co.za/ The State President has just announced there is a massive tax rebate for doing so, if you need a less-altruistic reason.
Call your employees, especially if they live alone. Assure them their jobs are safe. Hopefully you can.
Check out your local neighbourhood pages for community projects like food parcel packaging and mask-making. There are still things we can do.
I don’t remember much of my family’s flight across the Atlantic, or even much of the final leg to Cape Town, despite the ambitious title of this trilogy of blog posts. Mercifully the children slept for a good portion of the eleven-hour flight to Istanbul. It was the layover that turned out to be akin to the Tenth Circle of Hell: an endless shopping mall to wander around without sleep (or money to spend) for all parents who were ever irritated by sleep deprivation caused in the past by their tiny mites… and the sinner here wanders around with five children she cannot chance losing… oh and there is no Zara in this portion of Hell!
Funny term that, ’layover.’ It suggests that waiting passengers get to lie down. Not a chance in Atatürk International Airport in November 2001, where my children and I were marooned for more than ten hours on our way home from the USA to Cape Town (or any modern airport I expect:
Not so my squirming spawn. (As hard as that phrase is to say fast; so hard were they to entertain over this time.)
A stopover is only of value if you can stop. For the record, children under nine do not stop. They are physically incapable of just being. They must do. They want to run climb jump eat (all the time, especially if they cannot do) argue with you squabble with each other (the latter two even more so when they are tired and just don’t know it); they want to explore touch roll (boys must roll) and speak (and if you do not respond, they’ll swiftly denounce you with an exasperated. Mom! Stop just saying “Hmmmn”’ when you attempt to deflect their babbling conversation.) The only one who slept was almost-two-year-old Shannon – on the grubby carpet of a vacant playroom – we didn’t care about the dirt by then!
This ‘playroom’ was a place of play in name only: it had a few arcade games, all of which needed tokens or Turkish lira, and was not really to suited to littluns or their weary mom. In those days, the transit lounge had not made its way into airport culture. They were bored, my poor babes, so while Shannon snored, I let the boys playfight in the empty expanse. (And when that stopped being playing I used a couple of precious coins to make one of those ride-on animals move– I think it was a bear.)
The worst thing about that room (and we spent a good deal of time there on our ‘stops’ in between tours of the facility) was that it did not have a door. I dared not fall asleep for fear of one child wandering off, or being snatched if I dozed off.
So I resorted to moving as much as my pregnant belly would allow me, doing a few unenthusiastic jumps to amuse the cheeky squirts, who thought this bowling ball with legs was hilarious, but I was so tired just from being pregnant that it was incredibly hard to stay awake, and I dared not do too much because when we walked around I was already carrying so much heavy luggage in the 2 carry-on bags (like massive weights in each hand, plus the baby bag, sometimes one cut painfully into my arm as I shouldered it so I could carry Shannon as well on our slow (as slow as I could make it) trails around the airport concourse. I was conscious of the need to keep the child growing inside me safe too. I would have given my eye teeth for a trolley; yet despite countless circuits of the terminal, they were not to be had for love or money – or teeth.
Atatürk Airport was quite a hip place to be in those days and full of attractive couples, sartorially elegant in their jeans and leather jackets and their sophisticated sunglasses perched stylishly atop gleaming long, dark ponytails. What I remember most about them though was that they all smoked. The place reeked of cigarettes. We had come from the crisp mountain air of Morman Utah and before that a South Africa cleaned up by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma when she was Minister of Health, in the second clever move she made after divorcing her husband: banning smoking in public places. (Little did she know that Vape Nation would emerge to further plunge us back into the dungeon of civilization.) I had long since given up on the delights of tobacco and the odour of those strong Turkish cigarettes was overpowering. The smell clung to our clothes and hair like a bad reputation.
And my asthmatic eldest child began to cough and cough. It didn’t help that the place the nippers enjoyed the most was in the food court where most of the beautiful people lounged: a little fast food outlet with a ball pond. That ball pond is the single most happy common memory of those long hours of waiting, despite the pungent smell of smoke. After making each meal we ate at the diner last as long as we could, the children all piled into the ball pond, and I could wedge myself and the suitcases at the entrance so they couldn’t leave. To be honest I nodded off a couple of times there, only to jerk away guiltily and glance around in a panic, trying to make sure they were all accounted for. But there is only so much ball throwing and ball surfing that any child can take, and so we’d pack up and trudge around the centre for a while again. There should be a memorial somewhere there, called The Trench of Col after the track we walked.
After several lifetimes, we spent as long as possible, washing and changing in the bathroom, to the horror of Sean, who, at eight, was mortified to be in a ladies’ loo. But no way was he going into the gents alone, so he had to park his manly embarrassment and just suck it up. Eventually everyone was dressed in what would hopefully be deemed not-too-waif-like for our arrival at home. I zipped up the baby bag, amazed at Murphy’s Law of the Travelling Togbag, which states that the same number of items repacked into a bag, never fit in, and we began the trek to the final departure gate. Then the impish Shannon, chuckled, ‘Ooh, ooh!’ … It was unfortunately a great deal more ‘eeuw’ than ‘ooh,’ so back we schlepped and unpacked the bag again to change her again.
The last flight in our odyssey began around two am local time.
This time the flight was nightmarish. Sean’s asthma grew worse and worse and I worried he’d need hospitalization when we landed. He gasped for breath for much of the 10 hours to Cape Town and I cursed every one of those beautiful people and their Peter Stuyvesant lifestyle.
But when we stepped off the plane in Cape Town, he was able to take great gulps of South-Easter and then the kindly customs official’s wrinkled brown face crinkled up even more, as he stamped Sean’s passport, and said: ‘Happy birthday, son. Welcome home.’
And we were. Home.
Postscript: ‘Whatever happened to that little mite I was carrying inside me?’ you may ask. Well that child conceived just before the crisis of 9-11, is nearly eighteen now. And once again the world is in turmoil; this time because of a faceless microbe, COVID-19. Once again, Liam is poised on the edge of becoming, in his final year at school, and once again his world is uncertain. But this time I am different.
This time I have the memoryof that moment when we stepped onto the tarmac at Cape Town International Airport and thought: ‘We. Can. Do Anything.’
We shall overcome.
Flying with small children involves coping with their restlessness; their painful ears in the pressurized cabin, especially on landing; whining; crying; bathroom visits; nappy changes; smiling sweetly at the vexed stares of strangers who are anxious that they will have the misfortune to have your brood sitting near them; fretful complaining that they don’t want the chicken OR the beef (Michael); and sometimes a meal of your own, if it doesn’t get spilt on you by the toddler sitting on your 5-month pregnant belly.
But my epic journey with my littluns helped to take the edge off the fear of the unknown as we hurtled towards an unknown future in mid-November 2001.
Numbed by the efforts to assuage the squirming termites that were my beloved offspring, I travelled with my four and a half children on a Delta Airline flight to JFK Airport, days after Flight 587 crashed in Queens, leaving behind my 13-year marriage in tatters in Salt Lake City.
Once we’d settled into the six and a half hour flight and one child had already finished his snacks (Michael again), they quietened down and focused on the book, colouring-in and drawing that had been tucked into their backpacks for the journey and Shannon dozed off, allowing me to run through the plan: Land at JFK, meet the ground stewardess assigned to escort us, and our luggage, via customs to our next flight. Easy.
And that’s when it all went wrong. On arrival at Terminal 2, still basking in the glow of fellow passengers’ unexpectedly complimentary comments on how well-behaved my progeny had actually been (Damn straight they were – not teacher’s children for nothing!) and after the obligatory bathroom break… there was no anticipated angelic crew member in sight.
On my enquiry about the pre-arranged assistance, airport staff shrugged nonchalantly and left me standing there, surrounded by 4 midgets and 5 massive black suitcases with our worldly possessions and all our carry-on luggage . ‘Ok, I thought,’ looking despairingly at the forlorn faces of my beloved children, I’ve got this. At least the bags didn’t get lost.’
With eight-year-old Sean’s help, I (wo)manhandled the five big suitcases onto a massive trolley, and I think at that point I realized how difficult it was going to be to ensure he had a childhood and wasn’t constantly called upon to be ’the man of the house’ (although I shall be forever grateful for the times he held cupboard doors while I fixed the hinges and other household repair projects.)
Once we had piled the luggage, Pisa-like on the trolley (and it would be one of those that doesn’t roll easily, but crab-crawls along, we set off to try to determine where to go next. The Information kiosk was no help. The red-lipped, gum-chewing woman with a strong Jersey accent, pointed vaguely in the direction of the terminal doors and shrugged, when I asked her where the international flights left from, and the overhead guides only lit up flights leaving from that terminal.
Now let me explain something about JFK International: in 2001, there were 9 terminal buildings, all the size of massive shopping malls, and spread out over about 20 square kilometres – the airport land is so big it has its own zip code! And I had no idea how to reach my connecting flight. Because I’d expected an accompanying ground steward to help me, I had not studied a map of the place. All I knew was that Our Air Turkey flight was departing from another terminal. I stood at the exit of Terminal 2 and prayed. I turned left.
The first thing I saw as the doors slid open was a patrolling, US National Guardsman in full battledress, with helmet and machine gun. He stared unsmilingly at us and strode on. The reality of post-9-11 America struck me then: these were no ordinary times to be travelling. But I had a battle of my own to fight – with a tilting trolley, anchored down by Michael and Shannon, who were thoroughly enjoying their ride at the bow of my listing luggage ship, foreshadowing the epic shots of Jack and Kate in The Titanic, me pushing awkwardly, and Sean and Caitlin jogging alongside. What a sight we must have looked as we pushed on, my trying-to be brave-but-really-frightened eyes scanning for signs of Turkish Airlines!
If you study the map of Kennedy Airport terminals, you will see that where I needed to go was Terminal 1, so my choice to turn left was almost certainly guided by my guardian angel – if I’d turned right, we’d probably still be wandering around the acres and acres of airport territory.
I entered Terminal 1 hoping against hope that I had guessed correctly and stopped dead. What played out in front of me was like nothing I had ever seen before. The massive departure hall was teeming with angry New Yorkers who did not spare the pregnant mother with small children a lashing with their vitriol, which was shocking for someone arriving from child-friendly Utah; neither did they move aside so we could pass, swearing volubly at us as we zig-zagged our way to an information board.
Security queues snaked everywhere in this vast, cavernous space– this was a time before clearly demarcated security queues and built-in checks. One security person stood in the middle of the hall and waved her metal detector over irate, impatient passengers.
At last I spotted an Air Turkey counter and breathed a prayer of thanks to my guardian angel, gratefully depositing our check-in bags with the ground hostess.
But there was a problem: our flight was about to leave and was actually waiting for us!. A tall, elegant, uniformed stewardess from the Turkish airline escorted us to the front of the endless anaconda of people, which spat out ‘Fuck yous’ at our interloping, completely unperturbed that they were cursing at children.
When we reached the hapless security woman with her prison-warder face, our charming guide left us. Hands plucked Shannon from my arms and moved the children in various directions as she waved her evil wand up and down my body, yelling at me to stand still, because I was spinning 360 degrees to keep sight of all my frightened lambs amidst the cacophony of profanity and echoing terminal chaos.
Escaping the clutches of security, we raced for our departure gate (We must have looked hilarious: various shades of red hair and one brown-haired little boy bobbing along, my portly maternity roundness trying to hold onto Shannon’s wriggling body. At some point, we must have gone through customs, but I have no memory of it.
We made it seconds before they closed the airplane doors and were hustled down the aisle to our seats as an entire planeload of horrified people looked on. Caitlin began to cry as we realized that they had not seated us together and she and Sean were forced to sit in the middle of a row behind me. I shushed them and strapped myself in, with Shannon sitting on top of Liam’s developing head, a situation he clearly didn’t like, as he kicked hard on my tightening stomach. Only 4-year-old Michael, next to me seemed oblivious to the drama, and chattered on about the ‘excitement’ of the departure hall, and when he was going to eat again and he needed to go to the loo…NOW.
‘Wait,’ I hissed.
As the airbus taxied out and took wing, I had no time to consider that I should be afraid of crashing on take-off like Flight 587 a couple of days before.
When the seatbelt sign flicked off, I turned around again to check on Sean and Caitlin and the whole row had been evacuated away from the tearful children. We settled in together and somewhere over the Atlantic, most of the children fell into an exhausted sleep.