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.
That great philosopher, Bob Marley, once said, ‘You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.’If ever we needed to be strong, it is now, during a national and global time of crisis caused by something we cannot see, and find so difficult to fathom because of its invisibility.
We have no choice but to to be resilient; to be creative; to find our inner Wonder Woman and go to war.
At my school this year we did a whole-staff workshop on finding and developing our strengths, based on the CliftonStrengths34 Test. Who would have thought that this would be most opportune?!
How useful I am finding what I learned about myself – especially the fact that actually I am STRONG to start with in particular areas.
Just to summarise the concept: the test identifies 34 strengths we possess in varying degrees (which are clustered around how we execute, relate, strategize, or influence in our world) and guides one to amplify your top five, as opposed to highlighting weak areas. It presumes that one’s strengths can also be deficiencies, but prefers to focus on magnifying our talents, rather than dwelling on limitations.
So the big reveal: my top strengths are:
- Achiever (Executing) – this girl is no shrinking violet!
- Positivity (Relating) – yeah I’m one of those annoying ‘let’s make lemonade out of them lemons’ kinda gal
- Input (Strategizing) – I am a collector – of information, ideas, facts – fortunately this has not devolved into collecting dodgy figurines or stuff! There is no stamp, or spoon hoarding for me – I collect thoughts (and children, but that’s another story entirely!) – I research.
- Connectedness (Relating) – I see links between people, like puzzle pieces and dominoes.
- Communication (Influencing) – step aside Instagram influencers, copywriters and politicians, here I come.
Apparently because I have strengths across the clusters, I am well-rounded – and we’re not speaking about my hips for once. So I can do stuff; I’m good with people; I study and research well; and I can influence others (if only I could influence my offspring to have a deep, abiding love to replace the bin liner, I could rule the world!
The big question is: how am I going to utilise these superpowers during the quarantine which has been extended for another 24 days (see I used my research drive to check the actual number!). It’s hard when the goalposts are moved, but there are things we can do to cope.
A colleague sent me a list of how folk with my skills respond to this lockdown and it’s scarily accurate for me. I don’t know the source so apologies to the original author. The comment are mine:
Things people like me say:
- Achiever – “There goes my to-do list, at least working from home can be more productive.”
I’m always trying to ringfence admin time to get through things so to be honest I was pleased to have the time to get to my To Do List. My problem is that a whole of other minor things were added – like risking my life along the venomous aisles of supermarkets, sidestepping mask-clad aliens who despite covering their faces, have NO idea of social distancing, wondering where the nasty Corona critters are lurking: if I die, just remember it was a tall, elderly man called Mike with thinning grey hair, who kept creeping too close behind me in the trolley queue, despite my actually jumping like a pre-schooler onto the large circles on the floor to draw his attention to the demarcation of safe distancing. (More aerobic exercise than I have had since my last disastrous dance class with Caitlin.) I can’t add anymore distinguishing features because he was wearing a mask – I did consider coughing loudly over my shoulder to frighten him, but I am much too polite.
Then there are the chores that have found their way onto the list (and I am not speaking of daily chores like sweeping or laundry) – I had to wash my windows before I made a video for my staff; every time I walk down the stairs I remind myself that I must remove all the dusty lamp fittings and wash them; I’m scrubbing light switches with the fervour of a nun; Jikking the shower and rehanging curtains that have bothered me for years because some idiot didn’t use the correct hooks, not to mention having tidied every shelf in my cupboard. Mind you, some sanity has prevailed because I have not yet been sucked into the vortex of the maestro’s cupboard, but… 24 more days…
So the To Do List is still there, stood up like a Tinder date…
- Positivity – “It will all turn out for the best! This is an opportunity for some great new things!”
The closet Pollyanna in me is secretly enjoying the freedom of the lockdown and finding many bright sides to the gloom of being trapped with 4 other family members. If anything kept me going through all the years of single-parenting five children all two years apart, it was an ability to be cheerful and have fun.
As a leader, it is vital that I now encourage and support my staff and parents and I must say, my school, Curro Century City, is producing enormously creative teaching and learning at this time, by educators who have overnight transformed the manner in which they deliver the curriculum; our estate manager is teaching his community via video to make masks and one of our admin staff is hosting Watch Parties to inspire us with her haunting soprano voice, accompanied by her husband on the trumpet. Curro schools have stepped up to assist in the production of face masks for medical personnel, using our 3-D printers. The learners are having fun and learning to work steadily at their own pace. I had to chuckle at Grade 8s who, when given some teacher-mic-off time to socialise (a sort of digital break time), refused to turn on their cameras because of bed-hair…but there is so much to be positive about.
This crisis has forever changed the way we shall teach in the future and I am so proud of my team. We have taken the threat and turned it into an opportunity.
In our home, Shannon is writing a novel, publishing it serially like Charles Dickens, on an app called Wattpad (I’ll hide my grammarian cringe for now at that spelling). It’s called All the Colours of Light if you’re running out of reading material. And now I have learned something new about publishing – and it’s free.
- Input – “What else can I read and research on this, so I can share it with others?”
I must confess to doing some searching online about this virus that has brought the modern world to a standstill. It’s quite beautiful really, this little microscopic fellow earthling: the models make it look like a soft, fuzzy felt pincushion, or one of those kitsch, crocheted toilet roll holders found in tannies’ loos. It’s hard to believe that this odd-looking structure has laid waste to centuries old civilizations in Europe and threatens us all. Move over asteroids and volcanoes; Armageddon is in the microscopic detail. Those Spike Glycoproteins promote entry into cells and love the environment of our lungs. Like millions of medieval horsemen with their spiked flails, the virus army soldiers into war with our antibodies. And it is clear that it is winning in many cases. Poor tuberculoid lungs weakened from battle with the advance army of the TB virus, or the body desperately using the rear guard of antiretrovirals to stay off the onslaught of the HIV virus, quickly succumb.
These things may look like your grandmother’s doilies, but they are lethal. So. Stay. The. Hell. At. Home!
- Connectedness – “This all makes sense, we are all connected.”
Standing in a queue at the supermarket, glaring at mask-clad strangers who dare to step forward closer than their allotted line on the floor, it is possible to see there is a crisis in the world; having the imagination to truly appreciate how a microbe from his hand, which has scratched his rheumy eye can fly to my shopping basket can move from the handle to the food item to the cashier’s hand, to her mouth, to her lover’s hand, to his mouth, down his oesophagus and into his TB compromised lungs, takes some imagination. And we just don’t know, do we – whether is me or you who passes that virus on?
To be honest the not-hugging thing is hard. I saw my son at the shop yesterday. Couldn’t hug him. Wanted to – really badly, and will again fiercely, but it could be me who visits this on him and his flatmate. It was the most frustrating thing for a mother – but far preferable to not being able to visit him in a hospital ICU.
The knock-on effect is also so evident in the economies around the world: as containers lie fully laden outside closed ports, importers cannot access their products to sell, to pay employees who cannot sell it and so now have no income to feed their children, or pay their school fees… I am so grateful for the altruism of the parents at my school that those who can are paying their school fees so that the school can continue to educate their children and those whose parents are suddenly impoverished and so we shall still have a school to return to when this is all over.
In pipes Positive Me: “It will be over. We shall emerge victorious from this. We have a warrior leader to look up to – ‘cometh the hour; cometh the man:’”
President Cyril Ramaphosa is our superperson! Captain South Africa!
Keep the emotional connectedness with people – check in regularly.
- Communication – “Who else can I talk to about this?”
Well this is me generally. Not for no reason did almost all of my school reports say, ‘Colleen talks too much in class.’ Clever me, I picked a profession which allows me to speak a lot.
But in this time, I am making sure I call my sister (connectedness) and talk things through. I have to say that I always thought I was her person, but am seeing now when I cannot see her, how much she is my person too. Fortunately, I am surrounded by children I can make listen to me too and occasionally my husband comes to snuggle close. I have always been one of those people who needs a sounding board and someone to discuss things with. How fortunate to live with a fellow educator with whom I can unpack some of the challenges our educational system is facing now, someone who gets it. Our dinner table often hosts heated debates and we laugh our way through most things
The Mad Lab makes a good listener too, although her theories on how to do strategic planning accurately in a time of great flux are a trifle elementary.
As leaders, it is vital that we communicate clearly with staff and learners.
Even though we do not all have electron microscopes to magnify this cursed virus so we know it’s real and an obvious threat, we do have the ability to magnify our strengths – then we shall feel we are winning in lockdown… well the competitor in me who wants to win would feel that (but that’s a story for another day…)
“Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.“
5 Strategies for hiring the right employees
People make an institution. No matter what your institution is, in the modern world, it’s a no-brainer that you need to hire the right people. In my experience the key to all of this is the shortlist.
Here are 5 tips to help you obtain the right staff members for your organisation:
- Find people smarter than you
- Search for service-orientated staff
- Beat your bias
- Look within your organisation
- Take a chance on someone
1. FIND people smarter than you
Well qualified people lend gravitas to an institution and those who question and challenge the status quo are an asset to growth if properly managed. (I’m not talking about toxic nay-sayers and negative obstructionists. They are poison and should leave.) But innovators will often see what can work better and these creatives should have a place in your team. (Note I equated ‘smart’ with creative.
I have witnessed bosses systematically clear their staff of people who are better educated, and those who challenge them. This is a sign of an insecure leader. Don’t be one.
More than anything, look for what your team lacks and in senior staff be sure to know your own gaps and bring on board experts to drive those areas.
And when they have been employed, they will make YOU look good too.
2. SEarch for service-orientated staff
Look for extra-milers. How do you tell this from a CV though?
Look at their after-hours involvement and then build into every interview what call the ‘heart question.’
For example, look for the ones who link their sport to charity works. Search for applicants who are busy and seem to lead full lives – they will make the time. Shortlist those who identify people skills or the poorly named ‘soft’ skills as their strengths.
But don’t take their word for this self-sacrificing way of life. In the interview ask searching questions about their understanding of generosity of spirit or how they manage relationships at work and how these apply in the workplace (plus how they have implemented such a philosophy). Ask them how they have fun at work. And then check these when you do a reference check!
Then when you have employed them, (and this is key) look after these gems because they may well burn out if not protected from themselves. However they will build the character of your school or company. Richard Branson was right when he spoke about staff wellness and customer satisfaction.
3. Beat your bias/es
Now before you deny that you have such skewed judgement, take any online test and you will see that we all have blind spots. Accept this imperfection in yourself as fact and then make sure that your innate prejudices do not make you overlook quality staff.
I knew a head of a school once who asked his PA to tippex out any reference to gender on applications because he knew that as a product of a boys-only environment, he tended to favour male applicants. (Mind you, good luck to any school principal who can find good men who apply for a teaching post these days – in South Africa, male educators are a rare bird indeed – pardon the sexist pun). But I digress: Whatever you need to do to avoid bias, try very hard to deliberately shortlist someone in that category – they may surprise you. Inevitably when I have done that, that person has proved to be the best candidate.
4. LOOK WITHIN YOUR ORGANISATION
Always interview someone from your institution who applies for a job. (Yes, even if they are not suitable.) If they are entirely unqualified for the position, call them in and explain what they need to do to be considered for an interview.
Every interview provides growth opportunities for your employees and a chance for you to give meaningful guidance and direction. Also, it forces you to re-look at people’s CV’s and to see them with fresh eyes. It is absolutely vital however to give them good feedback afterwards so they know how to improve if they did not get the job.
Transformation starts from within. It is incredibly gratifying to promote or develop staff from the ranks and then watch those people flourish. Remember to support them and train them as they move up, and back them against doubts from colleagues.
The other benefit from this approach is that you end up with loyal staff who know that you have their best interests at heart.. And you are making a difference.
5. TAKE A CHANCE ON SOMEONE
Shortlist an outlier.
I will always be grateful for the heads who interviewed me despite my erratic early professional work record. I look horrible on paper because my ex-husband worked for a large company that transferred us all over the country at short notice. However I have learnt to turn that into a strength in the sense that I have worked in so many different types of schools and systems so that I have a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t work. And I am more flexible as a consequence too. Furthermore the reason for my multiple moves is no more because I am no longer married to that person.
We interviewed someone once who was given a terrible reference from her ex-boss, but we had inside knowledge about him, as well as a gut feel for her. So we sought out another reference. The teacher turned out to be an excellent choice.
In another case, the choice was between two candidates: one with years of experience in the company and expert knowledge and one man with less experience but loads of energy. He has proved to be a major asset to the school.
In the end, all hiring is a risk, so consider these wise words:
“Hire character. Train skill.”
Peter Schutz, former President and CEO of Porsche
My husband is a clever man. I mean really clever. He has a Master’s degree in Musicology and half a PhD. But for fun he has been known to sit in his Man Cave, playing GTA and cackling to the Red Neck humour of The Cable Guy, having the cheek to tell me he looks like my game ranger cousin. Of course he also loves more edifying humour like QI and laughs at The Trump and Clinton Comedy Show, despite the chilling consequences of the election of either to the presidency of the USA. He relishes the debates of Mehdi Hasan and delights in provoking conservatives. Bigots who don’t enjoy his stirring the pot call him a troll.
Andrew’s Music pupils adore him because he is cool. In fact he has a ‘Cool/Uncool’ Wall in his office. He is on Snapchat and rocks it. He is in with the gamers in the house and up to date on urban slang.
But he has a thing about his age, which is really funny, because besides …um… having an ‘extended crown’… he doesn’t look old. But he keeps on pretending to be younger than he is. And people believe it. If you present the evidence of his passport or ID document, he will tell you there were administrative errors when they were issued. If you plead with his mother to indicate when he was born, she confirms his actual age, but he blandly says you can’t ask her because she has Alzheimer’s (which is true, God bless her). So that is his secret: denial; denial; denial.
In a world where women complain that men don’t have issues about ballooning beer boeps, grey hair or sagging ‘stuff,’ it’s quite refreshing to see that actually they do care/ have insecurities/ feelings/ issues.
As a woman, for example, I have never had to worry that I might go bald (well – until I realised I might – if I keep pulling out the silver strands from my fringe); we can skip over the articles on prostate cancer and console ourselves that in general we outlive our spouses. (Hence my devilishly clever move to cougardom (only just though, hey.) We don’t need knee surgery from our days on the rugby field or feel the need to pretend we’re not aging and make a down payment on a fancy car and keep pulling in our stomachs when the new secretary sashays in (hell, we have girdles and full body stockings to slow down our undulating Sunday lunch excesses. And even Kim wears one – I read it on the internet so it must be true.)
In fact, if anything, women are opting for less hair – some even go all the way to Brazil to ensure that they are smooth (not me of course, but I do know someone who does); our surgeries include popping out the uterus and goodbye monthly worries. And we: Just. Do. Not. Care. We can laugh until our mascara runs; we no longer worry about embarrassing ourselves and in fact have perfected the art of mortifying image-conscious teenagers. We laugh loudly and heartily in restaurants without worrying that our double chins are showing. We have learnt to stand up for ourselves and not buy into society’s nonsense.
Sure I wear make-up to fill in the odd crinkle or cover the sunspots. It is depressing that I’m not thin after starving myself of chocolate for three days, but I am really not too phased.
However we have survived tight skinny jeans before there was stretch denim (and still managed to go on and have babies!); we were raised on Queen and Journey (with Freddie and Steve Perry); we had to actually break up in person, not on Whatsapp or Skype. We grieved with Demi in Ghost and watched American shows dubbed into Afrikaans. We have earned the accolades of the youth.
Besides which, I have an ageless man and we all know what they say about how old you are…
He is not the only clever one.
So I have graduated to being managed by a personal assistant. Her name is Gizelle and, like the ballet character after whom she is named, she glides through my life, effortlessly and gracefully fielding calls, managing staff appointments; gently correcting my mistakes (and they are many); protecting me from cute Grade 4 groupies whom I simply don’t have the heart to turn away, but who were becoming accustomed to spending every break with me, not to mention running the administrative nightmare that goes with managing a large school. And she makes me tea, leaving it steaming on my desk like the lingering whisper of an elfin gift.
Ariel Dorfman refers to the life of a secretary as ‘responsibility without power, the fate of the secretary throughout the ages.’ Now far be it from me to question Dorfman’s experience of personal aides, but Gizelle’s petite, ballerina-like personage may look fragile, but she is a tower of strength and surprising talents, despite her youth. No one argues with her – especially not me.
Wikipedia has this cute explanation of what a personal assistant does: ‘The personal assistant is required to do any task that the manager requires whether personal or professional.’ Seriously? Truth be told I feel guilty every time Gizelle brings me tea, because that is personal and I believe that her duties should be professional only. I wonder how many managers cross the line by exploiting their assistants to do more ‘personal’ work than ‘professional’ work. The Marius Fransman situation is a case in point of how patriarchal managers view those who work for them, especially when they are young, naïve and vulnerable women.
The expression ‘my PA’ has a certain feudal ring to it and carries overtones of possession which are worrying. I certainly hope no James Bond wannabees on our staff have tried to flirt with the Meridian Miss Moneypenny. (I don’t think they’d dare.) But on a feminist aside, just google ‘secretary – images’ and see how many pictures of male secretaries with woman bosses come up…yeah…none. The job is almost exclusively considered ‘women’s work’ especially when the boss is a man. And I think as a result is often considered to be a servile position.
Now I would be hypocritical to say that Gizelle does not field calls from Caitlin (‘Please buy electricity’ – now there is a scary assistant!) or remind me to respond to my sister’s message (an even scarier personage to ignore), but I wouldn’t dream of requiring her to fetch my dry-cleaning (if I had any) or buy my husband flowers/ whisky/ cigars. The school does not pay her to serve me, but to support me.
And thank goodness it does. Her prowess on the computer is lightning fast. She can take complex, scattered data and make graphed sense out of it and her attention to detail has saved me several times already this year from embarrassment and error. She works long hours and frequently takes work home. I am filled with mild panic at the very thought of her being absent. She has seen me at my weakest, but I live in fear of her seeing the mess in my stationery drawer.
Now here is the thing: she does all of this uncomplainingly (well she did once moan at me for signing a document in the wrong place), while running a family of two young children plus three older step-children and a husband who works shifts. Why am I mentioning this? Well because she may be employed as a ‘personal’ assistant, but it is important for me to remember that she has a personal life. She has hopes and dreams and ambitions.
Once a year, we celebrate our secretarial and administrative staff with a hallmark moment, but truth be told, it is impossible to truly give pen to the contribution of such an éminence grise. All I can say is that I am immensely grateful for the person that is Mrs Gizelle Marais, a woman of courage and one to be respected.
Someone sent me a picture of a group of bedraggled looking rooikoppies today, asking whether they were mine and I had a chuckle and suggested mine were infinitely the worse for wear. But that’s not true. In fact I have three of the most attractive flame-haired young people around (four if you count Michael’s startlingly rusty beard.) In fact when they were younger my step-children called us the ‘Orangies.’
Andrew says I can no longer lay claim to being a strawberry tart however because I have faded with age. He is probably right because I have noticed an unpleasant tendency among folks apologising to me just before launching into blonde jokes. He recently suggested I dye my hair the colour I think it still is, so sadly my days of auburn glory are nearly over.
But why is it that redheads are either depicted as bog-Irish orphans or harpies? And why do you never see two redheads falling in love on the big screen? It’s prejudice I tell you.
There are so many myths about coppertops, the worst of which is the one about redheads having horrible tempers. Seriously? Well you spend your life being made fun of because you look different and see how that improves your mood?! You can be sure that every redhead has been called ‘Ranga’, ‘Duracell,’ ‘Ginger’ ‘Orphan Annie’, ‘Carrots’ or ‘Flame’ more than once and none of those were meant kindly. Speaking for myself, I know that the old flight or fight choice happens with this sort of bullying and you either slink away bruised or … you fight. And I know how I survived… Very soon the jeers were about my ‘smart mouth’ or ‘cheek’ and more than one neighbourhood boy had the hurled insults returned with sods of red clay. Sometimes that didn’t work and I ended up in a scrap or two, earning the nickname by the doctor’s daughter of ‘die bloedige meisie’ and she wasn’t referencing my hair.
You’d think that wannabe mean kids would be more creative, but it is hard to compare the magnificence of gleaming titian locks to anything besides perhaps a glorious sunset. Glowing coals come close too because few redheads are monochromatic, but whatever makes the jeerer feel she must pick on the ‘different’ kid stops her from choosing majestic imagery. And the redhead feels the pain of being the butt of mockery so she either develops a thick skin or is painfully shy.
In high school I was desperate to be one of the crowd and would have given anything to be mousey brown or blonde (God is laughing somewhere now). Being bookish didn’t help either and I spent 20 years trying to stop smoking which in adolescence I figured would help me be less of a wallflower. Of course I was never the shrinking violet wallflower so my unpopularity with boys probably had more to do with my acerbic tongue than my hair colour.
We are all so over being told we are witches though, or that we have no souls or that we are genetic freaks – we know – we are freaking awesome! (See what I mean by not being a shrinking violet?) There are times that I rather like revealing bits of my inner witch too – cue evil laughter.
I grew up also being told that I had to be careful of what colour I wore so as not to appear tarty. So while my older sister with her luxuriant brunette locks was decked out in reds and vibrant colours, I was given the washed out pastels, or ‘lovely warm, Autumn colours’ (browns and beiges) unless of course they were hand-me-downs, in which case it seems poverty deemed it acceptable for me to risk propriety and splash out. Now of course I gleefully step out in every colour I please, especially purples, reds and outlandish cerise outfits. Of course these may look better now that I am not a flaming ‘Oros Head,’ but who is checking.
It was only in my twenties that I grew to enjoy my burnished mane (even though it was the eighties and I permed the hell out of it.) My mother bemoaned the fact that I would bleach the colour out of it with ‘all those chemicals,’ yet I secretly hoped I would, because the fear of being the oddly coloured freckly one persisted.
It took forty years to meet a man who likes my Celtic looks, but before then I had already seen in my eldest son and two daughters how interesting it is to have such divergent looks. They have also alternatively developed sassy rejoinders and strong personalites. Sadly I could not prevent the ‘ranga’ jokes from hurting, but each has owned the power of red, even Sean, who is rapidly losing what strawberry he has left (Sorry, Lad, you inherited your maternal grandfather’s hairline.)
Now the boys have these manly lumberjack red beards and we can only wait to see what happens to the fuzz on Liam’s face.
In the meantime, let’s just pause and ponder the fact that some really cool characters in books and movies are redheads and I’m not speaking about the Weasleys or Nancy Drew:
I found myself watching late night music videos at a local hospital last week when my poor sister was admitted to the trauma unit at two am with an adverse reaction to her meds (She’s fine now.) The sound was turned off so as not to disturb the security guard’s nap, obliging us to watch what was effectively muted musical porn.
The first video which caught my eye was of a long-limbed, leotard-clad lovely who was essentially making love to air in the packing cases in which she was filming. She was all bottom and boobs, while simulating the seduction of a chair, the street and the bank of lockers the film cut to. I have no idea who she was or what she was singing (our dozing nocturnal protector had the remote), but my feminist radar was alerted even at that hour. ‘Why do women do that, when they have talent which should sell itself?’ I wondered – and still do. I cannot fathom how we sisters allow the industry to dictate that that is how women should be depicted.
At the risk of sounding like the Mother Grundies who swooned with horror at rock ‘n roll, and knowing that dancing is as ‘they’ say a vertical expression of a horizontal intention, I’m not quite sure that even The Kama Sutra could have defined the plane of that young woman’s gyrations, even as I turned my head to one side while I watched, fascinated. I wouldn’t mind so much if the lack of attire applied to men also.
But men don’t do that in their videos. The next one I watched (with that thought in mind) was Shaggy, Mohambi, Faydee and Costi’s ‘I need your love’ (this one had subtitles) and while these vapid wannabe gangstas cavorted around on a beach and yacht in Spain, they were fully clothed, even though their shirts were suitably open to the waist and billowing in the breeze in an attempt to look romantic (a style spoilt by the sungees and bling – and the ungainly, wide-fingered gang signs.) The women draping themselves all over them were not.
‘Surely,’ my early-morning-outraged-self pondered, ‘it is not always like that in the industry. Perhaps I am being unfair. I should do some research before I criticise.’ So I sat down the other night and watched the official singles charts on http://www.officialcharts.com which is the first thing I came to when I googled ‘top ten music videos.’
Here’s what I found:
Eight of the artists were men (which says something in itself) and in all their songs they are largely clothed. The two female artists and the women in the men’s videos are all dressed as something out of S and M Weekly . The male extras, by contrast, even those in Rita Ora’s ménage à trois story ‘Poison’ wear outfits covering them (albeit slick leather). She, in the scenario of the fashionista lifestyle, prances around in the obligatory leather, but her boots would make any dominatrix green with envy and the slutty black dress, black bra and fur with the heavy make-up hardly create a demure impression.
The only other female singer featured was the Danish singer, MØ, who gyrates her way through temples and petal-strewn pools in a weird cross between bare-midriffed eastern garb and gym shorts, while Major Lazer and DJ Snake affect happy hippy personas. Again, the women were sexy undulaters, while the men covered themselves.
So if the women are depicted as candidates for Funky Babe of the Bike Club Monthly centrefold, what image are the men projecting?
At number one we have Lost Frequencies crashing his lunar module in full astronaut get-up (Where do they get these stories?!) and the rest are either urban nerd (Walk the Moon with ‘Shut up and Dance’), all white (Flo Rida, featuring Thicke and White) casual beachgoer with shorts, hat and trumpet (OMI with ‘Cheerleader’), nightclub star in tux with moon dance moves (Jason Derulo in ‘Want to want me’) and the rest are gangstas from the hood.
I found it rather telling that the songs which truly sickened me (‘Freak of the Week’ by Krept, Konan (There’s a dead giveaway!) and Jeremih (Why can’t they spell?) and ‘Trap Queen’ by Fetty Wap (Whaaaat?)) feature pre-homo habilises gesturing rudely at us, adorned in the standard hoodie, bling and dark glasses of the gangsta-hedonist. Neanderthal Man would have been appalled by the misogyny and, in Krept and Co’s case, sexist racism depicted in these films. Where are all the folk ‘reporting’ these videos to YouTube for containing unacceptable content and messages. I felt physically ill hearing these two songs inviting a leotarded Asian beauty to be the ‘freak of the week’ and ‘[his]bitch.’ Fetty Wap brags about his chick cooking in the kitchen when she isn’t sitting on her ‘pretty little ass smoking dope.’
What is most troubling is that women have sold out to these images of our gender by allowing themselves to be filmed like this. Why are we not refusing to do this? Perhaps the same motivation that drives sixteen year olds to ask for plastic boobs for their birthdays or pose slithering on sea sand even in selfies and encourages parents to call their little girls ‘sexy’ makes talented female actresses, dancers and singers prostitute their image to debauchery. Is that the only way to get ahead, do they think? We were not upset for long enough that Miley Cyrus sold out to sleaze, I believe. It’s not sexy; it’s not liberated; it’s chaining all women to our unevolved brothers’ fantasies. It’s not okay.
There is much to be done, parents and teachers. I, for one, plan to challenge this ugliness.
With my clothes on. And Susie, the security guard, can keep the remote.
Ok so I am nearing 51 now, but who’s counting. My sister is muuuch older: she’s nearly 53.
But here’s the thing – everyone thinks I’m the older one because I have children. And I cannot pretend anymore that it is because I am the serene, mature one, while she is the wild and irresponsible, single one. Nor can I honestly say I look older than I am because I have kids, no matter the temptation to blame them for this ailing body. Sometimes it helps, mind you, to have had a herd of younguns. There are nine years between Sean and Liam, but the mothers of Liam’s friends assume I am their age, a good ten years younger than I am.
I have had about ten months to consider how I feel about having reached this ‘middle-aged’ milestone (Of course I’m old enough to know what an actual milestone is). Ten months is the usual human gestation period. (Don’t believe the ‘nine months’ myth they tell you) so my fully grown thought is… I am rather bemused by it all.
Not that ambivalence about growing old stops the aging process. And it is inexorable. And undignified. There are weird things that happen to one’s body which tales of the ‘sagging’ shape of one’s fifties do not adequately prepare you for: Like that moment when you look in the mirror at your naked form (not recommended unless you are a fifty-something like Iman or Sharon Stone) and quite pleased with yourself that you have that ‘thigh gap’ thing going that all the magazines speak about, you wonder what it is you can see at the top of your legs. You’re not wearing your glasses naturally because any mirror-gazing after fifty should be done without 20-20 vision. Then it dawns on you – that’s your butt hanging down. The lesson: avoid all reflective surfaces. No, gentle reader, gym is not an option: Far too many looking glasses there.
Then there is your friend to whom you confide that you have decided that short skirts are for younger women, because you can no longer hide the varicose veins (yes, dear offspring, the scars of 50 months of pregnancy). And she speaks about her salami-skinned calves – and you know what she means!
It’s not just the legs though. I remember grabbing my mother’s hand once, upon glimpsing a liver spot on her beautiful pale hand: ‘No, you’ve got old!’ I wailed. Gee that must have made her feel good! I cannot believe I did that. But Karma is a sly bitch and she has come a-visiting to my anatomy now. It doesn’t help that one develops what another pal calls ‘old lady skin,’ that thin, papery and fragile epidermis, which bleeds at the slightest bump. And the grazes look like more liver spots.
And then there are the wrinkles. I always said that I wouldn’t mind such lines (as long as they were laughter lines), not realising that it is really difficult to put on lipstick around your mouth when you must navigate the crevices, not filled by putty-like foundation. But I draw the line (get it?) at wrinkles on my toes. Seriously?! I did not anticipate that.
Coping with the question of whether to colour or embrace the grey is not one I considered in my feckless youth. I assumed that as a redhead, I would simply fade delicately with the advancing years. And fade I have – so much that folk have begun to apologise to me about telling blonde jokes. To make it worse, I have noticed lately that there are far too many grey hairs in my fringe to pull out, lest I go bald. I’m simply ignoring them and pretending they are blonde.
There are other signs of aging that are not about the old fuselage needing panel beating though. I have noticed that a question I am asking at job interviews is whether there is a mandatory retirement age. Such questions never entered my head before. And job-hunting at fifty is no mean feat either. I was born in 1964. That is Baby Boomer territory. I remember the first moon landing for heaven’s sake! Since young teachers entering the profession were born after I graduated I can imagine what some HR suit may think about a dinosaur like me. My solution: I stuck a soft focus photograph on my CV which was just grainy enough to hide the age, but not quite a poorly focussed shot.
And yet I do not want to be younger, because that would negate who I have become and the victories I have won in recent years. I like my life and if that means I have to ask my daughters to do the ‘mutton or lamb’ colosseum gesture from time to time, that’s okay. There is a liberation which comes with knowing and liking yourself as you are, and a sense of adventure in realising that as the children grow up and bring home love interests, the heart of the home is expanding and there are so many more years of family ahead. They do not even notice what I look like… unless I bought something new and snuck it inside without telling them, or nicked it from their cupboards, which sadly I can’t do anymore (the mutton-lamb thing again).
So I’m good. And I try very hard not to remember that Shirley Valentine was 42. But I don’t want a Greek lover. I’m clever – I married a younger man. And I am not fifty-one yet. I am only 50 and 5/6ths.
I can’t afford therapy, but thanks to my Friday morning coffee meetings I am relatively normal…okay so there are no obvious ticks or twitches or visible signs of serious disorders. Coffee with the gals has become the mainstay of my sanity over the last few months: something to look forward to; friends to laugh with; sounding boards for decisions; encouraging audiences as we glow over our children’s triumphs; fellow sufferers to commiserate over those ‘stages’ our offspring pass through and of course tissue providers when we cry some too.
We meet at a coffee shop run by a local church after dropping our teenagers at school, so, in my case at least, there is one day a week on which I don’t do the school run in my slippers. And since we are sans spawn, there is a degree of schadenfreude which prefaces the event from the get-go.
We are served by the genteel Oliver and ebullient Karla who simply bring our cappuccinos (large) straight to our table. It feels like those New York movies where we are known by name – not many regulars can brag about being on Facebook with their waitrons.
Only fellow maters of moody minors can appreciate the liberation our laughter brings, as we remind ourselves it’s NOT us. We are in fact the sane and rational madonnas we knew we were. Of course our children probably assume we spend all our time skindering about them (and we let them), but in fact we have rather eclectic conversations. Several of them.
It’s self-therapy through storytelling as we share confessions, decisions and fears. And we brag about our children (don’t tell them). Sometimes sick or bored progeny join us for breakfast and then feel duty bound to roll their eyes and smile patronisingly at the silliness of their elders. That’s okay because then we can tick off items on a parent’s daily duty list like a) embarrassed children and perhaps even b) grossed out said brood if we are truly on form.
There was one memorable morning that Michelle brought along her dad, who was visiting from up north. The poor man was treated to several sudden bouts of weeping as well as a little maniacal guffawing. He has never been back. Her mother on the other hand plunged right in. It’s clearly a chick thing.
I shall be teaching for six months again next semester and the horror is that I don’t get Fridays off. I may go into decline and require intensive treatment each holiday.
Never doubt the power of caffeine laced with friendship and prayer. We come away lighter, a little more confident, knowing we matter and are much loved. What a gift!