Dissing ‘Like’

I studied many years ago with a teacher who taught parsing by using a common swear word in various functions in the sentence. While I do not agree with his ‘language of instruction’ he certainly highlighted that certain words have the versatility of a Kama Sutra devotee. One such word that has erroneously taken on such flexibility is the ubiquitous ‘like.’ It is the default word in the lexicon of most teens and, I am afraid to report, the contagion is spreading to the aging p’s too.

This infectious little homonym has infiltrated our every sentence. It has become the modifier de mode, but really it is just a nuisance word that is freckling the face of our grammar. It must be exterminated.

‘He like smiled at her.’

What does that mean? In the angst-filled years of adolescence, who needs this kind of ambiguity?! Did the lad grin, grimace or did she glimpse the leer of a player?

‘My teacher/mother/ annoying person in authority was like so cross.’

This sentence functions as either an understatement for the named adult’s ire or a hyperbole to indicate the victimisation of the innocent kid. The adult could have been actually and completely furious, and this report serves as a shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude to the wannabe tyrannical adult. Or the targeted senior is being demonised for merely correcting said delinquent. It’s a one-size-fits-all sentence – you have to admire the youngsters’ ability to over-dramatize each encounter and play the victim at the same time.

If you do not speak Teenage like a boss  you may also need to know that ‘like’ can also mean ‘said’ in certain contexts:

‘Samantha: So when I saw him, I’m like: ‘Hey, George?’

That means she is speaking to him.

And whatever happened to using the word as a verb? ‘I like chocolate.’ has such a happy ring to it. Nowadays ‘Samantha likes George.’ doesn’t even mean that she admires him or finds him to be good company. It suggests she fancies her chances in a relationship with him – as if he’s some sort of ice-cream. (Rocky Road I’m guessing if she communicates in this manner.)

But the hormonal fluctuations of teenage crushes aside, what really annoys me is the sad loss of the use of the preposition to introduce quality similes. Our tongue is losing its richness of expression and the essays one marks are either peppered with terminally boring clichés or none at all. I suspect that some young writers may believe if they have used ‘like’ somewhere in the sentence, they have scaled the stylistic height of supposedly using figurative language.

And let me not get started on the Facebook ‘like.’  No amount of ‘liking’ photos of maimed children will end the scourge of child soldiers, debilitating diseases or famine. If the Joseph Kony controversy taught us anything, we should have learnt that the world will not be healed by pressing the ‘enter’ key. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy  pressing ‘like’ on my friend’s new photos or humorous posts, but I still prefer a heartfelt message to this:

Let’s face it, there is a word for that picture: ‘love.’

Such icons are further reducing our power to articulate our thoughts and emotions and are returning us to an age of hieroglyphics as opposed to philosophical debate.

And then there is the ‘unlike’ button. For goodness sake, what happened to using ‘dislike.’ It is enough to induce a coronary in a grammarian.

Perhaps my foul-mouthed colleague had it right all along. I am so like over this word.

But don’t forget to ‘like’ this article.

Just how ‘dof’ are we doughnut eaters?

Spell rite, spell lite,

The first noose I see 2nyt;

I wish I may, I wish I mite,

Hang myself from there tonite.

 (with apologies to Alfred Bester)

My sister, bless her heart, often appears Greek-like at our door, bearing bags of doughnuts from Woolworths. On Sunday, though, I was horrified when one gluttonous child, on reaching for a second one, declared that Woolies can’t spell because ‘everyone knows you spell it ‘do-nut.’’ Shocked silence broken by an audible gasp of dismay (mainly me) ensued. My offspring’s ignorance was ameliorated briefly by the belief that the others seemed to at least know the shamed one was wrong. Well that’s the straw I was clinging to. Desperately. And then I saw the relief in the face of the offender’s older sister – that I had not asked her – and my heart sank.

But it had me thinking about the errors that abound in public signage and advertising. Many articles have been written about this scourge which is reaching its tentacles even into copy editors’ proofreading, yet how does one stanch the bleeding of our spelling standard before the good folk of the Oxford Dictionary are made redundant? Simple answer: one cannot. There is simply too much ignorance. Sms speak and twits on twitter have taken over the internet in a subtle coup, undermining the Queen’s English.

I was lucky: I was taught by nuns who drilled grammar rules and exercises into our not-always-eager minds; yet we can all spell and I can certainly hold my own in a debate on usage . My peers in state schools in the eighties were not so fortunate however: they were victims of the incidental approach to teaching language, which sounded progressive in theory, but resulted in an avoidance of the study of rules and usage, and wishful thinking that the intricacies of syntax would be understood via osmosis. So when we all became teachers of language, few of us could properly teach grammar. And didn’t. And now our students are teachers…

Which explains the puzzlement of the staff in Mr Price one day when I tried to explain to them that their cute slogan, ‘Everyday clothing for everyday.’ isn’t saying quite what they wanted it to say. (Okay so I am that kind of customer. My children have become immune to the embarrassment.) It’s a bit like the supposedly powerful words of Neil Armstrong as he stepped on the moon (if you believe he did) ‘One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.’ His big moment; his big line and he fluffed it.

I will not buy a Coke Lite or have my film processed at shops which take ‘photo’s.’ And no matter how sexy the Iranian carpets on sale at our local carpet shop may appear, I just cannot bring myself to visit their store ‘by’ the old Nedbank (the directions printed on their flyer). Mr Karrim has the excuse that he is not a native English speaker. Others do not have this out. I remember with amusement a lad who splashed out on a tattoo on a school tour to Thailand and came back with ‘Young, wild and bree’ etched on his arm. So one should be careful around second language speakers too, especially those with needles.

Facebook is full of poorly structured comments, but these are private individuals so they can be forgiven for mixing up their ‘theys’ ‘theirs’and ‘there’s’. Corporates and even small businesses have no such excuse for not checking their grammar and spelling. Especially when we grammar police-persons are so willing to be helpful.

I do not know what will become of the lexicon of this country, but at least I challenge  ignorance every day.

Someday hopes for some day?

‘The truth, the whole truth…’ – Integrity in Leadership




noun: integrity


the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.

“a gentleman of complete integrity”

synonyms: honestyuprightnessprobityrectitudehonour, honourableness,upstandingness, good character, principle(s), ethics, morals,righteousnessmoralitynobility, high-mindedness, right-mindedness, noble-mindedness, virtuedecency, fairness,scrupulousness, sinceritytruthfulness, trustworthiness

“I never doubted his integrity”

antonyms: dishonesty


the state of being whole and undivided.

“upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty”

synonyms: unityunification, wholeness, coherencecohesion, undividedness,togethernesssolidaritycoalition

“internal racial unrest threatened the integrity of the federation”

antonyms: division
  • the condition of being unified or sound in construction.

“the structural integrity of the novel”

synonyms: soundness, robustness, strength, sturdiness, solidity, solidness,durabilitystability, stoutness, toughness

“the structural integrity of the aircraft”

antonyms: fragility
  • internal consistency or lack of corruption in electronic data.”integrity checking”

I was educated by nuns: Cabra Dominicans for the most part, except for a two year hiatus with the Holy Family order. The Domincans’ motto is Veritas (truth) and this has informed much of my philosophy as a leader in education.

Truth and integrity are rare commodities these days despite an unconscious striving for just that in the world. This zeitgeist is evident in urban slang terms like ‘Keep it real,’ ‘on point,’ ‘in fact,’ ‘in vino veritas’ (which really goes back to Pliny’s Rome). ‘seriously?’ ‘genuine?’ and even, if you think about it, in what irritates English teachers because it is so poorly used – the ubiquitous ‘literally.’

But integrity in leadership is vital for the ethical health of an organisation and in fact affects its ultimate longevity. It is most often noticeable when it is absent.

My years in educational leadership have confirmed what the Dominican sisters taught me about integrity:

  1. Integrity is about substance. We must stand for something or else we shall, as the saying goes, fall for anything. Yeats said it best in his poem ‘The Second Coming.’ When [honesty is missing] ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.’ Honesty and honour form the substance and essence of an organisation and the actions of its leaders.

Institutions and bosses without immutable principles at their core, have nothing to anchor them when challenges arrive. It is not enough merely to have policies to cover all eventualities either. The policies must reflect the values of the organisation and those in authority should be knowledgeable about the laws, doctrines and missions which inform them.

I taught once in a faith-based school where the governors and head (and a couple of others in authority) had a rather shaky concept of the faith, very little idea of current educational and employment law or modern trends in education and no clue of the founding mission statement of the corporate to which the college belonged.

Consequently when challenges were made to the these fundamentals (by visiting speakers, visioning exercises and decisions about employment, finances, enrolment and even sportsfield ethics) there was  poor cognition of how to ensure that the school responded in truth and in accordance with the doctrines of its faith’s teaching.

Knowledge is power. It ensures integrity of the message of an organisation.

  1. Appearance versus Reality:  As a scholar of English literature I am more than aware of the importance of being rather than seeming. In an age of virtual reality the concept being ‘like truthful as the teenagers will say permeates business and educational institutions. I had a headmaster tell me once that ‘perception was everything.’ I had to disagree. Substance is everything.

If there is no integrity of action in keeping with the mission statement of an organisation, it will fail in the long run. Mark Twain once said that if you never tell a lie you never have to remember anything. If a school functions from a base of integrity it will survive momentary negative publicity, but woe to the establishment which seeks to gloss over critique and hide behind appearances and propaganda. These are temporal and falter when truth is revealed. And it always is eventually: ‘at the length truth will out.’ (Merchant of Venice: Act 2, Scene 2 line 645).

The ‘just trust us because we are in charge’ only works in the short-term. Beautiful surroundings may mask an empty core briefly, but there is no substitute for being what you say you are. Take away the truth and any operation is a mere shell. It is easy to say one is leading a child-centred school. Daily concern and contact is required to make that a reality. Trust is built gradually over years of genuine relationship building.

Effort is needed to ensure that one is authentic and not merely window dressing. Saying a school values humility and servant leadership don’t make it so if in practice it is hierarchical and elitist.  Believing and repeating unfounded gossip should be anathema if one’s organisation values truth. I was once told that it was okay for a manager to behave in a manner inconsistent with the school’s beliefs because we were ‘behind closed doors.’ No.

Anyone who has been raised to be honourable knows that real character is shown when no one is looking.

  1. Transparency:  Organisations which are not upfront about their dealings and espouse the ‘just trust us’ philosophy will not survive the test of time’s truth. The move mooted by the Gauteng Department of Education to force schools to make their financials public is an interesting one. I worked at a school a long time ago where even the headmaster’s salary was public knowledge. He was a greatly respected man.

Obviously I am not suggesting that everything confidential be revealed, but a re-think of traditional practices of secrecy may be a breath of fresh air for an organisation. Staff and parents (and learners) like to be consulted and informed.

Secrecy suggests there is something to hide.

  1. Avoid hypocrisy: If schools behave consistently and in accordance with their stated mission they will avoid becoming pharisaic.  I learnt a valuable lesson from my own late principal who dressed me down when, as a prefect, I corrected a girl for something I was also doing, despite my having permission to break the rule.

That moment of realization of needing to align what one says and does has stayed with me for over 30 years.  ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ just doesn’t cut it.  School children are quick to sense insincerity and their parents are not blind to the big picture forever.

Leaders must model desired behaviour if they want respect.  I tried to ensure that as a principal I never asked staff to do what I wasn’t prepared to do myself.

However, no one is perfect, and even leaders make mistakes. Owning up to them though is far more honourable than not being transparent and adopting a holier-than-thou approach.

Perhaps this is why Jessica Alb’s ‘Honest’ products are being so maligned currently. http://nypost.com/2015/06/17/the-toxic-lies-behind-jessica-albas-booming-baby-business/

Pointing out a competitor’s failings while falling foul of the same sin not only diminishes one’s integrity in the public’s eyes, but ultimately damages one’s own reputation.

Hypocrisy is far worse than error.

  1. Courage:  It takes courage to be honest, especially when one must speak an unpopular truth. People of principle are often pilloried for speaking out and critique is seen by the insecure as criticism. But one is reminded of the famous words of Rev Martin Niemoller in WW2 –

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”  

Cronyism ensures leaders never face the truth or have to answer to honest criticism. Surrounding oneself with yes-men will not save a leader when the tide turns. And too many sociopathic ‘honest’ Iagos haunt the halls of management offices ready to ‘serve their turn upon’ managers who restrict open discourse because autocracy breeds dishonesty in the rank and file when the messenger of bad news is shot. All too often the response to speaking out is blame and a shift of emphasis from the issue to the bearer of bad tidings. A good leader is open to hearing the truth voiced in kindness however.

“We need to stress that personal integrity is as important as executive skill in business dealings….Setting an example from the top has a ripple effect throughout a business school or a corporation. After nearly three decades in business, 10 years as chief executive of a Big Eight accounting firm, I have learned that the standards set at the top filter throughout a company….[Quoting Professor Thomas Dunfee of the Wharton School:] ‘ A company that fails to take steps to produce a climate conducive to positive work-related ethical attitudes may create a vacuum in which employees so predisposed may foster a frontier-style, everyone for themselves mentality.’ “

— Russell E. Palmer

But if you stand for something you should be prepared to withstand the storms which tend to beset an honest person. Courage is needed to hold true to principle. That is integrity.

So in a world where  ‘reality TV’ is contrived and police stations do not even ask one to swear an oath for an affidavit, it is a struggle to be authentic.  However, it is a battle worth fighting.

“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

— Warren Buffet
CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

The Samson Factor: Men and their Hair

“I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy
Snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty
Oily, greasy, fleecy
Shining, gleaming, streaming
Flaxen, waxen
Knotted, polka-dotted
Twisted, beaded, braided
Powdered, flowered, and confettied
Bangled, tangled, spangled, and spaghettied!”

by Galt Gerome Ragni, and James Rado from ‘Hair’

It is a truth, seldom acknowledged, that men are really fussy about their hair. They may project an air of nonchalance in either style or attitude, but when push comes to shove, do not mess with a lad’s locks.

One of my earliest feelings of failure as a parent (of the thousands I don’t remember, which my offspring do, naturally) is of taking my eldest son to a budget stylist for what was meant to be a ‘Caesar Cut’ (short all over except for a small-gelled up fringe, all the rage in the nineties). I use the term ‘stylist’ loosely because no sooner had I given her the trimming instruction, than the inattentive apprentice took a number one razor straight over the poor child’s head from forehead to neckline.

I watched with impotent pity as she completed her sheep shearing and the tears rolled silently down his eight year old face. Not even winning the lottery that very night would have rectified the butcher’s work.

He went on to have a complicated relationship with his curly, red mane, keeping it really short; growing a truly impressive ginger afro in his first year at university and even, one memorable summer, having it relaxed – only to discover that he probably shouldn’t have swum an a chlorinated pool with it. Today he has a deep red, hipster beard which would make a lumberjack proud and is the envy of his brothers. The strawberry mane is receding ever so slightly, much to his horror at having probably inherited his maternal (always your mother’s fault) grandfather’s male pattern baldness.

By contrast, his younger brother has opted for the New Romantics’ foppish and floppy look so popular at the moment. When the ‘stop the knot’ craze was circulating on social media, at least three people posted the clip (get it?) on his Facebook page (pun not intended). He too has had some salon nightmares, but they involved his mother (twice) marching back into the hairdresser with a mortified and mulish son in tow, demanding to see the ‘person who cut this boy’s hair’ and insisting that they sever the offending, inappropriate strands. Needless to say he now frequents a different barber. Michael’s hair is brown, yet he sports a ginger beard which assures me that I brought home the correct child from the hospital back in 1997. Each reluctant shaving of his face at the end of the school holidays is recorded stage by stage for Instagram and mourned with Prep Cream moistening and dirge-like whistling.

The youngest boy in the house has yet to develop facial fuzz, but has reached that heightened stage of hair-consciousness known as adolescence. He alternates between the jagged Sonic the Hedgehog look and a beanie-smarmed Superman (sonder kuifie) do. He too has perfected the boxer-like bob which avoids anyone ruffling his coiffeur, which is so typical in young men. His only brush (hey another pun!) with maternal ire over haircuts was when Michael (spot the pattern here) took him to the local Pakistani barbers who regularly cut his hair and allowed them to shave him a glorious Mohawk. Note to self: Never send Michael to accompany a sibling again.

My husband, on the other hand, has forsaken the elegant shaved pate he had previously resigned himself to (as his mother’s ancestral baldness reared its head in competition with the encroaching grey) in the vain hope that someone will play with his hair, so he is expectantly in the process of growing out his spikey tonsure.

I have noticed at school too that boys are most touchy about rules limiting their tresses and bristles. Wannabe hippies have been known to convince their parents to change schools for them to avoid Samson’s fate at the hands of discipline Delilahs. On one notable occasion I sent a youngster off to shave in the bathroom, having repeatedly warned him to do so at home a la the school code. He cut himself rather spectacularly, having only ever used scissors on the long walrus wisps up until then (unbeknownst to me – I must defend myself). His elderly parents stormed the building demanding I apologise for such ‘child abuse’ of their son, never mind that the hirsute little blighter had gained serious street cred for being the first Grade 8 to be made to shave.

We women in the house are boring by comparison (okay except for Shannon’s mercifully brief ombre phase) as all of us have long hair, sans much styling. But who am I to criticise: I have a history of questionable hairdos, from a perm and big eighties teasing to listless pageboys. So I shall remain mum and console them when Grandad Markey’s genes catch up on them all.

Picture from clipart.com

Terms of Deference

‘Sir Johnny Clegg’: has a nice ring to it. And well he deserves it.

But this great occasion (if you’re a royalist) had me thinking about terms of respect and how we greet each other. And the subtle messages we send when we do.

As an educator, I have been called many things (not to mention what was muttered behind my back) from ‘Ma’am’ – and ‘mam’ by some who could not spell – to ‘Miss,’ ‘Mrs,’ ‘Ms,’ ‘Mom…’ and even ‘Babe’ once. But that was by mistake – I hope.

Yet men are simply ‘Sir’ and ‘Mister.’ The implied rank of a ‘mrs’ is of higher order than a ‘miss,’ and a ‘ms’ is considered a pathetic attempt by a spinster (itself an interesting term when its connotations are compared to the celebrity status of ‘bachelor’) to hide the fact that she has no ‘mister, despite’ the fact that ‘ms’ was instituted to place men and women on equal footing. We are teaching our children to see married women as at best different from, and at worst better than their single sisters.

Another part of the hidden curriculum we communicate to our students is how we address our maintenance staff, or refer to black administrative employees. How is it that white children can get their tongues around long and complex Polish or Greek surnames, but the cleaner is Thandi and the receptionist is Precious?! Chances are ‘John’ who works in the school garden is in fact Siyabulela, besides being the proud member of the Magaqa family.

It’s so obvious when a caller phones in to a talk show and refers to a ‘black gentleman’ that he very often is making a distinction (and not a good one) between himself and the person in question. It makes me grind my teeth with irritation, as much as those jovial middle aged folk who cheerfully greet the petrol jockey or waiter as ‘chief’ or ‘Jim Fish’ – there is a subtle disrespect in it.

It’s the generic nature of such terms, like the apartheid ‘slave name’ or ‘white name,’ randomly assigned by over-zealous missionaries or lazy and arrogant civil servants to be emblazoned on many a dompas,  that shows contempt for the dignity and history of black South Africans. They take away the individuality of the person addressed and continue the dehumanising work of Verwoerd and his cronies long after Rhodes has fallen.

I love teaching this poem to youngsters because we get to embrace the issues of names and the way we address one another:

My Name

Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa

Look what they have done to my name……..

the wonderful name of my great-great-grandmother

Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa

The burly bureaucrat was surprised

What he heard was music to his ears

‘Wat is daai, se nou weer?’

‘I am from Chief Daluxo Velayigodle of emaMpodweni

And my name is Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa.’

Messia, help me !

My name is simple

And yet so meaningful

But to this man it is trash…..

He gives me a name

Convenient enough to answer his whim…..

I end up being



Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa


by Magoleng wa Selepe


So while we amuse ourselves by telling tales of which prominent celebrities supposedly refused to accept the honorifics of the queen’s birthday lists over the years (Alfred Hitchcock, David Bowie, Roald Dahl, Robert Graves and Phillip Larkin, to name a few http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-204471/Top-people-refused-honours-named.html) and whether Kevin Spacey deserves to be knighted (NO!), let us simply learn to pronounce folk’s names properly and resist the hidden agendas of sexism and racism.

C A Bentley, Esq.

In Praise of Primary School Teachers

A high school teacher in Grade 4

Five things I learned about ten year olds while substituting at a primary school:

Never mind An Englishman in New York. Sting (a fellow high school English teacher made good) had it easy. Try being a high school teacher in Grade 4 for a fish out of water experience. Those who teach fourth graders have my unadulterated respect. After spending one day substituting in a class of ten year olds, I not only bow in admiration of primary school educators, but confess to having discovered things about these little people during my educational experiment that not even raising five of my own children could have prepared me for:

They move. Constantly. They flit from desk to desk like young flies, never still for more than a second before spinning on to another location. Once settled, they continue to squirm and wriggle, a seething mass of delightful cherubs with endless, random questions.

I stood there in growing dismay as my earlier piece-of-cake-this-Grade-4-thing swagger faded and I worried how I could call them all to order. Unafraid of the stranger in their midst, they pelted me with questions of whether they could get a tissue, pick up an errant pencil, find a lost hat; enquiring about why I was named after a car and my personal favourite: ‘May I go to the bathroom?’ (although, if the truth be told, the latter profundity is frequently heard in high school classrooms too.) By the time they were vaguely settled, I was sweating.

First up was Mathematics. Easy, I thought: two worksheets on money: They would industriously dedicate themselves to numerical fun and I would benevolently supervise their diligence and burgeoning capitalism.

‘Is this for our busy books, or our Maths books?’ Siya* politely enquired.

Panic. There’s a difference? I pushed aside the errant thought of ‘Do I care?’ as mean-high-school-teacher sarcasm and answered with what I hoped was seasoned Grade 4 teacher aplomb.

After debating what the lumpy Rorschach blot in the supermarket trolley to be costed was, we settled on ‘a sack of potatoes’ although personally I would have gone with ‘head of dodgy man with big nose, wearing a hat’, but I suppose such a delicacy would be a trifle dark for a child’s shopping cart. And they went back to their calculations.

That was when I discovered the second interesting fact about my young charges:

They like to operate dangerous machinery.

The well-equipped classroom I had been assigned featured a guillotine for cutting paper. Why cut out your worksheet neatly using your scissors when you can risk losing a digit or two?! I held my breath for several minutes as they navigated the super-sharp equipment, imagining how I would explain myself to their parents at the emergency room of the Blouberg Hospital.

Then it was story time.  In my naïveté I had had a vision (delusion) of myself ensconced in a comfy chair with eager listeners held in thrall at my feet on the mat, as I wove a web of magic for them. But I’d forgotten about the worm factor.

The carpet seemed to encourage more wiggling, shifting and fidgeting and I couldn’t help but be glad that their parents yet again couldn’t hear my thoughts as once more I pictured their offspring as tiny maggots.

The boys next to me snuggled in, which was cute until one began to massage my shoulders, giving me a huge fright since in high school one tends to avoid all contact with students lest it be misinterpreted. Feeling a little uncomfortable with such open affection, I inched away, not wanting to upset the young masseur, or the flaxen-haired lass playing with my hair and being careful to avoid kicking the elfin-faced girl who was stroking the fur at the top of my boots. The insect image had reminded me of my own son who had lice several times in Grade 4 and my head began to itch. I was saved from my growing entomophobia by Emily* proclaiming loudly that Dylan* had thrown Ryan’s* eraser out the window.

‘OMG! The window – they’ll fall through the glass behind the cosy window seat they are reclining on!’ I thought with alarm. Outwardly calm, I sent the delighted Dylan to fetch the disputed stationery item and attempted to return to the story of Goosie, the unfortunate hen (Huh? I know – that confused me too) who was a victim of battery farming. That was when I discovered fact number three about Grade 4s:

The can squabble over anything.

They debate with the vehemence of lawyers in Suits, and the moral outrage and proclamations of innocence of the South African government’s denials of wrongdoing in procuring the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Dylan* was lucky we don’t have a jury system because some of his classmates would have imposed life without parole for his offence.

Just when I had finished administering my Nobel-laureate peacemaking skills, honed from years of teaching adolescent wannabe gangsters, Dominic* produced a rubber egg (I kid you not) which bounced erratically around the classroom amid squeals of delight from all in its path.

I was saved by snack time during which Thandi* produced  a verboten chocolate egg, causing much discussion about how unhealthy foods were not allowed in lunch boxes. Taking charge, I declared this was acceptable today, only because we were learning about all things oval.

I spent break time staring fixedly into space, trying hard to look as if I were at ease in this alien land of small people, but I am sure that the kind glances of my fellow teachers  hid their certainty that the Zombie Apocalypse  had come to their lounge in the shape of the dazed substitute teacher.

And so the day continued, during which I learnt another undeniable truth about my young charges.

They cry.

Unlike teenage dramatic incidents which tend to occur in bathrooms as communal angst fests, juniors cry quietly and the teacher (well me) has to be prodded to notice that ‘Marta* is crying, Ma’am.’ But they are easy to soothe, even though the reasons for the upset can be bizarre: ‘Cassandra* took her paper snake.’


At least Connie’s* distress at the end of the day was fitting. Her chair fell on her as she was putting it up on her desk to make way for the classroom to be cleaned. That was when I discovered again that a child’s hurt is rapidy dissipated by a hug and kind words and I realised the fifth thing about these precious creatures placed in my inadequate care for the day:

They are easy to love.

Fortunately my fears of juvenile anarchy overtaking my tenuous hold on classroom control and images of Lord of the Flies-like chaos (there’s that insect theme again) came to nought. The quiet announcement from Mandla* that he would miss me, as he sidled up for a shy farewell hug, carried me off with a light heart.

And then I went home and slept for two hours.

The esteem in which I hold elementary school educators is now even more profound. Respect.  I really did enjoy the Grade 4s, especially the one who thinks we should eat free range chickens because they are happier, but I should probably stick to teaching seniors.

Come back, Grade 9s; all is forgiven. Never again shall I call you a wimp, Hamlet.

*Names withheld to protect the author from embarrassment.

Colleen Bentley