A picture paints a thousand words

Picasso’s Madonna, 1909

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.

Reading: Of Muggles and Magic

Choosing books for boys

In 2000, for a six-month period of about 10 years, I homeschooled my (then) four children, aged eight, six, three and not quite a year.

I may have been a teacher, but I was a high school educator, not a Primary School Wizard. So, I did it all wrong, but one thing I got right was the reading. And that was mainly because I made the eldest one read to himself and both he and I read often to the others (I when I was not busy with another of my whining, squirming, unwilling pupils – not that they seemed any different from some of my former senior students in those characteristics.)

There were no handy online classes or resources back in 2020 (we didn’t own a computer), just little workbooks I found at CNA. There were only a handful of internet users in South Africa at the time. I had never heard of Google and there was no YouTube to search for how-to videos; and no curriculum-aligned, packaged remote learning programme from school.  So, I force-fed times tables to the older two; tried desperately to get my Grade R child to learn to read (and by that, I mean I wondered how and what magic beans Grade 1 teachers sow to take an illiterate to the wonder of the world of books). I puzzled over how on earth to teach my pre-schooler to write his name, although I probably wondered more about how I would get the toddler’s scribbles off the rental apartment’s wall.

At the time, I felt as though I were neglecting Sean, the eldest, by leaving him to read for long periods at a time, or abandoning his sister, Caitlin, to stare longingly at the pages she couldn’t yet read, because the others took up so much of my time, but the time spent exploring books about his own interests, or yearning to be able to read in her case, have served them well. But I also made lots of time for snuggled-up, whole-family story time, when I read aloud to them, the old-fashioned way, ending before they’d had enough, when they pleaded for more. I made no-reading-before-lights-out the consequence for poor behaviour and so put reading on a pedestal as a treat.

My introverted eldest son, a timid eight-year-old who in Grade 2, was a little behind in reading. But he read copiously during this time (no doubt grateful to be away from the haranguing witch, instructing his siblings in the kitchen while scrubbing pots or ironing). He caught up his age lag (he was a November baby) and surpassed his biological age in reading several times over. Today, he has a Master’s degree in English and makes his living writing screenplays and directing films.  

My daughter seems to have thrived on her Mathematics drills and can now write CA(SA) after her MCom and name (the less said about her remembered trauma of my Muggle reading lessons the better). She too is a reader though.

Michael writes a blog with millions of followers for a living and so even if I didn’t teach him to write neatly, he can write!

And the puny Picasso is studying Fine Art at UCT Michaelis School of Art (Handy Andy cleaned the wall too.)

Now I plan to make my fifth child’s matric year miserable by looking over his shoulder at home – it’s only fair he should suffer too – his siblings would say. I shall also be thanking God for Curro’s Microsoft Teams teaching.

What is my point? It’s not to brag about my clever kids (although what mother could resist?), it’s to show that children survive crisis education, no matter how poorly we parents facilitate the learning. What they need is to read.  Studies show that irrespective of socio-economic class or type of school children attend, the readers are statistically the successful ones.

If you do anything with your children during this lockdown, encourage reading, both solitary and family sharing. Teach them to love it, to yearn for learning and to choose it. And read for your own pleasure.

Cut yourselves some slack. You’re doing a great job.

And thank the teachers who know the spells to unlock the doors that we can’t. They’re waving their wands online now. It’s not called Teams for nothing.