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.

One Word which Kills Transformative Dialogue

The moment you use the word ‘surely’ in conversation or debate, you have closed yourself off from hearing the other person’s view and lost an opportunity to be changed by diverse viewpoints. It is the conversational version of crossed arms.

Image result for cross person with hands crossed

I love being around young people because I learn so much from them. The negative view of the word ‘surely’ comes from my daughter who has been lecturing at the University of Cape Town for the past year. Challenging the use of the word comes out of conversations specifically around transformation and diversity, but has much wider implications for all relationships.

Think about it: Every sentence that begins or ends with ‘surely’ immediately suggests that whatever the other speaker is about to say cannot contradict your opinion, because your ten cents worth is assuredly correct.. ‘Surely’ is a verbal roadblock to being open to another theory and it kills collaborative activity.

Image result for conversation roadblocks

And then we combine it with the ubiquitous ‘but’ which automatically translates as ‘No, you are wrong’ and so doing, we show ourselves to be arrogant and patronising. This is how we communicate our prejudices, patriarchy, misogyny and colonial attitudes, in fact our bias. ‘Surely’ almost inevitably introduces gaslighting of some kind.

But surely, you can see… (your ideas are rubbish)
But surely the government/taxis/women/other races should… (I know what is best for everyone)
But surely you must… (I am going to make you do it my way)

Translation: You/they are wrong. I want you to think, speak and do what I want you to.
I am in charge.

And out the window go empathy and compassion. Harper Lee in the famous To Kill a Mocking Bird speaks about walking in another man’s shoes and even goes so far as to say we should climb into someone else’s skin:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”


Chapter 3, To Kill a Mocking Bird

We don’t have to physically climb into someone’s shoes or skin (that’s a bit creepy anyway) but listening without judging requires us to suspend our ‘but surely’ retorts so that we open ourselves to innovative ideas and truths and see the world through another’s eyes.

If we are going to have any meaningful transformational dialogues we have to find ways in which we can ensure individuals are heard.

So drop this one word from your vocabulary. Try saying ‘I think’ when stating your vision. Better still, ask what someone else thinks.

And then shut up and listen.

Of Lice and Pen(s)

Image result for child scratching red hair lice clipartMy  children  are sufficiently removed in age now for me to smile (tentatively) about those horrific (and I do not use this term lightly), emotionally desperate cataclysms in my household when they had lice (whispering) … Just writing this elicits a visceral shudder, automatic head scratching and implicit feelings of remembered shame.

And yet almost all children at some time have fallen prey to these nasty little parasites. As we speak, some mother is expressing dismay with angry, Anglo-Saxon words and screaming for the other parent to sort ‘this disaster’ out, while blaming ‘that’ school or ‘those’ urchins with whom Little Princess has had the misfortune to be playing.

I know I did.

I shall always remember with dread that moment in the middle of the July holidays, in my small kitchen in Batten Bend when my 8-year-old daughter came in for a snuggle and I looked down at the teeming plain of wriggling larvae that was her once-beautiful head of red hair.

I confess I leaped away in horror.

Then I realised in one of those ooh-vrek-I’m-the-mother moments that it was my job to fix this invasion. So while privately (actually not so privately) cursing the mother who according to my infested child, sent her daughter who sat alongside mine, to school on break up day even though she had goggas in her hair because the family was moving house and she didn’t want her daughter to be underfoot, I assessed the unspeakable misery of my crisis:

  • One 7 year-old with an army on the move in her hair
  • Her 5 year-old brother with several nits in his
  • a 9 year-old son with curls so tight anything could have been living in there undercover of a silent incursion
  • a 2 year-old who couldn’t sit still long enough for me to examine her Annie ringlets and
  • a brand new baby.

And then I washed. Everything.

Over and over for at least three weeks, I de-loused everyone’s hair, twice a day, combing through all those thick tresses meticulously, trying hard not to show my disgust in case the victims of this family disaster were scarred for life by my assumed maternal rejection. My own hair proved to be a bit of a challenge because my squeamishness convinced me that I too was infected (I wasn’t) and the night I attempted to apply the shampoo, just in case, I ended up with an allergic reaction which caused burning in my eyes and on my face so bad that I had to ring my sister to come and stand in for me in the middle of the night so I could go to the emergency room.

And I washed and ironed ALL the bedding every day and forbade the children from reusing towels. Thank heavens this was pre-Cape Town’s water crisis, or perhaps this frantic laundering is what caused the depletion of Theewaterskloof Dam.

And then my long-awaited, lounge suite arrived (sixth months after returning to the country without furniture). And no one was allowed to sit on it, such was my aversion to the risk of loathsome re-infection. My girls’ buns were the tightest after that.

Of course by the time, the youngest was in Grade 1, and he and his fellow gangsters took turns in being off school with lice, I was fairly prosaic about such things, only shuddering occasionally. I sent him along fairly regularly to visit his father, who had hair clippers, for a #1, although I suspect that it was the girlfriend in situ who ended up doing the trimming. We still chuckle at certain photographs and can tell by Liam’s haircuts what had been going on at the time.

Primary School and Nursery School teachers do not bat an eye at what for high school staff is worse that diving with sharks – the lice test! they nonchalantly pick up two pens and confidently check their charges’ hair on a regular basis. The biggest problem schools have is parents’ assumption that one shampoo and combing will cure you of the nasty critters. You have to remember to do it again every week or so after an infestation or else the ‘cooties’ return. Our standard letter takes care to address the embarrassment that comes with the unwelcome missive and gently advises how to remedy the detestable situation, without making parents feel bad.

It’s the social stigma associated with having lice that is bothersome though. The fact that lice love clean hair should have removed such thoughts, but I suppose we feel unkempt and dirty and somehow ashamed that this could have happened to us – we’re decent folk after all. However, I bet that even those hoity toity playschools for the rich and famous have a lice policy. Even someone called Beckham or Windsor might have to be sent home from a posh school to do not nit harvesting from time to time. Forget that knighthood, darling, if your offspring infects a royal head, mind you.Image result for shame meme

Funny how language evolves: take the word ‘lousy’ – it comes of course from the meaning ‘lice-infested’ – perhaps we should remember that when we say our meal or the service at a restaurant was ‘lousy’ – perish that thought!

Next time you say that the weather has turned ‘lousy,’ thank your lucky stars it actually hasn’t. Eeeuh! The thought of that makes me need to go and scratch my head a little and thank the Lord for metaphors.

To Believe or Belieb? That is the Question

Image result for justin bieber and christianity

Image from faithit.com

This may well have been the most unpopular assembly address I made a few years ago when the Biebs was here before, but I have never shied away from speaking my mind on important matters and as a teacher, a principal in charge (now) of  153 staff members, a mother of 5 blood children, 2 step-children and nearly 1700 learners I am responsible for, I am used to being unpopular:

“Contrary to some of your assumptions based on the title of this speech, I bear Justin Bieber no ill will and despite cringing at some of his inane utterances like ‘I want my world to be fun. No parents. No rules.  No nothing. Like no one can stop me. No one can stop me.’

And: ‘Ann Frank was a great girl. I hope she would have been a Belieber.’ Besides the fact that he’s not quite my cup of tea, I think he’s cute. Not sexy cute; sweet cute. Although I must say I dare anyone to say we had big hair in the eighties…

But your parents have entrusted you all to this school and we have promised them that we shall provide you all with a values-based education. The values we teach are based on Jesus’ life and teachings. This week’s Bieber Concert has raised some issues that I cannot remain quiet about and still claim to be the leader of a faith-based school.

So what did I have a problem with? Here are 10 things that worried me:

  1. Why did people feel the need to leave school early? Or bunk a whole day? Fans who queued all night told reporters it was to be the first to see him; to be the closest to the stage; to have what no one else had. Yet Jesus teaches us ’the first shall be last; the last shall be first.’ Our faith teaches us to stand back generously for others; not to be the first through an intersection or at the front of a queue, not to demand the gratification of our own desires.

Contrary to what many of you were grumbling about, we had no desire to deprive you of the joy of the concert – it was only due to start at 8 o’clock however. It worries me that scrambling for places suggests a need to trample on others or need to get there first to get what you want – that is contrary to Christ’s teachings. It was fitting therefore that Ashley gave a Golden Circle ticket to someone who made the effort to be at school. She ended up with a better ticket than many. Good things really do come to those who wait. Patience really is a virtue.

  1. I know some of you planned long in advance for this concert and many took on odd jobs to save up for it. That is good. And I am glad that you have had the opportunity to enjoy the spectacle of someone you admire. It worries me however that often we only work so hard for ourselves. Jesus said: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Will you work so hard to benefit someone else? Do you love other people enough to work for months on end in order that someone else may benefit? Matric students are encouraged to donate evening wear to the poor after their dance so that their fun benefits someone else too – that is this school’s way. Ashley’s devotion on Wednesday also points to this principle – could you have given up your ticket to give joy to someone else? Jesus gave up His life for you. # just saying
  2. Reporters commented on how diehard Bieber fans braved the rain in the morning and John Maythem on Cape Talk commented in Afrikaans that a good caption for his photo would be: Beliebers bibber in die koue. Jesus speaks of giving our life for others. Would we stand in the rain to feed the homeless or protest abortion or speak out against human trafficking or child soldiers. Would we stand in the rain to worship if our churches had no buildings? No one wants to pray at lines when it rains.

# justsaying.

  1. Idolatry is a sin according to the Ten Commandments. Folk are quick to point out to Catholics their distaste for the statues that abound in our schools and churches, suggesting that we worship Mary and idols. We do not of course – statues and pictures of the Sacred Heart or Divine Mercy are mere reminders of Our Lady’s good example and the glory of Christ’s life, much like photos are reminders of those we love. But think about shows such as ‘Idols’ whose very name points to how we treat celebrities like The Biebs who become more than just heroes, but figures of obsession. When our behavior becomes extreme, we should be worried. When we disengage our brains and blindly follow our heroes, we should be worried. ‘Derek Watts’, a satirical journalist interviewed Beliebers outside the stadium: when asked if they thought whether Justin Bieber was a tool for change in society, they squealed, ‘Yes, yes.’ When asked whether they thought he was an ‘absolute tool,’ they again bleated ‘Yes, yes.’

#just saying.

 

Do we hang on every word of the Bible and sing worship hymns with as much gusto as we sing ‘Baby, Baby, Baby,’ or ‘As long as you love me’? Not in this hall we don’t. That worries me.

  1. I worry about the sexism inherent in teenyboppers and groupies. It is a fact that most Bieber fans are girls as have been fans of most popstars over the years. In your grandparents era female fans were throwing their knickers at the stage when Elvis Presley and later on the Beatles took to the stage; in fact they reckon that Frank Sinatra was the first such idol – all these men seem to have the same packaged popularity: safe sexuality; easy songs to sing along to and a dream-like allure. Why do boys not throw themselves at the stage of female stars in the same way too? Perhaps because men do not see themselves as needing to be completed only by a fantasy person? They are happy to be themselves. We women should consider that? All people should crave the love of God alone to complete them.
  2. I was annoyed and it took me a whole Tempo bar to unannoy myself that despite the ruling that no one would be given permission to be off school on Wednesday, given verbally to you in lines and in writing in my newsletter to your parents and you, if you read it on the noticeboard, many of you bunked, ignored my instruction or had your parents send me notes/calls instructing me to release you for the day. Let me make it clear that neither your parents nor even I have the right to give you permission to be off school. Only the Minister of Education may do so by law. And just because you may get away with the law, does not mean it is ok morally to break the law. Laws are there to benefit society. If you miss school for reasons other than illness or a death in the family, you are breaking the law. Schooling is compulsory. The minister’s representatives in the Department of Education made it clear that Wednesday was a school day.  Added to that even though you are students at an independent school, you are required to adhere to the College Code of Conduct. That includes obeying instructions of the principal. Why would you think that you were exempt? We live in a society though that seems to think that the laws apply to everyone else, but not to me. We are angered by taxis which ride on the pavement, but gleefully break the speed limit ourselves when we are late. Dagga is illegal, but if you think it’s not dangerous it should be ok; night clubs and movies have age limits, but ‘really, the bouncers should stop all those other young people.’

There is an inherent self-centredness in this. I wasted over an hour of my professional time dealing with those who believed they were exempt from the rules. I was then faced with trying to deal justly with those who quite correctly felt aggrieved that some simply bunked or came at the last minute with notes from their parents, when they had obeyed the rule. Strictly speaking, all who disobeyed the ruling should spend those hours in detention Will I do that? Not this time, but most definitely in the future. But of course since this ‘once in a lifetime experience’ has happened – there will be no need to do it again. No absentee note will however have resulted in a demerit. That’s the rule. It’s how we keep note of attendance. And if you have missed a test, oral or task deadline, no opportunities will be given to make these up. There are always consequences to one’s choices. Do not even think of asking my teachers to give up their free time to teach you work you missed. When Jesus was asked whether the Jews should pay taxes to an occupying power, he told his disciples to ‘render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.’ This teaches us that civil laws must be obeyed.  None of us is exempt.

  1. I worry also about the damage we do to young people who give themselves over to the Big Business that is the music industry. One only has to look at damaged child stars like Michael Jackson, Brittney Spears, Drew Barrymore and Macauley Caulkin, and megastars like Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix and Whitney Houston to see that the media industries do not care about the person of the star. What damage is done to young people who are treated like gods? It is our adoration that does this to them. Even too much love and attention can be bad. How can a nineteen year old survive intact? Already Justin Bieber is showing signs of the arrogance (look at the time he started – an hour late is rude) and possible substance abuse that comes from the adulation of millions – how would you react if 35 million people wanted to follow you on Twitter, yet it’s not the real you they know? If Justin Bieber caves to a celebrity syndrome of self-destruction, his fans will be partly responsible. Jesus said: ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ We are required by our faith to look after each other. His mother has tried really hard to keep him real with chores etc, but she is no match for the showbiz machine. Agents, like Scooter Braun who discovered Justin Bieber on Youtube when he was 14, care far more about how much the star is worth to them than about their emotional stability or eternal souls.
  2. It worries me that the wholesale avoidance of school, to be over 12 hours early for a pop concert shows a casual disregard of the value of your education and the teachers and authorities who administer it. It may annoy you to be reminded of the relative suffering of others, but I wonder if you would be so careless about school if you understood how truly privileged you are to attend a school like this. No under-qualified teachers who take off when they feel like it, no over-crowded classrooms or violence in the playground. Just last week in Heideveld a Grade 9 student was stabbed by a group of other girls with a pair of scissors.

Your parents would definitely have objected if the staff members attending Bon Jovi on Tuesday night had left early to catch a glimpse of Jon Bon Jovi. I would have been inundated with complaints that their children were losing out on their education. Why is it different if you choose to be absent? Saying that you pay school fees, so you can choose to go without a day of school shows an arrogance and foolishness that no student of this school should have. Wisdom is so respected in the Bible that there is an entire book dedicated to it. Why would you waste the time of those dedicated to impart wisdom to you; why would you disrespect that? In the seventies and eighties students ‘bunked’ school to protest injustice and bring about change in society, not to be early for a concert.

  1. The Bieber Fever reminded me of how superficial some of our heroes really are. Last week there were complaints about celebrating the life of a man like Edmund Rice in a mass; yet we glorify Lady Gagga and Madonna, who dedicate themselves to anti-social and sometimes immoral ways. In the same year that Diana, Princess of Wales died so tragically, Mother Teresa also passed away. Yet the passing of the woman who alleviated so much suffering and made the world a better place paled in comparison to the death of the media idol of a princess. Please do not get me wrong – I am not condemning celebrities, but am saying that we treat them so differently from those whose lives have so much more gravitas. Shouldn’t all people be equally important and shouldn’t we recognize those who make the world a better place. How many of you would have queued for hours to meet Madiba or be in the Dalai Lama’s presence? Do we only want to be around those who entertain us? Our faith should teach us that a meaningful life is more important than the frivolity of fun alone.
  2. Some of you were outraged that you were not given permission to have the day off before the concert; yet fail to be outraged at moral injustices in our country. This was brought home to me when I heard someone complaining that the MyCiti buses were not running and that this would affect transport to the concert. The bus strike meant nothing until we were affected. Did you know that hundreds of domestic workers in this area alone travel from Khayalitsha daily to clean our houses. They now have to spend nearly half of their income or more paying for taxis (R20 each way) Did you know that the bus drivers on strike are complaining that their take-home pay is less than R2000 per month? What did you spend on your ticket to the concert? A girl I heard being interviewed on the news spent R4500 on a room at the ‘One and Only’ Hotel to be close to ‘The Biebs’ and then R6000 to meet him. Whew! How many bus drivers’ families could have eaten off that? What about protesting conditions in Cape Flats schools for a day? Or is that not important enough to risk the consequences of bunking?

# justsaying.

 

No one is saying that we should not enjoy ourselves, but we should be aware of the relative value we place on things in life. And that there are really important issues that face society. For example did you know that the amount of money needed to feed everyone on Earth for a year is spent every 8 days on the world’s military. Would you buy food for the poor with the cost of your ticket, or donate it to the class charity?

# justsaying.

We criticize the Guptas and deplore the R40 million spent on a recent wedding in Sun City, but are we thinking carefully about the morality of how we spend our money?

Remember the story of the widow’s mite in the gospels? That woman gave all she had to the temple collection.  Do we give even some of what we have?

So I must disagree with Justin in this: Life should not be about fun alone; parents and those in authority like your parents here at school are important; rules do exist – for a reason, even if you do not agree with them, you are obliged to obey them. ‘No nothing’ actually suggests that there should be matters of substance upon which we place importance. Wanting to have no boundaries is not true freedom. In fact true love requires that we prevent those we care about from losing themselves in limitless abandon.

If you are sitting here rolling your eyes and thinking how lame your principal is, you have missed the point of this address.

If you think I hate Justin Bieber and want to criticize him, you have missed the point.

If you think I am trying to guilt-trip you, (ok I’m a Catholic mother so perhaps there is a slight element of truth in that), but if you think that’s all it’s about, you have missed the point.

If you think I am still angry with you or condemning you, you have missed the point.

If you think I don’t understand what it is like to be young and crazy about someone, you have missed the point (To be honest I confess I gave John Travolta’s poster a kiss every night when I was 14. Another teacher who ‘cannot be named’ admits to going gagga over Cliff Richard).

If you think I am just an old killjoy trying to put a dampener on what was for many of you a fabulous evening, you have missed the point.

If you are sitting there complacently thinking this does not apply to you because you’re not a Bieber fan or didn’t attend the concert, you have really missed the point.

My point is we must think carefully about what our choices say about us. There is a saying which states that we should choose wisely because our choices become our actions; our actions become our habits and our habits become our character.

I would be a very poor mother of this school if I did not speak out about character. Because it is people of character and principles who make a difference in this world. I want you to be people of such character. And true happiness comes from God. I want you to have that real, deep, soul happiness.

I shall risk unpopularity to guide you to God.”

Crocodiles, Librarians and Unicorns

Image result for pictures of librarians and crocodiles cartoons

Driving with Shannon is always a treat. When she is not fiddling with the radio or air conditioner, she asks truly random questions. Today, for instance, as we were sailing past Milnerton, out of the blue she asked what kind of animal I would be if I were a beastie. She was not satisfied with my instinctive ‘a dragon’ response, but I managed to appease her with ‘okay so a big cat – one of the big five so when I get to the waterhole all the other wildlife gets out of my way, unlike in my very own kitchen, where ungrateful buffalo stampede past, steal my kettle water and I am forced to wait for my tea…’

Methinks she might have zoned out during the kitchen rant because her eyes glassed over behind her dirty (as usual) lenses. However she must have been listening when I went on to say that as a predator I couldn’t just lie in wait quietly with only my eyes on display like a lurking croc, because she came back at me with gusto by suggesting that librarians are like crocodiles: they pounce on you from nowhere and snap, ‘Quiet!’

Now I am not surprised that one of my children should be admonished for noisy behaviour. I have done a fair job of raising socially acceptable humans, but my own school reports were littered with far too many  ‘Colleen talks too much in class’ type comments for me to moan at the saplings for volatile volume. So I was more amused by her accurate description of what for me are the scariest of professionals: the keepers of books.

Perhaps this description resonated with me also because of my guilt about unpaid library fines and the tongue lashing I received recently for a book so long outstanding that I needed to pay R220 for it. And Library week with its attendant fine-amnesty is long gone. The librarian who confronted me though was a six foot Idris Elba lookalike so I was sad to have disappointed him (very sad) rather than afraid, but still. Ironically the book in question was hiding in plain sight on the bookshelf of my travelling companion’s bedroom; even more ironically it was named Indulgence in Death, something which should stand as a warning to all children who do not put their books back on the library shelf at the front door.

But I digress. I was contemplating the concept of kids saying the ‘darndest things’ like those clangers the two year old drops, used succinctly and correctly in front of either your maiden aunt, the local priest or in the middle of Woolworths.

The funniest birthday card I received this year, notwithstanding my (older) sister’s (paltry) attempts to age-shame me, was one snuck into a pack of cards from the Grade 6’s at school without the teacher’s knowledge, I hope. It read:

Sugar is tart

Lemons are sweet

I love you more than a unicorn’s FART.

So odd; so inappropriate; yet so funny it made me laugh till I couldn’t breathe. The poor educator would be mortified that this slipped through the censors and was delivered to the head’s office.

There is something so remarkably life-giving in the creativity of children and I love spending time with young people to hear a fresh take on the jaded, clichéd world. Some might call this sass. I like to think of it as originality in a society that takes itself too seriously.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still believe there are two kinds of parents in this world: those who think the little boy on Youtube debating with ‘Linda’ (his mother) is cute and those, like me, who believe she is making a rod for her own back by encouraging him. Generally I am not amused by cheeky children, but this one at least attempted the rhyme.

Back to Shannon: she thinks of herself as a fox (cute and furry – probably because she hasn’t shaved her legs again) and suggested I am like a bunny (sweet and hopping). Hopping mad after that! I mean really, bunnies just sit there and wiggle their noses. I am way scarier. At least as much as spinster librarians, surely.

Maybe children should be seen and not heard after all.

Personal Assistants

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.

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-08-08-band-of-brothers-anc-integrity-commissions-fransman-report-contains-some-disturbing-nuggets/#.V6o-D_l97rc

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.

Pokémon gets kids Go-ing

Image result for pokemon go  cartoons

I had a surreal (get it?) conversation with my son on our drive home last week. It went like this:

Me: How was school? (I’m not very original)

Youngest Offspring: Fine. (Teenagers are not original either)

Except me and my friends [sic] had to keep re-taking the tuckshop. Did you know there is a gym at Cobblewalk?

Me: Yes, but I can’t afford it.

L-Shaped Child: I’m a Mystic.

Me: I am glad you are growing spiritually, my boy.

Techno Spawn: Mom, please will you drive less than 20km/h or else they’ll think I’m cheating.

Me: No.

Needless to say Mom’s own little pocket monster was not too impressed with his parent. Sigh. Goes with the territory, I suppose, along with having to remind school children that there are no squirtles on the grass at Meridian Pinehurst.

This craze (and I use that word deliberately) has certainly had a galvanising effect on global anti-social sedentary adolescents. It is entertaining to sit at my desk in my bedroom which overlooks our street, and see youngsters tearing down the pavements in search of close encounters of the virtual kind. However, I have warned my younger boys of the dangers of the ‘lures’ being for humans – and that they may be the prey so they should be alert, but that they should also be aware of the danger of roaming around, heads down with smart phones in their hands – again, they are targets for thieves. I am also concerned that in their desperation to capture that elusive Pokémon that they blindly traverse busy roads and get hurt or cause an accident.

As an English teacher, I am aware that the lines between real and imaginary have become even more blurred and have resigned myself to the fact that my son may NEVER use the word ‘literally’ correctly.

Just off to ensure Blanche is washing the dishes…

A to Z of Pedagogues

A quick guide for new teachers, or students on practical training attachment, for navigating the perilous staff room waters, with an indication of the type of wild animals that lurk there. Genders are inter-changeable.

(Note that these are not based on anyone currently on my staff, just mosaics and amalgamated parodies of some of the weird and wonderful educators I have encountered over the 30 (gulp) years since I graduated )

A
Ambitious Anthony Has his sights set on the top job. Meticulous and diligent, he has no time for fun, or people.  Connected to the union and knows the law.
Amiable Annette Sweet and caring. Notices when someone is struggling. When she retires there is a hole of generosity in the staffroom. Brings flowers.
Artful Arnold Always MIA when chairs are to be stacked; dodges break duty and cluster meetings. Often a good teacher, but is not a team player.
B
Backstabbing Barend Has one special focus – himself. Don’t tell him your secrets and watch out if you apply for the same promotion post. Boring teacher.
Bitter Betty Been passed over for promotion twice, but can’t see it’s her. Don’t speak to her before she’s had coffee or get sucked into her negativity
Brenda Brittle Cries easily; probably in the wrong profession. Can’t cope with ‘those difficult Grade 9s’/any class with learners.
C
Compassionate Connie Knows the back story to each person on campus; looks for excuses even for Granny Grumble; passes the tissues in the staffroom;
Cool Calvin Streetwise and dapper, speaks the students’ lingo; has their respect and his classes are fun  #goals
Cynical Cynthia Well-read and politically aware. Very bright. Enjoys philosophical discussions. Often teaches English or History.
D
Dodgy Duncan Always has a shady side business. Don’t ask where he got that cheap perlemoen he’s selling in the staffroom.
Dramatic Daisy Makes large gestures, loud entrances and powerful exits. Stay away from her around deadline times. Children love her or hate her.
Diehard Dieter Taught staff members and their parents. Remembers when the foundation stone was laid and ‘things were better run.’
E
Eager Edgar Volunteers for everything especially when management is around. Can be annoying, but generally a good egg.
Earthchild Imogen Gets to school early because she travels from Noordhoek; eats lentils and couscous from well packed lunchbox. Has numerous degrees
Equity Esther Takes men to task for patriarchy and challenges school traditions. Feisty and smart. Removes Jo’s sexist cartoons from noticeboard.
Extra mile Emily She’s a gem – nothing is too much trouble. Can be relied on to help out without fuss. Sometimes takes on too much
F
First Year Fiona Has many faces; can be talented, almost always unprepared for the ignorance of learners; overwhelmed. Needs a mentor and/or a drink.
Fitness Fazeka Dresses in tracksuits and eats rice cakes. Disapproves of your chocolate cake and sedentary lifestyle. Runs outdoors club. Scary.
G
Granny Grumble Old before her time; fault finding and negative. Dislikes people. Do not sit on her chair or leave your Tupperware in the wrong place.
H
Hipster Hannah Spends her salary on clothes. Drives a yellow Mini Cooper; Instagrams her clubbing exploits. Too friendly with learners.
I
Iceberg Irene Watch out for this sociopath whose glacial manoevering will undermine your most innocent intentions. Resign if she is promoted.
Ignorant Ilsa Has ‘been teaching for 30 years’ and has nothing left to learn. Says she has no favourites in class. Has favourites. Never notices irony.
Incompetent Irvin Went into teaching because he couldn’t think of anything else. Makes the post office seem efficient. Complains a lot.
Inspirational Iris Is able to draw talent even they were unaware of from her students. Celebrates her charges. Humble.   Learn from her.
J
Jocular Jo The staff room clown. His jokes can be off colour, but he keeps the room from being dull; students love him because he knows his stuff.
K
Kick-ass Kallie Loud and enthusiastic. Always raring to go. Will jumpstart your car when you leave the lights on all day.
Knowledgeable Nicki Has read every book on every subject ever written and has multiple degrees. Can make you feel inadequate if you are insecure. Has cats.
L
Laidback Lwazi Nothing phases him; reads the newspaper in admin periods. Re-uses old exam papers each year if he can get away with it.
Last Minute Larry Unprepared for class. Mostly to be found at the computer when the bell rings. Panics when Photostat machine is broken. His learners engage in deep learning because he gives them space.
Lecherous Lenny Can’t keep his hands to himself; laughs heartily at sexist jokes. Makes a beeline for new staff.
Loskop Lottie Loses classroom keys/ textbooks/piles of scripts all the time. Better hope she is not your exam relief when you need the loo.
M
Maestro Max The Music or Art Teacher: defies description. Brilliant and popular, the kind of inspiration you’ll remember forever. Not always patient.
Moody Maureen Well-intentioned but inconsistent with her learners. Her bipolar swings are confusing. You may need help if she is your mentor.
N
Neutral Nigel No personality. Goes through motions, but doesn’t make waves. You find yourself imagining what secret life he may have. He doesn’t.
O
Old school Oliver Good teacher with great track record of results. Can be reluctant to try new technology.
P
Poisonous Pam Pammy sits with Backstabbing Barend; is no one’s friend. Knows the dirt on everyone and whispers it behind their backs. Avoid her.
Professor Pauline Very bright and an excellent staff resource. Pupils will complain she can’t explain properly. Probably should be lecturing at university.
Q
Quixotic Quintin Always driving a new cause. Can upset management and sometimes does counselling when he shouldn’t.
R
Religious Rita Devout and prayerful. Is shocked by Jo’s antics, but loves him anyway. Has the respect of everyone.
Rightwing Rene Rita’s twin sister who wields her faith like a club. Joins GG in reporting Arnold and Jo to  management and patronises the maintenance staff.
Rugged Ryan Runs up the mountain before or in between classes. Cycles to school. Hope for a view of his abs.
S
Seen-it-all Sal Jaded and uncreative. Needs a sabbatical or career-change. Can’t afford to retire.
Sissy Spoilsport Reminds staff the bell has rung. Takes the ball away from kids in the quad; warns you not to eat in workroom.Reports others for swearing.
Simon the Sociopath Outwardly charming. Tells colleagues, learners and parents what they want to hear. They wrote ‘Snakes in Suits’ about him. Not your friend.
T
Trendy Tendai Hails from Zimbabwe. Viewed with suspicion by locals and frustrates management because no EE points are possible. Knows his oats because Zimbabwean educations is still good. Fabulous clothes. You will learn much from him.
Trevor the Tyrant Instils fear in his students; is unreasonable and inflexible. Sadly all too frequently to be found in management offices.
Thor Has the loudest voice on campus, but secretly a pushover. Girls run rings around him because he doesn’t ‘get’ them.
U
Ubuntu Una Social conscience of staffroom; champions students’ right and supports important causes. Friends with Connie.
Unctuous Albert Hand-wringing, arse creeping, yay-saying suck-up
V
Vocational Vuyo A natural: instinctive and born nurturer. Creative and reflective. Sometimes falls foul of Barend and Pamela. Shares his lessons.
W
When-we Winston Misses the ‘old days’ when caning was possible. Only knows middle part of anthem. Decries government. Waiting for passport for Perth.
Welcoming Winifred The first person to greet you. Ask her where it is safe to sit and how the photocopier works.
X
Xbox Exton The techno kid. This is the one to ask if your laptop is on the blink; just don’t ask about FPS or how FIFA cheats unless you have time.
Y
Yardarm Jan Hang ‘em high approach to teaching. Not interested in positive discipline. No one speaks in his class.
Z
Zany Zoliswa Free spirited; Attends all cultural festivals; Thinks outside the box; sometimes forgets there’s a marking box.

What type of student are you harbouring?

The Student Species: subgroups at examination time

As our matriculants settle in for the long haul of final NSC examinations, examine this list of student-types and see if you recognize yourself or if you are a parent, ask yourself which one of these incarnations is occupying space at your breakfast table. If you are in the grips of exam fever, remember, it is not a terminal illness, although how you treat the malady may determine your fate:

In a typical classroom, or lurking in his bedroom in your home, one may find the following personas (genders transferable)

  • Last-minute, Lazy Larry: He leaves everything to the last minute because he couldn’t be bothered. Then his work is of course somewhat pedestrian or he cruises to good marks with no effort. He battles to complete his degree in 3 years because his work ethic is so poor. He is a regular at nightclubs and surfspots during exam time. His parents are very busy.
  • Tessa the Terrified is usually friends with Nancy the Nervous. They tend to focus on the fear of academics and appear like bokkies in the headlights when confronted by difficult work and stressful situations. They are the ones seen scurrying around before examinations, or anxiously scanning textbooks minutes before called into the examination room. They live on Rescue Remedy and their mothers have used up the medical savings plan by mid-March of any year on anxiety medication.
  • Terry the Tortoise: We all know who won the race, don’t we? Terry plods along devotedly, trying out all the exemplars on the internet and attending all his extra lessons, checking and rechecking all his examination answers. Slow and sure wins the race. Teachers love Terry and he is inevitably successful in life.
  • Then there is Terry’s rival, Rushing Russell: He is the first one finished in every examination. He sits with his arms folded, assuring his invigilators that he has checked all his answers. He is yet to score 100% for anything. He loves finals because he can leave as soon as he likes. He has been known to miss a few questions because he didn’t turn over the last page of his question paper. Teachers throw their hands in the air in distress when they see him emerge after one hour from a three-hour paper.
  • Angie, the Agile is dating Russell (for now). She’s the smart-alecky kid who spots questions for her History papers, never spending more than an hour or two studying for any test. She will dump Russell after school and marry Terry because he has made more money. He will buy her a Nail Bar to keep her busy, because she can’t finish any course of study.
  • Another popular couple is Avril the Avoider and Peter the Procrastinator. They never get around to studying for any length of time either, because they waste too much time tidying their desks, pouring coffee, adjusting songs on their ipods and ‘just quickly’ going on Whatsapp. When their parents buy them iPhone 6’s (not a smart move).they are doomed to mediocrity. Cassio the Casual often joins them when he is not shooting people on the latest bloodthirsty, Call of Duty-type Xbox game.
  • Then there is David the Dedicated who is diligent and conscientiously prepares ahead of every session. His timetable has been up since June and he has model answers pasted in his bathroom. He is entirely focused on his studies and has a clear goal in mind. He sometimes is considered a bit of loner or is called a killjoy at times because he refuses clubbing invitations now and then to study, but his mansion is often a hub of activity after he qualifies. His parties make the social pages then. His cousin, Richard the Recluse, is a different kettle of fish. He does too much; over tries and sometimes works too hard, second guessing himself all the time.
  • Stephen the Selfish and Brenda with Blinkers are not popular with their classmates. They are too focused on their own goals and refuse to assist their mates in study groups. They achieve straight A’s in the NSC examinations, but fail to be accepted at UCT Medical School because they have no history of outreach work. They join in the complaints of Elvis the Efficient who shouts at Hyperactive Hettie who is all over the place and eager for any conversation not about work. They find the student protests of @Feesmustfall to be an annoying waste of their time. Their parents were furious that they were not made prefects in matric.
  • Hettie did have the prettiest dress at the matric dance though – everyone knew exactly what it would look like because she thought of nothing else.
  • Stephen will marry Helga the Hostile who also hates group work. They will have separate bedrooms and be blissfully happy. Brenda will become a research scientist and is happy living alone in a cottage next to her private laboratory.
  • Sickly Samantha isn’t really. She stays home to avoid dealing with school. The vicious circle eats her in the end.
  • Then there is Mira the Magnificent, who is the envy of the class because she is annoyingly lazy (She’s near genius and a smarter version of Larry), but pulls rabbits out of a hat in every test. Her teachers often wonder just how brilliantly she could perform if she put in the same amount of work as Terry. She battles a bit at university due to her tardy work ethic, but is generally more stimulated there.
  • Rory the Resistant hates school and all his teachers. He is biding his time until he can play professional sport. He has no Plan B after playing for Barcelona and after he injures his knee at Ajax trials he is forced to sell shoes for a living. Spiro the Sports Maniac is his best friend. They do all their orals on sport.
  • Warren the Wallpaper flies beneath the radar. He is not a discipline problem and escapes notice by doing the bare minimum to pass. He will probably have ADD children later in life and wonder if that was his problem.
  • Babsie the Butterfly is friends with Angie, but is too flakey to care at all about school. She ends up working in Angie’s salon, where she loves to gossip with the clients.
  • Cedrick the Pseudo-Clever believes he’s over school and foolish teachers. He underachieves in matric, flunks out of varsity because he has no work ethic and is laughed at by lecturers for his wannabe-intellectual, attention-seeking ploys in lectures. His parents started out thinking he is a genius and realise too late that that they have spoiled him.
  • Thando the Talented grew up with He does it all with ease and is immensely popular too. He plays first team cricket and soccer, as well as moonlighting in the hockey side. He scores straight A’s with ease and can sing and dance too. His parents are humble, but support all his endeavours, although his mother worries he over-commits.
  • Inez the Insecure is afraid to try because she might fail. It’s safer for her to go along with Cassio and pretend school is beneath her. Her twin brother Cassiem the Careful drives his teachers mad by counting every word in his essays more than he edits his work. Both spend a lot of time with therapists.

Of course this is all just fun. They are not based on anyone specific, but on students I have encountered over my 20-odd years in teaching.Chances are that you are a mosaic of all these types.

Happy studying.

In Praise of Primary School Teachers

Conferences…and an Outstanding Teacher! | Jennifer Sommerness

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.’

Seriously?!

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.