Procrastination Sunday

Procrastination Sunday #1

If you (like me) are a procrastinator in search of something really worthwhile to read, you may enjoy the following articles I have put together. There are only four (because you can’t procrastinate for too long on a Sunday) but I think each one changed how I thought about life this week (which, for me, is when procrastination becomes worthwhile).

Sighing over a fantasy drains energy from reality. What happens in our heads isn’t private; it is unspoken, that’s all. We all know what it’s like to live in the stifling atmosphere of what is unsaid.

 

and finally,

  • An old interview with Maria Popova, founder and writer of Brain Pickings, “discovery engine for interestingness”, that is still worth reading:

 

We’ve created a culture that fetishises the new(s), and we forget the wealth of human knowledge, wisdom, and transcendence that lives in the annals of what we call “history” – art, literature, philosophy, and so many things that are both timeless and incredibly timely.

Happy week ahead, everyone!

 

*Image source.

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Teaching

Thoughts on “Far From the Tree” #1: On Love

“It is not true that ‘love is not love which alters when it alteration finds’. Love alters all the time; it is fluid, in perpetual flux, an evolving business across a lifetime. We commit to love our children without knowing them, and knowing them changes how we love them”. Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree (388)

Being a teacher is a little like being a parent sometimes because each child (or adolescent) in your care has to feel safe and loved. Students (especially boys according to some studies, and all students according to others) will not listen to the content being taught unless you engage them directly and personally with what they find interesting.

I found this particularly difficult in the beginning of my teaching because at the boys’ school where I teach, team sport is compulsory, and teachers are encouraged to go and watch on weekends. After an exhausting week of teaching, the last thing I wanted to do was to go and sit next to a field and watch something in which I have no interest, and make small talk with parents when I never know what to say. Plus, there is always marking to be done, lessons to be planned, meals to be cooked for the coming week, the house needs cleaning (you get the idea).

In addition, I am not a sports’ fan. At best, I find watching sport a bit of a waste of time. I would rather be reading and learning something or going out and getting some exercise myself. At worst, I find the national obsession with sport a kind of bread-and-circuses conspiracy. How can you care about finding ways to stop global warming or being an active citizen when you spend all your time obsessing about (mainly male) teams of people who earn exorbitant sums of money to be modern versions of gladiators?

Finally, it made me angry that all boys have to play sport (particularly team sport). It felt like we, as a school, were forcing them into one version of masculinity, and into the kind of thinking I have criticised above. If you keep boys busy enough, the busyness and physical activity has the double effect of pacifying and also of lessening the number of opportunities for reflection and questioning. I was a swimmer and an actress at school, and the hours alone swimming laps provided some mindless boredom (singing the same song over and over in your head to the rhythm of your strokes) but also valuable solitary reflection time. Acting in a play (as anyone can attest) is one of the most challenging and rewarding exercises in team work, to the same extent if not more so (in my opinion) than sports.

Needless to say, I seldom made the time to go and watch until I was, by circumstance, forced to do so.

We were in Bloemfontein and we had had an inter-school debate the night before (which was the reason that I was there). On Saturday, there were back-to-back rugby and hockey games (which were at a different venue) so I was stuck watching rugby games all morning. The other teachers who were there were all male and huge sports’ fans themselves, so they were really involved in the games. I moved from group to group, making small talk until, patient though they were, they changed topics to the game we were watching or to talk about national and international teams. It was a frustrating and alienating experience, but it did afford me a lot of time to watch and I noticed something unexpected.

The boys (I was watching the U15s in particular) who mess around and who seem to need endless encouragement to be proactive about their learning and to concentrate were transformed into self-sufficient mini-men on the sports’ field. The A team cheered on the B team and vice-versa, and they spoke seriously to one another about each other’s potential and about how they could improve. I have already written about how John Green helped me to remember teenagers’ agency, but seeing these guys in their element made that realisation more than cerebral. These boys were not trying to be gladiators, they making full use of an activity in which they had agency and power to learn and mature.

It also changed how I interacted with these boys in class. When I looked at them, I was unable to forget that other side of them, the “real” side, not the side they manufacture to show their teacher as they sit passively behind their desks. They were also unable to forget (especially as I started to make a more regular habit of supporting) that I had been there to witness them being their best selves, the ones that they had chosen.

Reading further along in Solomon’s book (in the chapter on Transgender children), I discovered that research shows that some people do conform to gender “stereotypes” quite naturally. Some boys do find more fulfilment being active, particularly together and particularly on sports’ fields where they can take part in a kind of simulated war. I still think that my criticism of the assumption that all boys and men are this way is valid because not all boys are wired like this, but my sneering at all sportsmen and sport as a national (and school) pastime denied a fundamental part of some of the people in my care, and may have made them feel less welcome in my class. Even if, wrongly so, the dominant drive of schools is a sporting one to the exclusion of other skills and talents, my own classroom atmosphere should not exclude those for whom it is fundamental to their well-being because then I would be enacting the prejudice that I abhor. It also closes the door to the more important conversations one can have about sport and the way that it is run and undertaken.

My first “teaching” job was as a tutor at Rhodes University. I had fifteen students and I saw them once a week for forty minutes. Feeling anxious, I chatted to one of the best lecturers I had (Dr Deborah Seddon) while in an Honours lecture. She smiled and said, off-handedly, that students just want to feel safe. In retrospect, her detailed commentary and ability to listen carefully and closely to all my ideas made me feel just that. My mother (a teacher with almost forty years of experience) said something similar the day before I started this full-time teaching job as she said that as long as students felt safe and cared for, I would be able to teach them.

I started teaching with those pieces of advice in mind, and a burning desire to help shape the lives of the people I taught for the better. I think, though, that some of my students only really started feeling safe and cared for (and open to change and guidance) when I changed as a result of having cared for them.

Note: Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is one of the most fascinating books I have read in years. It does all the things a great book should do: it illuminated parts of the world I had never before noticed, articulated feelings I had held but never expressed (sometimes even to myself), and it was so beautifully written that reading every sentence was a joy. This is the first in a series.

Image source: London French Rugby Club.

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Race

A story about white hair and children (and other things)

Black children who live in townships may have more opportunity, more freedom of movement, and better education (although the better education is questionable even taking Bantu Education into account – more on that later) than during apartheid, but what they do not have is experience with many white people. I know this because I draw a crowd of black children whenever I attend parties or church services there.

I have always relished the opportunity to spend time with children, and these sweet kids who stare at me solemnly until I smile at them or pull funny faces (and other things grown-ups unused to children do) make my heart feel all mushy. In addition, I have felt very strongly for a long time that everyone needs to spend a lot of time with people different to themselves or they just perpetuate those general stereotypes and prejudices that are passed down through the generations. I make an especial effort, therefore, to let these particular kids play with my hair and look into my eyes and even touch my face. I want them to see what white people are like (just people with different hair) and to feel more comfortable with difference.

Just like many of the stories I have told myself, this one is not entirely unproblematic. A string of children came up to hug me one by one the other day, each of them being real little girls and telling me how much they liked my shoes, and my dress and my hair, and one of them declared she liked everything about me. Then, they ran away to keep playing, and there was one girl left, who regarded me a little more seriously. She gave me a hug, stepped back, and simply said, “Sweets”. I sheepishly explained that I did not have any sweets in my bag, and she went away.

I joked with Zwe’s Mum that that is obviously what white women do in that part of town: they visit the township, soak up the admiration of little black children and hand out sweets in return. The white benefactor lives on and, clearly, I had not fulfilled my role.

Then, another young woman (a spunky fourteen year-old who wants to become a doctor) started playing with my hair and I felt uncomfortable, as she said that she wanted hair like mine because it was so soft. I felt conflicted for being not just someone people marvel at for a minute and then move on, but someone who is viewed by little black girls as a role model. As a teacher, I like to think I am a role model. I try to be a good person and to prompt young(er) people to question their assumptions, but I do not want my appearance to serve as an example.

Perhaps she said she wanted hair like mine in a similar way that I look longingly at people with curls, and it is less to do with race than it is to do with fashion. But little black girls have to read books about and watch shows about enough white girls and traditionally “white” beauty (long, straight hair and pale skin) and I think my hope is naive. Young black women need black female role models: women who look how they want to look, and are proud of their hair, whether they choose to use it to provide a base for a weave or to mould into an Afro. I felt rather foolish because I suddenly felt as if I was part of the problem. 

So lately, I have felt less part of an extended community, and more as someone who has moulded herself unwittingly into a white “saviour”.

I will keep playing with and talking to children of all races, and I still believe in the importance of spending time with people different from myself, but as long as my history is written on my skin, I need to keep questioning even the unwitting effect I have on others.

 

Image source: Mary Slessor was a missionary in Calabar (now a buzzing metropolis situated in South-East Nigeria). Some of these missionary and “civilising” impulses are still very present in certain charitable organisations, even local ones that should know better. Some of my so-called “born free” students still talk about “savage” early African cultures. Considering this (and what I have said above), I thought this picture was particularly appropriate, even if it makes me queasy.

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Uncategorized

On White Linen and Adulthood: an analogy

A few months ago, Zwe and I spent time in one of the most most beautiful places either of us had ever seen.

In Kleinemonde, the beaches seemed endless and were completely unspoiled, and there were lagoons with the odd paddle boat. In the morning, the view of the thick green foliage lining the banks of the lagoon and the clear, clean waters below were enshrouded in sea mist.

The house where we were staying was equally picturesque. It had a verandah with a plunge pool, and the couches just behind the glass verandah doors were oversized and comfortable, perfectly placed in the path of wafting sea air. The bedroom where we slept contained a white and brass-colored iron bed, a puffy white duvet and white curtains and blinds. That room was the locus of a place that was both a retreat and a starting point for an adventure. We returned to Pretoria feeling like we had visited another world.

Back in our narrow, tiled flat with the sound of the freeway and the red dust constantly seeping in, I found myself longing to re-create that fresh-aired atmosphere of Kleinemonde. I went out and bought my very first set of white linen and In one foul swoop, I had bought into adulthood.

I do not say this because I am unwittingly trying to develop my conception of myself through things (oh, capitalism!) but because I have willingly bought large pieces of material that I will have to work hard at keeping spotlessly clean. Adulthood (at least in my privileged world where I have been educated and can make career and reproductive choices) is about deciding to do something that will require sacrifices of your time for something that you think is worthwhile, and sticking by those choices no matter how painful (or just irritating) they will sometimes be. Billions of people decide to have children despite the fact that it will wreak havoc with their bodies, their sleep patterns, and the rest of their lives because, children (apparently).

I have been struggling with the notion of my own adulthood (and simultaneously, of childhood and children). Perhaps it is because when I first started teaching teenagers, I felt more “adult” than I ever have in my life. They looked at me like I was so “past it” (wherever “it” is) and as if I was there to supplement their lives that I wanted to wail, “What about ME?????” I felt like I had stuck my head out of the window of a train, expecting to see exotic scenery flashing past, and instead had discovered that I had reached the end of the line and everyone else had changed trains earlier without my realising. 

Luckily, one of the benefits of being a literature student is knowing when to change figurative devices. Life is not a train and I am not a passenger.

I have decided I much prefer analogy to metaphor in this case. When I was reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree (fittingly, a book about children and the adults they become), he refers to Lucretius, and explains that one can find the sublime by exchanging easier for more difficult pleasures. Choosing to buy white linen, in my mind, is a good analogy for consciously deciding to do something difficult because it transforms the world for the better. At our best, I think that is what adults do.

Plus, when I get into bed at night, I feel like I am looking out into an ocean of clouds.

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Uncategorized

Falling into a Rut (on race in the classroom)

At school, I sometimes fall into a bit of a rut.  No longer am I the Janus-faced teacher who takes on many different roles and can have an intelligent conversation about anime films or politics, philosophy or new scientific discoveries. No. I become the dreaded white-woman-pretending-to-be-down-with-the-brothers.  I lecture kids about black consciousness, the intimate horrors of apartheid, the right of a black woman to wear her her hair however the hell she wants without male judgement, and I make Boondocks-references and refer to Jay-Z and rap when teaching poetry.

Part of this horrifies me because I feel like such a stereotype (and not in a good way). I am the round-faced white woman who wears Zulu beads but cannot speak Zulu, but I am also the pseudo-revolutionary who calls for social change, but then goes home to my nice middle-class home and signs petitions on the Internet. Ugh.

The other part that needles me is that I feel that, as a white woman, what can I really know about what it is to be a young black man in a formerly white school? Also, what if I am missing something vital?  Most of what I espouse has been gleaned from a fairly limited reading experience, and, no doubt, from the overwhelmingly euro-centric media I read.  As I will go on to explain in a future blog, one comes to consciousness about the subtleties and intricacies of prejudice in bits and pieces.  As I am explaining about how I understand prejudice and inequality, am I enacting that same prejudice and inequality in some way I cannot yet see?

Despite my doubts and anxieties about all this, I still feel like I need to carry on teaching this stuff because no one else is talking about it. At school, one is supposed to do one’s best to equip young people to go out into the world as perceptive, sympathetic and responsible citizens. I feel like I will not be doing that job if I do not expose them to the casually racist assumptions embedded in their world views that may hinder them from being sympathetic, perceptive or responsible.

I also realise, though, that I do not just feel compelled to talk about it because I feel it is my civic responsibility, but also because I have a particularly personal stake in these issues. I am confronted by problems and anomalies caused by racism, apartheid’s resonances and white privilege more often than most people, and it affects and changes me deeply. Sometimes I talk about it less because my students need to hear it, and more because I need to lighten the weight in my chest.

So I have come to a compromise that I think will be healthier for my ability to engage with a variety of topics as a teacher.  I will keep starting conversations about these issues as the need arises, but I will also set all my thoughts down here on this blog. That way, I will be able to talk about things the students need to hear, but I will also be able to say what I need to say and exorcise the experiences that tend to twist in my gut.

* picture source: http://boondocks.wikia.com/wiki/File:Wiki-background

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Uncategorized

On Walking #1: Menlyn

“These marks, the places where our thoughts and feelings have brushed against the world, are not just for ourselves. We are like tramps, leaving secret signs for those who come after us, whom we expect to speak the same language. Our faith in the music of this double address, in the echo chambers of the head and the street, helps to explain why apartheid deafened us to the call of home”. Ivan Vladislavić, Portrait with Keys.

I do not have a driver’s license. Confessing this fact is something I have been ashamed of to the degree that going to take (another) driver’s test is enough to reduce me to tears from nervousness and pressure. I will continue to try to get my license, but I must also admit that not having a driver’s license has given me experiences and insights that I would never be able to get anywhere else. If apartheid deafened us to the call of home because it stopped people from really following in each other’s footsteps, then post-apartheid does just the same. We don’t make the streets of our cities part of our “call of home” because of fear, and I think we are poorer for it.

Walking in Pretoria is actually very pleasant, as the weather is generally sunny and the gardens and open spaces are green and filled with birdlife, wildflowers, unexpected streams and various singing and dancing Shembe groups on Sundays. Simply walking to Menlyn and back home (it is a very short walk) over the five years I have been around has provided a treasure-trove of anecdotes and stories.

I do most of my shopping at Menlyn, that consumerist maze in which I used to work when I first arrived in Pretoria. I still know people who work there, so I enjoy visiting, and I walk that road often. I am always armed with pepper spray and I remove any conspicuous jewellery, but I have not, to date, had any issues. On the contrary, walkers generally ignore each other or exchange a simple greeting. It is probably more dangerous to be a driver on Atterbury Road, as people generally drive recklessly.

One of my favourite parts of the walk was in the winter (before the recent alterations), as you could smell the sweet, fresh scent of roses on your way in. You can (still) also watch the street hawkers scatter whenever a police car drives by, or exchange greetings with them, or listen to their advice on how not to get run over by cars when jay-walking across the slip-way into the mall.

At another time, I was accosted by two street-urchins whose mime paint was flaking off and who were swiftly closing in on me, devouring seafood from the Ocean Basket (I am not sure whether it was a donation or whether they pooled their earnings to buy it). I clutched my bag closer and tried to ignore them at first, but then I realised they had been arguing and just wanted to know the name of one of the sea creatures they were eating, and had no interest in asking for (or taking) money.

In fact, the part of walking that I dislike the most is the attitude that city functionaries have about pedestrians. As a well-off white South African, you are taught to fear ordinary (mainly black) South Africans, but in my experience, it is the officials who have no connection to the people on the ground (literally in this case) who cause the actual harm to society.

Many changes have occurred in my five years walking the route to make life more difficult for pedestrians who must walk through wealthy areas. Pedestrians adjust, and I feel proud of the way we make things work, but the small humiliations inflicted on people who must walk leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

All the green areas surrounding where I live have been fenced off with imposing, green metal fencing, and one of the most common walking routes (for domestic workers, construction workers, cooks and shop assistants) between the suburb and Atterbury Road was fenced off with a kind of updated barbed-wire fencing with no space for pedestrians to walk through.

As walking around would take forty-five minutes to an hour up a winding, busy road (or require a hike up a grassy hill so steep it was dangerous), pedestrians would cut a hole in the fence, which would then function well as a pathway for a few weeks until some roads department official would come and patch it up again and reinforce it, only for a space further down the fence to be slashed open a few days later. Finally, the powers-that-be made a kind of cattle gate that was so narrow I had to go through holding all my clothes close to me (my wardrobe is filled with flowing skirts and long jerseys that snag easily) while simultaneously making sure my shopping bags made it through. Never mind aeroplane seats being wide enough for large passengers, this spiky pedestrian gate was a contraption that made one feel like an abused farm animal the gates were made for.

Such disrespect for the people who walk on the streets of Pretoria is disheartening, as walkers are the unsung heroes of everyday life. Walking is incredibly good for people’s health and also for the environment. It has certainly increased my confidence and given me a familiarity with this city, “in the echo chambers of [my] head and the street”, that many people who have lived here their whole lives may not have. Even on urban, unnattractive walks like the one along Atterbury Road, there is knowledge to be gained if one will just stretch out one’s hand and take it.

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