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.


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.