Walking for Life

Despite my eternal protestations that if I were ever discovered in spandex on the beachfront promenade, my family was probably being held hostage back home while the abductors were torturing me for my pin number. (Just kidding. If they’d suggested exercise, I would have coughed up all my passwords!)

But now my doctor has said I need to exercise for my health, so even though, I thought it was all a bit blah, I have been trying to walk a few kilometres daily. And so far, I have lived to tell the tale.

The problem with Cape Town is the wind though. The first 3km of my journey is either straight into the teeth of the winter northwesterly, or the last 3km involves being prostrated by the howling southeaster in regular buffets. There is a reason writers of old describe wind as a vicious beast, as the imagery aptly conjures up a demented creature breathing out tiny sandy shards of glass either into your face or onto the backs of your legs. That’s why I wear long lycra leggings and sleeves. I almost miss wearing a mask so my face could be completely covered, making me look like an arctic explorer with my hat and sunglasses, as I brave the driving dunes. Not that you can look into people’s faces in that wind, as you bend over parallel to the road. Once I was so busy gazing at the pavement that I strode right past my own sister who had to call me back with an ‘Oy’.

Sometimes it’s quite mild out though and early morning walkers have the opportunity to notice each other and nod or smile, even if the joggers do it through gritted teeth. (You know, I’ve heard of a ‘runner’s high’ and even experienced a bit of that when I was young, but the runners always look so miserable and appear to be in pain.)

People who walk are a fascinating combination. There are the burly men whose strength is belied by the teeny tiny doglets they accompany, who really don’t need much more exercise than running between couches, but who are obviously the reason (or excuse) for the daily constitutional. Then there are the retired, the pink-suited, I’m-new-at-this exercise thing, eager looking women who seem determined to be jolly as they wobble along (I am one of them, minus the fancy suit); then of course one sees the ‘sisters supporting sisters’ – friends who you can see are mouthing off about the venality of their menfolk. There are scary vagrants who stare and mutter, but are probably ill, and their friendlier counterparts like the two sharing a bicycle ride, whom I saw sailing past everyone with broad, broken smiles, and sheer happiness on their faces

There is a rocky outcrop near the turn of my walk which my eldest painted back in Grade 10 and dubbed ‘Shit Rock’ (… I’m not sure he was referring to its guano covering or his own creation which was often the source of unnecessary insecurity – and, clearly – profanity.) On the shore there is a wooden bench from which one can absorb the full majesty of the Cape Town sunset, Table Mountain, and Table Bay with its many vessels at anchor. It is certainly not a crappy place to be. I have spent many a restful moment there, communing with God and Nature and filling my soul with the glory of our city. There was a time that I thought I would die in a foreign land, trapped by marriage and my stay-at-home-mom misery and penury. When I escaped, and returned to Cape Town, it became my habit to thank God for leading me like Moses out of exile back home, every time I look at the mountain. Then I breathed in for my soul’s freedom.

Now I take a breather from my physical exertion on that bench in my motivation to live. My body is a temple… etcetera…, even if for now it is plump and grumpy shrine to Cadbury’s.

Clever people will tell you that 1 hour exercise per day will result in :

  • decreased LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • increased HDL (good) cholesterol
  • improved mood
  • decreased blood pressure
  • reduced risk of heart disease
  • reduced risk of diabetes

Who knows, you may see me actually running one day.

Don’t hold your breath though.

The Misty Edges of Grief

Grief is about loss.

Whether the loss is a death, a divorce, children leaving the nest, moving house, job, town or country, or even a trauma suffered.  According to popular belief there are several stages of grief which can be endured in no set order, ultimately resulting in a return to some plateau of emotion and acceptance of the change. As someone who has experienced all of the above, I can attest to having experienced all of the stages listed below.

The stages of grief according to a good google search:

  • Shock
  • Denial.
  • Pain
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • The upward turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance
  • Hope

What the pop psychologists don’t tell you about is the sense of impotence and loneliness and an ineffable bereft-ness (I know that’s not a real word, but ‘bereavement’ is too sedate a word for it) that follow a cataclysmic event in your life. These are powerful emotions and cannot be rushed as people try to steer you towards hope again. 

Most loss  is undesired even when it is the right thing, like children leaving home or a sick relative’s passing.  But you are never prepared for it, not even when it is anticipated, and particularly not when it is a sudden passing or a betrayal.

The stark reality of the absence of a person you love(d) creates a void, an abyss, an endless nothingness into which the mourner may slip or fall headlong if she is not careful.

It is the impotence that overwhelms.

Sometimes it rages; sometimes it is numb despair; sometimes it is the outrage at being robbed of something precious. Mostly it is a profound helplessness of having no agency, no way of changing a lover’s heart or bringing back your mother.

Loss offers no way of turning back the clock to change a course of events, doing something differently or preventing the wrenching of your heart from your body, leaving a gaping bloodless pit in your spirit. It is the black hole of the soul that drags all joy into it, excluding all light. It is the negative; the shadow, the nihilism of despair.

When all choices are ripped away without your will or permission, and knowing you have no control over another’s life, love or the ability to alter the course of events,  no angry book or swear jar can contain the venom of the internal fight with the immutable fact of loss.

And in its wake, is profound loneliness as you plot a solitary course: an emptiness where love once lived.   No matter the kindness of friends or the spirituality that you cling to, you go on alone.                                                                             

Even when you come full circle and find a purpose again, the hole remains, like a tear in the fabric of your life that threatens to unravel when you pull it. You can patch it, of course. Sometimes the patch is prettier, but should that repair also fail, the hole in your heart is laid bare again.

Some days the opening up of another person’s chasm can rip open your own fragile mend. That’s why we cry at funerals sometimes even when we didn’t know the deceased that well – it’s the scab on our own wounds being torn off again. And then we start all over again to heal our own pain.

So don’t look askance at those who have loved and lost, yet smile again. They have returned from the edge of the emptiness of grief and found


And there is God.

Strong Women

I have been watching the US Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson with interest, in the light of our South African Constitutional Court Judicial Services Commission hearings which treated Justice Mandisa Maya so poorly also, and once more feel outraged at what women and, in both these cases, black women in particular, endure despite being highly qualified and respected.

Make no mistake, I do believe that all applicants for judicial appointments, especially those that are ‘for-life appointments, as US Supreme Court positions are, should be rigorously interviewed and their suitability appropriately probed.

However, and it’s a big ‘however,’ these are the things I have noticed as a distant observer:

1. There was an enormous amount of electioneering and very little actual questioning of Judge Jackson on the first couple of days. Congratulations, Donald Trump, for completely severing the ‘united’ from the United States. What a horribly divided nation America is. When Republican senators were questioning her, they frequently referred to ‘this side of the floor’ as if they were actually in Congress, and at other times, one could be forgiven for thinking one was at a Republican campaign meeting, or a GOP political lecture because there were long speeches, clearly about issues wannabe presidential nominees and others were going to exploit as rallying calls in the 2024 elections, but which seldom resulted in actual interrogatories of the candidate for the bench. Every question which resulted in often-interrupted answers by the candidate (It is sooo annoying when (men) do that.) was preceded and followed by lengthy harangues about policies which judges do not have control over, and are clearly political issues, not legal ones.

What was this smart woman thinking as she endured hours and hours of these petty potentates raging on about their own agendas (CRT, pornography, Guantanamo Bay) on her stage? The committee was not supposed to be meeting for them to hijack the public’s right to hear about her competence to act on the supreme court, by using this platform to bang on about their pet political peeves; it was about hearing her, not grandstanding for potential voters.

Ted Cruz trying to make the hearings about Critical Race Theory

2. Men do this around women. When supposedly trying to elicit information from women, they talk far more than they listen, often berating women as if they are wrong before even hearing their opinion. We have learnt to sit still and silently through men’s bombast. It is hard to hide one’s ‘I-don’t-suffer-fools-gladly’ face, but sometimes they believe we have told them what they want to hear at the end of it because we endure their tirades placidly. Judge Jackson was dignified and stoic through it all. Her patience was a model of compusure under pressure.

She should play poker.

It wasn’t only the Republicans though who were so partisan: the Democratic Chairman was quick to use his ‘chairman’s time’ to mansplain what he believed Judge Jackson would have answered. I was struck time and time again by the men’s club that the lefties were nobly allowing a woman to join.

3. And then they turned on themselves in a testosterone-loaded power struggle, forgetting the poised professional in front of them:

This is why women often feel as if they are the only adults in the room.

4. Despite that, Jackson was treated to significant head-patting about how great it would be be if she, as a black woman were to be confirmed, not quite as bad as the saccharine condescension and outrageous sexual innuendo Justice Mandisa Maya experienced in her appearance in front of the South African JSC, but sufficient for it to be obvious. It is one thing to celebrate ‘firsts’ in terms of being the first black woman to join a particular body or institution and indeed we must celebrate these milestones, however to reduce accomplished women to their gender or race alone is to subtly ignore their significant scholarship and stature as highly qualified and experienced, graduate professionals. It’s a nuance that men in high places should take note of because it sends a subtly patronising message to all that the women in their presence are fortunate to join their illustrious company and at the same time sidelining their voice to tokenism, and gives men permission not to take contrary views too seriously. Such patriarchal attitudes rob society of the significant impact that women and people of colour bring to top institutions.

It speaks to a certain insecurity of [some] men around strong women. Some years ago, I was once asked by several men whether I was not concerned that my choice for a manager reporting to me might be problematic because she was strong-willed and that she might be difficult to work with. I was astonished because that was exactly why I had supported her appointment. I wanted someone who could be their own person, and she was not a yes-woman, thank goodness.

5. Women are so often accused of being too emotional in the corridors of power or too irrational to have weighty authority vested in them. Yet, Senator Lindsay Flip-Flop Graham, who stormed out after a rant in which he hoped Gitmo prisoners died in jail, was certainly not a good example of masculine decorum; neither was his colleague, Senator Ted Cruz, who got in the face of the chairman after being told his time was up. In the face of these outbursts, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was particularly gracious. I wonder how many times she thought, ‘WTF?’ Her serenity was exemplary. My face would have given away my outrage.

6. Something that always irritates me when anyone is not hearing what they want to hear, they attempt to browbeat the strong, in this case, female opiner. Senators tried very hard to rattle Jackson suggesting she wasn’t answering their questions, when she had – rather well I thought – clearly and succinctly. I mean, I understood straight away her explanation of the difference between policy making and interpreting it, and judges’ challenges in applying fairness along the sentencing guidelines according to the laws Congress is responsible for passing. (And I’m just a teacher.) It’s not rocket science. It’s logic, however perhaps the interlocuters also clearly did not understand the concept of ‘asked and answered.’ They didn’t come away looking smart – rather they just appeared to be trying to bully a strong woman who stuck to her guns politely.

Notwithstanding Senator Cory Booker’s maturity and ability to bring some sense to the hearings, these were a sad couple of days for America.

Thank goodness though for arbiters of jurisprudence like Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. I hope she is confirmed and I hope her educated, experienced, public defender’s (and black female) voice holds sway on the US Supreme Court. Her South African counterpart was not afforded this opportunity. We live in hope still.

How buying bling will set you free

My sister bought herself a pretty ring at the weekend and I got to thinking about rings ‘n things and their meaning. In my middle-class, suburban thinking, I used to think that only my man should be the one to buy me rings, until The Maestro made it clear after we were married that he had bought me enough rings.

Then, when I saw a pretty l’il thing in Sterns one day and since it was bonus month, I thought, ‘Well, why not?!’ And I bought it. It wasn’t expensive, but it was gleefully empowering to do something like that for myself. Despite fashioning myself as a feminist, I had still been so bound by conventional thinking that a small thing like buying myself a ring became a liberation of sorts.

‘If you like it, you’d better put a ring on it’ is a concept that encourages women to believe that a man is the source of her joy and that only a man is the solution  and comptroller of pleasure. In many ways that keeps us believing that other people (men) control our happiness. And so, my learning to buy my own jolly jewellery has emancipated my thinking and has had the unfortunately expensive outcome of several subsequent shopping expeditions. But I have a cool collection of bling now, some of it is even real.

But you know, the pleasure that a little bling brings and the accompanying freedom is merely a symbol of how we should take charge of our own happiness. Stop waiting for other people to make you happy. Go out and find it for yourself.

I am reminded of my mother who believed (as a young woman brought up in the fifties) that a woman could only go to the movies with her man and so when she got divorced, she stopped going to the cinema! And we could never persuade her to just go along with a couple of girlfriends. No, that was for couples in her books. I always thought that was so sad.

How we limit ourselves! And we may well end up miserable while we wait for others to make us happy. And it’s not even their job. They probably don’t realise we are waiting for them to be our white knights either.

The bling in this world is out there just waiting for you to enjoy it: in nature; in your career, in dance lessons on your own, that holiday that you want to take (after COVID maybe). So, ask him out (or not), go to the restaurant or film on your own, book the ticket to somewhere. Life really is yours for the taking.

Just buy the ring yourself. Queenspark has some rather fancy baubles and they only cost R60!

‘Must have the precious’

What is precious?

The recent UCT fire and the panicked evacuation of residences has probably had all of us contemplating what we would grab if we had to escape our homes in a rush.

University of Cape Town students were told to grab their ‘essentials’ and run, and most (well those who were there at the time of course) took only their documents, laptops and phones, and the forward-thinking ones took their chargers too (no surprises there). Some managed to extract textbooks and a few clothes, but several were left with only the clothes they stood up in.

Of course, it is important to save human lives before all else and we can be so grateful that despite the devastation of some the buildings on our beautiful mountain, no person died, but the fire did get me thinking about a time I ran (not quite for my life) but in some ways I certainly was escaping.

 When I fled post-911 America, I took with me the five most precious gifts the world has ever given me – well one was still inside me, so he was slightly easier to carry. But it was a nightmare trying to decide what to take with us and what to leave behind.

In the end what went into the suitcases was the bare essentials: clothing and Lego (I know – not what you were expecting, right? But it was guaranteed to keep my youngsters busy for hours – and it had cost a great deal.) Naturally I crammed our important documents into my suitcase, along with all our photographs (It was back in the days before digital storage), which were loose in a large box – you can guess how heavy that bag was! The only albums I took were the children’s poorly scrapbooked baby albums, and i admit to thinking my husband could keep the wedding album – the fairytale had devolved into a miserable film noir by then.

Some precious belongings had to be abandoned though and I miss them still.

I took no furniture with me when we moved to the US, except for a box that was sent on, containing my grandmother’s lead crystal lamp, the only thing I wanted from my mother’s estate besides the hand-painted fruit bowl which my sister and I fought over (She won). The candelabra was magnificent: a cut glass extravanganza with the wiring (which I’d had redone from its original 1920’s job) running up the inside of the heavy, cut glass stem. The lampshade was a magnificent canopy also crafted from lead crystal carved into beautiful patterns and held in place by silver arms. When the lighbulbs were illuminated, it sent sparkling light across the room. I loved it. Clearly that couldn’t fit into a suitcase, and we didn’t qualify for anymore luggage. My husband assured me he would send it on, so I carefully packed it into a box again, along with my teddy bear from childhood and my ballet shoes (just in case no one believed this baby elephant once danced on her toes).

I so nearly baulked at carrying the photograph box all the way back to Africa, but at the last moment I panicked that he wouldn’t send things on and so I lugged a cardboard box filled with family pictures all the way through three airports and thank God I did, because in the end my carton-of-precious stayed behind in Utah and probably found its way to a yard sale or antique shop in downtown Salt Lake City. So at least I had our memories. But, if you’re rummaging through old treasures in Utah and come across a beauty like this, check its provenance. If it was found with a handmade bear, drop me a line…

You can keep the toe shoes – I don’t have the ankle strength left anyway.

I think in the end though, we decide what is important by our choices. We choose what is precious.

I chose my children. Best choice ever.

“The things which you get from your parents are valuable but the things which you earn by your blood become precious.”
― Sonal Takalkar

Gaps, lags and other challenges in education due to COVID and what we can do about them

We all knew this would happen: That following prolonged absences from school, we would be counting the cost to the academic (and other) growth of our students in schools.

But as Winston Churchill said, ‘The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.’

Here is some anecdotal evidence from my school, a co-educational combined school of over 1000 children from 4 years to 18-year-old young adults, as well as the observations from my colleagues in what is the largest independent educational provider in South Africa, and a colleague overseas. It’s hardly an academic study, but it may contribute to the educational conversation at this time and assist to redress some of what will be an ongoing process over the next few years.

Our pre-schoolers were particularly impacted in 2020 with many of them either not attending school at all, or not having the right home environment for proper learning. But gaps and lags are being discovering right across age groups in schools.

Core Muscle Strength:

One of the ‘hidden’ milestones in a pre-schooler’s development is core muscle strength and this is gained among other directed activities by sitting at a table of the appropriate height, with a suitable chair. Many children during Lockdown who may even have been fortunate enough to enjoy hybrid teaching during this time, such as independent schools like ours were able to provide, joined classes from Mom or Dad’s bed, meaning that the experience of sitting at a desk was lost. These same children are now battling to sit still in Grade 1 for longer periods, as is expected from a first grader, learning to read and write. For some, just sitting upright is a challenge.

Our Foundation Phase teachers have recommended a record number of learners receive occupational therapy to correct some of these physical lags because they end up having a profound impact on academic development, and both fine and gross motor skills.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Increased outdoor play, believe it or not
  2. Riding a bicycle
  3. Swinging

Attention Span:

Keeping children’s attention in a post-Covid age is an even greater challenge, both as a result of these physical delays, but also as a consequence of increased screen time that children were exposed to as a matter of necessity during Lockdown teaching and recreation.

Graeme Waite, a fellow principal in my group, expressed concern about the possibility of device addiction – something we can all consider (guilty), but its effect on children and young adults means a reduction of time spent reading longer texts (books), which will affect attention and focus over the long term. With the closure of libraries, access to books has been severely limited and even I, who claim to be a prolific book devourer, admitted at some point last year that I would bankrupt myself if I continued to purchase even second-hand books, and have ended up binge watching series and reading short texts on Google or Facebook (hardly the most erudite of sources).

Reading lags in turn will affect the ongoing challenge all schools have with reading and comprehension anyway, with many children who join independent schools in high school, having the reading age of an 8-year-old.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Reduce screen time – so turn off the TV.
  2. Play memory games
  3. Build puzzles
  4. Introduce routines at home with clear bedtimes.
  5. Read: to and with your child.

Device addiction:

There are many reasons that tech innovators keep their own children away from devices: Any Google search will inform you of the symptoms of device addiction:

  • Insomnia.
  • Inability to Focus / Complete a Task.
  • Stress and Restlessness.
  • Relationship Stress.
  • Eye Strain.
  • Neck Pain.
  • Social Anxiety.
  • Escapist Behaviour

You may well recognise these in yourself. Imagine these and the damage they can cause in young lives. All of these effects damage your child’s ability to stay focussed and happy at school.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Set the example: turn off devices
  2. Increase physical activity
  3. Encourage family conversation.


Increased time spent on cell phones inevitably means increased misuse. Spending less time in physical proximity with friends combined with the loss of inhibitions that the anonymity of social media allows, results in reduced empathy. And in the absence of obvious body language cues that their friends are not enjoying the ‘joke,’ much ‘joshing becomes downright mean.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Insist that your youngster comes out of his room.
  2. Talk about issues in the world.
  3. Ask open ended questions about their day. My family laughs now about how I always used to ask what was the best, worst, funniest, and saddest part of their day and they took turns in answering. But this was how we uncovered the bullying my youngest was enduring at school and some profoundly revealing fears and vulnerabilities came to light. Many a meal was extended long after the food had congealed on the plates, not because they were avoiding doing the dishes (although they probably were), but because they were enjoying the connection (not that as teenagers they would admit it.)


Children’s break time conflicts seem to need more interventions from teachers as youngsters battle to navigate social interactions, with the inevitable parental concern that one incident implies an act of war against their child.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Work with the teachers.
  2. Teach them conflict resolution skills.
  3. Help them become problem solvers by talking about what-if scenarios and how to negotiate conflict with the art of compromise.
  4. Attack a problem, not the child.

Social Skills:

While many families report improved relationships with their children within their homes, the return to school has exposed a reduction in independence and a need to re-establish the social contracts of classroom behaviour and interaction. Children need to be reminded of traditional manners and respect and small things like the importance of greeting others have to be stressed as routines are re-established. High school students seem to be just that little bit more oblivious to people in their surroundings than before.

Kick Starting Sports Programmes:

Izak Nagel, principal of a large primary school in our group, reports the challenge facing schools in reintroducing sports programmes in school life that has largely been academic and health focussed. There is a need to get everything up and running simultaneously, although some schools are opting to reintroduce sports codes gradually, with some doing general ball skills and conditioning before starting specific sports, to accommodate the incremental change from a more sedentary lifestyle many adopted at home to a more vital athletic routine.


Principals polled on gaps in academics identify Mathematics as a particular victim of the pandemic: in schools where students have had to attend on alternate days to accommodate social distancing in classrooms, learners are far behind their peers in schools where this was not necessary.

Jen Welte, principal of a faith-based school in Pueblo Colorado says multiplication is a problem as well as kindergartners entering Grade 1 not knowing their letters and being a full quarter behind in decoding.

Of course, Mathematics is a perennial problem confronting many schools, but we have found it has been exacerbated in the last year by well-meaning parents impatiently teaching old methods to their children during home schooling periods.

The Dilemma of Accessing Professional Intervention:

Recognising these lags is one thing and our baseline assessments have certainly identified where the problems lie. Addressing these is another thing, and will take time and an array of interventions, from such things as simply ensuring pencil grips are compulsory on the stationery list to directed bridging programmes and referrals to outside educational professionals.

We are fortunate at my school to have an onsite OT, remedial specialist, and an array or educational support experts including an educational psychologist, a play therapist and a speech therapist, to whom we can refer children so that they can catch up developmentally, but what of children in the state schools where it is well nigh impossible for a Foundation Phase learner to receive any kind of professional assistance or assessment? Many wait years ordinarily to have barriers to learning diagnosed and now with delays caused by Covid disruptions to education, the lack of counselling and remedial support (let alone the kind of clinical assistance required to address things like device addiction and anxiety) in schools is going to further widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.

It is not all doom and gloom though, and educators will always adopt the optimistic view Churchill suggested 80 years ago.

What can we do to mitigate some of these challenges?

  1. Build strong Parent-Teacher relations so individual lags can be addressed.
  2. Follow the advice of teaching professionals when interventions and referrals to specialists are recommended.
  3. Believe in the resilience of your child and empower them to overcome learning gaps.
  4. Recognize that while there may be some significant gaps now in a child’s education, they have gained so much during this pandemic too through closer family ties, overcoming grief in many ways and finding creative ways to overcome boredom.

We have in fact lived through an educational revolution and while there may be some structural damage, the rebuilding and re-visioning may be what was needed to propel us properly into 21st century thinking.

From the ashes of disaster…?

A Reflection on the UCT Fire

Watch | Cape Town fire: Dreadful scenes as UCT Library goes up in flames
photo by Gift of the Givers

The Library of Alexandria in 48BC, The Ahmed Baba Institute of Timbuktu in 2013 and now the Special Collections housed in the Jagger Reading Room at UCT – all that knowledge and heritage destroyed by fire!

Whether such collections are lost through the power of nature, arson or a Kristallnacht type of book burning, the loss of scholarship is tragic. I went down a Google rabbit hole when looking up dates of the these fires and was horrified to realize just how many such fires have destroyed archives of learning over the centuries around the world, most maliciously done.

This photograph of people standing helplessly by as the Jagger Building burned is etched in my mind – It sums up the impotence so many Ikeys felt as part of our alma mater was ripped away by Nature and we were forced to watch it on Instagram or YouTube.

It seems as though some of the collection at UCT may have been protected by fireproof roller doors which were activated timeously but countless pieces were lost, and the Reading Room is gone.  Herbert Baker’s grand pillars seem to have survived though – read into that what you will!

My mother was a librarian. For her, books and the worlds embodied in them were sacrosanct: God help one of us who was caught writing in a book – If it was in pen, not even God would help you – such an act of sheer blasphemy was likely to damn us to hell (but not always heeded by herself as I was to discover recently on opening her copy of the Combined Works of Shakespeare. However, we’ll forgive her brief hypocrisy because it was a treat to see her writing again after 26 years without her in my life.)

She is the one who taught me to read when I was five and the magic of stories, with their worlds of excitement. I remember asking her if she regretted never having been able to travel the world, and she replied that she had been to all the ends of the earth and under it, in her precious books.

She was offered the position of setting up the first library at the new Koeberg Nuclear Plant in the seventies and was really excited at the prospect of being the guardian of research and scholarship there. However, she turned them down in the end. It was only as a parent myself, that I realized the incredible sacrifice she made for my sister and I in accepting a lowly clerical job in a bank (but which paid more) so we could attend the school of her choice, a prestigious girls’ school in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, closer to where we lived. She would have beggared herself in order to ensure we achieved the private school education she had never had.

It was the same when the time came for me to go to university. If I had not been fortunate to be offered a bursary to study at the University of Cape Town, she would have made a plan – she told me she had already contacted the bank manager about it, when my funding came through.

So, for me to see the Jagger building and its African Studies collections so easily obliterated, I can imagine Sylvia Markey groaning in despair and my own soul echoes her moans.

I remember my time in the eighties there: the burgeoning political awareness I experienced immersed in studying isiXhosa and Sesotho; realizing my own privilege and the power entrusted in me to make a difference in our nation; of standing alongside my friend, Xoliswa on Jammy steps as she declared, ‘Look! Bonteheuwel is burning’; of teargas and riot police swaggering along the freeway; of Xoliswa’s rich alto over the megaphone, as she stood outside the Jagger Library as it was known then, singing the haunting struggle songs. ‘We shall Overcome.’

And we did…

… until perhaps we didn’t.

If this fire has jolted anything from my middle-aged heart, it’s a need to do a Mister Chips (I know that’s really dating myself, but I like to think I am in the ‘noontime, not the evening of myself) type of reflection of how I’m doing on changing the world. As I grieve the loss of the writing treasures in Jagger, and the library there that nourished me, as well as the lecturers like Sam Mbiza across the road who educated me and inspired in me a love of the beauty of isiXhosa, and a respect for its cadences, I must ask myself whether I have done enough to promote the study of African literature across my teaching career, which ended up being mainly sharing my own mother tongue with others. Have I filled the world with love – of reading; have I filled the world with hope through education?

It is my hope that another such reckoning closer to the end of my life (a long time away of course, because I still plan to live long enough to be a problem to my own children) will allow me to rejoice in the scholarly works of those whose studies in African Languages started in schools where I have introduced the language to study; that someone I have taught will translate nuclear physics textbooks into isiXhosa; that someone I have taught will win a Nobel prize for literature, and that someone I have inspired is the guardian of the African Studies books at UCT… or the library at Koeberg. I must try harder.

We shall overcome.

We must.

Just no more fires.

Change Management in The Age of Corona

How accelerating change affects leaders and 5 things that are helping me.

The only constant in life is change"-Heraclitus - Executive Drug ...

I don’t know about you, my gentle readers, but I have sent so many emails in the last few days that open with, ‘I am so sorry to change this meeting time/start date/start time/rule [select relevant option]’ so that I have begun to think I should sign my name, ‘Angie Motshekga’!.

We all know that modern life requires us to be flexible and learn to cope with change, but I think it’s the rate of change that has increased so much since we have entered the Age of Corona (forget Aquarius, this one needs its own title). We need change management techniques on speed, literally and figuratively.

The Effects of the Rapid Rise in the Rate of Change:

1. We need to be more flexible

The acceleration of changing information requires us to be instantly adaptable, with the dexterity of a taxi driver changing lanes. I had occasion to thank a staff member today, our imminently organized high school secretary, who had just been told one thing by her manager, only to have me alter the plan as new decisions were made. Her gracious shrug of ‘No problem,’ was so gratefully received because I didn’t have to placate, console or explain anything. (I would have hugged her if I could.)

Not everyone is that resilient.

Adapt or die may sound pithy when contemplating Darwinian theory, but when faced with the possibility that choices we make may well have life or death consequences, taking time to pause and choose wisely, then adjust your approach when new announcements change our underlying assumptions, takes a new kind of rolling-with-the-punches kind of thinking, which can be exhausting especially for those with a need for tidy, stable structures.

2. Clear, Accurate Information is difficult to Communicate

COVID-19 statistics are changing almost as fast as the numbers on an Eskom electricity meter in winter, and so does the information available, which makes it frustrating when trying to communicate effectively with our parent-clients who are crying out for clarity about so many things, not least of which are dates for the phased re-opening of schools. 

Knowledge is power, so when it keeps changing, so does our confidence in being on top of things. No one likes feeling stupid, and if we are caught napping with ‘I don’t know’ it doesn’t feel good. I have started tacking on ‘at this point,’ ‘according to current information, ’and ‘as far as we know’ to my statements, for plausible deniability.

Unfortunately, scientists are a bit like expert witnesses – you can always get one to back up your opinion. And everyone who has a viewpoint has a scientist to back up their view. We are bombarded with these twin talking heads, each crying fake news at the other and we as educators need to sail a path of sense through it all.

How I have managed to cope with the speed of change

1. Simplicity

I try to distil the myriad of articles, videos and documents into the essential snippets. However, anyone who has ever sat through one of my meetings knows that précis is not my strong point, but the ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ technique would be a good one to follow, if I could.

2. Team

I have been blessed in the course of my headships always to have good management teams, with whom to grapple with decisions. There is so much benefit to be derived from collected wisdom, and fortunately what we call the 5 Cs: CCCCC (CCC (School’s name) Command Council – we could have named it the 6 Cs: CCC Covid Command Council, but that would have been a bit much) has been tremendously insightful in unpacking the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP – my new, least favourite acronym) and all the new protocols to be observed when we re-open our schools.

My leadership team has worked tirelessly to transition our school from being a conventional educational institution, to a remote learning school, and… coming to a theatre near you… a hybrid, combining physical lessons and the remote offering for those who can’t or don’t want to send their children back.

Note to all leaders: if your team is strong, you always look good.

3. Empathy

It’s easy to become overwhelmed or irritated with the content overload and perpetually altering circumstances, not to mention having to absorb the anger and anxiety of everyone else like SpongeBob superheroes.

That is when the ability to appreciate another person’s viewpoint enables you to maintain a certain amount of humility and gentleness in your responses, all the better to diffuse antagonistic situations. People are stressed. It helps to visualize what that feels like.

4. Creativity

If ever we needed this 21st century skill, it is now, in this crisis. The trick is ensuring we have fun even in the dark days. The entrepreneur, Sam Cawthorn believes that

Crisis moments create opportunity. Problems and crises ignite our greatest creativity and thought leadership as it forces us to focus on things outside the norm.’

As a school we have seized on some things we’ve wanted to do for a while, and the change has allowed us to do them.

5. Wisdom

Billy Joel thought that honesty was hard to find; wisdom is even harder and when everyone is looking at you for the oracle moments and quotable quotes, it can be a bit daunting. See #2 above. Thank goodness for teams.

When all else fails in a crisis, my mother’s favourite prayer (and also funnily enough the prayer of addicts) is what keeps me going:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

I am not in any danger of being addicted to change, but I certainly need the serenity of the Mona Lisa (although I sometimes think she was a schoolteacher thinking ‘%^&*& I don’t know what to do with these new-fangled methods – I’ll just smile and perhaps they’ll think I’m on top of it all’) and the guts of a Man United fan at Anfield. (FYI I’d never be a Man U fan.)

Mona Lisa with mask covid19 - wallpaper 1080p | Wallpaperize

But perhaps the Good Lord will grant me the wisdom I so badly need.  If not, see #2 above, repeat…

Raising Civilised Children Part Two: Dinner Time

Self-help texts all agree that family meal times should be sacrosanct. I must concur.

And the tradition starts from when she first spits out (it’s more like ‘allows to ooze out’ actually) that ‘yum-yum-look-what-delicious-butternut-Purity food-Mommy-has-for-you’ and you smile and grind your teeth and try again, all the while chattering like Pollyanna on steroids, when in fact you are so tired from lack of sleep that you don’t care whether she likes butternut – she must eat it already because you want to get this endless day over and OMW you haven’t hung out the laundry yet and now it’s dark and you’d really like a cup of tea but the kettle is out of reach, and eeuh she’s playing with that orange mush and it’s in her hair which is orange anyway so oh  what the hell no one will notice so long as no one comes to visit and looks too closely and sees how inept you are but you’re a thousand kilometres from home so no one is coming and who cares anyway because all you want is sleep

And all the while your toddler chuckles happily about Teacher Di and the painting he did (OMW#2:  another work of art – where will you hang it?!) however, as much as Marina Petropoulos was somewhat disingenuous with her advice about babies automatically opening their mouths when the feeding spoon is held just above their mouths (My cherubs clearly did not read that section the same as I did, because generally feeding them involved forcing that rubber spoon between firmly clamped teeth, which possibly explains why Sean still bites his spoon, much to the annoyance of his siblings. I never did get my pilot licence for cutlery either,) eating all together definitely binds a family.

One of my earliest memories of the children at the supper table is of Caitlin telling Sean he was ‘misgusting’ for shaving off the breadcrumbs to reveal his hake’s nakedness. And so a study of the family’s malapropisms over the years may reveal not only what meal they were eating (and how), but some of their conversations and issues. Sean ate a great deal of ‘boewerors (which Caitlin is known to have choked on);  while Michael was frequently lambasted for bringing the TV ‘merote’ to the table (a habit started to prevent his having to surrender control of all things electronic – even then). Liam, in typical fifth-child-underdog mode, wailed once that he was not ‘being a girl’ (We won’t get into the sexist nature of that taunt by his brothers.) by insisting that he has ‘intestines.’  We also realised one evening that for years Michael believed one could in fact purchase a poetic licence (which perhaps proves his slightly word-sluttish early writing habits) and we knew to leave Shannon alone when she was (and is) ‘prumpy.’

Seriously though, the idea of sharing what happened in each person’s day is a really good one. My lambs sigh and raise their eyes to God in the long-suffering manner of teenagers everywhere when I get the ball rolling with the profound conversational opening gambit of, “so, Sean…what was the best thing about your day?’ We also speak about the worst and even the funniest moment of each person’s time at school and while poor Andrew, who is an introvert and an only child, who grew up with boarding school humour and dinnertime jibes, cringes and tells us, ‘This question is the worst part of my day,’  we really do pick up on stuff that is bothering one another. We realised Liam was being bullied in primary school; sneaky mom that I am, I can always tell when there is a crush happening because that person’s name comes up a greater percentage of time; and the act of characterising feelings is both good for articulating thoughts and emotions, as well as exploring profundity.

Sometimes it’s just loud. Our present eating area is small and so the din batters our ears as it reverberates off walls and window, especially when the topic of whose turn it is to do dishes arises. Visitors fall into two categories: those who stare in bemused fascination/horror and those who plunge right into the fray.

When they (okay ‘we’) are not shouting though, our mealtimes are an enlightening opportunity to encourage original thought as there is often fierce debate, egged on by Andrew’s terrible Devil’s Advocate stirring of the proverbial pot (no pun intended). It’s a perfect time to point out stereotyped views and challenge  the prejudices they encounter when they are away from us. We can extrapolate values from real events and, because we are around a table, we are all teachers. One interesting social norm that Andrew challenged once was in fact about hierarchy when someone insisted he sit at the ‘head’ of the table wherupon he humbly took a place in the middle.

It’s not always stylised dialogue however. We have been treated to endless Grade 4 jokes (seven times), random musings such as Lizzy declaring Goth-like with her hair covering her face, that she misses her guitar, bizarre utterances from Shannon of the mother-ship variety and the constant chidings from embarrassed teens not to comment on their friends’ Facebook walls and other such parental behaviour I have perpetrated which constitutes attacks on their social standing, as well as how generally ‘uncool’ I am. Sometimes they merely smile indulgently and mimic Brandon Berg’s ‘Housewives of Constantia Hills’ character who speaks in a superciliously whiney  tone  that is nothing like me; I swear, Trish. Besides, I think there is nothing wrong with keeping a tissue in one’s sleeve!

Load shedding hasn’t spoilt this family time for us because thanks to a pair of Carrol Boyes candlesticks (a gift for my fiftieth birthday and probably more valuable than the table itself) and Shannon’s unshackled pyromania, we still have light for the occasion (Table View being so beloved by Eskom that we are always off at 18:00.)

Fussy eaters abound, from Mika, who only eats meat and bananas, to Liam who sometimes has food with his tomato sauce. Apparently Shannon dislikes chicken (according to her friend’s father) and Michael is the king of rearranging stew on a plate to not only make it appear that he has eaten something, but to destroy any likelihood of its being able to be put back in the bowl, let alone be recognized as edible ever again. But one should be grateful that he has graduated from flicking baked beans onto the top cupboard when I wasn’t looking or hiding chicken pieces (What is it with the poor fowl?!) in the pot plant. Lizzy is gluten intolerant and Sean hates mayonnaise.  No one really likes salad except Andrew, but he only eats the lettuce. The Labrador, however, although she shouldn’t because she is diabetic, eats anything – from her quiet place under the dining room table.

No one would mistake us for the uber-wholesome Waltons, that is for sure. Our Sean-Boy, at twenty-two, now believes he is above the no-cellular-device-at-the-table rule, while Caitlin has usurped my role in the kitchen (amidst clamorous protest from me naturally!) She always did play Officer of the Deck to my Captain when she was little, repeating my calls to the others to ‘come to the table;’ ‘go and bath;’ or ‘make their beds’ Now she corrects their manners, frowns at me and makes better meals than me. (But don’t tell her I said that.) The squabbling abounds, despite her best intentions and my reminding her I am in fact present to correct poor etiquette. Besides washing-up injustice, the urchins complain about their siblings tickling their feet from underneath the table; making slurping sounds or scraping their utensils on their plates or against their teeth (There is a phobia about such things, called misophonia I believe- we have a few such phobics). They moan about their neighbour ‘flying’ with her elbows and others not listening to their story. I aim to referee the melee, but at times I am as effective as John McEnroe’s Wimbledon line judges.

‘Can we have some decorum,’ I pleaded one night.

‘What is ‘decorum?’ enquired a wit.

I gave up, depressed at the standard of private schooling and my family’s vocabulary.

But seriously, shared family meals are a must. If you have the intestines for the broil.

Bon appetit.

picture from janeaustensworld.wordpress.com