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.

9 Things I learned on a corporate getaway to De Hoop Nature Reserve

Epiphanies on a leadership retreat in the bush
  1. Try everything three times…with a friend

We went sandboarding.

They say one should try everything once (Google what Sir Thomas Beecham said about that!) I discovered that three times is the minimum: once because you should overcome your initial fear; once adding variety, and once pushing the fear factor.

Now in my middle age, I am no longer a daredevil physically, but I was itching to hurtle down the virgin slopes of the coastal dunes, and discovered that no more am I the first person to put up my hands for athletic feats. In fact, I was anxiety-ridden, not about making a fool of myself (That was inevitable) but of actually hurting myself. However a colleague and I plucked up the courage and went down (sitting) together in a ‘race.’ Well ‘down’ is an exaggeration. I slithered to a halt one metre after the guide stopped pushing me. But once we got going, what fun!

Then I tried standing up – for a while – and quickly realised that making like Kelly Slater on sand would be the quickest way to return with a broken ankle, but at least I can say that I rode the slope. (Two seconds is a while!)

Behind us was an almost sheer drop which three of us braved together – I participated in that madness only because I figured there were no bumps on the slope to stop me – I forgot about my behind – leaning back in fear of tumbling head over heels, I managed to embed my personal rear bump firmly in the hill and I had to paddle to the bottom, only to have to clamber on shaking legs back up the cliff.

But what exhilaration to conquer fear just a little. And sans Sally, I would not have done that.

2. Baboons share my sugar addiction

Baboons often damage protea plants seeking the sugary nectar beneath the flower head. Thankfully they stayed away from the chocolate stashes in the restaurant kitchen, but this chap was very interested in our cottage. Thankfully we had been warned to keep doors and windows closed.

Photo Credit: Sally Langerman

The delicious food at the Fig Tree Restaurant certainly kept us well fed and the chocolate splendour of the final dessert elicited enjoyment utterances akin to that scene in ‘When Harry met Sally.’

3. Sometimes you should just dive in fully clothed

Returning from an entertaining game drive, I joined fellow heads of schools, who were hot and exhausted after a walk through the fynbos, at the infinity pool on the cliff. Our costumes were far away in our cottages and after some splashing from the wildlife already in the pool, we threw dignity to the gentle breeze and dove in fully clothed, like children.

So often as heads of schools, we are called on to be solemn and proper, and decorous; at school we are always on display, but it was good to be real and have unadulterated fun. I think that childlike activity added years to our lives and reduced several therapy sessions worth of stress.

There’s a life lesson in that.

4. Fynbos and women

Our guide jokingly told us, as he pointed at the cones on the (female) fynbos plants he was showing us, that here the women have the… er … cajones (The euphemism is mine – he was a trifle blunter). It struck me looking at the smattering of female faces in the group how necessary it is in life for women to have ‘cones’, and not just at work. Listening to the stories of the women around me, I marvel at the capacity of women to maintain stressful careers, raise their families and run their homes simultaneously. If I have learned anything working in my job and seeing the struggles of so many single (and married) mothers, it is that there is a core of strength within us that is indestructible. Tired, yes! Defeated? Never.

5. Fynbos and fire

And that brings me to the miracle of fynbos: as anyone local to the Western Cape will tell you, fynbos has to burn every 8 – 14 years in order for the seeds to germinate. We women are certainly forged in powerful fires if you pardon the mixed metaphor. It’s a bit sad though that we sometimes only come into our own when we have to face disaster. If I think how many women are defined by their single-parenthood, breast cancer survival; or rape survival, rather than being recognized first for their strength of character or talents. But perhaps it is only in a crisis that women allow themselves to show their steely core. Don’t mess with a woman who has been betrayed: she has learned she can live without you.

But the fynbos is not merely a metaphor for the might of women, it is a sign for all of us that sometimes it is trouble that makes us fruitful. We are most creative when we are under pressure. In every tragedy there is an opportunity – that is how we tap into the creative power of the Almighty.

6. Saying no is powerful

Our itinerary involved an exciting afternoon walking along the shore and snorkeling in crystal clear waters. I wanted to go, and suffered severe FOMO by not going, but I decided to listen to my body which was screaming ‘Kan nie meer nie.’ Strong people sometimes battle to say ‘no’ or to ringfence free time for ‘sharpening sword’ activities. I chose myself that afternoon and slept for 3 hours. As a woman, as a leader, and as a female leader particularly, I frequently feel I ought to, should do, have to do, must do it all so I do not appear to be under-performing or lazy and sometimes it is a potent decision to take back my own power and just say ‘no’… and I didn’t get sunburnt.

7. Conferences versus connection

I am so grateful that the organisers of our conference put the emphasis on ‘conferring’ and connection rather than on lecturing and instructing. What made this gathering unique was the absence of powerpoints and workshops, the focus being on relationships – and funnily enough, watching the finance guys rock the slopes on sandboards was infinitely more instructive and entertaining than spreadsheets; chatting late into the evening and hearing another head say, ‘Wow you are describing exactly the challenges my school has!’ was as beneficial as formal training on collaborating about how to solve similar problems; and shared laughter was a balm for tired souls at the end of a long term.

8. Don’t lean on stone walls in the veld

Mice and goggas live there…and therefore so do snakes. There is probably a metaphor for life in that, but there endeth the lesson!

9. Life comes full circle

Arriving home was like returning from a school camp, having bonded with colleagues rather than merely shared a conference venue. I think we came back more friends than peers, a powerful thing in a post-Covid world.

And as I climbed off our overland bus, there was my son, Michael, standing at his vehicle like a Viking with with his blood-red beard, ready to take mom home, just as I had done so many times after tours and camps for my children.

Life is good with friends and family.

A Room with a View

Window dressing ideas for every style and budget | loveproperty.com

The dusk light is fading and I’ve put on my bedroom light in order to see to type. He comes in to hug me (well actually to nick my adaptor plug to charge his phone while he records a piano lesson) until he sees the street beyond in the gathering gloom below.

‘Close the curtains; everyone can see!’ yelps my husband, ‘We’re floodlit up here!’ This of course is rich coming from the exhibitionist who changes in clear view of passersby normally. (‘No one has complained yet,’ he declares every morning when I chide him for his flasher ways).

Of course the only passing traffic now consists of a rare police car or metro police, patrolling to ensure all citizens are home and adhering to lockdown, single roof light floating silently by like the whisper of a ghost . It is eerily quiet for a street that has at times been a racetrack for unsilenced motorbikes in the early hours, joggers, skateboarding youngsters and dog-walkers conducting the orchestra of protests from jailed canines at all hours, not to mention wandering Ubers, delivery vehicles and vibrating, wannabe-gangsta vehicles. Now the streets are empty. Quiet. Too still.

What I can see is the cute artwork of Mia, the littlun across the road who drew brightly coloured rainbows to festoon their wall – a sign of hope in these uncertain times. It rained today though so they droop melancholically damp on the wall and I hope… I hope she will draw again.

I hope her child’s eye foretells a joy I don’t feel when I see the statistics rising and fear for my staff who live so close to one another in overcrowded shanty towns around Cape Town.

It rained today (probably because I washed the windows last week because the achiever in me must!). I step out onto the balcony and breathe in the damp cool night air. I can hear the sea roar far away. A while back we argued about that sound, Andrew saying it was traffic. Now I know it’s the sea – so near and yet too far…

A siren breaks the stillness, screeching rudely, endlessly in the silence. Ambulance? Lockdown violator?

I hope Mia will paint the sea tomorrow.

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.