Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Teenagers and alcohol abuse

We (the staff) had the most fascinating presentation at school today about teenagers and alcohol abuse. It was delivered by a research psychologist working at a local private high school. In retrospect, I can remember hearing a lot about the kids at this school, and the SERIOUS drink problem they had, so it doesn't surprise me that they've hired this chap and that he's trying to find a way forward.

Actually, the presentation wasn't just fascinating, it was terrifying in terms of the implications. One of his main points was about how important it is that parents set clear boundaries and then HOLD TO THEM. The effects of teen drinking on brain and hormonal development are significant. Alcohol apparently has completely different effects on teens in comparison to adults, which explains a lot of their behaviour. The scary thing is that it does have a permanent effect - it destroys a teenager's ability to concentrate, which affects both the long-term memory and the working memory. In lay-man's terms, it really DOES make teenagers stupid. Unlike many of the body's other restorative abilities, once this damage is done, it is permanent and irreparable.

What scared me is thinking about Janel and her future. I know I made some really big mistakes in my life and I want to protect her from making the same sorts of mistakes. The ones I made were, I now realise, a direct consequence of being a teenager. The way that a teenager's brain, body and emotions are developing makes them prone to certain flaws.

But I digress. As I was listening to the presentation, I found myself thinking that in the same way there has been a deterioration in the abuse of alcohol by teenagers since I was a teen, there will (probably) be further deterioration between now and when Nellie is a teen. Thinking that, I suddenly began to feel daunted by the immense task of parenting. How will I keep her safe? How will I create open communication with her that will allow Graeme and I to keep her safe? How will I ensure that whatever boundaries we put in place are not only reasonable, but within our abilities to hold firm?

These are not things I really thought about when we were thinking about falling pregnant! And if I had, I doubt they would have had the import they do now (Janel is not just another child - she is my precious little angel). Yet, they are important questions. Already there are times when sticking to the boundaries we've set is difficult - and she's not yet 3. How on earth will we manage when she's a teen?

Parenting is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Let's hope and pray that Graeme and I manage to stumble through this parenting maze with sufficient grace to ward off the worst of the nightmare situations that could occur. If nothing else, it really amazes me that our parents didn't screw up more with us, that they got it so right so often with us! It really makes me appreciate their brilliance even more.

So let's here it for parents the world over: three cheers... hip hip hooray! hip hip hooray! hip hip hooray!

Monday, May 26, 2008

"It would take a miracle"

Right now there are so many different themes running through my brain, all fighting for time to be thought through properly. I'm not sure which is more important, or which to really stop and think about first.

I'm struggling with other people's babies again at the moment. I've been fine for absolute weeks, but over the past few days I've felt that scratchy feeling again whenever I see other babies. At first, it's so much a part of the background I don't notice it, but as it grows in strength, it becomes un-ignorable. The worst part is that it isn't even the other babies I'm having a reaction to - it's that I want one and can't have one for a very long time. No, actually, that isn't even it, not really. What it's really about is that someone else has a baby and my baby is gone, and I'm as green as new spring grass. And it's pointless bemoaning how unfair it all is, because that only leads to one place, and I REALLY don't want to go there again. I'm just busy getting pulled out of this hole; I really don't want to fall in again.

Which brings me to the second theme - church. I wasn't able to get to church on Sunday because my family arranged a big family supper. It was lovely, as we haven't all seen each other for weeks and weeks. It was important for me to be there though, to meet one of my dad's best friends in the world, who is also dying of cancer. It was important to tell my dad, in the presence of this friend, how much I love him, to remind him that his (my dad's) life is not over.

(This friend is my dad's 2nd friend to be diagnosed with terminal cancer in a period of 2 weeks. Needless to say, my dad is feeling horrendous and is convinced that his number will be up very shortly too - for those who are new readers to the blog, you may not be aware that my dad had cancer in 2002/3, and not only does his type of cancer recur in 2 out of 3 cases, but should it recur, my dad has already decided not to fight it.)

But it meant that I wasn't at church, and right now I really, really need to be in church every week. I really, really need to connect with God, and right now church is one of the very few places I can do that. So I'm cross that I didn't get to go, and disappointed that I missed out, and frustrated that it's another whole week until church.

Which brings me to the 3rd theme... connecting with God. I am more than slightly in awe of Christian friends who have babies and manage to keep their spiritual lives on track. In fact, I'm just in awe of all Christians who are able to make time in their days to spend alone with God. I know that things are more complicated for me because of the last few years and the significant events that have shaken my entire understanding of God. I know that I have very large trust issues with God at the moment.

A friend recently commented on her blog about her experience of reading 'Hearing God' by Dallas Willard. That's a book I read a long, long time ago, and loved. And I'm sure that if I read it again, I would love it even more. While I firmly believe God speaks (just read my previous post from last weekend as a case in point!), I have serious doubts now about my ability to hear him, which rather puts a damper on the whole relationship.

The thing is, last weekend I KNEW God's voice. I knew it. But then I wasn't asking God for anything. I wasn't asking him to direct me. I wasn't asking for any specific words or pictures, or even asking him to explain a passage of Scripture to me, or to speak to me through his word. I was at rock bottom, simply calling out for him to save me.

As any psychologist worth their salt will tell you: intense, life-defining moments do not a relationship make. Just because you can talk to someone in a crisis does not mean the every-day relationship will be any different. And that's my experience.

I believe God is in the process of saving me - of pulling me out of the hole I'm in. He's done it before on several occasions, so I'm convinced he'll do it again. I believe I'm too valuable to him for him to give up on me just yet. But at the same time, I can't picture things ever being any different to what they are now.

I guess that's it - the balance between the urgent and the important. Dealing with a toddler who insists that Mommy feed/ bathe/ read stories to/ dress/ play with her (NOT YOU, DADDY!) is rather urgent (as well as important). Getting to work on time and taking care of my responsiblities there is important, while meeting my deadlines is rather urgent. Exercise is vitally important and urgent - I have 4 months in which to reach my goal (I've already lost 2 cms! Yay! Only another 8 to go.).. I could go on. Everything on my daily 'to do/ be' list is important and/or urgent. But what about time for me and God?

If I'm honest, I have to say that I'm scared. I'm scared of the time and effort it will take to get a "decent" level of intimacy back with God. I barely have time for my relationship with Graeme, how on earth am I going to squeeze time in for God? And I'm scared of what God is going to ask of me - the priorities he will want me to change, the things he will want me to do, the way he will break my heart again. My heart is saying that every time I've really trusted God over the past few years he has torn my world apart, and every time he's done that it's been worse than the time before. I'm not sure how much more tearing apart my world and my heart can take.

And yet, the longing is there. Once, I believed passionately, completely, without question. From the other side of these paradigm shifts I've been having, I don't know how to balance my heart's desire for more of God with the cost that discipleship will demand. I don't know whether I'm really willing to pay whatever cost God will (and already has) ask(ed) of me.

Now I have an hour or so before bed. I need to put in my half hour exercise and have a shower. I want to sit down and talk to Graeme, whom I haven't spoken to yet all day and who is feeling really sick, so is in need of lots of TLC. Where is the time for God and me? As I said, I don't ever see a way of things being any different to what they are now. "It would take a miracle." (Let's see who gets the quote.)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Born Sleeping

Born Sleeping is seriously about to take off!

Graeme and I met with some psychologists at a local private hospital about starting a support group. They don't have the time and resources to run one, and we don't have the contacts to really get the group off the ground, so this is a match made in heaven. We're going to start with one group, and take it from there. All very exciting.

Another exciting development is that we've started a website as well: It's still under construction, so some of the links don't work, but that won't take long to fix. It's very exiting to see it finally starting to come together, after all these months!

Monday, May 19, 2008


A milestone reached.... Graeme and I went to the evening service at church on our own for the first time EVER since we've returned home, and I think even for the first time since Janel was born.

The preacher was a friend of ours who runs a project called 'The Warehouse'. Their aim is community upliftment through various projects that they run. As a result, he works with the poor a lot. More about that in a moment though.

Being in church was both amazing and unbearable. Graeme and I have really been struggling with the issue of not really feeling like we belong to a church, and therefore, with trying to find somewhere to belong to. Before we left SA in 2000, we were members of the evening service. Since our return, we've been going to the family service. We don't know the people there, and it's really not a service we feel comfortable in for various other reasons that I don't want to air here. Mostly, we want a community like we had at the Ascension. We want to be part of a small to medium sized church where you can actually know everyone by sight, and where you can actually know a large number of people by name. We also want a church that has great teaching, great worship, and great children's church. So, not much then really.

In the past, when I've moved churches, I've known which church was the right one to join by the feeling of coming home I had when I sat down in the church. It's happened every single time I've moved to a church that has blessed me and challenged me. As yet, I haven't had that feeling when we've been back to our 'old' church, and I haven't felt that in any church we've visited.

Sadly, I didn't feel that last night either. (I bet you thought that was where this story was going, didn't you?!) However, as I looked around at the people in the service it struck me how many of the faces were familiar. When we left Ascension, everyone there had stood round us, as communities ought to, in grief over losing Zoe. I looked at these dear people, who had meant so much to us, but who really had never known us. I wondered how they would have reacted if we had lost Zoe here instead of in the UK. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by a desire to share our story with them, to tell them about our loss, to have them put their arms around us and enfold us in love.

It struck me though, that it was in this community, rather than any we had thus far experienced, that we were probably most likely to find the depth of relationship I am craving. I know these people loved us in their own way before, and they could do so again. Revelation #1.

As we began to worship, I promptly burst into tears, and proceeded to spend the rest of the worship with my eyes and nose overflowing, and no tissues anywhere in sight. I was battling to sing the words and mean them. All I kept thinking was, 'How can I say You are worthy of praise, or God Almighty, when you let my child die?' - or thoughts to that effect. I know that my real problem is that I'm struggling to trust God. As C.S.Lewis expressed it - the problem of pain is that the only solution to it seems to be that either God is not all-powerful, or he is not all-loving.

As I was grappling with this, I heard God's quiet voice asking me just to let go and trust Him, not to try and reason it out. And I just couldn't. I want an explanation. I want to know why. I'm not sure what effect knowing will have, whether it will drive me further away or give me a way out.

As I continued grappling, once again God spoke quietly to me. He reminded me of the last time He asked the seemingly impossible of me. For most people, if you asked them what they would most hate God to ask them to do, it would be to go to China as a missionary (or something similar). For me, it was to give up my dream of coming back to SA and staying in the UK permanently. I grappled with that question for months before I could come to a place of relinquishing my home and my family and saying, 'Not my will, but Yours, o Lord.'

But God hadn't asked me to give up my family, or South Africa. In a sense, at that time, I felt like Abraham, who had been given the son he craved, the son God had promised, and then had been asked to sacrifice him. He got to the point of having tied up his son, put him on the altar, and was raising the knife to kill him, when God stopped him. At the time, I felt like God granted me a reprieve. Once I was able to submit, He told me that he didn't require that of me. (Sjoe! That was a close one!)

As I was remembering all this though, it suddenly struck me that God was now asking the 'impossible' of me. The 'impossible' thing God requires of me is not to give up my family, or my home. It is not to give up my job and live without an income. It is not even to give up my own body and live as a disabled person. No, the 'impossible' thing God requires of me is to give up my child, my little Zoe, and to trust that even though she died, God is still all-powerful AND all-loving. Revelation #2.

From experience, I know that until I can do that, I'm not going to move forward in my relationship with God. We've reached an impasse, and God is not going to surrender to me! However, again, from experience, I know that God is patient. He will give me the space and time I need to work through this until I can do the seemingly impossible.

And then, as if that wasn't enough, someone shared a passage that had been given to a group she was praying with on Saturday. It was given in the context of praying for transformation in South Africa. The passage? Isaiah 43:18-19. For the benefit of those who aren't good Jews and can recite the Old Testament prophets at will...

"Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland."

Well, I think you can gather how startled I was as that passage was shared. In fact, in reading through the whole chapter earlier today, I nearly wept (especially at verses 5-7). The first part of that chapter has always had deep significance for me. It's one that God has given me time and time again at crucial times in my life.

Then, the Bible message email thingy I belong to sent me the following verse today...

"ARISE [from the depression in which circumstances have kept you - rise to a new life]! Shine (be radiant), for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!" Isaiah 60:1, from the Amplified Bible.

Do you think God is trying to say something to me? Just maybe?

Isaiah has to be one of my favourite books in the Bible. God has spoken to me through it so often. It strikes me then as no real surprise that these two passages are both from Isaiah.

I guess the question is: will I have the guts to step into the unknown and let go of my need to understand? Will I trust God despite my lack of understanding. Will I stretch out my hand to take hold of the one He is stretching out to me?

And if I do, what will the implications of that be? Does that mean I will never again be allowed to remember my baby girl, or miss her, or grieve her? Does that mean I will never again allow myself to ask the question my heart most longs to have answered?

Who knows?! Who knows. What I do know is that at the moment I'm stuck, and I'm not capable of moving forward on my own. And I also know that if I continue to stay in this place, I am going to lose my faith - as a consequence of neglect, rather than anything else - and then where will I be? I think this is what is euphemistically referred to as being between a rock and a hard place.

Edited to add... sorry, I forgot to tell you about the sermon. I'm exhausted now, so will do that another time.


It happens the world over: xenophobia. We are all afraid of the unknown. We all fear what we do not understand. In a sense, xenophobia is perfectly logical, and perfectly understandable.

And yet...

While in London, I was amazed by the hate, not just antipathy, that many Britons felt for the African and Eastern European immigrants. Commonly expressed thoughts were that they stole jobs, were thieves and rapists, and were smelly and unhygienic.

Of course, there was some basis in fact for these thoughts. Many immigrants were so poor the only way they could afford to eat was if they stole something. Many of them were economic migrants, prepared to work for next to nothing, in appalling conditions, because it was more than they would be getting back home. So yes, they took jobs, but many Britons would rather be on the dole than work. Migrants don't have the option of going on the dole. Britons want to be famous and earn mega-bucks for doing nothing. Migrants don't have that option - they want to eat, and work, so they can support their families back home where unemployment is even worse than it is in the UK.

As an immigrant myself, I was also constantly amazed by the way that Britons could single out one culture from another in their xenophobia. I never heard similar sentiments expressed about Saffas, or Kiwis, or Auzzies, or Canadians. (And people say that South Africans are racist!)

Over the past few weeks, xenophobic attacks on Zimbabweans, Malawians, Zambians, Ugandans, Rwandans, Burundians, Mozambicans, and many other African illegal (and legal!) migrants who are living near Johannesburg on the East Rand, have been on the increase.

It blows me away that my fellow countrymen and women can with one breath decry the atrocities in Zimbabwe, and with the next perpetrate their own. It blows me away that people who should be experts at ubuntu can demonstrate anything but. It blows me away that a problem I considered to be purely a first-world problem exists on my own doorstep (as it were.... Jo'burg is a good 1400kms or 870 miles). It blows me away that in this rainbow nation of ours, where thousands have fought, shed blood and died for the right for us to treat each other with the respect due another human being, for the right to express our equality, my fellow countrymen and women would perpetrate such hate crimes.

Yet, I know that I am still one of the privileged in South Africa and that therefore I have very little understanding of what my fellow countrymen and women are going through. I have running water, TWO flush toilets, a brick house, a pool, a car and a job that pays me in a month what most of them earn in about half a year. I can afford private medical care and insurance, while they are not even able to afford to eat 3 meals a day. I can afford to clothe my child and send her to daycare where she is in a class of only 10, while their children have only the clothes on their back and are in daycare with a class of 50.

So I have to ask myself - if I were in their shoes, if Janel was starving and sick, what would I be prepared to do to attempt to safeguard a future for both of us? If I thought that my neighbour was the reason that we were starving, sick or unemployed, how far would I be prepared to go? Stealing? Lying? Fighting? Killing?

I'm not sure, but I can't pretend that I wouldn't do those things. The moment Janel was born and I held her in my arms I suddenly realised that not only was I capable of murder, but that if anyone threatened my child, I would do whatever was necessary to protect her, including murder if it came to that (although I pray I never, ever have to be in that place and make that decision). So I can understand how they might feel they've been pushed into a corner and this is the only way out.

And yet...

There are hundreds more in the same boat who have found a way to refrain from violence and hatred, who have found a way to live in (uneasy) peace with these migrants. These other people have found a way to control their own fears and to demonstrate concern for the migrants. Because I know, therefore, that it is possible to be in extreme poverty and still demonstrate Christ's love, I can only continue to condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms. Every single person is worthy of respect and dignity.

This photo story is narrated by a newspaper photographer of his trip to the East Rand recently. These images remind me of the struggle photos of the '80s. Please God let us not return to that dark time in this nation, not after everything You have done in and for us!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Especially for you

The original purpose of this blog was to enable those back in SA to follow our lives in the UK. Since moving to SA, I often find myself wondering why I continue writing it. Sometimes it feels that, since it no longer fulfils its original mandate, that maybe its purpose has been served.

I've realised though, that since blogging, I've completely given up writing my journal. This writing process has become, to a large extent therefore, my journal. While there are things that I sometimes feel I can't or don't want to share with the wider world (although I am trying to blog the bad and ugly as well as the good - an honest warts-and-all picture of my life rather than a misleading picture-perfect one), I have been intrigued to see that the medium of blog has definitely altered the topics I choose to record.

In addition, I am reminded from time to time that there are others - friends around the world - who lurk religiously on this blog, or who occasionally post a comment:
  • Bee - thank you SO much for the frog card - it has pride of place on my pin board at work, where it reminds me that even when I feel most alone, I am surrounded by a 'cloud of witnesses'.
  • I was also gratified this weekend to be told by one such friend that reading my blog is a (minor) highlight of her week, and that she gets miffed if I haven't updated recently. So Nikki - this post is especially for you! I will endeavour to keep you entertained with plenty of posts to read.
And to the rest of you reading this, who read my ramblings, thank you for doing so!

The lighter side of politics

When I'm marking exam papers (as I am at the moment), I like to listen to the radio or a CD. It helps me to block out other distractions, and keeps me from getting bored out of my mind.

This morning, as I'm listening to BBC radio 2 online (to a podcast of Friday's broadcast of Steve Wright in the Afternoon) - my all-time favourite radio station - I nearly fell off my chair when they announced two political comments, so I just had to share them with you:

Boris Johnson (Conservative, Mayor of London, infamous for speaking without thinking, a regular guest presenter of 'Have I Got News for You'), when asked whether he aspired to being Prime Minister: I have as much chance of becoming PM as I have of finding Elvis!

Labour spokesperson: The greenbelt is a Labour initiative, and we intend building on it.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The power of networking

Yesterday my chess kids played a match against a school in Athlone. (Athlone is a mainly coloured area (mixed race) from a working class background, so definitely has a poorer socio-economic feel to it.) I was initially surprised to discover that it was the principal of this school who was their chess master, but then thought of our own principal who is the golfing master at our school.

Before too long, the Athlone principal and I started talking shop. He told me that he's teaching the matrics Life Orientation (a non-credit course that all kids in SA have to take throughout their school career, which teaches them a variety of things, from dealing with HIV, to life skills, to forcing them to take part in some form of Phys. Ed., to dealing with bullying, etc, etc). He's not a qualified LO teacher, but there is no-one else. He described to me how it has been an eye-opener for him, from the perspective of getting to grips with what his colleagues go through on a daily basis because of the government's efforts to improve education for all.

I told him about my experiences teaching in London, and why I was thrilled to be teaching back in SA. He asked what I thought caused the problems in the UK, and what I thought of the system here at home. I guess the ultimate problem is that, in an effort to raise the game of those who are weak/ poor/ ineffective, the government has legislated how education should take place. While I understand the thinking behind this measure, it has only really served to demotivate the good teachers. Instead of providing opportunities for mentoring and sharing best practice, the government has piled on a lot of administrative tasks that sap time, energy and creativity. Those who are good/ strong/ effective teachers are managing to keep their heads above water, but only just. Those who aren't, are getting drowned.

One solution, I think, would be to increase the teacher: pupil ratio, not by much, but by a little. This would allow teachers to have one extra free (non-contact) lesson per cycle, which could be used for the purposes of mentoring and sharing best practice - not only with teachers in their own school, but in other schools. Developing a culture of going to observe other teachers (both good and bad) and having proper time for feedback would go a lot further, I think, to helping develop teachers professionally, than having to sit behind your desk filling in reams of paperwork!

A result of this increased control and legislation is, I think, the increasingly poor regard in which teachers are held. We are becoming paper pushers, rather than true educators. You don't need a degree to be a paper pusher. You need a degree to think of creative means to educate a wide variety of children. The result of that is that, between the number of teachers dying due to AIDS and the number leaving the country to find employment in countries that value their teachers, and those who would rather DIE than take on a career which doesn't recognise or reward its members, we are fast running out of teachers in South Africa.

At our school, we are trying to tackle this poor regard that teachers are held in. One of our student leadership bodies came up with the idea of promoting teaching by interviewing our teachers about why they entered the profession and why they remain in the profession. These interviews are then typed up onto colourful posters and displayed around the school. I think it's a great idea!

I was telling the Athlone principal about this idea, and he looked at me with wonder. Firstly, I think he was impressed that we have student leadership bodies that actually contribute positively to the school. Secondly, I think he was dumb-struck by the idea, and from the look on his face, I have no doubt that he will be doing the same thing soon.

Sadly, he then told me that of his 29 teachers (with 800-odd kids at the school), only 3 would be suitable for interview - the rest are only doing the job until they can find something better to do. They are itching to get out. This picture is a common one across South African schools. Tertiary institutions have more bursaries to hand out than there are applicants, but there simply aren't the applicants. For Sciences (bio and chem/phys) there were only about a dozen applicants at my university in the year I applied, and that was in 1998. There are even fewer now, and all the dedicated teaching colleges have been closed.

Until teachers are promoted nationally by paying them a decent salary, requiring a certain level of prior education (do you know that in some countries you cannot even apply to be trained as a teacher unless you have a Masters degree???), and acknowledging that we have one of the most important jobs in the country, this picture will only continue to deteriorate.

What is even sadder is that South Africa spends more of its annual budget (percentage-wise) on education than most other countries around the world. I don't think it's that the government doesn't WANT to pay us more, but it's that there simply isn't the money to - we are already stretched to capacity as it is. HIV/ AIDS will only make things worse.

All round, it is a very bleak future for education in SA. Yet, I left that chess match feeling oddly buoyed. What struck me is that despite everything, I can make a difference. Not only am I making a difference to the lives of the kids I teach, but every time I network with other teachers through the extra-mural stuff I do, through meetings and courses I attend, I have the power to pass on something I have learnt, or to learn something from someone else. Every time that happens, the teaching profession is strengthened.

So I left the chess match with hope - hope that things at that Athlone school will change - albeit very slightly. Maybe the other teachers will read those 3 interviews and begin to think about their own experiences, and maybe one will change his/ her mind about leaving. Maybe a few children will read those 3 interviews and decide to become teachers. Maybe a parent will read those interviews, and talk about it to a friend at church or mosque, and maybe the grapevine will begin to spread the good news about teaching.

Someone once told me that only one tiny candle is needed to stop the darkness. Only one. That's the power of networking!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Ben Zander 'The Art of Possibility'

If you are in Cape Town in August this year, then Ben Zander is doing a presentation on the 22nd and 23rd. He wrote 'The Art of Possibility'.

Ben's a maestro conductor and cellist (UK born but living in the US now), but mostly, he considers himself a teacher. His teaching methodologies bring out the best in people, and increasingly business leaders are turning to him for inspiration.

He is doing a special presentation for teachers and Grade 12 pupils on the Sat at Artscape, and I'm fortunate enough that our principal is paying for us to go! I can't wait!

If you go to one seminar this year, make it this one!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Do they WHAT?!?

So you know how you should never say 'never'? Well, I NEVER thought I would hear what I heard today.

Today, in my matric class (A2 level for those in the UK; age 18 for those in the US since), we're doing revision for their exams, which start next week. (Yeah, our school do the mid-year exams REALLY early... for lots of good academic reasons, including that the annual play production rehearsals shouldn't clash with exams.) We were comparing and contrasting mitosis (ordinary cell division) and meiosis (cell division to produce sex cells - sperm and eggs).

We finished with about 10 minutes to spare, so we started chatting just generally about sex related stuff - how to ensure that when you fall pregnant you get a boy or a girl; when girls ovulate in their cycle; when a boys sperm cells are most healthy... you know - THAT kind of thing.

I'd rather the kids asked me all their sex related questions rather than get misinformation from their friends, so I alway try to make time for these sorts of questions. I also try really hard to take their questions seriously; not embarrass them by getting flustered or shocked; and give them a biologically correct answer that doesn't side-step the real question, but is phrased in a language they can grasp, and that manages to be dignified at the same time. I want to foster the kind of atmosphere where the kids feel free to ask me ANYTHING. (I mean, some kids would rather DIE than ask their parents, so who else are they gonna ask?)

Well, today I nearly, nearly burst out laughing - both from shock and disbelief! I definitely cracked a huge smile before I realised and stopped myself.

In matric ... MATRIC... a boy asks me the following:

"Ma'am, if a guy has sex with a dog, will the dog fall pregnant with puppies?"

Slaan my dood met 'n nat vis! (literally, Hit me with a wet fish till I die)

What kind of education have these kids been getting that a kid in matric STILL thinks this can happen?!?! What kind of old wives' tales has he been listening to? What kind of literature is he reading? How is it possible that an 18yr old can have this kind of question?

Needless to say, the rest of the class fell about laughing, so in addition to having to treat his question with dignity, I also had to try to get the rest of the class to treat it with dignity... I'm not sure which was harder! Fortunately (I say fortunately, but actually it's even more tragic!), someone else in the class, who laughed loudest and longest, also thought that this was possible. When I gave them the explanation of why it was physically impossible for that to happen, this kid replied - "Oh, I also wondered about that. I wasn't sure either." At which point, the class fell about laughing again.

I had had some hope of this class (they are the bottom set of 4) passing their final exams this year. Now I have none.

However, the lesson I learnt today is that, after 4 months, this class is finally starting to trust me enough to ask the questions they don't dare ask anywhere else, and that makes me very, very pleased and proud. I'm doing my job well, and that means that even this bunch of kids who know nothing, who will probably all fail at the end of the year, are going to walk away with some really important biological questions answered. At least when they leave my class they will have some understanding of how their bodies work on the most basic, and important, level. Just maybe their time in my class this year will not have been a complete waste of time.

Maybe, just maybe, that means that I will have changed a life - stopped someone from smoking, or falling pregnant, or getting HIV - or maybe I will have helped someone to get the child they want, or have the knowledge to take care of themselves properly while pregnant, or inspired someone to become a person others can trust, someone who listens, someone who cares. THAT is why I teach. THAT is why I love Biology. Forget all this statistics and geography nonsense I have to teach nowadays in 'Life Sciences'. I just want to teach the Biology stuff, because THAT's the stuff that changes lives.

I LOVE my job!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Fussing and fighting

Janel is well into the terrible twos. At the drop of a hat she will launch into a tantrum, which will be loud, and often violent.

After the two long weekends in a row that we had here in SA, she was particularly distraught to have to go back to nursery on Monday, and her behaviour since then has been horrible. We've fought about everything.... brushing hair/ teeth, getting dressed, getting undressed, eating, drinking, getting into the car, locking the house up, watching TV, reading books, playing games, the parent who does all of this stuff (me vs Graeme)... the list is endless!

Yesterday was no exception. After having several fights with her between picking her up from nursery and getting home (we went shopping first), she had the mother of all tantrums on our final leg home. She kicked and squirmed and hit and screamed. As I was trying to put her car seat straps on, this was rather trying, and I lost my temper, forced her into her seat, and then smacked her bottom when she tried to wriggle out again. This resulted in even louder tears and screaming, but it at least enabled me to strap her in. I'm not proud of having lost my temper.

However, by the time we got home, she was her cheerful self again - even telling Daddy that Mommy was 'mean, horrible and nasty' because she had smacked Nellie because Nellie was crying. (Daddy has been persona non grata - so the fact that she was talking to him is a massive step forward!) Finally, the bath/ bedtime routine was started. We were all exhausted, but there was one final tantrum brewing. As it began to erupt, I could feel myself losing it again. Taking a deep breath, I hugged Nellie to me and said, "I don't like fighting with you, Nellie. I don't want to fight with you. Please just do what Mommy wants."

What really surprised me was that she gave me a fierce hug in return, kissed me, and then said, "I don't like fighting with you Mommy,". She then simply & quietly did what I had asked! She took my breath away. What a very grown up response!

Moments like that let me know that, once we are through the twos, underneath it all, she is growing into a beautiful person. I can't wait to see what an amazing person she's becoming, and all that despite me and my failings as a parent.

Unexpected moments...

I'm sitting in assembly, when the Muslim Students' Association get up to do a notice in the form of a short video. The music starts (it was a great song, but I can't remember what it was now...) and then the images start. At first it's rather innocuous stuff, and I start wondering where they're going with this. Then the hard-hitting stuff kicks in. The ad is all about getting together to pray and make a difference for starving children around the world. The message is great. The images that go with it are not.

The last image I saw was of a woman holding what I initially thought was a preemie. The child was curled into her lap, with its back towards the viewer. Then I looked again and realised it wasn't a preemie. It was a child of several months, but it looked like a preemie because it was starving to death. It had no fat. It's skin lay in an odd arrangement of shiny smooth sections with wrinkles and folds around its spine.

And immediately I felt that poor mother's sorrow. I remember how funny Janel looked - nothing like a normal newborn - because she was too little to have had time to build up layers of fat under her skin. I remember how I felt when she, a preemie, would not feed. I know how frustrated I was that she was unable to suck enough nourishment into her tiny body. I know how helpless I felt as I watched the weight fall off her. I know how confused and scared I felt as my milk came in but lacked the nutrition she so desperately needed. I know how desperate I became to make everything OK for her. I know how lonely I felt as she lay in the incubator under lights as the hospital staff put a tube down her nose to try and save her life.

And seeing that photo, I know how blessed I was that I had the money to enable me access to the staff and services that saved Janel.

And so I wept, right there in that hall. I wept for that poor mother who could not save her child, but who obviously knew it was dying. I wept for that poor child, who was suffering an agonising death. I wept for guilt that Janel had survived, while hers would not. And I wept for the emptiness that followed the loss of Zoe, the loss that poor mother would soon experience.

I don't know who saw me, because as soon as the tears started I got up and left the hall. I ran and hid in the bathroom. Then, when my tears subsided, I went to the staffroom and hid behind a newspaper. When the other staff returned to the staffroom, I went and hid in my classroom. The remainder of the day was spent under a cloud of grief. I battled to teach my lessons, drained of all energy. All I wanted was to crawl into a corner and howl. It took all my energy just to speak.

I also developed a headache, which, as I write, is still with me. (Yes, I've taken drugs...they haven't worked.) I don't know whether it's an APS headache, a sugar headache (I got through a lot of comfort food yesterday!) or stress headache, but my money is on the fact that it was brought on by my unexpected grief.

I love that my heart is that unguarded - that I don't have the defences I used to have. I love that the plight of one unnamed, anonymous child and its mother can affect me so deeply. I love that, in this area at least, I am becoming more like Jesus - seeing with my heart, weeping with those who weep, mourning with those who mourn.

I hate that my heart is unguarded. I hate that a simple photograph has the power to bring to the surface the grief that I know will never leave me. I hate that, at the drop of a hat, I can be weeping so deeply in front of a bunch of relative strangers. I hate that my child is dead and that nothing will bring her back.

A family member asked me, the other day, whether or when I'm going to stop talking about Zoe. Her question rather took me by surprise. I wasn't sure how to respond. I know she spoke out of concern, because she thinks it's unhealthy to keep talking about Zoe. Part of me wanted to tell her to get lost, part of me wanted to thank her for her concern, and the rest of me wanted to spend the next however long to help her understand why I will never, ever, stop talking about Zoe. I eventually responded by saying that I don't think I will ever get to the point where I stop talking about Zoe, and then changing the subject. All round, I think it was the safest response. I hope it was the right one.

Friday, May 02, 2008


I have been blog-tagged!

Once you have been tagged, you have to write a blog with 10 random things, facts, goals, or habits about yourself. At the end, choose anyone you think may answer - to be tagged, listing their names & why you chose them. You can’t tag a person who has tagged you.

Ok Bee - you got me! So... 10 random things, eh?
  1. My daughter, at age 2.5, thinks I have a large bottom.
  2. I (like Bee) need to lose some serious weight - 10kgs would be a good start - before Oct. (Just reading through the post before actually posting it, and realised that you might get the impression point 1 and 21 are related... well, they're not! so there!)
  3. I feel rubbish for my eldest niece who was disqualified for her show jump today because her horse refused the jump too many times. She was so psyched for the competition today too!
  4. I'm more than fed-up with one of the agents trying to sell our house - she emailed me yesterday asking whether there was any news on the sale of the house. Umm, sorry, but isn't it YOUR JOB to sell my house? Why are you asking me whether there's been any news on selling the house????
  5. My goal for the weekend is not to end it feeling exhausted. Tomorrow we celebrate my mother's 12th wedding anniversary (by taking the grandchildren to Place of Play!), then we have my brother-in-law's 40th in the evening. Sunday I'm on duty at creche, then it's lunch with the in-laws, then on to a 35th birthday party, before popping in to visit Oupa and Ouma. In between all that, I still need to mark a set of papers and set an exam.
  6. I am currently re-reading an average Le Carre for the 3rd time (or is it the 4th time now?) because I haven't got time to go to the library.
  7. I baked a very yummy banana bread for supper tonight, and managed to make supper at the same time, and have everything ready at the right time, without burning any of it - and it all tasted really good too.
  8. My biggest goal for the year is to successfully fall pregnant. (My second biggest goal is to get through my first year as Head of Department. My third biggest is to get both 'Lovely Laities' and 'Born Sleeping' successfully up and running.)
  9. My biggest goal for next year is to successfully give birth to a live child, who survives. (My second biggest goal for next year is to go skiing.)
  10. I'm now going to go and watch Miss Congeniality for the 3rd time... there's nothing else to watch on TV!

Was that random enough for you?

So - now to tag someone...

OK, Bee Austin and Bron Lea... you are IT!

You have to read this!

All I'll say is that you just HAVE to go over to Nellie's blog to read her latest offing! She had Graeme and I in stitches for absolute ages this afternoon!