Thursday, 27 May 2010


This month’s challenge was sorta thrust unto me and turned out to be my toughest challenge yet. In the beginning of the month, a very good friend asked me if I could take care of his one month old baby girl since her mother was very ill and he had to leave on an emergency business trip for a few days. So I acquiesced and took some time out of my busy job hunting schedule to take care of this tiny little girl full-time.

Now I’ve taken care of babies before, but not one month old babies and certainly not to this extent. At first, it was kinda overwhelming with 2am and 4am wake-up calls for feeding and burping and diaper changing and coo-ing and bath-time at 10am etc., and I felt myself bending over backwards trying to figure out this baby’s needs. On one of the mornings there was a grueling run from 3am until 10am with a very restless baby who was tired herself but not getting any sleep.

However, it wasn’t long before I learned to read the signs and could tell one cry from another… whether she was hungry or needed to be burped or changed or just wanted to be held. I picked up on other stuff too… like the fact that she loves to be held close before she falls asleep and hates it when you touch her feet. She also smiles and coo’s at 4 in the morning and falls asleep when you sing to her. In the end, I didn’t even mind the 2am, sometimes 3am and 4am wake-up calls, it was a pleasure to be able to do that for her. Best part was just watching her sleep…

I now know why people have children. I must say that the week was both exhausting and the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. It’s amazing how one can love something, someone, who doesn’t even belong to you, so whole-heartedly without any reservations. I guess the human spirit really knows no bounds in terms of human connections and affection.

On the day the baby had to leave I was so sad, it was unbelievable. But I didn’t have time to wallow because it was like the universe wasn’t done with me, and on the very same day I got a phone call from another very good friend who asked me to help out at the primary school where she happens to teach. As it turned out, a lot of the teachers were off sick or on leave so at first I stepped in the role of Librarian for a few days. Thereafter, I was called again and asked to try my hand at teaching 45 second graders for the week.

I have never taught before, and always thought myself slightly allergic to kids. So I was not only apprehensive but slightly anxious too. The first day was difficult and I thought that I’d go home with little or no voice at all. Trying to control 45 seven-and-eight-year-olds is tough! But I got the hang of it and by the third day I was in a routine. It was numeracy in the mornings, and literacy after first break when their attention spans seemed to have waned somewhat.

The hardest part of each day had to be the 90 minutes after their second 15 minute break, before they went home. It was in those 90 minutes that they became monsters, unruly rowdy kids that were difficult to control because of all the sugar pumping through their veins fueling some ADHD tendencies. I often kept them in for the first and second break as a punishment and sometimes for 15 minutes after school too. And my threats included stripping them down and letting them walk around the school naked if they were naughty.

Think I'd have nighmares if I had to look at this every day. No wonder some of the kids are crazy.

You'd be forgiven for thinking this is some kind of voodoo shit.Visiting traditional healers are the norm amongst black cultures. Click on image to enlarge.

And then there was that constant barrage of: Ma’am, he took my pencil… Ma’am she’s writing on my book… Ma’am he’s talking… Ma’am I want to go to toilet… Ma’am can I drink water… Ma’am she’s chewing bubble-gum in the classroom… Ma’am he punched me… Ma’am she broke my ruler… Ma’am he took my sharpener and he doesn’t want to give it back… Ma’am give me one last chance…

Being a teacher is a messy job and in between the constant whining and tattle-tailing, you have to make sure that these snotty kids blow their noses and wash their hands with soap when they leave the toilet. I don’t think I’ll ever teach in South Africa though. There’s too much politics and this new OBE system is so messed up, it has teachers up to their necks in Admin work, in addition to teaching and giving lessons etc.

In my time in the classroom, I found many flaws in the system. One of the biggest issues at the moment is communication. SA has 11 official languages, but most schools are taught in the English medium. The result is that there are a whole lot of kids whose mother tongue is Afrikaans, Xhosa, Tswana, Sotho and Zulu etc. who are being taught in English and while most of them speak English, they cannot understand basic instructions or the simplest of questions when being evaluated. And these are not stupid kids (most of them anyway).

In one of my lessons, I had asked them to give me the answer to “what is one more than 7?” and no one could answer me. So I asked them, “what’s 1 plus 7 and everyone automatically said “eight”… but none of them could understand that “one more than” meant “plus one”.

I remember when I was in Grade one, and we learned numbers 1 to 10. We learned how to write them out, spell them, add any of them, subtract any of them etc. We mastered numbers 1 to 10 before we moved on to other numbers. These kids are being forced to learn numbers 1 to 200 in the first grade and most of them don’t even know what the answer is to 3 minus 1.

That said, here are some of the highlights of what transpired over 3 weeks with a bunch of 6, 7, 8 and 9 year olds:

9 year old Brenda: Ma’am can I photocopy 3 pages from this book?
Me: (as Librarian) Yes, that will be R1,50.
Brenda: Ok, but I have my own paper.
Me: It’s still going to be R1,50.
Brenda: But I have my own paper, can’t you just stick it into the machine.
Me: Yes I can, but you still have to pay for the ink…
Brenda: Oh… (frown and light-bulb moment)

Me: (as Librarian) Sit down and keep quiet please! This is a Library, Prefects, please do your duties.
7 year old Ismail: Ma’am, we have no prefects in our grade.
Me: That is too bad, so sad for you!

8 year old Michael: (in the classroom) Ma’am, if we’re really good, can we all take turns and sing and dance for the class?
Me: Ok, yes.
(8 year old Indian girl, Anushka sits up-straight at the news and her eyes light up, Michael and some of the guys start dancing, class gets rowdy after 2 minutes)
Me: Ok, you know what, this is causing too much of a riot. Please sit down and you can dance during your break time.
Anushka: (who had 2 minutes ago donned the uniform like the rest of the school, comes to me out-of-the-blue wearing some sort of tights and gold sari-type-scarf-thingy and hair pinned in a weird disheveled way) Ma’am can I go brush my hair and fetch my skirt and the rest of my uniform outside because I thought we’re going to be dancing and now we’re not.
Me: Ah, erm, ok (wondering who the hell carries extra clothing around in case they’re going to be asked to dance?!?)

7 year old Jessica: (mumbling softly and incoherently) Ma’am humurnnice.
Me: Huh?
Jessica: Humurnnice.
Me: Huh? What’s that?
Jessica: (still softly) You are nice.

9 year old Bernice to 8 year old Farhaad: And if you touch my pencil with your snot, I’m going to break you!

Me: Take these words and make your own sentences.
8 year old Angelo: Ok, Ma’am… how do you spell “ma’am” and “beautiful”?

7 year old Fehima: (with the most profound expression) Ma’am I want to bake a cake for you.

8 year old Thandeka: (holding a lollipop up to me)
Me: Yes?
Thandeka: Hmmm (still holding said lollipop and nodding gently)
Me: Yeah what?
Thandeka: It’s for you Ma’am.
Me: Oh, thank you (smile inwardly).

(7 year old’s Craig and Ahmed arguing, storming up to me)
Craig: Ma’am, do cows fart?
Me: Erm, I don’t really know, maybe they do.
Craig: (to Ahmed) See, I told you. They DO fart.
Me: I said I don’t really know.
Ahmed: Ok Ma’am, if I plant chickens, will KFC grow on trees?
Me: Not unless pigs fly.
(Both look at me bewildered)
Me: That means no. No KFC will not grow on trees if you plant chickens.
Ahmed: (to Craig) See, I told you.

Me: Ok class, let’s pray.
8 year old Daniel: Dear God, please give my father enough money for a new car and cheese burgers this weekend.

It was a very challenging month indeed and I learned more from these kids than I could ever teach them. Needless to say, I take my hat off and have a newfound respect for Parents and Teachers worldwide.

Back to the boardroom for me... for now at least.


  1. Azra, does this experience change your desire to have six children?

    And if you have the children, will you home-school them now you have a taste of the elementary classroom environment?

    I said to a friend the other day, I think that the toughest job in the world is "parent". There is no way to prepare properly and there are no dress rehearsals. It's real and very important every minute of every day.

  2. LL- I still want at least 4 kids. You had four and lived, so you're my role model :)

  3. Awww...babies so cute at one month :)

    I suppose a week of it is inspirational and amazing...but when it's permanent (i.e. it's your own child and there's no such thing as holidays), it becomes a lot more tiring.

    But that builds patience and strength; both mental strength and physical strength - because you've gotta be strong to keep carrying this kid as they grow heavier and heavier).

    Not that I would know much about either - because I've played a pretty secondary role compared to my wife when it comes to our baby (previously known as 'Our little terror' ;)

    With regard to language - it's a big challenge in such a diverse country. Ideally, you'd want each child to be taught in his or her own language. But then how do you make that happen? Organise schools according to language? DOesn't that then classify and segregate people?

  4. Awwww! I love the Jessica one! :)

  5. 7 year old Ismail: Ma’am, we have no prefects in our grade.

    Me: That is too bad, so sad for you!

    This one was great! haha.

    I think being a teacher would be fun.

  6. Azra, you should exceed the example set - have five.

    All kidding aside, the third one is the most difficult because a mother only has two hands and they will inevitably team up against you.

    The fourth child presents a transportation problem (necessitating a van) because most passenger cars are set up for five passengers. The sixth is a complicating factor.

    And there is an issue of bedrooms. Eventually I simply moved (like a hermit crab) into larger and larger homes until I reached a six bedroom, five bathroom home because each female required:
    * Her own bedroom.
    * Her own bathroom.

    Now that the children are leaving, I'm stuck with a large house.

  7. dreamlife - No doubt parenting can become exhausting! But it is a rewarding experience.
    The problem with our schools transcend mere language. These kids have real social problems, on top of biological problems like ADHD (from parents who smoke or are exposed to smoking) and FAS (Fetol Alcohol Syndrome in some)... in ADDITION to the language barrier. Segregation won't work, because there are Indian kids whose mother tongue is English but they're just as dumbfounded when it comes to questions. I would actually suggest that a mandatory English class be presented to learners from Grade R in every grade, so these kids are brought up speaking proper English, not baby language or colloquial mixed dialects etc.

    Scrumps - Yeah Jessica is very cute. She's one of the students that require special attention because she takes longer to process instructions etc. But she is really sweet and just needs a teacher who is patient with her :)

    mezba - It's only fun if you or your kids aren't being evaluated or monitored by inspectors from the Department of Education :) I liked it because there was no REAL responsibility attached to it. Real teachers in this country are subjected to constant evaluations and a significant portion of their work is Admin related and includes attending Cluster meetings every week etc. etc. so in essence, a teacher's work is never done. I like to keep my work at work and home at home.

    LL - large house = great investment :) You should sell and buy a fancy condo on the beach - oh wait you already have one don't you? Anyways, if I was rich, I'd want 6 kids... ideally 4 would be great ;D