Teaching poetry, feeling blessed

Posted: August 22, 2012 in Poems

Penny and I always used to say how incredibly surreal it is that we get paid to read poetry and Shakespeare every day! As you, loyal readers, know – I have been struggling to fit in at my new school, and to adjust to the kids, who are so so different from my beloved John’s boys. However, the power of poetry never ceases to amaze me. I had serious breakthroughs today, thanks to Ms Edna St Vincent Millay and her saucy sonnets, and to Mr Frost and his snowy woods.

Thus, in tribute, two of my all time favourites, which enthralled even the criminally insane:

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening ~ Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Sonnet 29 ~ Edna St Vincent Millay

Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field and thicket as the the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea,
Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon,
And you no longer look with love on me.
This have I known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at ever turn.


Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me. 

Maya Angelou

An email I recently sent to my colleagues at St. John’s College (http://www.stjohns.co.zw/), to tell them how different it is to teach in SA, as compared to teaching in Harare.

I have recently begun work at a small, private school for learners who don’t quite fit into mainstream education (aka, the criminally insane). At this juncture I would like to categorically state that teaching at St John’s College, the elite boys’ school in Harare where I began my teaching career, has completely ruined me for any future school unlucky enough to have me.

So… It was my first day at school, and I had spent the weekend painstakingly trying to make sense of my predecessor’s[1] filing system, which included material and resources spanning over a decade and, as such, three different systems of education. I thus had several boxes, baskets and bags that needed to be transported into the school. Relying on previous experience, I stood patiently next to my car, waiting for a herd of boys to merrily chuck my things over their shoulders and bring them in. When help did not seem forthcoming, I deduced that I was obviously standing somewhere out of sight, and began to heave said katundus into the school. Despite huffing and puffing, veins popping on my forehead, and two near-death stumbles, NOT ONE SOLITARY STUDENT helped me carry a thing!!

The scandal does not end there. Whilst assembly started, the deputy head asked me to come to his office for some training. I was delighted at the prospect of getting some clarity on how things worked, and happily trotted off to his office. Once there, he proceeded to show me how to work the tazers and skok stoks (not sure what these are in English? Basically a baton with an electrical pulse), an ironic moment for me, as I was just getting used to the idea of not being able to have them beaten… Mr. Mariani’s big stick seems child’s play in comparison with a tazer!! Further to thus, he also explained to me  what to do should a fight break out in which a weapon was brandished. Note, if no weapon is brandished, we are not supposed to do anything… So if one delinquent is throttling another delinquent, protocol demands that we simply continue to teach and hope that the child’s wind pipe doesn’t hold out long enough that his choking becomes a distraction from sentence construction. Happily, I was then informed that I was not to worry, as there are CCTV cameras in every classroom, so I would be unlikely to be called as a witness in a court case.

The next amusing thing I feel I should share is SA’s “curriculum”. They now use the CASS system, which is basically like OBE, but with less touching and feeling (thank god – who knows where the delinquents have been!!). As I am the only English teacher at the school, I met with the head of the College (grades 10-12, equivalent to 6th form, but spread over 3 years instead of 2), who had offered to assist me in understanding the material better. As I said earlier, I had already gone through the material left by my predecessor, and had developed schemes of work, lesson plans, term projects, etc. When I presented the file to Mr Meyer he looked as though he was having a stroke; twitching and backing away from me slightly. Clearly this was not common practice. In fact, the level of work expected from students is pathetic! Each grade may only have ONE assignment PER TERM, and any other work done must be kept to a minimum. Homework allocation for the College grades is one hour PER WEEK, and for Grades 8 and 9 (form 3 & 4), 30 minutes PER WEEK!! I mean, our students do that much homework in between school and rugby practice!

I began to show him the lessons I had planned for the first two weeks, which I had based on a document provided by the DoE[2], as well as my predecessor’s notes. Once I had shown him these, I asked where I could find out what I should do with the students for the rest of the year. At this point he recovered his voice, and shakily informed me that I had in fact covered the entire year’s syllabus in my first two weeks’ lesson plans. It would seem that the CASS systems frowns heavily upon any sort of reading, writing or listening, especially when done in collaboration with (the horror) actual texts. In summary, I am using my form 2 Romeo and Juliet lesson plans, and Raye’s form 2 Macbeth activities for the MATRIC students!! And even so, they really don’t seem to understand! Or they are all high on crack. Or planning their next crime syndicate soiree.

I also completely overwhelmed the poor things, in my usual fashion. When the authorities told me that some students were ‘slow learners’, I only had my St John’s experience from which to draw. I remembered having such success with Plath’s Mushrooms on my first day with form 3 set 4 (Rorke, Rajput, et al), so decided to start with a revision of literary devices, and some questions on the poem. I thus began my grade 9 (O level, basically) lesson by dictating notes on literary devices, with definitions and examples. I then gave out Mushrooms, with some very simple questions for the students to complete in class. Shame, the little angels put on such a good show of keeping up and nodding thoughtfully at the appropriate moments, that I was completely shocked when I took the books in; none of them had managed to keep up with the dictation, only one or two had managed to underline the sections of the poem to which I had referred, and the handful of children who even attempted the questions were completely off the mark! I clearly remember Lin Jack telling me, after observing a form 2 class of mine, that she liked the way I spoke over the children’s heads, to force them to understand! Well Lin, I hope the same works here!

I don’t mean to speak poorly of the students; they are, in my opinion, victims of the system. It is also amazing having a maximum of 10 students in a class. Even though a period is only 30 minutes long, you can literally spend time with each child, and meet their specific needs. I am loving getting to know the little brats (although some are in their 20s, and not so little), and seriously feel as though I can make a palpable difference in their lives. They are so different from our John’s boys, and the work, whilst frustrating, is immensely satisfying!

The second noteworthy aspect of my first day of lessons was the awe with which I was greeted when I read to the students. Clearly, none of them have ever heard anyone read in English with a proper English accent. From grade 8 through to 12, every time I read, a hush falls over the classroom, and all their little twinkly eyes stay glued on me! This, coupled with the cameras, has reinforced Penny’s assertion that all English teachers are really repressed actors, who should re-consider a career in theatre. It is so hilarious to watch these ‘thugs and hooligans’ sit quietly at their desks, in rapt attention, listening to Plath or Shakespeare! No one is immune to the magic of literature!

Next, I would like to make a formal retraction of every time I moaned about anything administrative at St John’s. Our paltry term meetings, and Monday morning catch up sessions pale in comparison: at the school we have a meeting EVERY DAY at 13.45, and we MAY NOT leave campus before 15.30. We have to clock in and clock out, a process beadily observed by the reptilian secretary. Luckily, there is a second secretary, who I have strategically befriended, and who allows me to ‘edit’ my time sheet if necessary.

Leonard, my dear friend Leonard, most unappreciated of all people, I miss you more than anyone or anything! If I wish to make a photocopy, I must first print the document (we are allocated a certain amount of pages, which I had used up by day two). I must then take my photocopy book, with the document, to the deputy head master to sign. Once I have that signature, I must take the document and the book to the Headmistress, who signs as well. Then, I must tear out the approved page, and take it to the secretary (the nice, non-reptilian one) who signs the form again, accompanies me to the photocopier, puts in an access code, and watches me make the copies. She then takes a reading of the page amounts before and after the photocopying, and calculates how many pages I have copied. It is punishable by death (it seems) to go over the amount of pages you had originally speculated. As you guys know, I struggle to breathe and walk at the same time, and thus this process was somewhat overwhelming to say the least.

On my third day, I attempted to copy a 10-page booklet, double-sided, for my Grade 10 class. Well, you have never seen such chaos. When I somehow, through a combination of trickery, fraud and magic, forced the numbers on the machine and in my book to match up, I was already late for class. Because the college campus is across the road from the high school, I then ran (sort of) with a kajillion bits of paper flying around me, my coffee cup from Wendy Taylor balancing precariously off my pinkie finger, and was nearly run over by a bus. Upon arriving in class, I realised that Leonard’s job of correlating and stapling things is very far from as simple as I had imagined. After a double period, which included 3 trips back to the f***ing photocopier, one trip for more staples, much ridicule from the students, and some minor injuries, we had finally managed to get the booklets in order.

Wow, there’s so much more to say, but my books beckon! I just want you all to know how much I miss you, and how lucky I was to begin my teaching career with you at John’s. I constantly have a choir of voices in my head, advising me when I feel lost, and comforting me when I feel inadequate. I also feel blessed to have known the John’s boys first. They have set the standard “by which all others will be judged, and found wanting”.



[1] Whilst no one will tell me outright, it would seem that he suffered some kind of mental breakdown, which may or may not have had to do with being assaulted by a thug, ahem… I mean… student.

[2] Department of Education

Just Me

Posted: July 3, 2012 in Residual Self Images

I’ve always used myself as an attempt at expressing who I am. Like Tereza, who “tried to see herself through her body”, I often stand in front of the mirror to ‘see my own I’. “[S]he thought she saw her soul shining through the features of her face […] Each time she succeeded was a time of intoxication: her soul would rise to the surface of her body” (Milan Kundera, 41). 

The contents of the images in my mind,

I spill here for you to find as you will find.

Did you hear me?

Posted: June 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

Everyone says I talk too much. But does anyone ever listen?

As Edwards Thomas so eloquently puts it, I have come to the borders of sleep, the unfathomable deep forest. My dearest friend, and closest companion – the unfathomable deep.

I have been writing for hours and am exhausted and drained. It’s as though the pages are a succubus, sucking the life force from me! Crap, that was a The Gates reference. Mxm.

The light pools and shadows, Rushdie-esque, comfort me into a few hours of unfathomable oblivious bliss. And then we’ll try again.

Aside  —  Posted: June 15, 2012 in Master's Meanderings

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When I look into your eyes my friend,

I see our journey’s end in lucid depth and detail.

As the golden amber liquid flows through your jet black eyes

it oozes into my soul, soothing as it flows,

Knowledge of a thousand of my selves reflecting back

In the amber-fractelled black of your eyes,

Flowing backwards, then forwards in time.

Your sturdy bulk against my fragile hand,

Your sandy fur glows golden through my fingers,

And, quietly, I hear you say,

“I see our journey’s end, my friend.

No need to fear. I’m right here.”

So here we go, welcome to my world at 4:23am. I am in my first year of Master’s Research in Applied Language Studies.

The purpose of these scribblings is firstly, to keep some sort of record or summary of what I’m learning each day; the beginning has been shaky, and I need to get my mind focussed. Secondly I come across such interesting articles, poetry, short stories, pictures, and all sorts of other intriguing debris, and it seems a pity to keep it all inside my head, and, later, in my thesis, (shelved, prettily clothed in dust), at NELM. Sigh, we all have our dreams.

It’s my research day, which means I can catch up on sleep (if I can get any), eat some proper food, and get some serious work done. It’s astounding how rapidly my obsessive compulsive timetabled life has collapsed back into this irregular, routine-less routine; but it has. Playing student at 28….

I have no idea how I’m going to lay anything out, I’m just going to go with it.

On the agenda today is the creation of the beginnings of a structured proposal. Hopefully even draft 1, ready to send to Dr. Maureen. I’m sure I’ll post whichever poems, stories, articles, etc. I find intriguing.

Ok, I’ve started the blog. Dum, dum, dum…


Image  —  Posted: May 30, 2012 in Residual Self Images

Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.” Morpheus to Neo