At first I hated pre-school. The entrance gate was at the end of a long path up to the school. That walkway was my Via Dolorosa, my path to daily crucifixion and the drama of separating from my Mom involved much gnashing of teeth, tears and despair.
I have no recollection of my teachers at my nursery school in Johannesburg. I can’t remember their names or what they looked like. In fact, I have no memory of ever being taught anything. Well, actually I recall one lesson where the teacher chucked a sponge in a bucket of water and showed us how it absorbed the liquid. I am not sure if the point was to teach us about water or absorption or buckets or sponges. The teacher asked where water came from and someone said ‘the bath’. I recall guffawing and collapsing into a heap of hysterics in front of the class. I probably scarred the kid for life.
I remember endless, unsupervised colouring-in sessions. We used the back of perforated computer paper that someone’s dad must have donated. I often studied the hieroglyphics of computer codes, letters and numbers and wondered what it all meant. Then I turned it round and, using my Crayola crayons, drew myself the usual house, a sun, a tree and my mom, dad and brother.
The only figure of authority that stands out is Frank, the fat black caretaker who made our peanut butter and tuna fish sandwiches. Frank had a hat fetish and always swiped our caps and popped them on his own head. He made our food, washed dishes, cleaned up and then waddled round the school, all the while accumulating a pile of hats. We learned to guard our caps but sometimes, when I was so engrossed in my colouring, I felt Frank lifting my cap off my head and it was too late. By home time, Frank had a leaning tower of 10-20 hats balanced on his head. It drove us nuts and we were forever jumping up and flapping our arms as we tried in vain to tumble the pile off his head.
I had two close friends at school. One was called Angela but she was known as Muffy. It was an appropriate name as Muffy was very scruffy. My other friend was Laura, our church vicar’s daughter. She and I had an explosive love-hate relationship.
Laura, Muffy and I spent most days making mud balls. We permanently had sleeves of dirt. Making a mud ball was a fine art and it took a couple of days to create a decent one. We never did anything with our masterpieces – the joy came from the process of making them. The first step was to create a paste of mud and water and I moulded it into a ball with my hands. I covered it with sand and gently rubbed it over and over. Eventually my mud ball was hard and as smooth as a baby’s bum. At home time, we left our mud balls within in little piles of sand which looked like molehills scattered over the playground.
On one occasion, when I was making mud balls with Muffy, we heard that Laura was on top of the jungle gym and had a skirt but no panties on. We skipped over to the play area and most of the school paraded under the jungle gym to have a quick peek at her naked bum. Laura spread-eagled her legs from one pole to the other and was blissfully unaware that her acrobatics were causing us all such excitement.
I always found school eye and ear tests and vaccinations deeply traumatic. I felt it was a violation of my personal rights to choose. I thought, who the hell do these people think they are by jabbing a sharp needle into my flesh? I remember very little of preschool but every eye and ear test and vaccination stands out with great clarity. While all the other kids stood in the queue like calm little lambs, I wept and wailed and flung my body against the walls.
I realise now that my terror was a fear of the unknown. I didn’t know what to expect. I remember one of my classmates said we had to put on the ear phones so they could check if we’re deaf. Four-year-old me wasn’t really sure what ‘deaf’ meant. I thought, ‘What if I’m deaf? Oh no God, maybe I am deaf! Oh no, I’m deaf! I’m deaf! Maybe that means I’ll be taken away to a special school. No more Muffy and Laura! No more Frank and no more mud balls because I’M DEAF.’ I worked myself up into a frenzy of blind panic.
Our teachers should have explained what the big ear phones and black glasses were for. They should have told me I would not be taken away from my Mommy and sent off to a special school for deaf and blind people. The teachers should have explained the vaccination process and said we needed the injections to keep us free of disease so we wouldn’t die. Instead, I thought they were leading us like lambs to the slaughter.
I once watched an interview with the writer Anna Quindlen and she said that after the untimely death of her mother, she never wanted to have kids in case they died too. Now she is so glad she did. She said her three children have taught her 90% of what she knows in life that is worth knowing. She said, ‘Children help you relive everything about life and, when you are a parent, you are old and experienced enough to appreciate it. The first time round, good things like sunsets go by too fast. The second time round, you can experience it all over again because you see life anew through your kids’ eyes.’
Given the pleasure that 4-year-old me got out of making a simple mud ball, I think she could teach the 30-year-old me a lot about how to appreciate life!