Careers careers careers

September 15, 2011

Recently my 10-year-old nephew, Nicholas, showed me a photo of him and his teacher that was taken on the last day of the Canadian school year.  The teacher had her arm around him and her eyes were wet, puffed and red from crying.  Nicholas explained that she sobbed as she said goodbye to all the little students in her class.  Most children I come across these days are overconfident, disrespectful, hyperactive and often pretty revolting so I was stunned by her emotion.  I asked Nicholas, ‘Are you sure those weren’t tears of joy?’

Teaching is one of the most screwed over professions of all.  There are some profound injustices in society and teaching is one of them.  Far too many people who work in the corporate world loaf off in high paid, low impact jobs.  Teachers bust themselves in a low paid, high impact profession.  They are at the front line of Generation Z’s deepest psychological and behavioural problems.  Teaching is a work of heart.  They can carve a lifelong influence into the lives of their students yet they don’t earn the salary, the status or the respect that should be commensurate with this unique ability.

My schoolteachers played a big role in my personal development.  They shaped my thinking and influenced my world view in a way that no businessperson, work colleague or boss has ever done.

Teachers were my first experience of true love of anyone outside my family.  In fact, they provided me my first experiences of actually being in love.  Before boys, teachers were the first targets of my infatuation.  Every year, I tumbled head-over-heels in love with my class teacher.  The following year, we were allocated a new one and the cycle of adoration continued although, in my later school days, I developed intellectual crushes instead of romantic ones.

Children have a precious, intense ability to absorb and observe.  They see things with a crispness and clarity that clouds over and blunts as they mature into adulthood.  Teachers don’t realise the extent to which their pupils watch them.  I soaked in the habits and mannerisms of my teachers and imitated them in my playtime or while I did my homework.  This continued throughout my school career to the extent that, regardless of my age, I subconsciously adopted the mannerisms of my teachers as I studied for their subjects.  For example, I could not study history without sucking a Halls lozenge, as Mrs Gardyne used to do while she talked us through World War 2 or the Russian Revolution.

In Grade 1, I fell in love with Mrs Linginfelder.  Every afternoon, I sat at my mini kiddie blackboard in our storeroom and re-enacted the school day as Mrs Linginfelder.  She had a tattered pencil case with luminous pink fur and a broken zip.  It was stuffed full of pens and she could never ever find anything inside it. She often stood in front of the class, scratched inside it and muttered to herself as 20 pairs of eyes watched.  My game of ‘Teacher Teacher’ was not complete without a furry pink pencil case and I longed for one.

Surprisingly, I managed to find a similar ugly pencil case while grocery shopping with my mom.  I was thrilled.  As soon as I got home, I skipped into my bedroom and ripped apart the zip on my new Mrs-Linginfelder-pencil-case.  I stuffed it to bursting point with pens, pencils, felt-tips and crayons, just like hers.  While I played ‘Teacher Teacher’, I pretended to search for an elusive pen inside it while my phantom pupils waited in attention.

In Grade 2, I ‘broke up’ with Mrs Linginfelder and the furry, pink pencil case was tossed to the bottom of the toy box.  My new love became Mrs van Gemhert.  She was just short of retirement and had dry, wrinkled hands, two chins and spoke in a rasp, as if she hadn’t drunk liquid in weeks.  All day, I observed her with my beady eyes and soaked in her every move.  Mrs van Gemhert had some skin on her neck that had separated from her muscle, like a turkey’s.  When she read to us during story time, I was transfixed by this wobbling piece of flesh.  I watched that skin for hours on end.  I badly wanted to touch it and give it a little tug. I was sure it would feel soft, just like the excess skin on a raw chicken.

In the afternoons when I got home from school, I trotted to my blackboard.  I swallowed repeatedly to dry my mouth out and read stories in a thirsty rasp to my imaginary students.

I loved summer because my teachers wore sleeveless dresses and I could watch their wings.  People with untoned arms have wings.  Sometimes a teacher would point to something on the board and say, ‘Can you see this?’  We nodded but we weren’t looking at the board.  We were mesmerised by her wings.  I remember that when I was about six, I stood naked in front of the mirror and waved my arms about.  I wondered, ‘Why don’t I have any wings?’

When Miss Stiller grew her fingernails, I bought some stick-on false ones from Clicks.  When Mrs Prota fell pregnant, I did too.  I began playing ‘Teacher Teacher’ with a cushion under my T-shirt.   Mrs Groenewald started most sentences with ‘for whatever rhyme or reason’ so I used it in conversations too.

As time passed and I matured, I no longer physically imitated my teachers.  Instead I copied their ideas.  My high school teachers shaped my thinking and taught me things that I have never ever forgotten.  I am an apostrophe vigilante, just like Miss Greenhough.  To this day, I cannot stand it when people write ‘due to’ when it should be ‘owing to’.  When I see these words used incorrectly, I huff and puff with frustration, just like Mr Untiedt.

When we planned our wedding invitation list, Alastair wanted to include one of his primary school teachers who played a big role in his personal development.  He hadn’t seen the teacher in over 20 years and guest numbers were limited so I crushed that idea with the tact and subtlety of a demolition truck.  Alastair’s sentiment was precious and it makes me sad that these teachers who influenced us don’t know the extent to which they touched our lives.

I spend a lot of time during the day, staring into my computer and contemplating the pointlessness of my contribution to healing the world, making it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race.  I wish that, in some small way, the work I do from 9 to 5 could leave a mark on the world, like a little stamp that says ‘Julie was here.’

My short time in the corporate world has shown me that making a real difference doesn’t come from changing processes, systems or procedures.  It comes by changing people on the inside, not the outside.  Few jobs lend themselves to this.  Teaching offers people this enormous privilege for a pitiful wage that can’t even support an average sized family.  Now that’s something to cry about.


Don’t cut your dreams

September 5, 2011

I know I harp on about French but it is an all-consuming part of my new life in Switzerland.  Imagine someone cut off your tongue.  That’s how I feel here.

I have joined a French-speaking pilates club so I can exercise and practice French simultaneously.  The teacher I have on Tuesdays cannot speak a word of English and this is just the challenge I need.  It also reminds me that I have a long way to go before I can have a truly interactive conversation.

I have no personality and no identity around French people.  I am the mute girl who stands in the corner and grins at everybody.  We have five senses to interpret the world around us but only one primary way to express who we are – our voice.  I don’t yet have a voice in French.  I can’t prattle with the ladies before pilates lessons start.  I am not at the chit-chat level.  I have the vocabulary to ask small-talk questions and I could use Google Translate and prepare in advance for the next lesson.  This would be worthwhile if I were talking to say, a wall.  It doesn’t work in the real world because even though I can ask the questions, I can’t understand the answers at speed.

My problem is that I doubt myself too much.  If I can’t hear someone, I assume it is because I am a dimwit and don’t understand their French.  I never consider that possibly the person mumbles or speaks too softly.  If I say ‘pardon’ more than twice, I feel embarrassed and give the person the answer that I think they want to hear.  The other day, my pilates teacher asked me a question and I said ‘pardon’ twice.  I still didn’t understand so I said, ‘I have lived in Switzerland for 5 months.  Before that I lived in London for 4 years.  I am South African.’  I post-mortemed the conversation during the lesson and I think she just asked me if I had come straight from work.

Pilates lessons start at 18h30 and by that time my brain has switched off for the day.  Not that it ever really gets going but, by 18h30, my brain has put its feet up and is unwilling to restart the engines and pass me down grammar or vocabulary so late in the day.  This means I must not arrive too early for pilates because then it is just me and the teacher in the studio.  We sit on our mats, stare at each other and try some clipped, random conversation here and there.  Yesterday I was tired and didn’t feel like making effort.  I developed an intense fascination with the water cooler and filled my cheeks with water to avoid conversation.  I drank at least a litre before the lesson.

It may sound like I am not trying hard enough.  I am trying so hard that I am bordering on French burnout.  My brain is smoking.  I can’t face another book for 8-10 year olds.  I am sick of these dull inane storybooks.  I want something with lust, sex, romance, drama and intrigue.  I have started watching Sex and the City in French with French subtitles too.  I am learning loads, including some unnecessary lewd vocabulary that I will never use in real life.

I have also joined a course at Club Ecole Migros.  Migros is a big Swiss supermarket like Pick n Pay or Tesco.  I had a trial lesson there in March and it felt like a French factory so I vowed I would never go back.  So much for that.  It is cheap and convenient and I have registered for lessons until January.

I speak the best French when I am forced to and this is usually when I am cross about something and must fight for my rights.  Then I start squirting out French words left, right and centre.  Migros allows newcomers a free taster lesson which means that every session new people wander in, join the group and never come back.  Every lesson I am obliged to share my textbook with these random drifters.  This makes me cross, en colère, fâché and flipping furieux.

I believe it is not fair for me to share my expensive, CHF50 book with other people – Migros should supply their notes, not me.  I am very possessive about stationery and books.  So, I complained to management in French.  I explained my frustration in the same way I breathlessly told my Grade 1 class teacher that she must please tell Muffy (aka Angela) to stop using my wax crayons.  When I am forced to sink or swim, I do quite well.  I find the skill I never thought I had and this gives me a shot of inspiration to persevere.

I should remember that people probably don’t mind me making mistakes.  Mistakes can be cute.  I have experienced the sweetest mistakes from French people and I don’t hold it against them.  My colleague explained how to install a file on my computer and said I could find it on the G drive and when I did, I should ‘please mount it’.

Another French colleague said her boyfriend had some ideas with which she didn’t agree.  She didn’t say anything to him in case he felt she was ‘cutting his dreams’.  I imagined the situation.  He places his delicate dreams over her lap.  He stands back and waits for her response.  White-lipped, she reaches over to the table and grabs her sharpest scissors.  She gives the dream a quick snip to start.  Then, she hacks with wild abandon as his mutilated hopes and ideas float to the floor like autumn leaves.

In April, I met a French-speaking recruiter.  We discussed the Swiss job situation, my CV and my prospects which were few to non-existent.  He said, in his beautiful French accent, ‘Julie (pronounced zhoo-lee), the summer is very quiet so don’t worry if nothing happens during June, July or August.  However, if you don’t have a job by October then you are … what’s the word?’  He clicked his fingers and looked up at the ceiling.  I stared at him and offered some suggestions. ‘No no, zat eaze not zee word zat I want’.  He slapped his leg with frustration.  ‘What eaze zee word?’

‘Ah ha’, he exclaimed.  ‘Found it!  If you don’t have a job by October, then you are fucked.’

My dream is to speak French.  I am going to try even when I feel I can’t, even when I am tired and my brain is uncooperative.  I am not giving up.  I will not cut up this dream.