The accidental photographer

I’ve spent almost my entire working life using words, and perhaps when I started my writing career over 20 years ago we were more literary people and that was all I needed. Perhaps 20 years ago we did stop to read, to browse, to pick up a newspaper, turn its crisp pages and read it cover to cover.

Perhaps then we spoke in full sentence and wrote in words, not abbreviations, and that’s how I managed to get away with using words only, musing and waffling along – as I’m doing now – and getting people to read it.

I survived without needing images, or relied on other people’s, but I doubt I could do that now. Today it’s a completely different world, and the fact that there’s something called “Twitter”, which limits you to 140 characters, proves it. Hell, that’s almost longer than my introductory sentence!

So I’m grateful almost every day for the fact that, about three years ago, I was encouraged and inspired by a good friend to pick up a camera, at first tentatively and now as a permanent fixture around my neck. I used to have nightmares about losing my car: fever dreams in which I’d walk out of a shop and look around frantically and it was nowhere to be found. It had been stolen or burnt to a crisp in a bizarre electrical fault, or somehow vandalised. Nowadays I dream about my camera: it’s been broken, dropped, stolen, the lens won’t work, it won’t turn on. My camera has replaced my car as my most prized possession.

I don’t consider myself a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination. But what photography has done for me is that whereas I once only saw stories in words, I now see them in images too.

Soon into my newfound love for photography I found a niche for my camera: using photography to create awareness and generate support for people and projects in need, using images to give them a strong voice. And it happened completely by chance.

It was a Saturday afternoon in mid-winter and I was visiting an old age home. I didn’t even take my camera with me.

The critical moment came when I walked into the one of the women’s wards. The winter sun was streaming in through the windows, filtering through the butter yellow curtains into a warm golden light. An extremely thin but dignified old woman, wearing a neatly-wrapped head scarf and a cream blazer buttoned up over her floral dress, sat on the edge of her narrow bed, feet firmly on the floor. Her expression was a mix of appeal and stoicism. I took my cell phone out of the back pocket of my jeans and snapped one shot. Sometimes all you need is one good shot and, when the message is strong enough, the tool is largely immaterial. She was staring directly into the camera, with two other residents, also sitting on their beds, looking obliquely on in the background.

I posted it on Face Book and sent out an appeal for blankets for the residents, and the response blew me away. So many pledges came in that not only were we able to buy a brand new high quality blanket for each resident, but also enough ePap, to feed the home for three months.

Since then I’ve photographed feeding schemes and children’s homes, blind street musicians and children from a local home for the disabled, pre-term babies in hospitals and street children, and have taken many more images of the residents of the old age home. Perhaps, for me, one of the most poignant moments since I started photographing came when I printed and took some of my portraits to the residents of the old age home and saw the expression on their faces when they looked at them. It reiterated how strong and effective the language of images can be. The next time I visited, everyone had their photo on display on their bedside table.

My photographs will probably never make the front cover of a glossy magazine. Neither will they be blown up and printed on a billboard straddling one of the world’s major highways; but that’s not their purpose.  There are times, I confess, when I shoot on automatic just to make sure I get the shot. Does that make me a poor photographer, unworthy of a place in the hallowed halls of the local photo society? Perhaps. Do my photographs have an impact? I hope so. More than once I’ve been overwhelmed and humbled by the response to one of the photographs I’ve posted, and the cause it represents. The images are telling the stories I’ve been trying to write all my life, and so much more effectively and instantly.

Photography will never replace writing for me, even if all I’m writing is just a few carefully considered hashtags. Writing is like my first born child: precious, sometimes painful, as much a part of me as my DNA, and photography, if what my parents tell me is true, is like my grandchild: I have all the patience and all the love and all the forgiveness in the world for photography, it never irritates or annoys me and I never tire of it. And, like a grandchild, perhaps it’s come late enough in life for me to really appreciate and savour every moment of it.

 

The eternal immigrants: retracing the paths which lead us home

On a warm spring day in 1967, the children at number 14 Cormorant Avenue heard the moving vans rumble in, and they knew their new neighbours had arrived. They peered over the wall and there was a woman, heavily pregnant and clearly exhausted, sitting on the steps leading off the veranda. That was the first glimpse the neighbours had of my mom, pregnant with me. Not long afterwards, my mom recounts, they came over, Joe and Tess Barnett and their three young children, Theresa, Juanita and Manfred, with a warm welcome and a plate of treats, and so began a friendship that would span half a century.

Some of my favourite childhood memories revolve around the Barnetts: they had a swimming pool, we didn’t, and it’s become a family legend that my older brother and sister would play near the wall and lament to each other about the heat in the hope of being invited around for a swim…and Auntie Tess never disappointed.

“Vahid, Vida,” she would call in her distinctive voice, scored through with the South African accent of her upbringing, “would you like to come over for a swim?” They were over in seconds, since they were already wearing their swimming costumes underneath their clothes in anticipation!

Theresa, being the eldest, and older than us, was sometimes assigned to be our babysitter if my parents were going out for the evening, and she’d stay the night and share my dad’s traditional waffle breakfast with us the next morning.

There are smells, like gardenia, which take me back in my mind to the Barnetts’ home in an instant, though I haven’t set foot in it for over 30 years, and other memories, like celebratory dinners in their home where Auntie Tess would always bring out her best glassware and China and my parents would spend the evening shooting warning glances at us not to break anything.

The family was a rock to us when, at eight, my older sister fell ill with a brain tumour and had to be under the care of a neurosurgeon in what was then Salisbury. I was just three at the time, and not yet in school, so my mom, Vida and I would make the trips up and down every month, while my dad and older brother held down the fort in Bulawayo. The Barnetts were always there, just over the wall, for comfort and sustenance.

Then Uncle Joe, a running enthusiast who annually staged a one-man walk from Bulawayo to Esigodini in aid of the MOTHs, died in his 80.

Auntie Tess, devastated by the loss of her beloved Joe, soldiered on, and this week she turns 100 years old.

Sitting with the family, gathered to celebrate her milestone birthday, we reminisce about our parents’ respective family histories, and the paths which led their lives to intersect on that warm spring day in 1967. And in my mind’s eye an image forms of a map with a snaking red line which transcends three continents and more than 150 years.

You see it was really something that we should meet and develop a family friendship which started as next-door neighbours and endured long after we no longer lived near each other, but what makes it even more remarkable is if you trace the paths that brought us here.

Uncle Joe’s family originated in Russia, moving to Europe before he was born. He was born in London and, as the Nazi terror grew, like many Jewish families, his uprooted and moved to South Africa. That was where he met Auntie Tess, working in the same clothing factory as him, and they married and had their two daughters there. Once again the family’s history was shaped by politics and conflict and, unable to tolerate the injustices of Apartheid, Uncle Joe decided to take up an offer by his uncle to move to Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia to run his business. Their youngest and the only boy, Manfred, was born in their newly-adopted hometown.

My parents, meanwhile, were making the transition from Iran, via India, to southern Africa with my oldest brother, at the time a six month old baby. They settled first in Salisbury and then, when my father’s job transferred him, moved to Bulawayo in 1967.

But here’s where it gets really interesting: my mother’s family also originated in Russia, and she would almost certainly have been born there if it hadn’t been for Stalin’s nationalist movement in the 30s. As it turned out her parents, Iranian by birth, were expelled without even a day’s notice by Stalin’s regime, and, along with my mom’s five older siblings and nothing but the clothes on their backs, were forced to walk back to Iran.

She was born a few years later and would grow up and meet my dad in Teheran, also under unique circumstances, but that’s a story for another time.

So just think about it: these two families, who both originated in Russia, criss-crossed the globe and somehow ended up not only in the same small country in southern Africa, in the same small city, but living next door to each other.

This story was an important one for me to tell, not only as a tribute to Auntie Tess on the occasion of her 100th birthday, an achievement as remarkable as the woman she is, but in order to make a commentary on a much larger issue too: we are almost all immigrants, in one way or another, remarkable, resilient, adventurous, courageous, traversing generations and continents and searching for somewhere to belong, a home for our children, security for future generations. The reward for all that migratory movement for generations of my family and Uncle Joe’s was to find that place, and people in it who would welcome us home.

At a time when immigration has become a dirty word in so many ways, I wanted to remember the beauty and wonder of leaving one place and all that is familiar and comforting, out of necessity or desire, and finding not only welcome but lifelong friendship on the other side. We are all richer for it. I know I am.

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Life can be beautiful (Mama always said)

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We’re in a fish bowl: rain clouds all around us and, as fortune would have it, one big blue opening of sunshine directly over our heads. I’m sitting with my back against a granite boulder, keeping completely still and silent so the drone circling World’s View won’t catch me in the shot. We’re trying to beat the rain and, even as the soft hum of the drone fills the air, a louder rumbling, from thunder on the horizon, threatens.  We don’t have long.

Zeinab Badawi, celebrated BBC presenter, is standing on the edge of a precipice making a dramatic backdrop of the valley below her, and she’s doing her “piece for camera” (when a presenter speaks directly to the viewing audience through a camera…I had to Google it!) in her clipped English accent.

This will serve as the trailer for the documentary she’s spent the last few years developing on Africa, a journey which has taken her the length and breadth of the continent and this year brought her to Bulawayo. The consummate professional, she does four takes off the top of her head in quick succession, never missing a beat. Back in the editing studio, her producers will pick the best one.

It’s a Monday morning, and I’m feeling the very antithesis of the Monday morning blues.

I was asked to be the contact for Zeinab and her film crew for part of their visit to Matopos, to help them find their way around and make the right connections. I also end up doing some publicity shots for their on line marketing.

The previous week, on a working Wednesday to be precise, I found myself scaling fire escapes to reach the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the city. This time I’m doing publicity photographs and marketing for an upcoming book on Bulawayo for a client. I’ve ordered red roses for another client’s cocktail function the following week, and the florist calls me as I balance on the roof, camera in one hand, phone in the other, and through the whooshing of the wind buffeting my face and hair we negotiate numbers and prices.

A few weeks later I’m driving back to the Matopos, this time to travel to an outreach clinic. The Matopos road is even more beautiful on a Thursday than it is on the weekend: I have it all to myself. It’s been raining non-stop and every ghomo is a waterfall and all the rivers are running. We don’t reach the clinic that day due to the floods, but have all sorts of adventures along the way.

Fast forward to March and I’m on a rhino walk organised by the Matobo Rhino Initiative for representatives of the US Embassy’s political/economic bureau. We get so close to them we can hear them breathe. My photographs and write-up will help publicise the work of the rhino trust.

The last three months since I resigned from my job and started working for myself have been an exhausting but exhilarating journey, sweeping me up in a whirlwind that’s taken me places I never imagined, and I don’t just mean up the fire escape to the roof of the pension fund building!

I handed in my notice about a month before we were informed by our government of the cash crisis about to hit our country, as a nation we were literally running out of money…and I was about to be self-employed. More instability in an already unstable world. No more monthly sum going automatically into my account every month, no more medical aid, no more job security. If I hadn’t already resigned I probably would have second-guessed my decision, as I had done so many times in the past. But it was too late. There was no turning back.

There were some sleepless nights – and still are – but there wasn’t much time to wallow in self-doubt as my first significant job came in the day after I stopped formal employment.

My favourite question since I started working for myself is “where are your offices”? Because “my offices” are my home; to be precise: my front porch in the early mornings, bathed in warm golden sunlight; as the day heats up, a cool writing desk in a cosy nook in my lounge with a view out to the mulberry tree, hoopoes pecking for insects in the shade underneath it. And sometimes, on cold grey days, it’s on my big white bed, my legs tucked under the duvet.

In case it sounds like I lead a wonderful life of leisure, you only need to ask the friends I’ve been trying in vain to meet up with for a coffee all year and they’ll testify that it’s not. So will my long-suffering daughter who has had more than one 6pm text message from me telling her to please put the chicken on for dinner, I’m going to be a while.

It’s a challenge, in any economy, to make the decision to become self-employed, let alone in Zimbabwe which daily spirals towards some kind of black economic hole, but I’ve probably learnt more in the last three months than I have in a couple of decades: for one I’ve learnt to be adaptive, perhaps one of the greatest life skills you can learn for the modern world; I’ve learnt that just because I haven’t done something before doesn’t mean I can’t; I’ve learnt how to be both self-determined and self-motivated; I’ve learnt to believe in myself more. I’ve learnt that if you don’t know something, ask…or Google!

There’s still so much to learn (how to create a spreadsheet, what is a business management plan, how to charge for my services!) and a rather precarious and uncertain journey ahead. But there’s also a sense in me that even if it all falls apart tomorrow, I’ve already learnt so many of the lessons it was sent to teach me, perhaps the greatest of all being if you want to take the bull by the horns, you first have to look him in the eye.

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Life can be beautiful: (Mama always said)

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We’re in a fish bowl: rain clouds all around us and, as fortune would have it, one big blue opening of sunshine directly over our heads. I’m sitting with my back against a granite boulder, keeping completely still and silent so the drone circling World’s View won’t catch me in the shot. We’re trying to beat the rain and, even as the soft hum of the drone fills the air, a louder rumbling, from thunder on the horizon, threatens.  We don’t have long.

Zeinab Badawi, celebrated BBC presenter is standing on the edge of a precipice making a dramatic backdrop of the valley below her, and she’s doing her “piece for camera” (when a presenter speaks directly to the viewing audience through a camera…I had to Google it!) in her clipped English accent.

This will serve as the trailer for the documentary she’s spent the last few years developing on Africa, a journey which has taken her the length and breadth of the continent and this year brought her to Bulawayo. The consummate professional, she does four takes off the top of her head in quick succession, never missing a beat. Back in the editing studio, her producers will pick the best one.

It’s a Monday morning, and I’m feeling the very antithesis of the Monday morning blues.

I was asked to be the contact for Zeinab and her film crew for part of their visit to Matopos, to help them find their way around and make the right connections. I also end up doing some publicity shots for their on line marketing.

The previous week, on a working Wednesday to be precise, I found myself scaling fire escapes to reach the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the city. This time I’m doing publicity photographs and marketing for an upcoming book on Bulawayo for a client. I’ve ordered red roses for another client’s cocktail function the following week, and the florist calls me as I balance on the roof, camera in one hand, phone in the other, and through the whooshing of the wind buffeting my face and hair we negotiate numbers and prices.

A few weeks later I’m driving back to the Matopos, this time to travel to an outreach clinic. The Matopos road is even more beautiful on a Thursday than it is on the weekend: I have it all to myself. It’s been raining non-stop and every ghomo is a waterfall and all the rivers are running. We don’t reach the clinic that day due to the floods, but have all sorts of adventures along the way.

Fast forward to March and I’m on a rhino walk organised by the Matobo Rhino Initiative for representatives of the US Embassy’s political/economic bureau. We get so close to them we can hear them breathe. My photographs and write-up will help publicise the work of the rhino trust.

The last three months since I resigned from my job and started working for myself have been an exhausting but exhilarating journey, sweeping me up in a whirlwind that’s taken me places I never imagined, and I don’t just mean up the fire escape to the roof of the pension fund building!

I handed in my notice about a month before we were informed by our government of the cash crisis about to hit our country, as a nation we were literally running out of money. And I was about to be self-employed. More instability in an already unstable world. No more monthly sum going automatically into my account every month, no more medical aid, no more job security. If I hadn’t already resigned I probably would have second-guessed my decision, as I had done so many times in the past. But it was too late. There was no turning back.

There were some sleepless nights – and still are – but there wasn’t much time to wallow in self-doubt as my first significant job came in the day after I stopped formal employment.

My favourite question since I started working for myself is “where are your offices”? Because “my offices” are my home; to be precise: my front porch in the early mornings, bathed in warm golden sunlight; as the day heats up, a cool writing desk in a cosy nook in my lounge with a view out to the mulberry tree, hoopoes pecking for insects in the shade underneath it. And sometimes, on cold grey days, it’s on my big white bed, my legs tucked under the duvet.

In case it sounds like I lead a wonderful life of leisure, you only need to ask the friends I’ve been trying in vain to meet up with for a coffee all year and they’ll testify that it’s not. So will my long-suffering daughter who has had more than one 6pm text message from me telling her to please put the chicken on for dinner, I’m going to be a while.

It’s a challenge, in any economy, to make the decision to become self-employed, let alone in Zimbabwe which daily spirals towards some kind of economic black hole, but I’ve probably learnt more in the last three months than I have in a couple of decades: for one I’ve learnt to be adaptive, perhaps one of the greatest life skills you can learn in the modern world; I’ve learnt that just because I haven’t done something before doesn’t mean I can’t; I’ve learnt how to be both self-determined and self-motivated; I’ve learnt to believe in myself more. I’ve learnt that if you don’t know something, ask…or Google!

There’s still so much to learn (how to create a spreadsheet, what is a business management plan, how to charge for my services!) and a rather precarious and uncertain journey ahead. But there’s also a sense in me that even if it all falls apart tomorrow, I’ve already learnt so many of the lessons it was sent to teach me, perhaps the greatest of all being if you want to take the bull by the horns, you first have to look him in the eye.

 

 

 

Waiting for the storm

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The calm before the storm. The night before Dineo hit

Three days before Cyclone Dineo hit us we knew she was coming. The slowly shifting satellite image shared across the internet told us so: a broiling, bubbling pressure system, tangled and black like witch’s hair, rolling towards us, inch by ominous inch.

It hit the Mocambique coast two days before us. We saw the footage, on TV and Face Book, of the torrential rain, raging winds and damage she left in her angry wake, and still the sun shone above us and the skies were blue, hardly a cloud in the sky. But the satellite images told us not to relax, she was on her way.

The night before she hit, that Thursday, the air was completely still. The epitome of the calm before the storm. I kept going out on to the verandah and looking up at the starlit sky, sniffing the air. Nothing. Weather experts will tell you they smelt ions in the air that night. I smelt nothing at all. I went to bed to stifling silence and woke frequently in the night to listen out. Maybe they got it wrong, I thought to myself, maybe she took a detour at the last minute and skipped us, heading for greener pastures.

And then around 3 in the morning she arrived. Hot, fat warning drops announced her furious advent, popping in the sand like pellets from a paint gun. Then more frequent. Then the deluge which carried on for almost 12 hours until, at 4pm, it finally subsided and the earth paused and took an exhausted breath. A sigh of relief. Dineo had been here.

The anticipation of the cyclone, heralded long before the first rain drop fell, reminded me once again of the power of information, and its wide-spread dissemination through social media. With satellite tracking and Face Book, there’s no hiding from the storm of information out there, the details of what’s coming, what to expect. There are no more surprises.

A good thing, right? Yes, mostly. In the case of Dineo, a very good thing as people, particularly in hard hit areas, could prepare as best they could.

But how about in life in general? Do I really want to know, for example, before it happens, the outcome of a date based on all the information I’ve gathered on him from his social media profile? Do I really want to anticipate and dread the onset of menopause long before it happens? Feel the pain of a break-up before I’ve done it? Do I really want to know how poorly my pot roast will compare to the ones photographed so perfectly by Taste of Home and tantalisingly peppered throughout my FB newsfeed?

Knowledge is power, yes of course it is. But is it is possible our keen sense of knowledge has created an overload of information in some areas? Knowing everything there is to know is not going to help me avoid menopause, the same as we can’t stop the seasons just because we’re going through a dry spell. Surely it would be better for me to enjoy my life and my body, unfettered, until then and, when it comes, deal with it? And how great are those moments when you tentatively find out about another person at a first or second meeting, some of it good, some of it maybe not so much, but still a discovery you make through the natural passage of time and conversation.

What did we do before all this? We used our instincts, our intuition, our imagination. We thought things through on our own. We breathed. We took risks. We had surprises. While Dineo would have been a frightening surprise to wake up to before the advent of satellite images, I still think it’s good to feel your heart race once in a while, spontaneously, without all the build-up of anticipation, without being pre-conditioned about what to expect, how to feel.

Is there the danger, I wonder, that there is nothing much left for us to discover for ourselves? That so much of what we think and believe and conceive has been laid out for us already: we’ve felt the excitement of a first kiss before we’ve had it, we’ve anticipated the taste of the roast before we’ve cooked it, we’ve learnt about dying before we’ve really lived.

 

On being a woman: different but equal to men

The world-wide women’s marches, besides being great alliteration for my literary ear, have also found me asking myself what it means to me to be a woman and, more importantly, a member of the human race.

Although there are a number of old wives’ tales which purport to influence the sex of your baby at conception, and modern genetics may claim to offer the same thing, being born a woman was, for me, as for most people, completely out of my control, much like my race and my birthplace. And it always amazes me that people develop judgements and discriminate so vociferously over factors so far out of one’s control.

No one can be congratulated or blamed for their race, neither can they be held accountable for their gender. They can only be held accountable for how they behave in that skin.

If I had had a choice in the matter, would I have chosen differently? It’s not as crazy a notion as it sounds: modern advances in medicine, together with broadening views on gender and its fluidity, mean that, nowadays, people can change their gender. Just as with tanning salons and whitening creams, we can change the colour of our skin.

I’ve thought long and hard over the years what it means to me to be a woman, what I love about it, and what I find really difficult. The love part is easy: falling pregnant, giving birth and being a mother. I love that women are generally peacemakers, or at least women in leadership roles will less likely choose war as a solution. Shoe shopping, having more than one option in formal wear, multi-tasking and a steely inner strength also rank high. Many other things come to mind, until I’m reminded that they are no longer the sole reserve of womanhood, that men can also be pampered, enjoy receiving flowers, have a good pedicure, love shoes, just as women can enjoy traditionally male past-times. What I am reluctant to say I love are the things which still tie me to a patriarchal society but which, like a colonial nation which both loves and hates its coloniser, I can’t always divorce myself from: I love that a man will open the door for me, though I won’t judge a man who won’t. I kind of like the fact that if I’m stuck on the side of the road with a flat tyre, a man will stop and help me. Is this hypocritical? Yes, it probably is. But I also like the fact that there are no longer any clean cut roles for men and women, that a man can wash the dishes and a woman can just as easily fix the washing machine. It’s more dependent on your natural skills and interests than your gender.

What doesn’t sit so well with me as a woman is the fact that often we are our worst enemies, that often women behave in ways that undermine each other. Women who bring other women down, women bosses who, through their own insecurities, turn into “The Devil Wears Prada” parodies, women who want women’s rights without being willing to put in the work, who want it at the expense of others, male or female. I hate that often we can be controlling, manipulative, again often born from insecurity but wrong all the same, I hate that we’re not always honest, but would rather tackle a problem by talking about the person behind their back rather than, like men, just come right out with it.

On the flip side, I hate being a woman in the face of male chauvinism: certain men presuming I know nothing about motor mechanics (I don’t but how do they know that?), male bosses or service providers either patronising me or flirting with me in an attempt to try and subordinate me, men who don’t believe women as capable, as smart, as deserving of increments and promotions, not based on ability, but solely on gender.

On Saturday women all over the world – literally, all over, there was a gathering in Antarctica – gathered for the world-wide women’s march, estimated to have attracted over 2 million women from hundreds of different countries. They donned pink beanies and held up placards, protesting the discrimination of all minorities in a world seemingly gone crazy since the election of Donald Trump as President.

Hearing about the marches I was filled with two distinct emotions: the first, that I wished I had been there, marching with grandmothers and nine year old girls and celebrities for a common cause, standing up for discrimination in any form. I felt proud that women had initiated this historic event, taken this stand, proven that they were able to be mobilised, organised, unafraid as they’ve done so many times before in history. The second emotion was a strange uneasiness. I found myself wondering if I would live to see the day when there was no longer the need to call it the women’s march, or the million man march, or black lives matter, a time when our gender, our race, our birthplace would be inconsequential and we would simply be fellow human beings united for the good of all. Would I live to see a day when women were no longer separated from men, either to be elevated above them or trodden under foot. Would there be a time when all lives mattered?

Then I looked more closely at the photographs taken of the marches around the world: the 70 year old grandfather holding a placard with the name of his six little grand-daughters scrawled on it and his declaration that he was doing it for them, the man in the Lincoln outfit bearing the words “Standing tall with women”, the Muslims arm in arm with Christians and Jews, men and women of all races side-by-side, marching, singing, protesting together. I saw that without even realising it, we’re already there, that it’s only our branding that says differently, that we’ve been pushed so far to the brink of discrimination that the pendulum has swung the other way and we’ve have united, and it’s only a matter of time before near-sighted leaders, in countries around the world as well as my own, catch up and figure it out too: that we’re different but equal.

And that is when we will make the world great again.

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The accidental teacher

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Last day with my English colleagues

If someone had asked me in my mid 30s which three words best described me as a person I would have said mother, wife, journalist. Not so long afterwards two of those two things no longer applied. My husband and I separated and I left my job as Editor of the Edgars Club magazine.

It’s a strange feeling, finding yourself bereft of the titles which you think define you. Until you realise it can also be liberating, that no single title can define who you are or what you’re capable of.

I entered the teaching profession in my late-30s by accident: a chance meeting, a chance conversation one Christmas holiday, and I found myself making an appointment with the headmaster of a local boys’ high school to discuss the possibility of teaching a writing course to sixth form students.

Teaching had never crossed my mind as a possible career choice. I admired teachers, certainly, but it was never something I imagined for myself.

So I went in to the interview with the kind of detached calm that comes with not wanting something too badly, and left with a part-time teaching job I would come to adore.

That first day I drove in and parked instinctively where all the modern cars were parked. A helpful sixth former came up to me at the end of the second day and whispered that I was parked in the wrong place and should probably move: “That’s where the sixth formers park, ma’am, teachers park over there,” he said, pointing to a collection of rusty old tin can cars from the 70s. That was my first insight into my new-found profession.

My first day was a blur. What was a scheme of work? Where were my teaching aids? Where were the staff toilets? The first time a boy called me “Ma’am” and raised his hat, I looked behind me to see who he was addressing.

What started as a part-time post, morphed into a nine year career, a varying mix over the years of relief teaching, full-time teaching, and, finally, once they figured out where my passion and strength lay, a mix of teaching as well as marketing and media for the school.

I realised, possibly as early as week one, why people teach. I think it was around the time I asked my class the meaning of the word “meticulous” which I had given them in the first week to learn, and one of my weaker English students put up his hand and answered, meticulously. He would go on to use the word “meticulous” in increasingly creative ways in almost every assignment he wrote throughout his two-year O Level course with me, and when I met up with him earlier this year, he reminded me of it again…as if I could ever forget. I had seen the light bulb go on in his head, and no matter how often during my years of teaching I witnessed that, it never grew old.

I would like to think that although it wasn’t my calling, I submerged myself in teaching with all my heart. I hadn’t realised, until then, how any small human being other than your own child could so profoundly affect you: make you want to laugh, cry, drive you to distraction, fill your with pride – and sometimes despair – how their success and failure could so deeply and personally affect you, as if it was your own.

I didn’t realise, until then, how great is the responsibility of a teacher, although I’d felt it from the other side of the desk when I was at school. A teacher can build you up to believe you can conquer the world, or cut you down so small you may never be able to get up again. And you never forget either.

As a teacher there is no room for bad moods, bad nights, illness, bereavement or indifference: in some other jobs you can slink away and hide behind your computer for the day and try to avoid all human contact. When you’re a teacher you have to pull yourself together, put on a brave face and stand in front of your class and teach: up to 25 pairs of eyes at a time trained on you, waiting for you to pass on some great wisdom – or mess up spectacularly – looking expectantly at you to keep them entertained, enlightened, awake.

Because that’s what teaching largely is: a performance art in which you must somehow inspire and motivate and, failing all that, coerce, your students to absorb the knowledge you are passing on to them while at the same time encouraging them to think for themselves. 

I left teaching at the end of this year to return to my first love, the media, and I can say without hesitation that the experience changed me forever, changed the way I will view education and teachers for all time. I left at the same time as three exceptional teachers, career teachers who had taught their whole lives, dedicated their lives to the profession, and were now retiring with very little pension or future prospects. I have witnessed for myself how they changed and affected and influenced lives, and how their students, 20 or 30 years later, still attribute their success to those individual teachers. And yet their future is uncertain.

It’s not a new argument, in fact it may be one of the oldest arguments in the world, but why is it that the profession which, in effect, leads to all other professions is also the most undervalued, the least aspired to, often the least encouraged by career guidance counsellors?

While there’s no doubt that to hear a student or a parent tell you that your care, your concern, your patience and your teaching skill changed their life or that of their child forever is one of the most life-affirming, humbling and gratifying experiences ever, it is still sad that despite all the riches they gave to others, my colleagues will retire with few material ones.

 

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The lovable rogues of Form Two Set One English
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Writing an English test with Gandhi’s words “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever”, hovering in the background