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  • Ann Werner

In Praise of Teachers

In Praise of Teachers

The 5th of October is Teacher’s Day and I have been wanting to write since that time, about snippets of experiences at WHS and the wonderful teachers who taught me.

Being a mother to 2 school children and hearing about teachers from learners’ perspectives is interesting and I am so delighted that my children have been given a thirst for discovery, encouraged to question and to delve beyond the syllabus for more information. So perhaps while at times, school sucks, education doesn’t.

I am writing this memoire the day before my daughter writes her final Grade 12 Paper two, history exam. She loves it and her interest has been piqued, informed and challenged by someone who is passionate about history, South African history in particular, and who lives her ideology and her beliefs. Earlier this year, I read an article by Tom Eaton, originally written in The Daily Despatch in East London, about Phillipa (Pippa) Visser and her influence on him during his time at Westerford. It is an honour for my daughter to be taught by her and how edifying that she has been given the opportunity to think critically about our history, its repercussions and how we have a responsibility to choose our future course wisely. Pippa’s insightful instruction clearly goes beyond the classroom; learning about our history is the harbinger of moralities to be questioned and doctrines (and dogma) to challenge. History is alive.

I will always remember my history classes with Glenn Hewson. At times, while we all waited for him to arrive and for the class to start, he would pop his head around the door, muttering something about smelling like hormones and send us all out to run around the hockey field. It was a tonic and enabled increased focus on that notorious yellow history book, groaning with too much detail on The South African Union.

My desk in the maths classroom was directly in front of the overhead projector and while I spent a few lessons ducking impassioned spittle from Shirley Fitton I remember her most for her irrepressible giggle and blonde bob! On one occasion, as a welfare committee member, I was up on stage during assembly, encouraging learners to take part in an outreach project whereby we visited the elderly in retirement villages in Rondebosch, and did errands for them etc. I was trying to swell the ranks of male volunteers in particular and my marketing appeal sadly went something like this: “I would like to encourage more boys to come along too so that we can satisfy both sexes” Regrettable to say the least, although it obviously made Shirley’s day; I thought that she would bob right off the stage as she was in fits of giggles, with an incalculable lack of decorum! Naughty minx – she told me afterwards that she would love to sign up.

Although, perhaps Kate’s announcement also allowed for a little frisson: Summertime warmth allowed for open door assemblies and the breeze swept over us, keeping us cool, as the notices droned on. Surges of air congregated at the hem of Kate’s short, short dress and from a sitting-on-the-floor-perspective, we shared a repetitive tension as her hem neared the panty line and then retreated, billowing and abating until Kate eventually exited the stage with a relieving, flash-free closure.

Michael King, softly spoken, gentle soul that he is, taught me English. It’s strange how one can forget the detail of the classes and the exact goings-on, or who indeed I shared the class with, but remember the essence of that classroom, the approach from a humble educator and his love of literature. I particularly remember him turning to me quietly one day to encourage me to keep on writing. And I have done, in my own small way.

I am so empathetically amused by learners with whom I work now, who struggle with begrip, not really understanding the questions to even begin tackling answering them. And they say that they try to match words in the question with words in the text and figure something out that way, which of course is what generations before them, myself included, have done too! I salute the long-suffering Afrikaans teachers who fly the flag high for encouraging learning a language as a means to opening doors to communication rather than being just another subject to learn. I wish that I had heeded their advice earlier. Dankie, Mej Gous!

Way back, we had guidance periods rather than Life Orientation and we were introduced to a variety of talks from various people of interest. Quentin Rookledge spoke to us one day about careers and his dictum is included in the cornerstone of my practice. He believed that we shouldn't compare ourselves with others because, regardless, there will always be people who do our jobs better than we do, and there will always be those who don’t do it as well either. He thus recommended to set one's own goals and to work towards achieving them and finding one's particular niche.

Indeed, finding your 'flow', where your strengths and abilities lie and then nurturing them, developing and excelling in them will allow for your strong, individual expression. People will want to work with you, just because of you, what you uniquely and wonderfully bring to the work that you do. There is so absolutely, a piece of pie for everyone.

Karin Bahlman taught me biology. I thought that she was lovely and there was a romantic air about her as she married during my time at high school. I had a deep respect for her and was probably a little in awe of her. She was thorough and strict and an excellent teacher. To this day, I am not entirely sure what made me put the snail we were supposed to be dissecting on Ingrid’s arm, but I can feel a blush coming on as I remember Ingrid yelling and the look of horror on Mrs Bahlman’s face. I was mortified and so apologetic, but my rosy cheeked charm got me nowhere at all. The only spin off was that Ingrid (being Ingrid) felt so terrible about shrieking so loudly and getting me into so much trouble, that she did favours for me all week!

Gill Sperinck and Ron Taylor taught us how to dance. ‘Love is a Beautiful Song’ holds a place only for the WHS school hall and Gill and Ron twirling about, showing us the steps to the waltz for our matric dance. But perhaps it was more appealing, as a dreamy-eyed teen, just watching favourite teachers falling in love and being a little part of that romance.

As a vice-head, Ron was brilliant. He ‘got’ me so totally, and most often visits to his office for alleged disciplinarian reasons were rewarded with Cadbury’s chocolate éclair toffees. I will never forget him ringing our doorbell at home either (as was tradition), to present me with the letter to say that I had been elected a prefect! It was such a lovely moment and I treasure it.

Gill was a brilliant hockey coach and practices were filled with equal measures of hard work and mirth. The WHS teams were quite formidable and we did well over the seasons. I have a photograph of Gill with Gill Sutton dancing with brooms on the stage at Oude Libertas at a year end hockey party. And Gill Sutton too has played a role in educating my daughter when she stood in for a couple of teachers over the past two years. What a lovely reconnection.

1981 heralded the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer and Miss Jenny McEwen had scurried around to organise a TV for us to watch the wedding, sacrificing a lesson for this historic event. She later married, current headmaster, Rob Le Roux and also spent time as the librarian at my daughter’s school until her retirement a couple of years ago.

Sitting here as I write, I feel such gratitude and joy. I feel honoured to have received the tuition that I did and I realise from middle-aged hindsight, how it has shaped many aspects of who I am today and helped to form me.

I salute all teachers, and all educational institutions, but in particular and most especially, all those who showed me the way.

Thank you.

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