© Avril van der Merwe
Africa cradled my first infant cry that rent the canopy
Of African sky, braced my toddler steps that chased
Through African soil, stained and blistered my soles,
Ingrained my soul with African dust
Compelled my vision to shift and lift until it must
Lust after African vistas, African stars, African dreams.
No matter how far it seems I wander my being
Is seamed with scent of wild African thunder rain
Ears trained to timbre of wild African surf pounding African turf
In proud timpani sent deep into the heart of me
Always a part of me grounding me in lush African bush
And cadence of African sun rises and sets: Africa’s golden seal on me.
My African roots grow deeper, draw strength that flows from
African earth that birthed me, grew me, led me to explore
Anew the power, the core, the flower of African experience,
The length of African resilience
The breadth of African grace that holds space for all the panoply
Of diversity that is Africa.
Africa conjures the songs my heart sings
Weaves the spellbound words that take flight, share the light
That is all Africa.
It is Africa’s heat that stirs my blood, my heart beats for Africa
Beats heat, stirs my heart, Africa’s blood my blood
Heart heat, for Africa.
What offering have I to lay down now
That African calypso thrills me
Spills through every filament of me
Captivates every fiber of me
Permeates the seams of all my waking dreams
But this poem. For Africa.
You have a life’s mission: a contribution to be made to the world and a legacy to be left. This mission is a function of your core passions, your talents, and your objectives. Like any mission, accomplishing it is attended by obstacles and opposition along the way. This has seemed particularly true in 2020, carrying over into 2021. But there are a few interrelated steps that you can take to make sure you remain undeterred, and stay on mission:
2. Stay in your own lane.
You may have strong opinions about many spheres of life, but unless one or more of those is your field of expertise, don’t dissipate time, energy, and resources there. Instead, throw your energies and resources into those areas of life that are part of your own personal mission and purpose. If you keep veering into others’ lanes, you will soon crash and burn; if you stick to your own lane, you will make good progress!
3. Take charge of the narrative of your own life.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can’t control many of life’s circumstances. Conversely however, we need not allow circumstances to control us either. No matter what the circumstances, we can and must stay on mission! Sure, the circumstances might require us to make strategic adjustments, but we need not allow them to rob us of our mission altogether. This means facing up to the reality of the circumstances, but rather than bewailing them, asking ourselves, “How can I adapt to the new information and reality?” What seems adverse may in fact push us to think even more creatively, thus taking responsibility for our own outcomes. Soldiers on mission are often faced with changing circumstances, usually unfavorable. But this simply prompts them to devise new strategies while maintaining laser focus on the goal. In the words of Winston Churchill, “… These are not dark days; these are great days… and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.
4. Ignore the squirrels.
I have a highly intelligent, intensely energetic, and… overly distractable German Shepherd/Border Collie mix. Squirrels, crows, cats, flies, spiders – you name it – all distract him from the task at hand. Teaching the command “leave it!” and at times physically interrupting his straying off course in pursuit of the distraction, has been the only way to keep his attention on the mission at hand. These are particularly distracting times: the pandemic, social upheaval, economic downturn, political polarization… all these and more can have us spinning from one distraction to the next. We too, need to discipline ourselves to “leave it!” and proactively interrupt our own tendency to stray after every passing diversion. Most of us can’t personally change the “squirrels” that seem to be running in all directions all around us. But we can effect change in the long-term by maintaining laser focus on those things we were put on this earth to do. That is what will make a difference in the world and leave a lasting legacy.
5. Ain’t gonna stop the rain by complaining…
No adverse circumstance is altered one whit by expending energy on complaining about it. Certainly, there is a time and place to acknowledge and mourn the losses of the past year, and the ongoing losses of the present. But the danger is always that we inadvertently allow negativity and complaining to become habitual. Doing so saps our energies, robs us of motivation, and causes us to sink into self-focus and apathy. So while we indeed allow time and space for grief, it is also important that we consciously allocate time and space to appreciate beauty, to laugh, to show caring and compassion, to express gratitude, to play, to “sing in the rain”… And yes, to apply our God-given talents in energetically pursuing our life passions with joy, making the most of the precious resource of our moments and days while we yet have them, and until we can truly say, “Mission accomplished!”
In the late 1990's, Sibusiso Bengu was South Africa's Minister of Education. I was teaching high school English at the time, and in 1998, an ambiguous headline appeared in The Star newspaper, which tickled my funny bone. It prompted me to write a tongue-in-cheek article based on the malapropisms I came across in students' essays. This article was subsequently published in the National Union of Educators magazine, "Comment". I reprise it here with one caveat: I don't actually drink whisky! As a play on the Minister's name, the article is titled, "Ah Bengu Pardon?"
AH BENGU PARDON?
Avril van der Merwe
Published August 1998, National Union of Educators “Comment” Magazine
An attention-grabbing announcement in The Star newspaper this year, had the staff at our high school reaching eagerly for the telephone. Flames of enthusiasm, fanned by wind of the spreading word, burned high and bright. Here, at last, was an answer to every teacher’s unspoken prayer.
It was decided to place a bulk order to cater for the needs of the entire staff – an order large enough to last us well into the inglorious vistas of the uncertain future charted for us by the honourable minister and his department.
Disappointment was therefore great when it was discovered that the telephone lines were entirely blocked by other schools with the same idea. Would there be any stock left by the time we finally got through?
As it turned out, the question proved entirely irrelevant, “No,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “We do not have any ‘Teacher Motivation Drops’ – it was a headline referring to the level of motivation present in teachers.”
Everyone was left feeling somewhat deflated. After thirty years of earning below inflation rate salaries, constant threat of retrenchment, and withstanding endless mistakes made over salaries, benefits, or even one’s very existence, Teacher Motivation Drops seemed just the thing to buck up flagging spirits.
Still, having become pretty resilient after years of taking delivery of such indiscriminate disappointments as it pleased the authorities to dish out, we soon re-grouped. After all, the masses were waiting to be taught. And boy, did they need teaching!
This, we reminded ourselves, is education for life. The future, lying in our hands, waiting for us to impart skills which will shape society. After all, a head full of facts and figures is useless if the owner of the head is devoid of communication and life skills – and imparting those skills is up to us.
Well we try, we really do try. In the English Department, for instance, we attempt to convey the principles involved in writing a curriculum vitae, a letter of application, a letter to an editor…
However, to our regret, the outcome of this outcomes-based project is so far not encouraging.
“I believe I would be suitable for the job,” wrote one hopeful candidate, “I have an extinction in English and have worked as a Sales Rape…”
Admittedly, “extinct” is an accurate description of his English mark, but one does tend to worry about his future job prospects…
Writing letters to an editor provides the means for young people to express frustrations which may have been simmering dangerously for months:
“I don’t like what people do with fireworks – like killing dogs and throwing them at people,” wrote an animal lover, while an underage smoker, almost caught in the act along with her friends, exclaimed, “In a panic we threw down our remains and ran!”
Then, like so many adults, there are those teenagers who bewail the lack of common courtesy in the world around us:
“The staff at that store have absolutely no mannerisms whatsoever!” complained one young lady.
Of course, the latter comment comes as no great surprise to teachers, who are already aware that many teenagers are not well acquainted with manners – either the word or the concept. This may seem an unjustifiably jaundiced view on the part of educators, but the fact that it is a realistic one was borne out by the answers to questions given to teenagers recently on this very subject.
“Incivility is when two people get married, and the one forces the other to have sex,” a teenage boy elaborated. Incivility indeed! He continued, “Etiquette is when a man believes in contraception. Kid gloves is what he uses.”
The mind boggles. Would it be considered indecent to request of the child a demonstration of this intriguing method?
Still, one must give credit where credit is due, and it does seem from this, that the Biology teacher at least, may be making some headway! The thought should spur the rest of us on to greater effort. Instead, I am ashamed to admit, when the last bell rings on a Friday afternoon, I am only too ready to throw down my remains and run for home, where, in the absence of Teacher Motivation Drops, I pour a large whisky with the express intention of drinking myself into a state of extinction before I start killing dogs and throwing them at people – thereby revealing my abysmal lack of mannerisms.
However, I only manage that first gulp of the whisky after I have, in the words of yet another learner, “weeped myself into a puddle of tears”!
“I don’t like hyenas so this book would never have been my first choice if I had been buying it… my dislike grew somewhat because the story is longer than I like for a bedtime story…”
This is a quote from a recent “review” of my children’s picture book I Don’t Want To Be a Hyena, published in the “Read of the Week” section of Africa Community Media’s stable of free newspapers.
We learn two things from these comments:
The above-mentioned “review” is one example of an approach that is damaging to efforts toward a strong culture of literacy. It conveys only what its author does not know, therefore does not value and is reluctant to engage with. She does not know much about hyenas or the long-form picture book genre which includes titles like Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile and The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me, and is therefore not open to engaging on the basis of either.
There is certainly no censure in not knowing. Life is a constant process of learning. However, there is censure in being unwilling to learn, and passing on this attitude of unwillingness to children and the reading public, thereby undermining the very literacy goals to which we aspire.
On a recent book tour across South Africa with I Don’t Want To Be a Hyena, teachers and librarians thanked me for “providing books of substance” for children. Educators followed up the reading sessions by helping children discover more about hyenas, in the process learning more about these complex creatures themselves. This included playing YouTube video of hyenas laughing – which both children and adults found fascinating. Children as young as three years old remained engrossed in the story to the end.
In a recent interview, children’s author and illustrator Molly Idle, noted, “… there are many beautifully spare or wordless picture books in existence. But there are also any number of lovely looooong picture books too. The words you use should be dictated by the story you’re telling”[i] (my emphasis).
Yet more sobering are the social implications of an assessment like this. At the root of all prejudice and consequent social alienation is the unwillingness to engage based on pre-existing bias. One of the goals of children’s literature is to cultivate empathy and understanding. As responsible adults, we need to model these values for children.
This is not truly a review at all. It is simply an expression of the author’s preconceptions. The benefits of children’s literature are well documented. However, as mentioned in my previous blog “Kidlit: Legit Lit”, that value is undermined when we afford it only our most superficial and dismissive attention. The quality of a review of any children’s book can either lower or raise the tone of the conversation around children’s literature.
In this instance, a more constructive and valid approach might have included:
We do our children a great disservice when we underestimate them by setting artificial limitations on their literary capacity: “A five-year-old can only tolerate books with a 100 to 500 word count on a limited range of topics, therefore we will not expose him to anything outside of this.”
As both a writer and a former educator, my purpose is to entertain; educate; promote self-esteem, empathy and social connection; and yes, build a solid foundation of literacy that will sustain a child throughout her life. This is a task that cannot simply be abandoned to teachers, librarians, academics, and charitable organizations. It is one for which we each carry not only societal, but individual responsibility: at the most basic level, in our attitudes toward books, reading, learning, and openness toward engagement that we pass on to the next generation.
[i] SCBWI Fall 2019 Bulletin: About the Cover: A chat with cover artist Molly Idle by Sarah Baker p.6
My mother was a voracious reader, and her example instilled in me a passion for books and reading. Our city library was a twenty-minute car ride away. By the time I was five, I would devour the maximum number of age-appropriate books allowed by my library card on the car journey home, and beg to go right back for more. My mother scoured second-hand book stalls and stores to keep me supplied, yet my thirst remained insatiable. Eventually I started reading her books also. By the time I was nine, and beginning with A Tale of Two Cities, I was mainlining the works of Charles Dickens.
Much is written about the value of children’s literature. To summarize, it
This value cannot be underestimated. However, we impose an artificial limit on the value of children’s literature, when we relegate it to little more than its usefulness to what a child could become: to an ideal of what the child will one day be. This speaks to both how we view children’s literature and also childhood itself.
Surely the child’s own value is inherent in who he is now – in his present personhood – not only in what he may become. Similarly, children’s literature carries intrinsic literary value for what it is in itself – not merely for how it may help the child develop.
Good literature has a transforming effect on all of us, whether subtle or dramatic, no matter our age or stage of development. But whether or not we are impacted by it in this way, does not detract from the innate value of the literature itself: the artistry and skill of its use of language and illustration; its universal themes; its truth and beauty; the imaginative experience it provides; the responses of delight and wonder it evokes; what it reveals about our lives and the world around us.
It is time we took children’s literature as seriously as it deserves, as reflected in the media space allocated to the review of children’s books; in our regard for and engagement with children’s book writers and publishers; in the attention given to children’s writing and literature in writing programs and literature courses.
Philip Pullman, children’s author and Oxford academic, famously stated, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.”
Indeed, literary and academic heavyweights like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, to name a few, all wrote for children
Children’s literature occupies a legitimate and valuable space in the field of literature, and as such deserves our time, attention, and serious consideration.
I daydream my stories. While driving down the freeway, while walking the dog, while washing dishes, in the moments before sleep claims me, and the moments when whatever outwardly occupies me is not stimulating enough to engage me. At all of these times and many others, my inner landscape is populated with characters and imaginary storyboards and plot line crises and “what if” questions.
It was the most common complaint of teachers to my parents at parent-teacher meetings: “She daydreams”. My parents would dutifully report this to me without censure. If anything, they seemed mildly amused. And so I continued daydreaming. Many years later I found out that the same teacher complaint had been made of my Dad, a generation before me. Daydreaming, it seems, runs in the family, and for this I am grateful.
Sometimes the daydream begins with a key phrase or title line: “How the Cheetah Got His Tears”. How did the cheetah get his tears? I had no idea, but the line would not let go of me. Then one day, caught up in the inner moving pictures of my own daydreams, the stage set filled with the stately cheetah accompanied by other wildlife. As the characters came to life in my imagination, the problem between them – and its resolution – gradually unfolded.
When I sat down to record what had already played out in my daydreaming, the story wrote itself.
Vision, innovation, invention, and strategy are birthed from daydreaming. And ah yes, so also are stories and art and music.
But daydreaming is not self-limiting. Creative teaching and creative learning too, are its fruit. Education systems have largely made the mistake of regarding daydreaming as the opposite of concentration, not realizing that on the contrary, daydreaming is a highly focused form of concentration. Perhaps we should be encouraging it, rather than trying to “correct” it; harnessing it, instead of trying to shut it down. Perhaps we should facilitate our family members and friends and coworkers and students and employees in their daydreaming, and help them find outlets and avenues to give those daydreams expression.
Find out what stimulates your own daydreaming. For me it can be a number of things: listening to Mozart, walking on the beach, watching the dawn, working in the garden… I also know what shuts down my daydreaming: Not only the censure (or fear of it) of other people, but also watching too much television or spending too much time on the internet and social media – passive “activities” where “daydreams” are provided already packaged through an LED screen.
Once you have found your way back to daydreaming again, help someone else do the same. Let’s help to open up safe and unrestricted space for the dreamers and their daydreams in our homes, churches, schools,and workplaces. That’s my daydream!