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”!