another brick wall

“We don’t need no education”

“We don’t need no thought control!”

Unexpectedly high decibel Pink Floyd shattering the tranquil Ixopo afternoon.

“No dark sarcasm in the classroom”

It was around the end of February 1980. We were sitting in class at school after lunch. The windows were open, the humid air carrying the  lyrics on a lazy afternoon breeze, temporarily drowning out the teachers’ voices, lessons momentarily paused.

It was university Rag week and a clapped out, overloaded, unidentifiable vehicle, with huge home stereo speakers perched  precariously on the roof and held in place by ropes of questionable integrity, had just lurched through the school gates. The occupants tumbled out haphazardly, many being the previous year’s matriculants (school leavers for my non South African readers) as their voices hoarsely joined in with the rising crescendo of the next verse:

“Teachers, leave them kids alone”

We grinned rebelliously at the flagrant flaunting of authority and vowed to do the same when our time came. Yes, we would tell those teachers where to stick their lessons!

But we never did. By the time we left, we had developed a bond with our teachers that would transcend age, politics and geography. We were privileged to have been taught by what appears nowadays to be a rarified breed of educator – “one who cares passionately about their role in shaping the lives of young people in their most formative years”.  I’m not saying they don’t exist today (my eldest sister is one that I would count in this category) but we had more than our fair share of the absolute legends of our time at Ixopo High School.

First up – Garth Giles – a barrel of a man that could hold back the front row of the first XV rugby team by himself. The lyric “no dark sarcasm in the classroom” could have been written about him. Terrifyingly powerful for his size, when he approached your desk in maths class with his signature maniacal grin splitting his face you knew you were in for a cutting comment that would make you physically shrink in shame. He needed his sense of humour though – putting up with us could not have been easy but with threats, ridicule and intimidation carefully balanced with humour, caring and a genuine kindness and love for his job he proudly watched us grow and flourish under his tutelage as we saw through his tough facade and accepted his guidance and direction.

Des Steiger – a man with enough patience to make saints jealous. Communicating the complexities of advanced calculus to a troupe of teenagers has to rank right up there with one of the most thankless tasks in the world. Yet Des would calmly take as long as it took. The look of abject disappointment that would flit across his face when he failed to get a concept across  served to inspire you to do better next time so as not to cause him any further pain and perhaps to get a glimpse of that rare smile that accompanied success.

And Joss Hailpern (now Campbell) – not that much older than us at the time, the sweetheart of all the boys, turning heads as she sashayed through the corridors, commanding attention from the front of the english class. Well known for passionate outbreaks of poetry and reading, Joss brought stories to life and made English interesting. She will be remembered for many quirks but the one I hold most dear was her habit of reading out loud from a novel or set book for the last few minutes of a double English period as a reward for our hard work and good behaviour. It was an incentive that in the most part worked (who wouldn’t want to cut an English period shorter??). Her antics in the classroom as she passionately described a graphic scene from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra would bring a blush to the cheeks of the more demure and innocent girls and a sheepish grin to the faces of the boys as they fantasised about which girl they would like to be re-enacting the scene with ………

Joss however had a greater impact on my life than most other teachers. I had always loved stories and used to devour books in my spare time, regularly reading through the night into the wee hours of the morning. In our final years at school, Joss was both our form tutor and our English teacher and we had to submit a reading list to her for her approval so that she could ensure that we included books that were sufficiently mentally challenging. On glancing over my list she enquired with some derision whether or not I ever intended to go to university as she didn’t consider such utter trash as “Wilbur Smith” to be sufficiently stimulating to adequately exercise my mind in preparation for a further academic qualification. (In my defence my list also included John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and a few other literary masterpieces, but the inclusion of the Wilbur Smith really p*ssed her off!!!). I went away defiantly swearing to show her “mentally bloody challenging” and promptly read both Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey before our next meeting. The look on her face when I was prepared to discuss these with her in detail (in no small part due to my eldest sister spending a few hours with me explaining the finer points of dactylic hexameter ….) was truly priceless.

However, going beyond mere academic interest in her pupils, Joss really cared about our hopes and dreams, even at our young age. In our final few months of school, she came over one day to where I was standing with my arm around my childhood sweetheart and I immediately thought we were in trouble as no “displays of affection” allowed at our school! But she told us that she was going to speak to us as one young adult to another. She really laid into us that day – questioning our desire to make a life together and relating that to our lack of focus on school work at the time (we were perhaps a little too obsessed with each other ………). She basically gave us a much needed kick up the backside that day, not because she was our teacher, but because on that day, she made the transition to becoming a friend. A true friend, one that isn’t scared to tell it like it is. Something must have clicked somewhere in those adolescent brains of ours as I’m still with my same childhood sweetheart from that day (we married a few years later).

Yes, our teachers cajoled, implored, inspired, threatened, ridiculed, loved and laughed with us but they never, ever left us alone.

Something for which they will have my eternal gratitude!

Joss with a bunch of us from the Class of 82 - 30 years later.

Joss with a bunch of us from the Class of 82 – 30 years later.