Sunday, January 08, 2012

Carpe Diem - Seize the day

I received an Email shortly after my last posting. It came from Mitch Stirling.
He attached a little anecdote he wrote lamenting his time as a fresh, scared, young man starting out as a teacher at Fort Victoria High School. This is mixed with some very good opinions on where Political Correctness has taken the West and the problems teachers have today. He has kindly allowed me to put it up here.

Known as Fort Victoria until 1982, when its name was briefly changed to Nyanda. Within a few months its name was again changed to Masvingo when it was discovered that Nyanda did not translate very well across dialects. It is the oldest colonial settlement in Zimbabwe, and grew up around the encampment established in 1890 by the Pioneer Column en route to their eventual destination, Salisbury. (Wikipedia)

The pictures were scanned from - More Rhodesian Senior Schools 1950-1982 (Part 2) Books of Zimbabwe, 1982

Carpe Diem - Seize the day

After three years at the Teachers' College in Bulawayo I was let loose on the world of Rhodesian education as a teacher of History. My first thoughts were that I really should have paid more attention to the lectures on the theory and practice of education whilst at college. In fact, I thought, I really should have 'attended' those lectures! Oh well, too late now. Into the deep end I went with the finest of Rhodesian youth in 1968. 

 Fort Victoria High School 1982

The best thing - perhaps the only thing - I had to offer as a teacher was my youth. To my relief I realized that the Fort Victoria High School children who were destined to receive my 'words of pedagogic wisdom' were not children at all, but young adults separated from me only by a few short years. And they were mostly from a middle-class Rhodesian background just like mine. But how, I asked myself, was I to corner them in a classroom on a lovely sunny day and make them interested in history?
Fortunately the Zimbabwe Ruins and the little-known Nyajena Ruins were not too far away, so classroom captivity was not a big problem at all.  'Living' history was a real possibility because there was a school bus, sandwiches and bottles of Mazoe orange to take on expeditions to the ruins and the surrounding Iron Age sites. Perfect.
Young minds were very keen to soak up all of that, as was mine.  From those interesting beginnings it was a natural and easy progression to read and learn about the Zulu and Boer War and hold them in memory in preparation for public exams. It would be nice to think that those young folk enjoyed the history as much as I and hopefully that fat red history of "The British Empire and Commonwealth" by James Williamson - the book that most of us remember as the standard text book for "O" level History - lay comfortably in their classroom desks, along with the more demanding Log Tables and "O" Level Maths and Science books. 

Another amazing thing I discovered was... when I asked the 'kids' about all the things they loved - like trees and fish and animals - I became the pupil and they the teachers. They were a very knowledgeable bunch of ‘bush babies' who knew far more than I. So, a mutual and instinctive respect for one another developed based on a fascination for the ancient and the natural world, plus some plain old-fashioned decent values which are so often absent in today's world of education.

One of those values was respect for one's seniors. I was brought up with that respect and so were they. It was like an unspoken rank-structure handed down from father to son and mother to daughter. It's what made a young boy stand up when a lady-teacher entered a room, open a door for her and doff his cap at the appropriate moment. I'm not suggesting they had perfect manners those Fort Victorians, nor were they 'goody goodies' by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it. But, there we were (for better or for worse) locked together in a moment of time, trying to understand each other and the world around us. Wonderful memories were made and, dare I say, friendships were formed that have survived the test of time, even to this day.

Friendships... I say that loud and clear. There is nothing wrong or sinister about friendship in a pupil/teacher relationship as long as certain rules of conduct are observed on both sides. Although I have to say that certain things happened in those old days; certain 'things' for which I would probably go to jail for today. To beat some young male miscreant on his bum with a bit of stick was the way of things back then. If a boy was caught smoking or drinking in the hostel dormitories it was normal practice for him to present his buttocks to the staff room for six whacks with a cane.  Simple as that: it was the rule. I have been on the giving and receiving end of the 'stick' in my time on many occasions, so I think I can speak with some authority when I say that I don't feel depraved or dysfunctional or psychologically damaged by it in any way. But... and this is the point, one very quickly learns (from both ends) that punishment of any kind should be swift, decisive, occasionally painful, although never dispensed in anger. It is a fast-track learning experience. The cane may be primitive, but it works on most occasions. 

At the other end of the scale... to place a comforting arm around a young 12 year old lass, as I did on occasions, seemed perfectly natural and completely innocent. But I would go straight to Alcatraz or San Quentin today - or wherever they put deviant, psychopathic, paedophiles in North America - for such unacceptable behaviour in today's schools. All the best teachers I have known over the years who graced our Rhodesian education department have always had, first and foremost, the kids’ best interests at heart. These men and women could be easily identified by their passion for directing young lives down the straight and narrow paths of life. And they had a quality of fairness about them which could be spotted and appreciated by most school children, sometimes subconsciously, and sometimes not until later years.
The influence of famous educators like Bob Hammond, Jeeves Hougaard, Miss Thwaits, Neil Jardine, Tony Tanser, Dot Turner, Miss Parsons etc etc on the lives of the children in their charge cannot be underestimated. I mention these names at random; there are many more who influenced all of us in many ways... wonderful academics, cricket coaches, tennis coaches, drama, music, art... Some of them even represented Rhodesia in a variety of disciplines and they generously handed down their skills and experience to the next generation of Rhodesians.

But you didn't have to become an international player or a big success at anything to appreciate what those teachers did and how they imprinted themselves indelibly on all of our lives.

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