Tuesday evening saw me being less than tolerant to my beloved nephew about his homework. Every Tuesday the Nans arrive from school: are fed, warmed with a hot beverage and turned towards their homework. We have a pattern – I oversee, they work through it and then we move into having showers and the second feeding phase of the evening.
On Tuesday evening Jasper presented me with his ‘finished’ workbook. The pages he had to complete were about bees, honey and advertising. There were lots of facts, and illustrations and interesting bits and pieces. The pages were caramel coloured, bees flew around them happily and the homework assignment was clear: “create a print advertisement to sell honey.”
Last week they had learned the structure of an ad … headline, body copy, payoff line. The importance of colour, type and image. Of positioning and of the why: to get people to buy your product. Obviously the lesson had wider scope than that – it was about creating a message that was interesting to other people, about developing a brand, about communication skills. About presentation.
I looked at the page. And at him and said:
No my boy, this doesn’t cut it. Do it again.
But whyyyyyyyyy …
Because it is a scrawl, and half rubbed-out and a total throw-away.
But Suzieeeeeee it’s finnnnne.
Your teacher isn’t going to think that.
She doesn’t even looooook at it.
Yes she does, she ticks the pages.
She doesn’t even reeeeeead it – she just scans it.
Well, even if she scans this it is going to look like you are giving her the finger and basically saying you don’t give a damn. Do it again, please.
Nooooooo, whyyyyy shouuuuuld Iiiiiiii?
Because I know you are better than this. Now, stop being lazy. Start from the top – read it all – write the answers so we can read them. And do a great job.
What did you say?
Oh, I get it – you think this is a conversation – well it’s not. I am telling you to do it again.
(Sound of book pencil and eraser flying down the passage. Hitting the front door and landing on the floor.)
Go and sit in your bedroom. No, no, no-no, no – leave your coffee, you don’t deserve it right now. And when you have stopped looking like a slapped fish ….pick up your damn book and do it again. Properly This Time.
When he returned, when he had cleaned up the pages, when he had written:
“Your honey will love our honey. Get 25% off your second pot …you would bee mad to miss this offer”,
when I had given him a kiss and a cuddle and when he had a fresh cup of hot coffee in his hand, I decided to benefit the poor fellow with my years of experience:
“South Africa has Black Economic Empowerment because of our history. It is going to be hard enough for you to find a job already. And if you are crap and lazy now – you don’t stand a hope in the future. There are going to be plenty of other guys and girls who are going to take the job you want. Who are going to get to do all the things you want to do. Who are not crap and lazy. If you want to create something great for yourself – you better start now – by trying. If you don’t try – you aren’t going to get anywhere. And you are going to be the one cleaning out the stalls at the donkey sanctuary. Which might be fine by you but it’s not fine by me – because I know what you can do. So I am always going to push you to try harder. Ok?
Aunts are supposed to kick your butt. You know that don’t you? It’s our job. And it’s because I love you so much.
I know. I love you too.
That night I wondered if I hadn’t been a teeny bit theatrical. I had been tired and definitely annoyed – which had shaped my reaction. Would I have been better to leave it and see if he got his bumps at school? Did I hurt him with my criticism? When I told my mom, she laughed: “Do you know how many times I had that conversation with you kids. You turned out ok.”
School is not going to teach him everything – as Billy Wimsatt reminds us: “There were no sex classes. No friendship classes. No classes on how to navigate a bureaucracy, build an organization, raise money, create a database, buy a house, love a child, spot a scam, talk someone out of suicide, or figure out what was important to me. Not knowing how to do these things is what messes people up in life, not whether they know algebra or can analyze literature.” And he is absolutely right. But the experience and framework that being at school provides sets us up to learn the rest: without a parachute.
That, and having ferocious Aunts.
(William Upski Wimsatt is an author, political activist and founder of the League of Young Voters. He might not have learned much in school – but he learned plenty. He is also a damn fine writer. Check out: “No More Prisons” and “Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs” To learn more about South Africa’s Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Policy read this.)