the face of my mother takes the shape
the face of my mother takes the shape of
a frightened mouse
at the sound of a policeman’s step
the fear-filled-flutter of her heart
a bird ensnared
my father freezes his feelings at the demand
for a pass
and i watch the fire in his
eyes slowly die
as his hands grope for the right to survive
- James Matthews
Just had probably one of, if not the, best lesson that I’ve had with my grade tens since my arrival at Fezeka. The above poem, written by famed South African poet James David Matthews* during the Apartheid era, is a part of our poetry unit, and aside from being a powerful piece of writing, is a wonderful practical example of many of the literary terms we have learnt over the past month.
Today being a Friday, periods are shorter than normal, and to top it off, this class was first period after lunch, which is notoriously late-starting as students straggle in from the break at their leisure.
Despite these hindrances, we were underway and on point within the first ten minutes. Prior to delving into its deconstruction, I spent about ten minutes talking about the power of poetry…about the power of words…the power they can have over people…the power people can have over them…and most importantly, the power that people who understand and use them, can have. To incite, to inspire, to challenge and question. To ponder, to inform, to equip and enable.
Talked of Nelson Mandela’s early ANC speeches. How at one point, those were just letters on a page. Letters forming words that when spoken by him, started a revolution. A revo-freaking-lution.
Reminded them how the world they are going to face is tough, and the more knowledge they take in during their time here, the better able they will be to confront and tackle the challenges head on. I promised to help them in whatever way I can while we share our time together, as they nodded their heads and thanked me in advance. It was all very intense and touching. And we hadn’t even started the actual lesson.
As this poem is so relevant to my students in so many ways, it didn’t take long to reel them in. Since I connect – albeit on a different level - with the poem as well, it didn’t take much for me to inject passion, ample gesticulation and emotion into my explanation of and our discussion on it. Am definitely a dork up there. But I love it.
Pounding on the blackboard to emulate the sound of a policeman at the door…cowering in fear to convey what a frightened mouse might do…twisting my face into a grotesque grimace and balling my fists in frustrated fury to express the stifled rage that the father would feel…raising my hands in the air…placing them behind my head…extending them palms-out in a show of surrender…as the narrators father may have done as a means of survival...
All of the above of course – aside from the pounding on the blackboard – was done with the full participation of the students, with the actions themselves drawn out of them with questions of how do you think this would feel…what would you do…how would you react….
It was amazing. Their level of attention, participation, even the answers they were volunteering. One of my quietest, shyest and admittedly weakest students (and as such, a secret favourite of mine), raised the sole hand in the class when I asked what the author meant by: ‘my father freezes his feelings’, and answered with: ‘his father hides his feelings because he knows what will happen if he shows them,’ to which the class responded with spontaneous applause and I had to struggle to not tear up.
Of course next class they will surely be back to their naughty 15 year old ways, but I don’t care.
Today, for those 35 minutes, they were mine. They were engaged, they were on fire, and I’m pretty sure almost every one of them learnt something.
Be still my flutter-filled heart.
* James David Matthews was born in Athlone in the Cape in 1929. He has been a writer on the ‘Cape Muslim News’ and Director of the Blac Publishing House. His volume of poetry ‘Cry Rage!’, stridently declared the Black man to be the challenger rather than the challenged, and was the first book of South African English poems to be banned.
As editor of the banned anthology ‘Black Voices Shout!’ published in 1974, he was in political detention for four months at the time of the 1976 Soweto riots.
Since then he has continued to write poetry of direct political statement, as well as short stories, the most famous of which is possibly ‘The Park’. In this he illustrates how the apartheid laws affected the children as well as the adults when a small child is forbidden to use the playground equipment reserved for the White children.