June 2, 2012
I Taught Shakespeare in Botswana
By HILARY MANTEL
Budleigh Salterton, England
“THOSE who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” That’s what adults said when I was growing up, and it seemed cruel, since my girls-only school seemed to specialize in turning out teachers, and it didn’t leave us much pride in our future job. After university I became a social worker and then a saleswoman. I seemed to have broken the pattern, but all the time a classroom was waiting for me.
I became a teacher under bizarre circumstances, but in retrospect it was one of my better career moves. I was 25 and had been living for a year in Botswana with my geologist husband. Botswana in the late 1970s was remote and undeveloped. There was just one tarred road, running between the capital and our little town, and most of the rest of that vast country was interlaced by dirt roads and rough tracks. There was little water, but gold and diamonds glittered underground, a promise of wealth to come. Our town had a large secondary school, and pupils came from distant settlements to board. As the year began, a new English teacher was expected from India. He seemed to have got lost on the way. Would I look after his classes for a fortnight?
He never did show up. I settled down to teach two first-year classes with students ages 12 to 15, whose knowledge of English was basic, and a fourth-year literature class studying George Eliot and Shakespeare for international exams. One of the fourth-year pupils was older than I, a fact I prudently concealed. As in most classrooms, the standard of behavior varied from angelic to satanic. One first-year class had 38 pupils, too many to keep a hand on. Small riots erupted frequently in corners. The other first-year class had only 28, and they visibly relaxed, smiling, when I appeared, my pile of marked exercise books carried proudly by a keen lad with a shining face whose given name was Slumber.
The school had teachers from all over the world, and they shared no philosophy of education. The British were lazy and cynical; the American Peace Corps volunteers were well meaning and naïve. The Scandinavians were uncommunicative, the Canadians dull. The African teachers subjected one another to finely judged and sneering segregation. The West African teachers were loathed by the southern Africans. Among the teachers from Zimbabwe, members of rival tribal groupings ignored one another. Teachers of all nations bored, bullied and sometimes beat the children. Many students were deracinated and homesick. There was an undercurrent of violence, a policy of harshness. The institution, in other words, was rotten.
But there were pockets of joy. Your classroom could become a place of safety. My fourth-years – who had never seen theater or TV – lapped up Shakespeare because no one told them it was difficult and passed their end-of-year exams with flamboyant high marks. Through their school careers they had been taught to keep silent and learn by rote. So they were safe exam-passers, but a delight when I persuaded them to talk, debate and act. Despite all the tensions in the school, I remember a room rocking with laughter, the disapproving stares of the “real” teachers who passed by.
And yet I quit after a year, demoralized by the school’s atmosphere. I found teaching hard work, the hardest job I’ve done, and I would be wrung out at the end of each day. I learned a lot about myself. On the plus side, I was patient with the slow but willing. On the minus side, I had no aptitude for motivating the demotivated. But today, my pupils from 1978 are never out of my thoughts: a boy called Justice, a girl called Tears.
So now I say, “If you can, teach.” I am not sure how people find the personal resources for a lifetime of teaching; but to do it for a while, when you’re young, flexible and full of energy, can be an abrasive experience but a rich one.
The author of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.”
Naïve in the Peace Corps?
To the Editor:
I take issue with “My Brilliant Career: Teacher,” by Hilary Mantel (Sunday Review, June 3), who calls the Peace Corps volunteers she knew in Botswana “well meaning and naïve” and who admits to quitting her job there after a year.
I taught Shakespeare in Botswana, too. I also started a news club for students who in a pre-Internet age had little access to news as well as a typing club to prepare students with skills for their adult years.
With the help of a West African agriculture teacher, I also started a local chicken farm with the approval of the village tribal council to cultivate a homegrown industry that had been reliant on imports before.
How naïve does that sound?
New York, June 3, 2012
The writer was a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, 1987-89
Thanks, Jason, for whacking this Colonist.