With many apologies beforehand they introduced me to Nololo.
“We’re really sorry to give you Nololo on your first day. All her teachers have given up on her, she’s nine years old and she still can’t read.”
“She’s very intelligent but she just can’t read. We can’t teach her.”
The girl smiled acknowledging the truth of these remarks and shrugged her shoulders as if to say so what. But I noticed her foot kicking insistently against the leg of the table on which she sat. Taking in the noise and disorder at the long table which occupied most of the room and the television set in the corner contributing its mite to the din, I suggested to Nololo that we go outside. We sat at a picnic bench in autumn sunlight, her slumped posture eloquent of her dislike for the coming task; head on one hand she flicked a dog-eared reader with the other. We chatted a bit and gradually the sullen creature gave way to a bright-eyed girl, opinionated, confident and nobody’s fool.
Her homework sheet gave the page number she was supposed to read and she was eventually induced to begin. Taking a huge breath she launched into a machine gun staccato stream of words punctuated only by her need to draw another breath. It seemed that she could read words perfectly well but when I tried to interest her in the existence of full stops she dismissed such trivialities with the same disdain she would have shown for the fly specks they resembled. Her only interest was to get through this loathsome task as quickly as possible.
“Done!” She shouted at the end of the page, halfway through a sentence. She slammed the book shut and would do no more. As I walked home I wondered how I could get Nololo to pay attention to anything as insignificant as stops and commas, how to breach the defences of her gunner’s nest.
The next week I took a jar of sultanas with me. Seated once more at the picnic bench I opened the jar and explained the rules.
“You get one sultana for a full stop, a comma is worth half a sultana, colons, exclamation marks and question marks are worth two, apostrophes and quotation marks are worth one each and a semicolon is worth one and a half.”
At first Nololo insisted on eating the fruit each time a piece was earned, down to biting off half a sultana at each comma she came to. This made the lesson torturously slow but the following week she was content to stockpile her gains. She learned the attraction of dialogue, crowing with delight at the bonanza engendered by a shout being given three exclamation marks inside double quotation marks. The idea that a question mark made you say the sentence differently was a revelation to her and the dawning wonder that lit her face as the page came alive was as precious as sunrise after a storm. She turned aside a little as if conscious of revealing too much and, holding the book close, examined the page privately for a few minutes. She turned back, composed now, and continued to read. At the end of the page I matched her pile with another and suggested she share it with her friend, a skinny gap-toothed boy who had been circuiting the picnic bench in eccentric ellipses.
“No, they are sooo nice,” she said hugging one handful to her chest as she ate from the other hand, “They’re all juicy and sweet and they’re mine.”
The following week Nololo had graduated from the reader to a book of her own choice. She devoured the tale of a young girl on a quest to find her father. She read on pausing only to sound out the syllables of a new word and sometimes to ask its meaning. At the end of the fifth chapter she stopped,
“Oh enough, I’m tired now.”
Her surprise when I told her that she had read for half an hour straight was as nothing to the disbelief and amazement which met her proud announcement of this fact back inside the House.
On my next visit I was introduced to Lucca, the skinny boy, a problem child who now wanted to work with me. Of course what he really wanted was the sultanas. Lucca brought a new element to the game. With a certain flair he would move each whole sultana earned right across to a new pile whereas a half sultana, instead of being bitten, would only be moved halfway across until the next half was earned whereupon it would be moved back to the original pile and another would be moved across completely to the acquisitions pile. He thus imported the fun of a board game to the method. So attractive where these manoeuvrings that 18 month old Ntembe crawled up into my lap wanting to learn to read. Wet and windy weather now kept us indoors where the sultanas proved a sufficient attraction against the distraction of noisy chatter and television during the reading exercise but when Lucca moved on to his other homework his attention was anywhere but in his book. He sat up on his knees on the bench leaning across the table then squirming about on top of his books and everyone else’s. Hauling him back and recalling him to his task I found that he was copying from another child’s book.
“No, this is no good Lucca, you must write your own answers.”
“No, the teacher said to.”
“Your teacher said you must copy someone else’s work?”
“Yes.” He nodded emphatically.
“I don’t think so.”
“Yes, she did, she gave me the book! I have to write it out.”
Andre corroborated this claim, explaining that there were more than thirty pupils in Lucca’s class and the teacher did not have time to spend with him.
So the failing child was relegated to the ranks of the incapable and condemned to the annihilating boredom of copying word for word another child’s answers—and a girl’s at that. I looked through Maryann’s book; Lucca was behind and falling even further so. The exercise he was working on was to tell a story about a dog so I drew a line in his book beneath the two and a half lines he had laboriously copied and told him about one of our dogs: Chaddie Wadunga last of the Chamalingas, who would sit down and shake your hand or, if you were dancing, would leap up and put his front paws on your shoulders and dance with you. Lucca fell to his story as avid for all the details of Chad’s appearance as any writer born. I wanted to bring Chad to meet him but neither the house mother, nor the resident social worker, could take it upon themselves to expose a boy, who roamed the streets in the afternoons and met his tik smoking friends at the graveyard, to the dangers of a family pet. Andre was also a volunteer and so had no authority. Lucca could not have a dog or even meet one, except in his imagination. Maryann’s book was returned to the teacher; Lucca preferred to write his own stories.
In the last week of term I arrived at The House to a celebration. Everyone shouted at me as I walked through the door but I could make nothing out in the hubbub until Andre explained “Lucca’s teacher had no complaints!” Andre, whose task it was to deputise for parents of the House children at parent/teacher meetings explained that for the first time ever Lucca’s teachers had had no complaints about him. She actually said it “I have no complaints.” Lucca’s beaming face spoke his pride which he worked off dancing around the room and leaping on the furniture. Edina had baked a special cake for the after-school snack, all was celebration.
Eventually we sat down to homework, “Okay, but first go brush your teeth.”
“I don’t have a toothbrush.”
“Andre, Lucca says that he doesn’t have a toothbrush.”
“Doesn’t he? He should have, I’ll get Phumla to give him one. He doesn’t need it right now.”
“Yes, he does.”
Refreshed and fragrant Lucca was seated beside me on the bench reading when Phumla sailed around the end of the table on her way to the door, letting forth all the while a tirade at full volume like a galleon firing on all guns, amongst which “that boy,” “two toothbrushes,” “three toothbrushes,” and “whaaat he does with them,” were discernibly reiterated. He turned to track this barrage front on ending with his back to me when Phumla reached the door.
“No. That was the old Lucca, this is the new Lucca, about whom his teacher has no complaints.” The thin shoulders unfurled beneath my hands and a decisive nod dealt with Phumla.
No complaints. No complaints full stop. No complaints period.
Perhaps if Lucca’s teacher had been properly supplied; if the department had sent textbooks. Or if the school was not vandalised every holiday; if the metal thieves had just ripped the toilets from the walls and the railings from the balconies but not also trashed the classrooms. Or if the once close knit community of Hangberg was not reft by unemployment as the fishing quotas followed graft and factory ships out of the harbour and by drugs so you stayed indoors after dark. Or if indoors was not quite so crowded; if twenty-five years on a housing list resulted in a house. Then perhaps she might have had a tear to spare for a boy whose mother slept rough and begged a living; a boy whose greatest joy was to be allowed to spend the holidays with his mother whenever she managed to find a place to stay. And perhaps that tear in falling might have dropped on her report just below the singularity of that point and that uncompromising stop might have blossomed into the kindness of a semi-colon:
“No complaints; much improved” or even “No complaints; well done.”
Take up a sultana, test its plumpness and place it before you. Take up another and bite into it. Savour the tart fruitiness and follow its elusive piquancy to the final sweetness, then place the other half above the first sultana. Share in Nololo’s delight when she learned that a question mark was a signal from the writer that the sentence it completes is a question when you learn that a semi-colon conjoins sentences that stand in a particular relation to each other. And the nature of that relationship? It could be comparison, or contrast, or elucidation, or the subtler kinds of causation, even the gathering of separate actions into a single incident, whatever an imagination can conjure. But when a writer uses a semi-colon she is doing more than inviting you to consider the relation between two sentences; she is saying it matters.
Christine Jacobsen studied chemistry in Australia and philosophy in England and then indulged a fascination for history in Wales. While in South Africa she has studied natural healing therapies. Some may find this a disparate collection of interests but she is still on the same quest: trying to understand how the world works.