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Jo'Burg Days: The Turning Point

...The very lack of education and schooling has made me read books, hundreds and thousands of books, and nowhere can one find a better source of information. I feel that I’ve reached a point where, in my general knowledge at least, I am as good as the next man – better perhaps, in some fields...

Barbara Durlacher tells of an event that moulded her life.

For a time I could not think of anything which might have had a really profound influence on me or which could be called a turning point. But now, looking back down the long corridor of years, I see quite clearly what it was.

As the only child of elderly parents, growing up without siblings or playmates, I never learnt to interact with others, and was always trying to act and behave like an adult; way beyond my years. When I went to school, this, combined with my self-consciousness isolated me from my playmates. I became a loner - although I doubt the term had been invented then.

But I loved my school, one of those gentle, and genteel, quiet and undemanding repositories for “young ladies of gentle birth,” if such a species ever existed, which I doubt. Now, I wonder if my youthful interpretation of the school ethos was correct, or if it was just poor teaching which left us to develop very much as we pleased. There wasn’t much insistence on the dreaded word‘Education.

But, education was needed nonetheless, and by the time I reached what was known in those days as Std IV, my doting parents began to realise that – bright as I had been in the earlier standards – I was falling sadly behind. So, taking the initiative, my father discreetly withdrew me from the comfy private school, and, with special dispensation, I was admitted to the local Government school. Perhaps rather to his relief, as my dear parents were already beginning to feel, although they would never admit it, that the fees at the private school were becoming more than my father’s remarkably small salary could support. At least, at government school, he would no longer have to scrimp and save to find the necessary sum to keep their beloved only child in the school of their choice.

So, for three days, I was sent to the local face-bricked, rowdy, free-for-all mixed gender school. No more languorous afternoons spent lazing on the lawns under the shade of the majestic oaks, no more gentle lessons taught by kindly spinster teachers, and no more stirring Anglican hymns at assembly in a dignified hall with illustrious names on the Honours Board.

Instead, there was the rough and tumble of flying fists and clumsy feet in the tarred playground, and the babble of unsupervised children’s voices over the threats of pre-pubescent bullies in tight grey flannel shorts stretched over developing male appendages. Such frighteners took the place of my studious girl friends, while lines of girls jumped rope as they recited incomprehensible rhymes and jingles. They eyed me with undisguised hostility as I stood on the fringes wishing I knew how to play hopscotch or skip so they would ask me to join in.

Instead, I was cowed, terrified and appalled.

I hated the ugly school and horrible playground and found the lessons incomprehensible. The government school syllabus was weeks ahead of what I had been doing at my private school, and I found my rank-smelling schoolmates foreign and frightening.

My school did not press the uncomfortable subject of exams too strenuously and hardly bothered to hold year-end tests; unless one showed real signs of being a brain and the teachers felt you had some chance of passing they left you alone and did not bother. A lesson spent out in the garden painting flowers, or gathering prettily coloured autumn leaves for botany was considered adequate. Not so, the government school. Oh, dear me, NO … A thousand times no.

Horrid, horrid teachers and their high expectations. Horrid, horrid, children and their incomprehensible Afrikaans.

Where I came from, there was very little emphasis on learning Afrikaans; it was looked on as being an inferior language and one that nice little ladies would have very little use for in their after-school lives. The result was, of course that I was outlawed from school games; left behind in class, stood out like a sore thumb on the playground and hated every minute of it.

Like any spoilt baby, I reacted as was to be expected. I cried and wept, begged and pleaded and refused my food. Within three days, my brow-beaten parents withdrew me from the hated government school and re-enrolled me in my beloved private school. As my switchover had happened during the Easter holidays of our three-term school, my absence had not even been noticed.

And yet, looking down the years as stated earlier, what my parents may have considered as the greatest mistake education-wise proved to be one of the most important turning points of my life.

From that gentle school, without pressure or the constant feeling that I had to prove myself, I gained a self-confidence which has never left me; I may not have succeeded academically, and I think that when I left school at the age of 17 I was practically uneducated. Paying less and less attention to my studies, my chances of being entered for Matric were nil; but this was a minor consideration. Women of our type did not need education as their role in life was to marry and have children, or so my elderly Victorian relic father thought.

Like all teenagers, sex and hormones had entered the picture, and I had fallen in love. My horrified mother, unwilling to let her ewe lamb out of her sphere of influence, kept telling me that I was still only a schoolgirl, and with typical teenage rebelliousness I was determined to prove her wrong. So, I left school. Then she couldn’t call me a silly schoolgirl, too young to know my own mind, or have a boyfriend.

Luckily she couldn’t read my mind, entirely filled with thoughts of boys, the popular tunes of the day; and images of the current screen idols. When not thinking of these superstars, I was looking for my Perfect Prince.

But despite lack of academic success, I feel I have succeeded after all. I can hold my own anywhere. The very lack of education and schooling has made me read books, hundreds and thousands of books, and nowhere can one find a better source of information. I feel that I’ve reached a point where, in my general knowledge at least, I am as good as the next man – better perhaps, in some fields.

I can, and have, met and mixed with everyone. I’ve talked with the high and mighty, and had some wonderful jobs. I’ve travelled and learnt about other cultures and other countries. I’ve absorbed information and facts like a sponge and never felt, even at age 75, that it was time to stop learning.

Changing schools, even for three days – really was a turning point for me!


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