Thursday, 11 August 2016

Wax Stains In My English Book - A Tribute

She removes the red pen from between her pursed lips. The lid is still pristine; no dents from teeth. It had simply rested there, an indication of her engagement in thought as she digested the umpteenth essay that night. She reaches out and grabs the candle – her only source of light during power outages – bringing it closer to the book as it burns lower and lower. An “ouch” escapes her lips and whistles past the red lid as a drop of wax spills over onto her ring finger, a sharp but evanescent pain.  Some of that wax rolls off unseen and settles on the page, solidifying instantly on the paper. It remains invisible in the light cast by the wick it escaped from, but would be noticed by me the following day, under fluorescent lights, when I eagerly opened my book to see what she thought of my essay. At first I thought the stain was my fault, and was glad she did not call me out on it. Later that night I would realise that I was using a rechargeable lamp. There were no candles in my room.

Her eyes ache and her back sends the same message. The lack of light does no favours here, and hunching forward only makes her back scream more. It is two hours before midnight and she still has eleven books to mark.  She would tell us the following day that she had had five hours sleep, not to fish for a compliment, but to warn of a potential short fuse. In the end, that short fuse did not pop.

The five hours surprise us at first: “You mean we aren’t the only ones who go to bed late?” a voice says behind me. It wasn’t loud enough for her to hear, and just as well, because the voice in question did not care – it simply wanted its mark. “Teachers are not bound by the same human laws as the rest of us,” that voice was implying to itself, “they should just get on with it.”

She would collect a pay-check later that week. By four o’clock that afternoon, the salary’s value would halve. By the following morning it would halve again. That salary would remain in the bank until its zeros were wiped out in their entirety because the bank had no cash to dispense to an economy that had buckled at its knees. She would take home another pile of books that night. Another candle would be lit. Another wax stain would form.
Twenty two of her colleagues left in the weeks that followed in that school term.
I found myself wondering who would be next. I hoped it would not be her, nor any of my teachers at that time, for I was due to write my IGCSE exams in a matter of months. Although, I could not have blamed her if she had – I had heard my parents discussing the possibility of emigrating, just days prior to that wax droplet’s leap of faith.


She stands in front of the class and presents her findings and tips after handing out the rest of our marked essays. She explains myriad points that take five minutes to speak, but neither I nor the faces around me realise how many hours it took to gather that insight. She gesticulates with her right hand as she emphasises a point, one about the importance of register in writing. Her glasses move ever so slightly down her nose and she briefly sucks her ring finger. The wax burn is still felt today.


 Today I enter that same classroom. The room quietens a little as I make my way to the desk where I sat and discovered that wax stain six years ago. A sea of faces track me as I take it in and relive that very moment before making my way back to the front of the room.
She walks into the classroom, expecting it to be empty. She nods a quiet “hello” and flashes a smile as she fumbles with her keys. Her rectangular glasses slide ever so slightly down her nose as she leans forward to open the store room. I can see her ring finger clearly as she removes the padlock and slides the deadbolt. 
“Good morning, guys!” I exclaim as she vanishes into the store room.
“Morning sir,” they reply.
“Today I would like to hear YOUR opinions on what ingredients it takes to make a good teacher,” I say.

This form two class was supposed to receive a lesson on relative pronouns today, but that can wait. Today I’ll explain the significance of a wax stain.

 She emerges from the room and locks it. Stepping through the classroom door, she sends another smile that I catch in the corner of my eye as I call on a student near the back, who proceeds to mention the quality of dedication….
Apt indeed, and the coincidence is not lost on me, smiling as the connections are made somewhere deep in my consciousness between this present moment and that poignant memory. This is what teaching is all about, this is where the magic happens – not on the board, but between student and teacher when the lines are blurred and roles are reversed.
Those form two students would go on to enlighten me with their recipes for great teachers; their perceptions and perspectives would astound me, given their age – something the lady with the red pen would also emphasise to me as we chatted that afternoon.


He removes the red pen from between his pursed lips. The lid is still pristine, no dents from teeth. It had simply rested there, an indication of his engagement in thought as he digested the umpteenth essay lit up by his rechargeable lamp that night.
He now experiences life on the other side of the desk: the life spent marking books, preparing lessons, giving everything and more to the sea of individual and remarkable souls behind the same smaller desks he once occupied.

Tired, he smiles to himself as he stiffly leans forward to switch of the lamp. His eyes ache and he knows he’ll be up early again the next morning. He is satisfied knowing that the lesson on pronouns will take place this time, but, more importantly he knows that he will be preparing the young minds for the world out there, the world that desperately needs the kind of values that only a wax stain in an English book can explain.


Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to all of my teachers that braved the trials and tribulations of what has become simply known as “The 2008 period” [in Zimbabwe]. Without your incomprehensible dedication during such times, it is unlikely that I would be referring to myself as your colleague now. There are many others out there too, scattered at universities and corporations around the world, doing well for themselves; drawing on the strengths of the academic and character education that you so selflessly gave them. Thank you, not just to my teachers, but to all of you that stayed put at that time.

 A special thank you to Mrs. Ute Allery-Kaufman for the wax stain that you left in my IGCSE English book. I hope this piece of writing is to your satisfaction, as I’m not sure I’d be able to sit in your class again for another lesson without raising some eyebrows.