*Post-publishing edit… Please excuse that final paragraph’s self-helpy sound. Ugh.
I was thinking about words the other day. How, when strung together, they hold such power. From there it got me thinking about sentences, conversations, lines in books that have stood out for me. There are lots. Like strings of words on Ticker Tape, stuck to the walls of my brain. This is the story of one of them.
I grew up in Small Town, very conservative, South Africa. And I don’t say that lightly. While I won’t deny that – for me – my childhood was relatively idyllic, with riding bikes in the street and safely walking to the park on the big circle down the road, to swing on the swings, by myself. That kind of thing. But, that very park was the last one to remove the ‘Whites only’ signs, that town’s municipality were conservative, cruel.
It was Apartheid. While I was aware of it, it didn’t affect me. I was little, and by the time I got big enough to do anything about it we were, thankfully, on our way to true democracy. I’m pretty sure my parents breathed a sigh of relief – not only at the demise of Apartheid, but that it was removed before I was old enough to really become politically active.
I’m straying, though, this post isn’t about politics. The town was conservative in every other way too. People lived there their whole lives, the (very small) town was their entire world. They went to school together, lived next door to each other, married their high school sweethearts, and sent their kids to the same schools, to repeat the cycle.
This, in many ways, was what made it wonderful, the connectedness and community, but also made it dangerous. Anything beyond the – very conservative – norm was considered bad. While the teenagers of the time practiced their usual rebellion, it was controlled, and any kind of ‘other’ behaviour – interest in Dungeons and Dragons, or reading too much, or loving the ‘wrong’ gender, for example, were just, well, frowned upon.
Girls were girls, and did Home Economics, so that they could be good wives, and boys did Woodwork so that they could… well, make pencil boxes. My best friend Gabi – whose Dad owned the hardware shop in town – and I challenged that when we were 11-years’ old, by going to the headmaster to ask if we could do Woodwork instead of Home Ec. He told us we’d need to prove we could, so we made our own pencil boxes at her Dad’s shop. After we’d shown them to the him, he let us make more pencil boxes – along with many of the other girls in our year – in the Woodwork class. During break times. We still had to do Home Ec.
Our family were, perhaps, a bit of an anomaly in that town (along with many others – don’t get me wrong, we certainly weren’t alone in our anomoliness). I am blessed with liberal(ish) parents who encouraged us to see the world, to read, to study, but no amount of parental influence is enough to keep out all of those small town values, opinions, maybe even indoctrinations. They’re surreptitious, those. My world, too, was small.
My mother taught extra maths to high school kids in our dining room at home in the afternoons. We had a constant stream of kids traipsing through the lounge each day. Shopping at Pick ‘n Pay on Saturdays, we’d bump into people we knew in every aisle, many of them her pupils.
One Saturday, in particular, always remains clear in my head. We stopped to say hello to one of her pupils, a girl who my mother still says was her favourite pupil, along with the two boys who came to the class with her. It was nearing the end of the year, and she had plans to go to university, to study Journalism, and I think her mother was discussing the dangers of such things – being there when bombs go off, and the like. I was enthralled.
“At least I’ll go down in flames!” the daughter said. “If I find myself in a bomb situation, I’ll throw the camera up into the air and it’ll take a picture of me, from above, in the moment.”
It was a typical teenage comment and she probably doesn’t even remember it. I’ve also, more-than-likely, used a fair amount of poetic licence, it being 30 years’ ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. As ludicrous as the notion was, it seemed so worldly, so huge.
It was one of those moments when the world opens up.
I am now friends with her on Facebook and she’s done incredible stuff, not in war zones – thankfully – but in the far more scary war of violence toward women and children, and more.
Thinking about it all, I was reminded of the power of our words, the power we hold within us. One little sentence, probably forgotten by its issuer, made me think bigger. And it’s a power we all have.