Once upon a time, long, long ago, when I was a student at Rhodes (a university in Grahamstown, South Africa, which was named for good old Cecil the Terrible –
– although white South African schoolkids during the apartheid era knew Cecil John Rhodes as a man who transformed Africa (which was true, actually) and became very rich and powerful (also true) and was a hero (not so much). Sometimes I wonder how teachers think about the stuff they cram into their students heads. Did the teachers of my generation believe what they taught – that pink-skinned adventurers were heroes, that trekkers and pioneers tamed unclaimed territory, and that the stories of Blood River and Thanksgiving had happy endings? Do teachers of any generation know when they’re lying, or care? Or are they the Sean Spicers of the classroom, expressing the opinions of their master without being in any way responsible for them? Do educators collude willingly in the production of lemmings, or are they just doing their job? And when the job is done … how do they feel when they see ignorance elevated to power?)
To get back to the point of this piece – which I started to share a memory, not rant about social engineering – I just read a recent post by one of my favorite bloggers, Victo Dolore, who likes to ponder while she poops. During her sitting time this morning she remembered a day ruined by a misplaced button, and that got me thinking about the time a button very nearly did for me.
It was toward the end of my first year at Rhodes, when I ran for a seat on the Students Representative Council. It’s not usual for first year students to run for the SRC, but I was compelled to do so by my urgent yearning for Freedom.
Rhodes was a little more old-fashioned than most universities in those days, and women’s residences were locked at 8.00PM on week nights. You could stay out later, but you had to sign out and leave through the front door, and there was a curfew. There were always two students on duty to ensure compliance … unless you were one of their friends … which I never was, because I wasn’t cool enough … which is why I had to go into politics. (Maybe that’s how it all started for Ted Cruz.)
However SRC members were presumed to be Highly Responsible People, and also Leaders Of Tomorrow, so they got a back door key and could come and go as they pleased without signing in.
So I ran for office, which entailed attending dinners at various student residences, where I made stirring speeches about my fundamental amazingness and overall fitness for office, which I did about as well as you’d expect of an introverted fat girl with no clue about style. (Well, Abe Lincoln was also odd-looking and unfashionable, so I was in good company, although I didn’t know it, American presidents not being of great significance within the South African educational establishment.)
By the time I addressed the largest of the men’s residences I was feeling pretty confident, almost smooth, and I’d learned how to look directly at people in my audience without actually seeing them (seeing can be disturbing), and I’d practiced enough that I could talk without quavering. Also, I was wearing a new outfit; my mother had made it and mailed it to me especially. It was a chocolate brown skirt that reached just past the fattest part of my calves (in other words, it hid my knees!) and a nylon cream blouse spattered with dime-sized chocolate brown polka dots that was only a little tight across my ever-expanding bazoom.
My speech can only be described as enthralling. Every eye in the dining hall was fixed upon me. I had one friend in the audience who kept sort of flapping his hand in front of his chest, which was a teeny bit distracting, but when glaring didn’t make him stop I ignored him. When I was done, my listeners didn’t merely applaud me – they roared! They stamped their feet! They even whistled! It … was … amazing!
Then I turned back to the high table (where I was seated with various senior types and authority figures) and one of them leaned forward and softly informed me that the blouse button over my bra had popped open.
My mother always was unreliable in sizing buttonholes.
Anyway, it was worth it because I did, in fact, get elected. There were five open seats, and five people running, so my victory was pretty much inevitable. I was put in charge of publicity, which mainly involved getting high on the smell of marker pens while creating posters advertising university events. I did the words – puns, rhymes and wordplay, all hilarious, of course. My friends provided the artistic touch, under the leadership of the only artist among us, who specialized in inserting genitalia into everything she drew – but very subtle, of course. We had to make a lot of posters; apparently they were popular wall art in the dorms.
The SRC meetings were cool. They took place at night and ran well after bedtime, and featured lots of impassioned debate, voting, questions by the student media, demands by student activists, and donuts.
And when there weren’t meetings, I was free to let myself out through the back door and roam around the campus and the town, in the magical dark, alone.