So The Writer went into teaching. And she loved it. She was very happy because she had always felt that of all the work that anybody can do in this world, teaching is one of the best jobs. And for a while, everything was fine. She was a good teacher too. The children liked her classes. She made everything she taught sound as if it had something to do with the lives they lived in their homes, as well as the lives they would live one day, when they grew up. She also made them laugh about life; being young, growing up and grown-ups. One thing the children noticed was that the way she taught them made things so much easier to learn.
This is an extract from one of Ama Ata Aidoo's short stories "Choosing: a moral from the world of work". I discovered the story by accident. I was still studying and trying to find something inspiring to read which would hopefully lead me to keep writing my thesis. I was also going through a serious bout of chronic WAB: work avoidance behaviour so looking for something exciting to read was simply part of the process. I stumbled across on a link on the university's library website. It was a link to a writing series by African writers. I was intrigued and scrolled down the list and discovered Ama Ata Aidoo's work by chance. I read a few of her stories and started spreading the gospel according to Ama Ata Aidoo to anyone who would listen. Her stories were about women I felt I could recognise. Each story felt like an introduction to a familiar old friend or relative I had met.
The story I've quoted above became quite relevant when I started teaching. I sent it to my sister because she was going through a season of figuring things out with a new job and I thought the story would comfort her because it's a story about a woman who is trying to figure out what it is that she wants to do with her life even though she knows she wants to be a writer. Throughout the story Aidoo refers to her as "The-writer-turned-teacher".
My sister's response to the story was surprising: here I was thinking I was sharing a story as insight for her, but instead she told me the story reminded her of me. That I was the-writer-turned-teacher. I tried to convince her otherwise but the seed had been planted and I was worried about the implications of being the-writer-turned-teacher. I didn't see myself as a writer (I don't think that has changed) but in the eyes of those around me I was a writer even though I wrote short pieces for blogs and newspapers. At the time I may have started teaching in Cape Town and like any other first year of teaching there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth. I had chosen teaching above the prospect of doing a Ph. D and going the research route. I felt I wasn't ready for a Ph.D.
And now at the end of the fourth year of teaching I am reminded of this story and wondering whether I am a writer or whether writing is a hobby. The longer I've been removed from my students days, the more I am removed from the idea of being a teacher. Perhaps I became a writer because I was in a space that gave me time to write and valued knowledge production. As a teacher, I have less and less time to write. At first it was big classes and mountains of marking, now it's marking with an increase in responsibilities and the admin that comes with the extra responsibilities.
Ama Ata Aidoo's story ends with a proverb that is obscure for "The-writer-turned-teacher". Fortunately my story hasn't come to an end yet and hopefully I will figure out the balance between being a teacher and wanting to write.
'You see?' said The Mother. 'In this life, there can only be two ways of searching for anything we want. We can begin from the places we know best, and search until we get to places we did not even know existed. Or we can begin searching from unknown places until we get to old and familiar places.'
'Which one is better?' The Writer asked, hoping for an easy answer ... just this once.
'How do I know?' her mother said. 'How does anybody know? It is not easy to be wise about these things or make rules about them. It also depends upon what we are looking for. The only thing I can say is that the places that we know well are very few. Those we don't know are many. If you think of how large the earth is, then you can see how small is the part of it that we know well. So if we are looking for something, then it might be better to start from where we know best. Because for one thing, it is not really big. So that if what we are looking for is not there, we would know quite soon enough, and then we will feel free to comb the rest of the big, wide world for it.'
'Yes, Mother. Thank you Mother,' The Writer said.
Hadn't her mother also said a long time ago that it is always better to speak to a young person in proverbs and not just talk to them?
The Writer sighed. She knew the discussions were over.