Distance is a many-splendoured, many-flowered thing. We think interchangeably of time and distance: the Magaliesberg is an hour away from where I sit, here on my verandah in Emmarentia, on a chilly but bright autumn morning, catching up on my blog. We appraise and value our relationships in terms of distance: though Rob is in Canada and I am in South Africa, she and I are close; certain acquaintances who live not far from here are distant; my ex-wife is not merely distant, she has fallen, alas, through her own volition, through a black hole into another galaxy. Already, just three weeks into my new life as a consultant, my former life and career as a director in an organisation seems almost remote. Memory ranges over the distant past. Life itself is a journey.
So here’s a question: how far is it, would you think, from the Transkei to Johannesburg? I can tell you precisely. It is half a lifetime.
On Monday, at a colleges conference in Durban, I was poignantly reminded of this fact – and being reminded, was made aware too of how much the past is part of us. We carry it in our hearts – or, less sentimentally, as my daughter Kathy would remind me, we store it in different parts of our marvellous if imperfect human brains – and find, when we retrieve the file, that the past is, after all, just another form of the present, and every distance is near.
On Monday I experienced one of those moments that every old teacher has experienced: a former pupil materialises out of nowhere, and tells you how you have influenced or shaped or changed their lives. In this case, the former pupil was from my old school, Ngangelizwe Senior Secondary, in Umtata, and he had been – a point he emphasised, as a badge of honour – a member of the cohort of students that had started at the school in the first year of my principalship, almost all of whom, he said proudly, had matriculated three years later. He said – and I have to admit, I have no recollection of this – that I had made a speech on their matriculation, telling them what a ‘special’ group they were, as my first group of students, and added, that this speech had made a tremendous impression on him, and he had always remembered it. But the thing he said that moved me most – that made me think, is this not the very purpose of my life? – was this: we didn’t understand this at the time, he said, but you were already living then, in the world we live in now.
What he meant was, he saw me, a young, white, inexperienced and often brash young principal, as someone who believed in a different future – for him, for his fellows, for myself and for our country. Even now, as I write this, I find the tears welling up – is this not what it is all about? Could I ask for a finer tribute? And I thought, too – is this not what all good, concerned and dedicated teachers are about – working today, in today’s world, to shape the young lives and personalities in whose hands the world of tomorrow will rest?
Teachers have always understood ‘sustainability.’ His name – Lynette, you may remember him – is Lulamile Giqwa, and he is the deputy principal of a Further Education and Training college.
And so the week has gone. The past two weeks, in fact, have flown: working long hours, including the weekend, travelling to Durban and then, the latter part of this week, to Cape Town; back to back meetings; documents to revise and distribute; phone calls to make and emails to send. The notion of a quiet life, reading the paper at leisure over breakfast on the patio, has vanished like morning mist. But it has been good – a productive and creative time, a good time for networking, and a promising time for lining up new and interesting work.
And, in between all this, Rob and I have stolen brief skype calls, talked about our wedding plans, and shared the mounting impatience we feel to get on with our lives. Distance has its charms, and it is amusing to play a few riffs on the concept: but there comes a point when distance sucks. Down with distance, I say: I’m all for getting close.