Get there with people who matter



St Francis Bay freelance journalist Beth Cooper-Howell takes a look at the other side of life in Woman on Top, her weekly lifestyle column for The Herald.




In the end, what we want most of all is to have done something that mattered. Many of us think that this may happen tomorrow, or next year, if we work hard enough.

Most of us believe that what we’ve already done, or are doing today, doesn’t matter much. We also assume that we’re men and women of substance – and therefore, matter – when we have enough money, or are famous (whether owing to good deeds, Kardashianesque ego or political notoriety).

But, oddly enough, the people whose good works really matter – and who have done something worth writing about – have achieved it because they weren’t thinking about themselves at all. They were, in the manner of an African philosophy I discovered recently, simply going about the business of “getting there”.

I’ve met a few people of this ilk over the years. There aren’t many – most of us are still trying to matter in a world which puts you – or your career, or age – out of fashion as fast as a shoe change.
But then there is Marilyn Woods.

Googling her won’t bring up as many hits as Donald Trump does, even from way back then, when he wasn’t trying to ruin the US.

But that’s the difference between Marilyn and Donald – he thinks that his job matters while Marilyn’s actually does.

Mama Woods, as pupils who love her call her, has been a teacher in Uitenhage for 45 years.

She has been teaching at the same school since before my birth and, after going about the business of “‘getting there’’, eventually became the principal of Riebeek College Girls’ High School.

In fact, she’s been a brick in the wall at Riebeek since 1957, because she started there as a pupil. That’s 60 years – one hell of a ride on the same bicycle.

Marilyn mattered to me because when I was 12 years old, and new to the school, and never cool, she wrote in one of my books: “You are a star! You are such a STAR!”

Children are funny like that because they know when a grown-up really means it and Marilyn always did.
Her energy, enthusiasm and ability to coax us into thinking outside the box – strangled, as we were, by a politically tightened, apartheid-friendly curriculum – were legendary.

Mama Woods never sat still because there was always another poem to recite, or a play to put on, or pupils to push to their tentative limits.

I sometimes think about all that I have achieved through adolescence to adulthood – about my quest to do something that matters – and it floors me that one kind word, one mind-blowing English class, one memorable school play directed by a dedicated teacher, made the critical difference in the life of a child who didn’t think that she mattered much at all.

Everyone will meet at least one Marilyn, because that’s how the world is built. The people who matter – and embolden us to believe that we do too – are literally the rocks on which a healthy society is built.
They are the ones who go about the business of “getting there” and, when they get there, they take us along.

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