School exams can miss the mark


My daughter has the type of English teacher who spotlights a life beyond nouns and verbs – the same sort I had, and who made school not only bearable, but worthy of its hidden purpose: to teach.

While much of the academic content I was forced to endure during high school has not stood me in good stead (as I knew it wouldn’t), my generation’s experience is such a far cry from what I see modern children – and teachers – coping with in the average classroom that there is barely even a whispered echo of similarity.

To you, the parents whose children tramp bow-legged and back-bent through a mish-mashed CAPS curriculum that prizes bloated bushels of content and endless, marched assessments/tests/exams over streamlined, creative and less claustrophobic learning, I say that there is hope – if only in the knowledge that we are not alone; that this is not a uniquely South African offence.

My daughter’s English teacher generously presented this poem to the class. She is lucky – her school is different.

There is nothing more life-affirming for a teenager than to know he or she is understood – that, despite appearances to the contrary, some adults “get it”.

English poet Brian Patten wrote this in 1996. He was informed that he wouldn’t get anywhere in life – least of all in the writing industry – because he hadn’t passed some exams.

He is now a prolific and highly successful author and poet. Ministers of exams, education, curriculum statements and ego-driven academic pedagogies – kindly take note.

When I was a child I sat an exam.The test was so simple.There was no way I could fail.

Q1. Describe the taste of the Moon. It tastes like Creation I wrote, It has the flavour of starlight.

Q2. What colour is Love? Love is the colour of the water a man lost in the desert finds, I wrote.

Q3. Why do snowflakes melt? I wrote, they melt because they fall onto the warm tongue of God.

There were other questions.They were just as simple.

I described the grief of Adam when he was expelled from Eden. I wrote down the exact weight of an elephant’s dream.

Yet today, many years later, for my living I sweep the streets or clean out the toilets of the fat hotels.

Why? Because constantly I failed my exams. Why? Well, let me set a test.

Q1. How large is a child’s imagination? Q2. How shallow is the soul of the minister for exams?