2008-02-01 00:00

I was off to Pretoria for a few years, on Government Business, so to speak. We still counted my child's age in days and hours the day I embarked on a certain steam train for the Transvaal and a new career as mailbag engineer. She was sort of mauve and pretty fat and wriggling, grasping at things in the air nobody else could see. Now I'm going to find what she's like at six, and there she is at the front gate. Susie.

Bloody hell! Talk? I've never met anyone babble so, except my three sisters and three nieces and two nephews in Canada. And myself. My family is like a tree full of Indian Mynahs. We soon enough make another child, name of Joe, a great lump of babyhood, just over six kgs at birth, much like Nikita Kruschev, only a bit smaller.

By the time he's two he is really something to see. I sit him in his pram and we're away to the supermarket, and as I stand at the fridge counter comparing prices of this and that two mid-age mamas come by and one takes the other's arm and says Hell, no, man, just look at this child! I'm standing there with my hands full of cheddar and stuff, but you know, people don't usually associate babies in prams with scruffy men in sandals examining cheese, hey, and as I turn one of them latches me into the conversation and says Just look at this freak child, will you? I mean why doesn't its mother take it to Addington Hospital or something? Joe lays a crushing Kruschev scowl on them, only smaller, and they scurry off muttering Hell no, man!

But he becomes very beautiful and blonde, and nicely proportioned, and angelic nogal by the age of four, and old ducks smile at him enchanted in supermarkets and want to squeeze him. But never mind all that, I think he is exceeding brilliant and just about right for a bit of precocious literacy. I decide to start with some sort of alphabet, but not the AY BEE SEE I remember being so confusing when I was four; this is going to be just phonetic for starters. So we're sitting at an Overport bus stop because we're going to do our grocery chores in town for a change, the ride will be nice; Okay, Joe, say I, let's play I Spy. It goes like this: I say I spy with my little eye something beginning with SSSSS, say now, then you guess what it is, and if you get it right like the word is Sun, then you have a turn. Okay? Okay, says he. Right, you start, say I, and he says I spy with my little eye something beginning with HHHHH. I guess and guess, but I'm stumped. I give up, say I. It's Hroad, says Joe. No, say I, that word is Road. Try again.

I spy with my little eye something beginning with NNNNN, says Joe. I guess and guess, but I'm stumped again. I give up, say I. Nother hroad, says he, and I realise it would be quicker just to start with the new system for young readers, called something like the Look-Say Method. You're supposed to buy the thing as a kit, you see, with an instruction booklet and a number of biggish cards with simple words on them in simple lettering, which cards you produce before a child's gaze for a moment or two while you say the word, then he/she remembers the word as a shape rather than work it out as sounds with an alphabet. Piece of cake! But the kit is a rip-off, I'll make my own, which I do, each word about 30cms across, and Joe thinks it's great sport. I flash the first card for some seconds. It says MUMMY. Easy to remember, and some minutes I flash it again and ask What's this, then? It is a cockroach, says Joe, and I must admit it does look a bit like that beast the way I've written it, with six legs and a droopy tail.

So I decide to buy a box of crayons for the kid, who clearly has his own personal sense of visual symbols, painterly rather than literary, and maybe I'll leave the rest of his education till later on with a trained teacher. But Susie already shows the family symptoms of becoming one. She takes on Joe for a start, she's old enough, eleven; but Susan, dear heart, I say to her one day, you really should learn not to say Wez mar moolk? because it sounds so ugly. You should try to say Where's my milk? You know, that sort of thing, careful speech. Okay. So soon enough we hear her telling Joe a horror story in the back seat of the car, all about a wherewhilf, and we abandon the elocution and leave them to sort each other out with a standard government school education and a pretty standard Durbs White Middle-class English accent.

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