Mr G was jug-eared and wore towelling socks with Barker moccasins. His moustache was more Yosemite Sam than Magnum PI.

On good days, he wore a canary-yellow tracksuit in keeping with his role as the phys-ed instructor. But normally it was the stovepipe pants and white shirt combo. Oh, and the bad tie.

But these observations are made with the benefit of hindsight. I was sure singing a different tune when I was 12 years old and in the front row of his standard three class in Durban.

Mr G was my world — and that’s not because I dreamt of zooming around Hawaii in a red Ferrari with him (in a tropical shirt and Ray Bans). Or at least that’s not all of it.

He was my favourite teacher, who drilled me on times tables, praised my compositions, corrected my trappe van vergelyking (a point of Afrikaans grammar) and let me stay in the classroom at break-time when I was being teased or had nobody to play with. Which was to be more often than not. I had a thick Transkei accent, and teeth that jostled bolshily around my mouth on the rare occasions when I dared smile. I had no discernable talent to speak of. I sucked at netball and couldn’t act.

Not that high school was any better. I came of age at a time well before the advent of the GHD. The only way to tame my mane was to fashion it into what the other girls derogatorily referred to as my phuthu plaits. Until Toni Braxton came along and made short hair fashionable, my hair was my own woolly little albatross.

In the years that followed, there were to be many other teachers like Mr G who let me stay in with them at break. Like Mrs W, whose departure back to Cape Town so traumatised me that she let me make reverse charge calls to her for a whole year. Or Ms S, who was the first person I heard say the forbidden word “ANC”, and who was the first source of my political education. Or Mrs P, who wrote on a childish composition I keep to this very day: “I hope you are thinking of journalism yourself one day.”

Being a teacher once inspired awe and reverence. “Sir” or “Ma’am” was no ordinary somebody you nodded at in the street. They were held up as pillars of authority and commanded respect.

And no less than in the coloured community — because for a long time it was one of the only “respectable” professions young men and women could enter.

There is a long line of teachers, principals and inspectors (as they were known back then) in my family, including both my parents. A cabbie I rode with once gave me the entire chronology of which of my uncles and aunts taught where, upon hearing my father’s family comes from Eersterus in Pretoria.

The coloured teacher had a dress-code, like Mr G’s. The women were into twin-sets and pastel pumps. They carried official-looking briefcases.

Walking home after school, we were on our best behaviour should any of these esteemed educators cross our path. Boys would toss away the loose they’d just bought at the corner. Girls would smooth down the skirt they’d just rolled up a teeny bit. Nobody dared swear in their presence, or answer back when told off.

If you saw your teacher at the mosque or church you’d point them out proudly to your parents. At year-end buying the right present for teacher was a sacred ritual. And whether they got the same Old Spice aftershave as last year, or a new box of Quality Street chocolates, “Sir” or “Ma’am” was always surprised, and happy. And so were you.

But something has happened, and we have lost our respect for teachers. Now teachers are seen as toyi-toying, money-grabbing anarchists who are deliberately dumbing down our children. One nowadays hears of teachers getting gold bangles from pupils well before year-end … as a bribe.

There were, and there continue to be, bad teachers. There will be types who became teachers because they’d heard there was medical aid and lots of holidays, with maybe a bit of marking.

But for every predator who keeps the pupil in at break for nefarious reasons, there are thousands of good teachers who persevere against tremendous odds to make a difference in the lives of people long, long after the last bell has rung.

The University of the Free State has launched a project to recognise those teachers who are as we remember them: kind, compassionate, dedicated, and a major influence in our lives. The Great Teachers Project is inviting essays by ordinary people on the teachers who affected them.

Send between 500 and 750 words on a teacher who inspired you to before May 30.



Khadija Magardie

Media Strategist and Communications Consultant. Former journalist gone to The Dark Side @dijamagardie

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