As the counsellor at the school each year for the new generation of grade 9 kids we spent time working on subject choices for matric. Over the years I had embarked on a number of approaches in dealing with subject choice. Initially I would arrange for representatives from the University of Cape Town, Cape Technikon and vocational colleges to come and address parents and grade 9 kids. Paths and options would be presented and explained. In those days there was no place for less is more. We were bombarded with information and options that were all career but not subject choice focused which is inappropriate for 15 year old kids.
It became clear over the years, after presenting innumerable talks to parents and kids that duration, clarity and relevance were the ingredients for a successful and appreciated, usually early evening, presentation. Thus I pruned subject choice down to two focused questions. In my mind these were the only two elements that needed to be dealt with; who am I and what information do I need on my path?
Kids would come into my office to talk about the subjects they were looking at and the possible paths linked to those subjects after school.
I was approached one day by Alex who slipped into my office and without making eye contact sat down in the chair. One of the perks of coming to a counsellor is that there is no need for polite chit chat, one can just dive in. With his brow furrowed he threw a question at me. Can you help me with subject choice? This was a bright diligent child who could have chosen any subjects and done well in them. As we spoke I asked him what things about life made him excited. He responded that being outdoors in the natural elements was a great source of passion. When he was in the bush he felt light, joyful and content. In terms of post-school study paths he was toying with some options of which applying to medical school felt like a possible path.
I told him that he should keep a completely open mind, one because he was making a subject choice and not a career choice at this stage and two that exploring different things could be a very useful tool in his decision making armamentarium.
We put our heads together and came up with the following plan. Alex would visit the local offices of South African National Parks. He would ask if SANParks employed medical doctors on their staff, and if so could these medical doctors also be part of teams that worked in nature reserves, parks etc. Essentially he was exploring two things he wanted to express in his life; be a medical student and be connected to nature. He left our chat quite excited about his information quest.
Next morning I was working in my office when Sheilah phoned me and told me in a no-nonsense voice that the Principal had requested my presence in his office. I walked in gingerly remembering Sheilah’s tone of voice; usually mimicking the one the principal spoke with, exactly.
Sitting around the table in the middle of the Principal’s office were him and Mrs Alex’s mom. She looked somewhat incensed to be blunt, fixing her furious eyes on my puckered face. She wanted to do me harm!
“Jules, Mrs Alex’s mom has come in today because she is quite upset about what Alex told her last night when he came home after school”. I nodded in acknowledgement and understanding very therapeutically; I am listening and I hear you! “According to Alex you told him to become a game ranger”. Inside I was shaking my head in disbelief.
This was the cue for Mrs Alex’s mom to enter the calm conversation. “How dare you tell my son to be a game ranger?” She said as if she was firing a rocket propelled grenade at my heart from the shoulder launcher she conveniently carried with her for occasions just like this.” Who do you think you are?”
Discretion being the better part of valour I stayed silent and perhaps a little frozen in terror but mainly because I realised that any attempt to explain myself and perhaps get her to identify her own needs and feelings was eminently futile.
My Principal looked at me and spoke with his lips, eyes and mental telepathy saying right choice, don’t start with her.
“So Mr Leon will call Alex in and clarify that perhaps he should not consider game ranging as a suitable career choice” my Principal discerningly suggested.
“He will call my son in and tell him that he will go to medical school and become a doctor!!” She said kindly declining the Principal’s well thought out and sagacious offer.
Yes I called Alex in, briefly summarised the meeting downstairs and passed on the words I was instructed to repeat, was I of the species galline…perhaps. I usually never turn my back on a battle but even I know when to push and when to leave alone and why.
I knew the mothers narrative of her life and the fact that she was going to live vicariously through her boy. The unrelenting pain of her own deep regrets and unachieved dreams was going to be assuaged by Dr Alex son-of mom (MB ChB), probably with a speciality in Psychiatry. Would it assuage her grief? I don’t think so. But hey, he would make lots of dosh!
Later that day I was ruminating on my thoughts as I ate a toasted chicken mayo and pickled cucumber sandwich with lightly toasted sesame seeds….adds a wonderful smoky crunch…
Is it possible to not live vicariously through our children? As parents what does each of us have to do with our own lives in order to let our children live their own lives as far as possible? What alternatives might Mrs Alex’s mom have considered to assuage her immense but real pain and regret? Would Alex have a happy life? Would his life be his or will he have surrendered it? Would he one day want it back? How long would that take?
“As parents what does each of us have to do with our own lives in order to let our children live their own lives”
I was reminded of the words of Carl Jung, words that challenged me (and still do) as a counsellor and as a parent.
“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too) have not lived…that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain somewhat threadbare excuses prevented the parents from doing so”.
Brutal and powerful words.
- G. Jung, (Introduction to Wickes’s ‘Analyse der Kinderseele’, The Development of personality, CW 17 par 8, in Hollis. J., (1994) Under Saturn’s’ shadow, The Wounding & Healing of Men, Inner City Books. P54-55