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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ode to the cleaning lady

I've been working at a private school for the last two weeks. I was filling in for another teacher who was unable to teach for that time due to other commitments that he had. So, I was asked if I would be interested in giving teaching a try.

While the teaching job itself was certainly an eye-opener, one of the things that most left an impression on me was a particular member of the cleaning staff, not only because I saw her daily and that we got along rather well, but more that she was just incredibly weird.

My introduction to this cleaning lady was at the end of my first day. I had met and taught my grade 9 and 10 classes, which had left me terrified, frazzled and outright miserable at the prospect of having to teach them for the next two weeks. The grade 10's are actually delightful kids who really engage with what goes on in the classroom, or at least, fake engaging very, very well. The grade 9's on the other hand left one wondering whether we've been wrong about hell being hot and that it was, in fact, really full of teenagers and that somehow, you had ended up in it. I decided that the best thing for it was to just collect all the things I'd need to take home to prepare for the lessons the next day.

The door of my classroom was ajar and it was just then that a dark, round face appeared about half way up the door. As I looked up, the face split in two with a large, white grin and the owner of the face spoke in a strange accent.

"Spring cleaning?"

It was a hard statement to interpret because, while it appeared to be just that, a statement, there was a hint of uncertainty in the voice, making it sound as if the person, while fully aware that they were supposed to be cleaning, wasn't entirely sure that it was a safe thing to be doing after all. It also left me a little flabbergasted as to the appropriate response. It was more because of the strange way it had been said but was also partly because I always think of 'spring cleaning' as being one of those things that is restricted to spring, not really something to be conducted willey-nilley whenever the fancy takes hold of one.

So I looked at the lady in the door, smiled and said, 'Okay, thanks.'

This seemed to be the correct response because the cleaning lady seemed thrilled that I had said that and, with the efficiency of someone who has been at the same job for the last 30 years of their life, came bustling in to start cleaning.

The first thing she did was walk around the room collecting small scraps of paper that the students had thrown onto the floor. Once those seemed to have been completely eliminated, she turned and scanned the room for a plug point. Once she had located a suitable point, she looked at me questioningly and said, 'Hoova?'

As a south African, I am not really used to vacuum cleaning being referred to as hoovering, so when she asked me, I was really lost. I stared at her in utter confusion for a split second but luckily, avoiding any notably embarrassing situations, my brain kicked into gear and I understood what it was that she had asked. I said that that would be fine and continued to pack up my belongings. In a matter of minutes, she unravelled a chord from the backpack-sized machine on her back, plugged it in, rushed around the room, sucking up all manner of dirt, and unplugged just as fast. Then, with a 'Thank-oo teesha', which soon became our way of saying goodbye, she was gone.

Each day, she would return in this manner to clean my classroom. At one point, I had a 2L carton of milk that I wasn't going to use, so I gave it to her, which appeared to have cemented her friendship to me. I was very happy to have her on my side, as one could imagine that cleaning staff who are not your friends could make life very difficult.

At some stage, I ran into her in one of the corridors. She began to rattle off at me in Zulu (or at least, what I assume to be Zulu), and given that I don't really understand it, not much was getting into my head. She seemed to notice this and began to gesture frantically while continuing to drown me in very rapid Zulu. From a combination of the tone of voice, the gestures and a good dollop of sheer luck I figured out that she was enquiring as to the whereabouts of the previous teacher who had been in the position that I was currently filling. I explained that she had left to work elsewhere and that I was now teaching instead of her. This, as with the milk, appeared to please her a great deal and after another, 'Okay! Thank-oo teesha!', she collected her vacuum-pack and waddled off down the corridor looking very pleased with herself. Later I would realise that this encounter would lead her to believe that I was, in fact, fluent in Zulu and understood a great deal more than I let on, which was, for me anyway, entirely untrue!

One of my favourite moments with her, which I think summed up the complete lack of communication between us very well was my last conversation with her before I left. I wanted to thank her for all her cleaning and to say goodbye. But before I got to say anything, she said, 'See-oo Monday?' I responded in the negative and explained that my time at the school was over and that I wouldn't be returning the next week. She appeared to think about this for a moment and then, slowly, smiled. I then thanked her again and said goodbye. Grinning, she said, 'Okay! See-oo monday, teesha?'

Feeling a little lost as to what to do, I simply confirmed that I'd see her on Monday and walked off to my classroom to pack up.

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