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She’d undulate down the hall clutching her books and barely cleared the top of the door as she clumped into the classroom. A Scots kilt, complete with huge shiny safety pin, enveloped her stork legs while a cap-sleeved mustard-yellow knitted affair hugged a pancake chest, a mammoth sun-burst brooch pinned high on the left.

Lanky dirty-blond hair in a June Allyson cut framed a square face; myopic pale blue eyes peered from behind thick round glasses and a smile as wide as the Zambezi river stretched full lips, outlining huge white teeth. Mary Smith did not warrant a second glance, until she opened her mouth. A voice like heated molasses would flow forth, deep, soothing, mesmerizing.

We nicknamed her The Galloping Tapeworm. There were twenty-seven of us; only three native English speakers. This quintessential British woman had the thankless task of teaching English as a second language to a class of sixteen-year old girls in rural South Africa.

I came from farming stock, the youngest of five. My siblings long gone to boarding school, I grew up as an only child. My world was one of books. English books. Little existed in my mother tongue.

I truly loved the sound of English, the un-phonetic crazy beauty of it. Step by step I learnt the basics. I could read, I understood. Grammar fascinated me. Writing, mastering this complex structure with the nuances of dozens of other tongues, both modern and archaic, did not seem arduous. It was a voyage of discovery.

She prodded and pushed; cajoled and critiqued and we plodded along. No doubt she alternated between laughter and tears when grading our efforts. But she believed in us. We read Shakespeare – I was Miranda in The Tempest. We studied Chaucer and Browning. The Voice brought to life Dickinson and Wordsworth. Bit by bit we improved.

Then came the day that put my feet on the path I’ve followed on and off through the years. I don’t remember the topic of my essay, or even the descriptive phrase which prompted her. All I remember, in my black exercise notebook, on the left hand page in the top left hand corner, in red, the words –

“Hitch your wagon to a star.”

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