Posted by: zhiv | February 9, 2008

Africa? Part Two

This is the second post about how my daughter decided to do her high school senior honors project on Africa. 

I didn’t get it.  I guess I sort of understood, but I tried to step in with some of the wisdom of experience.  It seemed like a lot of history, a lot of struggle and suffering, and it would be hard to hold on through an entire year of study.  But the ball was already rolling.  Her advisor found her an extraordinary mentor, who had already worked with another student from her school a couple of years before.  The mentor was the chairman of the history department of a Major Public University, an icon in the field who knew absolutely everything about Africa.  Before I knew it, the GD had already had a meeting or two with him, and she had her topic:  South African Autobiography.

How do you argue with that?  I didn’t realize that Nelson Mandela had written a dense 800-page autobiography.  Autobiography fascinates me.  And there must be so many more, on such a rich and rewarding, important historical topic.  I felt like the GD was in very good hands.  It still wasn’t anything I was interested in reading myself, which was probably a good thing. I was a little worried that it would get depressing, that stories of hardship, injustice, prejudice and torture would become overwhelming.  My main concern was that you could be gung ho and go after the topic with gusto for a couple of months, but that you might run out of steam then, and be unable to sustain it at the end of the summer and through the fall and winter and all the way through an entire school year.  But it was clear that the Professor was everything that you could hope for from a Professor, a true Mentor.  He would guide her through.  She read the Mandala biography over the summer.  It took weeks.  At the end, her Professor said, “yeah, it’s a pretty thick book, isn’t it?”

I had spoken to her advisor as school began, needing to talk to some one about this whole process.   She asked what I was worried about and I said the question just like I am here, quite simply, “Africa?”  It was the same dilemma, one could do a few months on Africa, maybe it could work, but for a full year, without a class, and with no sophisticated historical training?   Her advisor didn’t understand me at first.  But she is an English PhD, she knew what I was getting at, she finally nodded and said, “I see.”  But she sees the GD from an entirely different perspective.  Why are you worried about her? she said to me (are you kidding? I’m her father.).  She knows what she’s doing.  You just have to trust her.  Her advisor had so much admiration for her, and so much confidence in her, that it was easy to just go along.  No one appreciates the GD more than me.  She was right.  Just let her figure it out, support her, it will all work out.

And then, just a few days later, the GD hit the wall.  The history books were boring, the other autobiographies weren’t compelling.  She was supposed to study this all year, all by herself, she already had her fill, and she hated it.  It was noble and worthy and the story of a great struggle, but she was done.

When you’re a Dad who is trying to give his child an intellectual beachhead and some fighting skills, “I told you so” doesn’t get you very far.  You have to keep moving forward.  Now it was me looking for the way in, the way to keep things going, to sustain interest.

And I should say here that it was obvious all along that part of the reason why Africa and South African Autobiography was chosen by the GD was because I knew absolutely nothing about it.  And on top of that, I would have little or no interest in it; there would be no way in, and it would be a clear field that she would have all to herself.  I knew that, and it was great.  I was happy about it.  But when it turned out that I was right, and she was having a hard time and was going to suffer, something had to be done.  But what?

And then I went to parents’ night at her school.  It was going to be bittersweet, because this was her last year.  Her advisor,  my “Africa?” pal, shares her office with the head of the English department.  The GD had never had a class with him and I had always been curious about him.  He’s a fairly young guy (relative to my own mild Aged P status) who had gotten his PhD from one of my own Major Public University undergrad stops.  When he was there I happened to ask him what he had worked on.  He hesitated and then said, well, actually, South African literature.  The first image that pops in my head is that it was like a Zulu warrior had just appeared, holding a dangerous spear.  But instead I’ll say that it was like hangin to a rock face and not knowing what to do, when suddenly a rock breaking loose from up above whizzes by you.  What?  Who? Are you kidding? I said. We’re in a crisis here!  Do you know that she’s… Yeah, he said, I was kind of waiting to say something, but I didn’t want to butt in.  Butt in?  We need help, man!  You’re a lifesaver!

The GD’s school has been nothing but amazing for the last 5+ years, and we’re going to be deeply traumatized when she graduates in a few short months.  But this was by far the most amazing thing that has happened there.  She’s studying South Africa, already working with a professor who would be the equivalent of, say, the chairman of history department at the University of Michigan, and at a moment of crisis, it just happens that one of the teachers at her school is an expert on South African literature.    

So I rushed ahead, asking what his dissertation was on, what she should read.  But by that point, seconds later, everything had changed.  I was in.  This was all going to work out, and I was going to be a part of it.  As he said that he had worked on Gordimer, Brink, and Coetzee, but in the end his dissertation was all about Coetzee, it was as if I was stepping into the old storeroom, pulling out my pack and iceaxe, grabbing the well-worn boots and already starting to think about possible approach routes for the climb.  An unexpected guide, met by chance after the expedition had already begun,  had revealed an entire ribcage of mountain peaks that I had never considered, that I barely even knew.

And so everybody turned out to be right–except for me of course.  The GD had gravitated her way toward an unparalleled late-century literary diamond mine.  Two Nobel Prize winners, writing in English, in the midst of a conflict that had heart-wrenchingly played itself out during my own lifetime.  There was an entire body of literature to go along with the autobiographies and the history and the contemporary situation and all the rest.  The game was afoot–literary adventure at its finest!

And so I’ll be writing about Coetzee and some other South African writers.

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