What uncovering your gift can look like
On the first day as an intern reporter at a daily newspaper I was sent out on a story. I was out by myself and did not feel intimidated by the task at all. By the time I began my internship, I felt ready and equipped as I was also a Master’s student at the time. The story was happening in my town, the news editor wasn’t sure where exactly and so I was asked to sort of investigate and see if I could get any leads. It was the first day of school that year and the newsroom was busy and bustling with movement. I asked around in my neighbourhood that morning and when I eventually got the lead, I called the office for a photographer to be sent over.
The photographer arrived and we met up at a local shopping centre and we headed to where the action was. We arrived at a high school in Uitenhage where pupils were being turned back by the school’s principal for not having “registration fees”. The school was classified a “no-fee-paying school” by the Department of Education and so pupils were neither required nor expected to pay fees. And that was the story.
When we arrived at the school scores of pupils (I still remember those were the first words of my intro) stood under a huge tree outside the school. They stood there because they hadn’t paid this “registration fee” that their principal demanded. The photographer and I entered the school after speaking to a few pupils and finding out what was really going on. When we entered the grounds we headed for the principal’s office where we were met by a teenage boy who was sitting outside the office with his mother. His emotions were so heightened and as emotional as he was he eloquently articulated to me why he was there, how his mother was unemployed and how even with that fact being presented to him, the principal wouldn’t let him register into the school because he didn’t have this “registration fee”. The principal heard us speaking and he stormed out of his office. His aggression and hostility made him appear gigantic and towering. The teenage boy stood up to him. Nonetheless, myself and the photographer were chased out of the school grounds with all of these children who were also chased away watching us. However, they were really keen for us to write this story so they spoke to us and those who had paid this “registration fee” even showed us how the receipts they received from the school stated “fundraising” and not “registration fee” as the reason for the payment and that was meant to help us incriminate this man who was making parents from a poor and disadvantaged area pay for school fees that they didn’t have to pay.
That was my first story, on my first day at the newspaper and it was on the front page the following day. I was proud of myself, and so were my family and friends — who all knew how badly I wanted that opportunity. That excitement was short-lived, though. Months went by and I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about that teenage boy sitting outside that angry principal’s office. And because of the manner in which we were chased out of the school, I couldn’t even get his contact details. I felt so guilty. And to be honest I still feel guilty. I felt like I used him and moved on. That feeling never left me and it changed the way I experienced the newsroom. Even though during my internship I worked for the lifestyle supplement of the newspaper and not the hard news side, my view of the newsroom and the news-making process was forever shifted by my experience with that story. I tried to subdue my discomfort with news and what it meant to be a reporter, but from then on I saw the newsroom as this place where reporters go out to harvest stories (sometimes from vulnerable people) and then come back so production can put the product together. I fell out of love with news.
But, while writing for the lifestyle supplement of the newspaper, this magical thing would happen to me. The lifestyle supplement covered the softer news; women’s brunches, yoga and exercise regimes, local designers, women innovating for their communities and I loved it and didn’t even know it or acknowledge it. I couldn’t see the magic because I was fixated on some day becoming a “serious journalist”. I would write the introductions to these stories like my life depended on it. I came up with the most inspired and passionate introductions for my little stories. But as you continued reading the stories you could almost feel me deflate and shrink with the grey, unimaginatively expressed detail that followed the intro but needed to be told anyway. The problem for me was that, even though the stories were more creative and colourful than news, because they were for a newspaper, they still needed to be written in that stiff, “write it so a Grade 10 pupil can understand” tone of the newspaper. I knew then that I didn’t want to work in news, but I was obsessed with becoming a “serious journalist”… which never even happened anyway.
I tell this long tale to say that the clues to what you love are always in the details of your history. It’s absurd and sad at the same time how we can look back at our lives and think that all those events were random, unimportant, and unfortunate details just because they don’t look like the picture we’ve invested in. But the thing that I’m learning as I make a conscious effort to know myself so I can master myself, is that everything and I mean every single thing that I am now discovering about myself has always been there. I either ignored myself, shut myself down, suppressed, and in some cases, flat out denied myself because I had an expected outcome that I formed and anything that wasn’t aligned to what I wanted in my future I basically attempted to kill. And so now what’s happening is that I’m going through this process of uncovering, not discovering, myself. All these things that I didn’t appreciate about myself in the past, I now feel so blessed to have. Like, yo, I had my back even when I didn’t know I was looking out for future me who would end up needing all of who I was and all that I experienced in the past.
In a previous post I told the story of when I started attending a former Model C all-girls school in the late 90s. To say that I struggled with speaking English when I started at the school would be gross minimisation of one of the most distressing periods of my life. I couldn’t speak English so I had to read more than the rest of the girls in my class. My teacher gave me books to read and after every book we would sit in a corner where I had to read out loud for her. At some point I would have to explain to her what the books were about and eventually I progressed to being allowed to choose my own books, but I would still have to read out loud and explain the books. But I could now choose my own books and that’s how I fell in love with reading and from that point on I was just a library girl. I spent a lot of time in the library and it had nothing to do with not having friends. (Please allow me to keep telling myself that). I loved reading so much that in the December holidays of 2000 (I was in Grade 6), I started writing a book. I wouldn’t go out to play; I would be in the room writing my book in an old diary. Years later in matric I was elected deputy-head library prefect.
When I applied to get into university I chose to study law and media studies was my second choice. My application was late so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get into the LLB programme. The media studies course still had space for more students so I could accept to study that instead. I suggested to my mom that I take a gap year so I could apply for the law course again the following year. That suggestion didn’t even make sense to her, just the sheer audacity of me even asking her to agree to that didn’t make sense to her. So I went into the media studies degree with the intention of switching to the LLB degree the following year.
So imagine how for years I carried this belief that I got into media studies because my mother wouldn’t let me take a year off so I could get into the programme I really wanted. And then I spent years in the media industry being unfruitful, stagnant and unfulfilled. It was last year when I fell ill that I, for the first time in my life, became sure as the night follows the day that I was a writer. As the Christians would say, something in my spirit confirmed it and I believed it. It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t have success in the industry to validate it for me. I don’t mind that I’m now basically carving out a completely new path as a writer. I don’t mind because I’m going after my dream in an intentional, strategic way and I am okay with letting the chips fall where they may as opposed to feeling entitled to a specific outcome because I got the qualifications and did what was expected of me.
As I write this I have in mind someone who is just like me. Someone who’s spent years waiting for the career or even the qualification to start giving them the opportunities that they thought they’d get. Someone who is like me is a person who’s spent years working, it doesn’t matter that you don’t love or have any connection to the work just as long as you’re making money, but you’re not even making the money. If you’re like me, you’ve arrived at a point where you’re ready to explore doing what you really love and what you believe you were born to do. But you’re also scared of financial insecurity or even failing at yet another thing.
I spent years believing that the only reason I studied media studies was because I didn’t get into the law programme and then for years I shut down emotionally because I couldn’t become a “serious journalist” no matter how many times I applied for positions in the newsroom. But something beautiful and the stuff of second chances happened to me. And this is why I will confidently advise this to anyone who’s in a similar predicament to mine. Look at your history as a reliable and valuable resource. None of it was chance, or random, or too painful to be rewarding. All of it was leading up to this moment where you’d love yourself so completely that in this very instant you saw how even when you were so hopelessly lost you were still leading yourself to your moment.
My reader, I love you and I don’t even know you but I feel you so intensely. All the best.