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'Kleintjie's Saint' by Liesl Jobson

Kleintjie is already sitting at the piano when I enter my classroom. The smell of damp socks lingers in the air; water from the adjacent bathroom’s pipes leaked through the ceiling during the school holidays. I open the windows to let in the breeze.

My little student is in grade three and her feet don’t reach the floor yet. She swings her legs from the rickety seat. She is playing all the black notes from top to bottom. Curling her foot around the leg of the stool as she reaches for the lower octaves, she wobbles. I wince. Such a dissonant bang.

After I sharpen my pencil, I open her dirty dog-eared music book to When the Saints Go Marching In. Last lesson we spent five minutes wiping banana mush off the book’s cover.

Kleintjie’s school uniform is too tight and her shoes are nearly worn through. Her nose needs wiping and her hair is wild. Gingerly encircling her bird-like wrist with my fingers, I turn her hand over for her to see.

“Oh, I forgot to wash my hands.” Her breath smells of peanut butter.

“I see that.”

She dashes to the cloakroom, where I know she will thrust her hands under the tap for no longer than a second. The soap and towel will remain untouched and she will return with wet smears down the sides of her uniform. The piano, at least, will have been spared the worst of the playground grime.

“Did you take your pills, Kleintjie?” She is one of many children who sign the secretary’s medication register daily to receive ADHD tablets. Kleintjie also sees the school’s occupational therapist for treatment twice a week.

Kleintjie nods and sniffs.

I pass her the tissue box. She jumps from the chair then runs to throw away her used tissue. As she bumps into the bin, toppling it over, pencil shavings and discarded papers spill onto the carpet. Kleintjie hums to herself while repacking the bin. She wants to pick up every fragment of the pencil shavings embedded in the carpet. I wonder about allowing her to spend another five minutes doing so. It would make my life easier, because the Ritalin takes a while to kick in. And while she is engrossed in the task, she neither chats nor fumbles at the keyboard.

“Music will really help her,” her class teacher told me a while back. I rolled my eyes. I don’t know how, or when, it will help. We’ve been at it for a year and she is making excruciatingly slow progress.

I try to remember her teacher’s words while we march about the classroom.

“We’re marching just like the saints?” she asks.

“Just the same,” I say.

Perhaps if she moves to the beat she’ll make that fundamental shift to rhythmic playing. We clap the pattern and say it aloud: ta ta ta-té ta-té ta-ah-ah!

“Kleintjie sings that song every day,” her mother recently said. “She really loves music.”

We stamp and sing, “Oh when the moo-oo-oon turns into bloo-oo-ood, oh when the moon turns into blood…”

We move back to the keyboard. Please don’t let me pop an artery. She still can’t play the melody in time. This is so frustrating.

“When Kleintjie is really scattered,” Suzette, the occupational therapist, once told me, “you can connect with her by using deep pressure touch. You’ll find she regains her focus quickly.” Suzette showed me how. I sat on a chair and she stood behind me, hands on my shoulders. She firmly pressed me into my seat. “This technique usually works well with her,” she said. I tried not to grimace.

I could kick myself. I do not want to touch this little girl; she makes me so acutely uncomfortable. When she sees me crossing the quadrangle on my way to the staff room, she runs to me and hugs me, bashing my breasts with her woolly mop of braids. She likes me. She needs me. If I am helping her, I do not hear it in her music. I must somehow recognize that the constancy of our weekly session means something to her. Perhaps one day she will be able to play a simple tune in rhythm. I don’t know.

In last week’s tutor forum I heard that a decision was made to keep her in mainstream education for another year. She will not be sent to the remedial center. I confess I was disappointed.

This means that for another year I must face the hard edge of my reticence to touch this child. I must listen to her chaotic rhythm and correct her wrong notes. I must endure her grubby disorder, the rough hugs, and her insistent handholding whenever she sees me in the playground.

I grit my teeth. I must endure the rest of this lesson. There is a beginner’s concert in three weeks. Kleintjie and I still must make peace with When the Saints Go Marching In.

“Let’s try the song again, shall we?”

She plods through the first verse, bumpy and uneven then starts on the next.

“I love Mondays,” Kleintjie says in the middle of the measure where the stars begin to fall.

I shouldn’t allow diversion. I should encourage Kleintjie to focus on the task at hand.

“You do? Why?”

“Because Monday is music day and my mom gives me leftovers from Sunday lunch.”

“That’s nice, now try again to keep your left hand steady.”

Kleintjie’s saint is a limping one, with a short leg and a bent sense of humor.


BIO: LIESL JOBSON teaches music at Johannesburg’s Sacred Heart College. Her poetry appears (or is forthcoming) in New Coin, Fidelities, LiPS, Green Dragon, Carapace, Southern Rain Poetry (SA), and internationally in The Journal, Aesthetica, Bonfire (UK), The Christian Communicator, Prairie Dog 13 and Ink Pot (USA). She is the featured poet in Timbila 2005 and The Hiss Quarterly, August 2005, and was a finalist in the southern African PEN/HSBC Short Story Competition 2005.

Contact Liesl at:

Liesl Jobson, Author
Photo © Janene Steenkamp

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