The relative recalling this experience after more than three decades speaks with a hint of bitterness about how he missed out on music education. This time of the year the same kind of recklessness is experienced by hundreds of thousands of South African children.
In Grade 9, children - or rather their parents - have to choose their subjects for the last three years of high school. It is not an easy choice, for the subjects you choose during these years will determine what kind of degree you can do at university, and therefore what kind of job you will be qualified to do once you graduate.
Of course it is unfair to impose on such young children the pressures of life-determining subject choices, but that is unfortunately how undergraduate education is structured at the moment. So how should children and parents decide? Here are some guidelines for the parents:
- Let the child make the final decision - if your son wants to do ballet or preschool teaching, encourage and support him, and get over your misguided sense of what "real men" do for careers.
- Make mathematics non-negotiable - all careers require the logical processes, basic calculations and reasoning capacities provided by mathematics. Avoid mathematical literacy like the plague; it is government's way of compensating for poor mathematics teaching.
- Half-ignore the teachers - listen to your child's teachers, but not completely. They do not know everything about your child. Teachers often make mistakes in calculating the potential of a child. Teachers are human, and not immune to their own prejudices about children.
- Stress, but not too much - most children will change their minds about degrees and careers, and some only decide once they get to university. In a worst-case scenario, an uncertain student can do two different undergraduate degrees - a BComm and a BA. The upside? They now have more career choices, and they are probably better educated.
- Whatever you do, do not live your missed dreams through your child. The choice of careers for your child has nothing to do with you; it is about them. Long after you retire or leave the Earth, your child has to live with these decisions. If they mess up because they made a wrong decision, it is their mess.
- Expose your child to career interests early. If your child motions in the direction of, say, journalism as a career, find her a holiday internship or day visit to a television studio or a newspaper floor to witness how people work.
There is nothing like direct exposure to the workplace that can help a young mind evaluate an uncertain decision about careers. Too many South African children spend their summer and winter vacations in malls and on beaches; get your child to volunteer in a place of work close to their future career interests.
- Assume your child will change work regularly. Your offspring will change jobs more often and work in other countries more frequently than you did. When researching career options for your child, assume that mobility is part of the equation and make your child aware of this.
That is why, if you can afford it, give your child the opportunity to travel and see how people work in other climes. Schools that arrange for travel opportunities for children give them a huge head start over those schools that don't.
This raises the question parents often ask me about the desirability or otherwise of a "gap year". I used to take a hard line on this matter, also in my own home.
When my matric son told me about his decision to take a gap year, I asked why.
"To find myself," he answered.
I found a mirror and told him to find himself. If you grew up poor, it is hard to countenance this middle-class frivolity.
Now I think differently. I see the growing maturity of students who come into studies after a year abroad or a stint of voluntary work on a kibbutz.
Helping your child make subject and career choices requires hard work from you. Of course there is an easier methodology: check their fingers.