This post was inspired by Jamie Dedes:

I dreamed last night of my high school English teacher; Norine van Arkel.  Miss van Arkel, who, at a time when our boys were being sent to the border, in a school where Bothas and Koornofs were plenty and might report her, had the courage to teach us the futility of war. 

She exposed an ancient, brutal lie, perpetuated by generations of fathers that led boys to believe in the honour and the glory of going to war. 

“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”, she read to us, and then – again, faster and faster; brutally – she read the other lines:

“yelling out and stumbling

and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.”

“Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sack of sin;”


And then she gave us words to play with and we were made to understand that Spandau ballet is not pretty as it sounds, it is how men dance to the music of bullets.


She taught us passive protest and so much more. 

I wonder if she’s still alive, I really like to write to her and thank her.



Dulce et decorum est pro patrica mori:

mors et fugacem persequitur virum

nec parcit inbellis iuventae

poplitibus timidove tergo.”

“How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country:

Death pursues the man who flees,

spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs

Of battle-shy youths.”

Wilfred Owen – with Latin from Horace.



I first published this post on my previous blogging platform in February 2009.

Amazingly, a comment was left by a reader; the niece of my English teacher.  She said that Norine was alive and well and provided her postal address.



  1. Astounding, amazing powerful poem and brilliant to have had a teacher like Miss van Arkel. Did you write to her in the end then Cindy?

    • I sent a card Colleen, and never received a reply. Perhaps I should write again, a letter this time; so that our postal workers don’t mistake the envelope for containg a gift voucher?

  2. How fortunate to have a fine teacher such as your Miss van Arkel?

    How interesting to learn of her through your blog … I’ve had some odd but good things happen as well.

    Happy day, Cindy.

  3. That is a wonderful story, Cindy! I was fortunate enough to always have English teachers I admired (but not as strong as your Miss van Arkel), hence my love for English. Do let us know if you manage to get in touch – damn our postal workers and the whole postal system: if anything is overdue to be overhauled… (I could expand on that ad nauseum!)

  4. Beautiful story and thoughts. I admit I do not understand the South African historical context. But there is something about war, about young men, and now women, being sent to face each other and be ended, dead, if that is to be, that the human psyche just doesn’t grasp, I think. It is too big, or we are unwilling.

  5. Wow, what powerful words, Cin, thank you for sharing. Also for the explanation about Spandau Ballet, which I’ve not heard before. Quite chilling. That was one weird time, the border era.

  6. That is so cool that someone left you info to get in touch with her. I think teachers don’t always realize what an impact they make on students sometimes.

  7. Cindy…you reminded me of a time when teachers were permitted to “teach” and were not constrained by artifical standards of education contrived by legislators to produce a child who cannot think on their own. I was wonderful that you had such a fine teacher in your past.

  8. I don’t remember this, and also immediately wondered if she had replied.

    War is an exercise in utter futility, but sadly there are occasions when it becomes inevitable and unavoidable.

  9. I remember this poem… I must look to see if I still have a copy of inscapes. i believe that this poem will be there. If I am not mistaken, Wilfred Owen didn’t make the end of the war.

    • Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration.

  10. Miss van Arkel contributed significantly, and probably with risk, to the transformative process needed in our society – obviously. Here she is in full glory, thanks to you, Cin.

    I hope you can send her a copy of this post, comments et al!

  11. A very tight read, Cin… Miss van Arkel did a great job at explaining the sad “dance”… kudos to her, and to you for posting it up here! And to Jamie as well!! 🙂

    Did you get back in touch with your teacher?

  12. ……those were sad days indeed……being Afrikaans I fully understand the motivation behind it….having a strong English influence made me very radical in thought at the time though…..the real sad thing was however that they preyed on the naivity of the young men at the time….and the reasoning of the nobility factor of going to war….and that some people still believe that that is the only answer to our problems….

  13. You were quite fortunate to have someone like that to mold and guide you….

    Sadly, not many teachers left like that…Especially in the inner cities…

    All it takes is ONE good teacher to make a WORLD of Difference…

    Thank you for sharing.

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