Johannesburg - When mom and former English and life orientation teacher Leigh-Ann Moonsamy heard the words that are the standard vocabulary of most preschoolers – “I don’t want to” – from her then-three-year-old son Tylan, she responded differently from most parents. She wrote a story about it.
In the tale Peter, who like Tylan “didn’t want to” do anything his mom asked of him, found that his brother, John, and sister, Lizzie, would be rewarded for listening, while he would miss out.
And each night she’d read the story, handwritten on a notepad, to Tylan in an attempt to teach him about what it meant to be disobedient.
“He was still three and in that temper tantrum phase,” said Moonsamy.
“Everything I’d ask him to do – to clean up after himself or to eat his meal – he’d say: ‘I don’t want to. I don’t want to’.”
Moonsamy also had a six-month-old daughter, Megan, to care for. But she knew she had to teach her son about the consequences of not doing what he was told.
Moonsamy, who used to teach at the Foundation Primary, a school in Melville, Joburg, for children with special and remedial needs, was no stranger to troubled kids. Many of those she taught were in foster homes or homes where they did not have parental guidance.
“You couldn’t just read from a book to them – it would make no sense. It was all about application, about values and lessons that they would carry throughout their lives,” she said of her pupils.
It showed her, too, that merely reading stories to Tylan wouldn’t work. So she would integrate the teachings from her stories into his everyday life.
“My way of teaching him a lesson was to try to show him that he was missing out on something if he didn’t listen to what I wanted him to do,” Moonsamy said.
Then came the “that’s only for girls” phase. This led to the story Boys Can Bake Too.
“He and his dad wanted some baked goods – and I said instead of going to the store to buy something, why don’t you guys bake? I vividly remember his dad and him baking that day. But the first thing Tylan said was girls should do it, moms should bake. And I said: ‘No, there’re no gender stereotypes’.”
Then came the book about Jeremy, a young boy who loved playing sport, video games, and baking.
When Tylan wanted a pet, Moonsamy needed to explain the responsibility that came with it.
“At that age he’d lose interest in something quickly. He’d really want something one day, and then the very next day the novelty would have worn off. I wanted him to understand that a pet is something you can’t just discard.
“I came up with Billy’s Promise. It was a book about Billy, who had promised his mom that he’d care for a dog if she got him one. And then he failed to keep it.”
In 2009, not long after she began writing the stories, Moonsamy submitted them to publisher Qualibooks. Nine were accepted and are being published in 11 South African languages. Some are used by the Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal Departments of Education.
Twenty-three more of her stories are being published. Some of them are about the dangers of online chat rooms and texting. Moonsamy hopes they will be available for readers before Christmas.
Clinical psychologist Karien Dick, who runs a practice at the Vista Psychiatric Clinic in Centurion, says Moonsamy’s stories incorporate self-empowerment, “as well as using the resources in the environment, such as moms and teachers, to solve problems”.
She says children can grasp concepts about life through stories and play.
“Research has shown that children learn more when they can relate to story characters. Stories stimulate children’s creativity so when they are confronted with their own problems, they can think about more options and different outcomes.
“Stories are also non-threatening. Through stories they can see that other children or characters are also experiencing problems, not just them,” she said.
Moonsamy stopped working in 2005 when she had Tylan. But she says she will always be a teacher and it shows in the stories she tells.
“When I left school every day I felt like I had made a difference. (I had been able to) instil something in my students. It’s the same with the stories,” she said.
Albert Khoza, 25, is one who has not forgotten the lessons she taught.
Khoza, who was Moonsamy’s pupil at Foundation Primary in 2000, struggled with his studies. At 13, being a “slow learner” and gay, he just didn’t think there would be a bright future for him.
“I was called names by young people in school, but Miss Leigh-Ann made me realise that talk and people would be there for the rest of your life – either get over it and move on and live your life or let them place you in a box,” Khoza said.
Moonsamy also discovered Khoza’s passion for the arts and gave him the idea to follow this as a career.
“She’d see the interest and the passion I had for acting. She would say, ‘Maybe this is the line you should go’. She was the opposite of other teachers, who focused more on academic performance.”
Now writer, director and star of his one-man show, Influences Of A Closet Chant, Khoza will be performing in Paris at the La Ferme du Buisson, an arts centre outside Paris, with a host of other South African artists. In November he will be attending the AfroVibe festival in Amsterdam.
And, he said, despite being a remedial student, he is studying for his Honours in Dramatic Arts at the University of Witwatersrand.
“I don’t think she (Moonsamy) realised how much she gave me in life. She made me realise there was something more to life than all these problems,” he said.
And Moonsamy has a lot more to share. Though for now, she says, she’ll be doing it through her books.
“It isn’t just applicable to me and my child – it was for all the readers out there. It must resonate with the readers as well. The stories and the values are what they would want to instil in their kids.” - The Star