Adele Cloete

‘The History Boys’ made me remember. As if I could ever forget.

She was tall and thin and smoked all the time. She had a familiar smell of perfume and cigarettes. Different choices than my mother, in tobacco and scent, but the combination still as redolent of comfort and depth and unfathomable sadness.

She was my English teacher. And we all adored her. Stood on our desks on our final matric day, saying ‘Oh Captain, My Captain’ in the flushed, melodramatic way our teenaged lives were lived.

Not many years after we left school she committed suicide. We heard through the grapevine, which as usual, provided little in the way of whys. And we wondered about our role in this shocking but somehow expected act. If we had even made a difference. Or could have.

I remember talking to an old friend when we heard. Discussing the rippling impact she has had on all our lives. My friend’s decision to enter the film industry. My vow to never teach. The love we both share for Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, because of her. We wondered how much of her there still was in our lives, which still ring with echoes of that ‘carpe diem’ zeitgeist of the early 90s X generation.

We reminisced. Sharing memories of secret notes and the day we were banished from her class for being flippant about depression. Ironic.

And we tried to understand the bitter thread of sadness that ran through her. This embittered, smoky poetess whose jaded vision we revered and aped. Obvious now. A thread that we’d so misunderstood, in our callow, inexperienced youth, as a kind of funky, anti-establishment life view.

How our gauche and primitive passion must have mocked her. Wreathed in the sour smell of a thousand disappointments, she was unapologetically scathing of our dreams, large and hardly formed and pulsing with technicolour possibility.

She gave me that first uncomfortable glimpse of a life unexpected. A life lived to the rolling of the dice, not the fulfilling of dreams. One from which joy has nearly been crushed.

But she also gave of herself in great gouts of demanding. As an example, maybe, of what to watch out for when we left the safety of school. She never taught us in a rote, mechanical way. She dug and poked and then praised us lavishly when we veered into the unknown, the untexted realm of genuine connection with whatever we were studying at the time. She would not allow mediocrity and unoriginal thought. Was obviously bored with it. She scorned our rabidly starlit, hormonal poetry. She pushed us so far beyond ourselves we changed irreparably.

But we never took her seriously. Beyond the high emotion, the debates and repartee that were contained in those classroom walls. We never imagined that her appealing, bohemian life was anything but. That the weight of children and responsibility and the death of hope would eventually snuff her gorgeous life out.

And I wonder if she knew. If her children know. How much she meant to me, to us. How, even now, some of the choices I make vibrate with her rasping cadence. How much of what I am was shaped in the shadow of her.

I loved her. I miss her.

Before she took her life, I had occasion to go back. I caught her during classroom break and we shared a cigarette together. I felt, fleetingly, her equal. She was buoyed up by the possibility of a new romance.

I wish that I’d told her then.

Everything.

Something.

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17 thoughts on “Adele Cloete

  1. sugarnspite says:

    Beautiful blog.

    Wreathed in the sour smell of a thousand disappointments – now there’s a rare piece of magic.

    Suicide. It’s an act that’s so complicit, and so secret. How will you ever know what she was thinking when she finally ended it? That’s part of what makes suicide so difficult to deal with. Aside from the appalling loss of life and hope, it is the not knowing why and that lack of closure which haunts. That and wondering whether you could ever change what happened. If only… if only.

    It is believed in some cultures that artists, and poets in particular, suffer for this world. That they do so because they bring great beauty into the world and are burnt or damaged in the process of doing so.

    Your poet made me think of Sylvia Plath, and what she was thinking before she left this world:

    Is there no way out of the mind?

    I am inhabited by a cry. Nightly it flaps out Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing That sleeps in me; All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

    Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.

    You know what Dolla. I love your writing.

    sugarnspite
    “you’re going to have to save yourself”

  2. garym says:

    And there I was, thinking the blog wasn’t worth the irritation …..

  3. dolce says:

    Exactly.

    I am terrified by this dark thing That sleeps in me.

    I think part of what scares me the most about her suicide is that it made sense only after. We could see her pain only in hindsight. But that before, she could have been like any one of us. Like me. Except my dark thing still sleeps. There. But sleeping.

    God forbid. Something should give it cause to wake.

    And do you know what (you old bat, she says, just before we lurk into Dex’s dreaded group hug again) your writing makes me want to be a better writer.

    And for what it’s worth, your commentary makes me want to be a more conscious reader too.

    And, just for the record, your boet and his wife? They rock.

    And, just to get back to it, bah humbug and pathooey!

  4. dolce says:

    now where’s this blog you’ve been muttering about writing. Surely work ain’t that pressing?

  5. sugarnspite says:

    Now let’s hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah!

    The dark stuff, it’s sleeping in us all Dolla. But what the fuck. Go to a toy store, and get a really big lazer. When it awakens thrash it to pieces George Lucas style – to within an inch of it’s life I tell ya. May the force be with you, triumph over it you must. But your Blue period will tell you it’s all about the integration of the shadow, I’m sure.

    Now. Prey tell. Bah humbug and pathooey [I’m shivering in my boots] where the hell did you get that scary stuff! Captain Haddock in TinTin?

    And why the hell does that little dog in those books bark Whoa Whoa style instead of Woof Woof? I’ve always wondered about that.

    sugarnspite
    “you’re going to have to save yourself”

    PS – The Russian’s amazing. Love her to bits. But that other piece of pathooey. Pfffffft!

  6. dolce says:

    Donno. Maybe ’cause he was always in Haddocks Whiskey?

    Or he was bitter that his lovely french Milou got Anglicised into Snowy, for gods sake.

    Or he thought he was a police car.

    And dak, the Russian is fab! She should blog. You should BLOG!

  7. sugarnspite says:

    Why forsoothe. Billions of blue bilious blistering barnacles in a thundering typhoon!

    You have given me the most brilliant of ideas. I shall join forces with the Russian and blog in Russian. That way I can slag the wankatorious and they will be none the wiser. Certainly that psycho Malice in Blunderland won’t get on my case because she can hardly read English, let alone Russian.

    So here’s the first episode. [The top-secret translation has, of course, already been emailed to you.]

    Востриков, Финно-угорский субстрат в русском языке: Учебное пособие по спецкурсу. Горького Жуковская ред. ревнерусский литературный язык и его отношение к старославянскому. Иванов Историческая грамматика русского языка. Просвещение Михельсон Рассказы русских летописей веков. Новиков Современный русский язык: для высшей школе.Москва Лань О словарном составе языка Великорусского народа, Вопросы языкознания Цыганенко Этимологический словарь русского языка, Киев Шанский Иванов Шанская Краткий этимологический словарь русского языка.

    Pree-cisely!

    sugarnspite
    “you’re going to have to save yourself”

  8. garym says:

    Брожу ли я вдолъ улиц шумных,
    Вхожу лъ во многолюдный храм,
    Сижу лъ меж юношей безумных,
    Я предаюсъ моим мечтам.

    Я говорю: промчатся годы,
    И сколко здесъ ни видно нас,
    Мы все сойдём под вечны своды,
    И чей-нибудъ уж близок час.

    Глажу лъ на дуб уединённый,
    Я мыслу: патриарх лесов
    Переживёт мой век забвенный,
    Как пережил он век отцов.

    Младенца лъ милово ласкаю,
    Уже я думаю: прости!
    Тебе я место уступаю:
    Мне время тлетъ, тебе цвести.

    Денъ каждый, каждую годину
    Привык я думой провождатъ,
    Градущей смерти годовщину
    Меж их стараясъ угадатъ.

    И где мне смертъ пошлёт судъбина?
    В бою ли, в странствии, в волнах?
    Или соседняя долина
    Мой примет охладелый прах?

    Н хотъ бесчуственному телу
    Равно повсюду истлеватъ,
    Но ближе к милому пределу
    Мне всё б хотелосъ почиватъ.

    И пустъ у гробовово входа
    Младая будет жизнъ игратъ,
    И равнодушнаяа природа
    Красою вечною сиятъ.

    By Pushkin.

    If I walk the noisy streets,
    Or enter a many thronged church,
    Or sit among the wild young generation,
    I give way to my thoughts.

    I say to myself: the years are fleeting,
    And however many there seem to be,
    We must all go under the eternal vault,
    And someone’s hour is already at hand.

    When I look at a solitary oak
    I think: the patriarch of the woods.
    It will outlive my forgotten age
    As it outlived that of my grandfathers’.

    If I dandle a young infant,
    Immediately I think: farewell!
    I will yield my place to you,
    For I must fade while your flower blooms.

    Each day, and every hour
    I habitually follow in my thoughts,
    Trying to guess from their number
    The year which brings my death.

    And where will fate send death to me?
    In battle, in my travels, or on the seas?
    Or will the neighbouring valley
    Receive my chilled ashes?

    And although to the senseless body
    It is indifferent wherever it rots,
    Yet close to my beloved countryside
    I still would prefer to rest.

    And let it be, beside the grave’s vault
    That young life forever will be playing,
    And impartial, indifferent nature
    Eternally be shining in beauty.

  9. sugarnspite says:

    Isn’t Pushkin the guy who makes that really brilliant vodka? Or is he the dude that created the phrase when push kins to shove?

    sugarnspite
    “you’re going to have to save yourself”

  10. flutter says:

    Have been thinking alot about your blog since you posted it. I was remembering my old art teacher in high school, a sweet kind man.

    Three years after I left school, he killed himself, his wife and his baby girl. It was such a shock. I couldn’t reconcile the person I knew with these frightening actions. I discovered later that he had a long battle with depression but clearly hid it very well. So very very sad.

    I too am often terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me.

  11. JB says:

    removed at request

  12. Dolce says:

    Hi John…yes..I did got to a vertain girls’ high school in CT. I’d love to hear from you. As you can tell, Adele (Ms Cloete 🙂 )made a huge impression on my life. I was devastated when I heard she’d taken her life.

  13. John says:

    removed at request.

  14. Dolce says:

    Thank you, John. I’m really strangely glad for this small intersection of lives. And for the little bit of clarity and perspective. Thank you.

  15. Thank you- I was trying to find out information about Mrs Cloete, and came across this beautiful piece of writing. I adored her, and you have conjured her up magnificently. I’m sitting here in a pool of tears. xx

    • Dolce says:

      Thank you Susie. I loved her so very much. And I just hope she knew it. Somehow.

      • Biggest regret- not telling her after leaving school what a profound influence she had on my life. Sometimes wonder if more of us had let her know, if things would have been different? But then again, struggling with my own depression, I know that it probably would not have resonated, who knows what demons she was fighting.Thanks again. xxxx

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