The children at White River Primary School were mostly the sons and daughters of Afrikaans farmers and railway workers. Generally they came from less wealthy backgrounds than the English speakers, though those from the wealthiest families went to Uplands, a private institution run, we imagined, on English public school lines. The linguistic, social, political and historical differences between the minority of English speakers and Afrikaners were profound, even though apartheid lumped us together as ‘Europeans.’
To me, with my urban and bohemian background and the access I enjoyed to an altogether different world of culture through art, literature and music, both language-based factions seemed parochial, narrow-minded and coarse – hicks in my opinion at the time. I was easily able, without ever studying, to excel academically, so the teachers left me alone in general. Not surprisingly, I was not a popular figure among the other schoolchildren, and had to content myself with no more than one friend at a time, or none. I took my revenge on the school in subtle acts of rebellion, two of which I can remember clearly. In what was then Standard Two, having had an interest in materials provoked by the gift of a used chemistry set, I had experimented with the various fluids and chemicals that I found in the house – bleach, shampoo, detergents and solvents – and in the course of these experiments had noted that ink, if mixed with a detergent, would lose its surface tension and thus its coherence: instead of remaining in neat, bold and narrow lines, it spread across the page in a fuzz, following the directions of the fibres in the paper. I took a dropper of yellow shampoo to school in my blazer pocket and during break, when nobody was in the classroom, I placed one drop of shampoo in each inkwell, including my own.
The results were impressive. Mrs de Lange, who I am certain suspected me, was unable to prove anything, and I took smug satisfaction in having defeated her and my classmates with science. I even knew the phrase ‘surface tension’; she, I imagined, did not.
The other incident concerned my alteration of a roneoed circular about a school sports event. I had changed ‘inter house’ to ‘inter shithouse’ and the like, and in various other ways that I cannot recall had altered the paper so as to make my contempt and dislike of the school clear. The paper came into the hands of the adults, how I cannot say, and I was sent to be dressed down by Dr Nel, the vice-head and an arachnologist who for mysterious reasons had given up the life of science in favour of primary school teaching in White River. I expected to be beaten, but he chose shame rather than pain for my punishment. The interview took place outside, with him sitting on a low wall under a tree in the playground. He was a short, tubby man with iron-grey hair of the kind that forms itself into waves when greased back. He held the paper in his hand and, with a voice that was focused but not raised, said ‘Michael, this is dirty, dirty.’ I said I had only been trying to be funny. I was filled with shame which, unlike guilt, is a public emotion: the inwardly directed anger we feel when we are caught. People call this emotion ‘burning shame’ because we experience our own rage and its simultaneous suppression like a fire in our bodies. I agreed with him to his face, but not inwardly. To me, he was not a credible speaker – he was an Afrikaner Nationalist and therefore, in my logic, a Nazi, and thus an ally of Hitler, the most evil man ever. I was a prisoner and need give only name, rank and number.