When my twin children recently started in Class One at the local Waldorf School, each child was welcomed in person in the school hall by the older pupils and given a small posy of flowers. The atmosphere was jolly and caring, and the parents, mostly mothers, stood at the back and wiped tears from their eyes.
This was not how my new high school welcomed me when I arrived at SACS, aged twelve. Within the first week, the new boys were submitted to an initiation wherein each boy was hunted through the school grounds by a pack of baying older pupils. When inevitably captured, he was carried kicking and fighting to the conservatory, where he was stripped and ‘blackballed’ – his genitals smeared with shoe-polish applied with a brush. The new boys were then dragged to the adjacent lavatories, where their heads were shoved into the bowl and held there as the toilet was flushed, all to the hooting, jeering and laughter of the eager onlookers. This faecal humiliation was practiced with the knowing assent of the school-masters, who looked the other way as they stalked the grounds and buildings in their black academic gowns. The message was simple: You are shit. The school’s motto was Spectemur Agendo: ‘You may judge us by our actions.’
My balloon of superiority was swiftly punctured. The boys at SACS, sons of the wealthy bourgeoisie, were unimpressed by my outsider status and I soon found that my intelligence, while sufficient to make me shine at White River Primary School, was not enough to enable me to stand out in any way at the new school, an urban institution then regarded as one of the country’s top schools. Among the pupils were many intelligent and talented boys, some of them far more so than I.
It must have been from Raymond’s war comics that I learned about the organisation of the fascist state, and it seemed to me that SACS was some sort of toy model thereof, with every feature of that state mirrored in some way in the school’s organisation and hierarchy. Mr Whiteford, the headmaster, was the absolute dictator, his teachers were the Goebelses, Himmlers and Rommels, the prefects were the SS, the uniformed and regulated boys were the good Nazis, and there were spies everywhere. Every boy was expected to learn how to handle a gun and do military drill, in uniform, once a week. To me, cadet parade looked like a fascist rally in Toyland.
I went underground. So efficient was my disguise that I all but disappeared. There were five classes in each form, A to E, graded according to cleverness – and I was to be found in the C class. I never failed anything, but did the bare minimum to ensure that my grades were exactly average. If there were twenty-five boys in the class, I came thirteenth. I did not play sport unless forced to, and then I did not distinguish myself in any way. I managed to find an excuse for avoiding cadets altogether. I did not appear in any school play, or take part in school debates, or sing in the choir, or in any other way distinguish myself. I did not receive prizes, merits or cups. I stayed in line and, when I went beyond the line, I tried to ensure that I wasn’t seen or caught.
The consequences of stepping out of line depended on the type of infringement and who caught you. They ranged from taunting, petty violence and ostracism for not conforming to the general culture, to severe beatings with a cane and expulsion. The only mark I made on the fabric of the school was the occasional publication of a poem in the school magazine.
Why did I not escape? There was nowhere to escape to; so the only way out was to endure. I had, after all, been sent, no doubt at considerable expense, to the ‘best school in the country’. Only an ingrate would complain. Besides, it was not the kind of matter that adults discussed with children.