When my school of strife became a school of life
It took just one, out-of-the-box head boy to transform my school days
I went to a traditionally white boys’ high school, which is to say, a rugby school. I liked rugby before I went to high school and I like rugby now, but that school did everything it could to make me hate rugby while I was there.
When you arrived in Standard 6 you had to memorise the names of the first team and be able to recite them on demand from any passing prefect, who was himself almost invariably one of the names. I made a point of being able to remember 14 of them and forgetting the name of whoever who was asking me. When they became enraged and yelled their own name at me, I would shake my head seriously and say: “No, I don’t think so, that doesn’t ring a bell.”
There were regular compulsories, when you had to go to school on a Saturday afternoon and sing war cries while you watched your first team play some other first team. There were compulsory war-cry practices during big break when juniors had to gather in the school hall under the eye of the head boy to learn how to sing songs that began with lyrics like “Widdly widdly woddly wo”.
Once the head boy – I forget his name now – spotted me not singing and made me stand up and sing a war cry all on my own. I stood, but I would not sing.
“The whole school’s going to sit here until you sing the song, Bristow-Bovey,” said the head boy, whose name I’ve just remembered but wouldn’t mean anything to you. “No one’s going anywhere until you sing.”
That suited me just fine. If he really wanted to punish me he would have made me stand there refusing to sing while everyone else left and had lunch. Head boys were very poor at psychology.The head boy of the school was of course the captain of the first team. Occasionally it would be the captain of the first cricket team, but that would be the sign that it was a weak rugby team that year and all the male teachers would walk around all year with long faces, feeling sad about their lives.
I played rugby but not very well, so I accepted that I would be forever outside of the currents of mainstream schoolboy power. But then, when I was in standard eight, an astonishing thing happened. The new head boy of the school was announced, and he wasn’t the rugby captain, no, nor cricket captain either.He was a boy named Alan Bowen, and although he ran cross-country as a kind of wheeze to get around the iron school rule that you had to play a winter sport, he wasn’t a sports guy at all. He was a public speaker, and captain of the debating team. He also played jazz piano in his spare time, and wrote music and house plays. He was charming and articulate and well-read and he seemed to give off a kind of light, a coruscation of wit and sophistication, an electricity of possibility. Once he won a provincial speech competition and the next day at big break he gave the speech in the school hall for anyone who wanted to hear it. The hall was packed with boys – not just weedy academic sorts like me, but real boys, actual boys, boys who were part of the mainstream of the school – all falling about with laughter and applauding as though they had just seen someone score a try.
I later learnt about the political battles that tore the staffroom apart in the build-up to Alan being annointed – the running street battles and terror attacks between those who wanted a traditional rugby head boy and the brave apostles of change. And Alan was something special – to this day I’ve never seen his like and whenever I write something or give a speech my keenest wish is that it could be one tenth of what he could have done when he was 16 years old – but his ascension changed things. It made the school itself bigger and stronger, wider and deeper, more healthy and robust. It breathed a kind of life into kids who were interested in things outside of the fortunes of the first team. They – we – felt as though suddenly there was more than one path through the woods, that we weren’t just there under sufferance or to make up the numbers at compulsories. We felt there was more air for our lungs, that the sunlight could reach us too. It changed some of our lives.
Alan wasn’t just representing us – he was representing himself, and the whole school, and the possibility of a new and bigger and better way for that school, and if that’s how it felt in so small an arena as a monocultural, monolingual, old South African whites-only high school in Durban, I can only tremble with joy to imagine what it will mean for so many people, young and old, when Siya Kolisi runs out with the captain’s armband to lead the Springboks.