This is largely to help motivate myself to finish the long paused book by the end of the Christmas holidays. There actually isn’t much to go.
This is chapter of the book, pointing the finger at how the education system fails so many people, as it failed me. So, you do need some context, there are chapters preceding and following this one, but this is the first day at High School for our main characters of the book. Hemi and Guy.
Chapter 5: High School
Hemi got off the bus as quick as he could, not daring to glance back in case the stink sheila tried to talk to him out here on the footpath.
There was a little man in a short sleeve shirt, long shorts, knee length socks and brown shiny shoes standing there with a clipboard. He already had a dozen or so kids Hemi’s age standing around with him and another dozen or so older kids nearby. None of the others were Maori like Hemi.
He motioned to Hemi to come over and said, “Welcome to High School, let’s get you all settled in”. He asked the older kids to pair up with new third formers, they weren’t turds here. Hemi didn’t know his mate was Guy was a turd yet. Turds mostly went to Boarding School.
Hemi was introduced to a girl who was in the year ahead of him. She seemed friendly enough, said he was in something called a tutor group and that’s where they were going. The tutor group met every morning before school for about 10 minutes, as a way of corralling the kids, making sure everyone had turned up and distributing school notices without having to have a whole assembly.
The tutor group was in a classroom, about 20 kids of mixed ages from new starters like Hemi, which was just him and one other who was already there, and a few kids from each High School year.
There was a lady who welcomed him to the room, said she was Mrs Michaels and made him stand there while she told everyone who he was, he turned as red a Maori can and wanted to run out the door, he hated being noticed and being the centre of attention. Hemi liked to keep himself to himself.
This was stink, he looked around the room, trying not to look at anyone in case he made eye contact, he tried to smile but did a terrible job, so he just sniffed and turned his head to one side a bit and gave a Kiwi greeting, raised eyebrows, swift upward nod. He was shown to a seat and slunk into it.
Meanwhile, back at the Boarding school, Guy was awake in the early morning half light, he could hear the others slowly stirring, like someone does when they are going to wake up in the next half hour or so. The sun was starting to become brighter and shone shafts of light through cracks in the curtains; he could hear traffic outside, a distant siren. Nothing at all like the morning chorus of Magpies and coughing sheep that he was used to.
Then came the jangling, the dogs paws on lino. “Rise and Shine Laddies”
Morning ablutions and breakfast worked the same way as last night, except in reverse. Guy observed at the bathrooms there were a number of boys who shaved, which gave rise to a daily teasing of those who didn’t. The turds, or worse, the fair-haired 4th formers, who were mercilessly and continually belittled for the bum fluff on their faces. He didn’t expect to be going to school with people who had body hair and shaved. He had never given it a moment’s thought but now it just reminded him he was a boy surrounded by men, he was in the wrong place.
Finally the big moment had arrived though, actually going to High School. He had been given some subjects to choose from before he started here and his classes and classmates would be based on those choices. He would spend the next year during the day with 31 boys who had made the same subject choices as he. 31 was more than the number of kids at his entire school last year. James from his dorm was in his class. That was something at least.
Upon arrival at the School gates, the noise and activity was overwhelming, there were hundreds and hundreds of boys, boys and young men in grey everywhere he looked. They were being shepherded into a large hall. Assembly.
The hall had a stage, with a large number of grownups seated, Guy reckoned they were obviously teachers. A couple of older men sat there with black gowns on. The walls of the hall were lined with photos, and boards with gold writing, like the common room at the hostel.
The boys all jostled and joked their way into the endless rows of bench seats, Guy found a spot next to James and sat, taking in the slowly reducing din, which quickly silenced apart from the odd cough or sneeze. The teachers then all stood, the boys stood, Guy stood.
Footsteps, heavy footsteps growing louder, coming down the central aisle of the hall. Walking briskly, but not fast, a person striding was what Guy could hear, he didn’t dare turn around though because nobody else had, plus he wouldn’t see anything because everyone around him, except James, was bigger than he was. He’d see who was marching down the aisle soon enough.
An old, large man with very smart grey hair in a grey suit wearing a robe like the two old men on stage, carrying a folder strode by. The Rector, what would be called a head master in a regular school, arrived purposefully at the base of the stage, made light work of the steps onto the stage, which made guy think he must be pretty fit and strong for his age?
What also stuck Guy was that this large, fit old man in grey, with a black robe, was wearing orange shoes. In truth they were very light brown, highly polished, but on first glance, they looked orange against all the grey and the dark wood of the stage.
The man spoke with a loud powerful voice, more stuff about how great the school was and what a fantastic year they all had in store. Then the hall was told to sing a hymn, onward Christian Soldiers. Every single boy in the hall, well all the ones that Guy could see, including James, produced a small blue book from the chest pocket of their grey shirts. Guy didn’t have a blue book, he hadn’t been told about the blue book. Maybe he had but hadn’t been listening.
What he found out very quickly was that the blue book at this school was the equivalent of the Germans “papers please” from war movies. Never go anywhere without a blue book. The Blue book has the rules, the hymns, names and classes of all the boys in the school, the teachers, plus your daily and weekly timetable. All in a tiny blue book, small enough to fit neatly in your shirt pocket, which seemed to only exist, to carry the book. The book was definitely ‘your papers please’.
Guy sang from James book, the sound of 1200 boys, because that’s how many there were at the school, all under one ceiling was actually pretty cool. Guy liked the sound of the singing.
The Assembly ended, the boys filed out, and were somehow gathered up by the teachers of each class of turds as they emerged from the hall and marched across the huge school complex to the classroom, which was their form room.
This is where Guy first saw the rest of his class. Form 3L2. Guy’s subjects were language based, he’d gone for languages rather than ‘manual’ subjects, like woodwork, or metalwork in addition to the core subjects you didn’t get a say in like Math’s, English, History, Science, Geography, Social studies. He also had Music and Tech drawing along side his chosen languages of French and German, somehow Drama snuck in there as well, but he certainly didn’t choose it. He asked for a blue book, everyone looked at him, and laughed. “Go to the stationery shop at lunch time boy.”
I’m not going to labour the detail of Guy’s form mates, they were all normal enough, boys roughly his age, but not one of them had come from his background, they were all city kids, they had all been to intermediate schools. They all knew more about everything outside the farm environment than Guy did. They all had new uniforms of their own. Guy could hold his own with them academically, but they all had more social experience than he did. He felt like he had nothing in common with any of them. They were town and he was country, he was out of place.
What I will tell you about though is how the entire education system in this era was fundamentally set up to squash and fail people like Guy.
Guy wasn’t someone who learned things by being droned at. He couldn’t digest screeds of information in pages of textbooks. Guy needed to work with things in practice to understand them; he needed to be engaged with a subject to learn it. If he wasn’t fundamentally interested in a topic, his mind would wander and he wouldn’t hear, or take in a word he was being told, or reading.
Richard, his older brother could, he’d study diligently at things he didn’t particularly enjoy, he’d work hard on unpleasant tasks because he was stubborn and dedicated to the job at hand. He doesn’t have a creative bone in his body though, and he has no common sense, but you could count on him to see the job through. Guy always respected him for that, but he was still a dick as far as Guy was concerned. Must be an older brother thing.
Guy and Richard were completely different people; it always made Guy wonder if they had the same parents.
Guy was good at Spelling, English, Maths, he had come top of his school in all those subjects, he was good at telling a story, a good writer. He couldn’t draw water though, to coin a phrase, he was hopeless at art, or anything practical, like woodwork, he was all thumbs. Even his little sister, Nicky was better at art, and woodwork than he was, and she was 12.
The first class, of Guy’s first day at High School was Maths, Guy wasn’t bothered, or nervous about Maths, he’d always been good at his times table, he expected to be ok at Maths. Guys Maths teacher was his first encounter with the people who would ruin his education and change his life’s potential outcomes dramatically. He was a terrible teacher.
Maybe he had been a good teacher when he set out, but was broken by a broken system of teaching. This man would see 30 boys, different ones, every hour, for an hour. Five to six times a day. Every boy was different, but no allowance could be made for that. He just didn’t have time. He had a syllabus instead.
Last year, Guy left a school where he had the same teacher for up to 4 years. The school had 3 classrooms and 3 teachers. Each classroom had a small number of children and the same teacher, for everything, all day, for 2-4 years at a time.
Those teachers were part of the community, they knew the children as well as their parents did, better than some bad parents who shouldn’t have had children anyway. They had time to figure out what engaged the kids in their charge, what their characters were, what they were good and not so good at. What they might learn, and what there was no point persevering with.
Guy left primary school a confident, over achieving, bright, clever, articulate, noisy, smart, funny, cheeky, and happy young person, looking forward to the next exciting but a bit scary year at High School. He reckoned he was as good as anyone going though. He had quite literally no concept of what lay ahead sadly, nor did his parents. Not even Richard, because Richard wasn’t like Guy.
The maths teacher wasn’t alone in failing Guy though, each teacher in their own way, within the first 3 months had reduced Guy to a troublesome, attention seeking, detention getting, bullied, sarcastic, inattentive, education system failure in waiting.
Guy is 50 now, this was, as I said, all a long time ago, but Guy is still really good at remembering, he can only recall, one public piece of encouragement for anything he did at High School, by any of his teachers. The thing not one of them knew about Guy, or bothered to find out what drove or inspired him.
Guy craved recognition, Guy just wanted to be assured that he was good at what he was doing, the more he was encouraged, the more he would strive. Rather than being castigated and ridiculed, because unlike Richard, who’d just try harder, Guy would turn his attention to something else instead.
Guy had a very short attention span for things he didn’t understand, so you needed to get him to understand quickly or his mind was gone. On the other hand, he would make it his business and personal project, to be the best informed, most well read and knowledgeable person on the subject of the things he was interested in, or engaged with.
That single piece of public recognition was from his Music teacher. A big man with a huge mouth who played Trombone in a swing band in his spare time. The only spare instrument he had for Guy to learn in his music lessons was a beaten up, tarnished old trombone. Guy took the trombone back to the hostel and asked the matron for some brasso to give his new/old trombone a good clean up. Get it looking as new and shiny as possible.
In the class the following day, Mr Bridge, was amazed at the transformation and held the now renewed trombone up in front of the class to show everyone, giving Guy a glowing congratulations for his efforts to show some love to a long unloved instrument.
In those first 3 months though, Guy gave up on maths because he didn’t understand something about an N, which the teacher couldn’t explain in a way that Guy understood, so the teacher stopped trying because he didn’t have time. Guy stopped listening in maths and instead got used to being ignored. Guy realized he had never been good at maths, he was just good at remembering numbers. He had never actually grasped any of the concepts of mathematics, he had just remembered the numbers of his times table.
Science went the same way, because Guy isn’t scientific, he wasn’t encouraged. It bored him.
Tech Drawing might as well have been woodwork, Guy was hopeless at it, too technical, Guy didn’t have a technical brain or any interest in drawing straight lines and perfect circles, so he wasn’t encouraged to understand it, just to follow orders on how it should be done. He kept getting his cubes, circles and lines wrong. It seemed pointless. Nobody explained to him what you might use tech drawing for.
Guy had a creative mind, but he was not a detail person. He had no idea of this, nor did the people who were supposed to know the difference, or more likely, they weren’t paid to care.
English was good, but who knew it was so much more than reading and writing though? Guy wasn’t encouraged to write, he was just lectured about how English works, all the complicated stuff about how to write a technically correct sentence, or story, but nothing about writing a good story. In tests, the marking was always more focused on how the essay was written, rather than what it was written about.
Guy enjoyed Geography, he always loved learning about places and people, he was interested on what was on top of and underneath the earth. His teacher failed to know this was one of the few places Guy wasn’t disruptive in school now, because how would be know? Who would tell him the Guy in his class was the opposite of the Guy in Maths who hated being there and paid no attention at all?
History was another of Guy’s favourite subjects, he loved poring over the many sets of history books his mother had at home. He had a big head start of knowledge over every other boy in his class. His teacher wrote acres of illegible chalk on the huge blackboard, or droned at the class, reading from books. Guy’s attention wandered, he was bored. His previously insatiable thirst for the wonders of history, drained from him in this environment.
The subjects he excelled at were delivered in a way that discouraged him at best and put him right off them at worst. The subjects he didn’t get on with were made increasingly painful and pointless, by teachers who weren’t engaged with the subjects, or the students.
(As an aside, if as a teacher, you aren’t engaged your subject, or your students, then just get out of teaching, you obviously hate your job and you are ruining young peoples lives. You have no business being in charge of young minds. You’re in the wrong place)
There was nothing good for him here now. The teachers had washed their hands of the boy who was more trouble than he was worth, because their time was better spent with the handful in the class who embraced this Victorian education system, people like Richard.
At the end of every painful and pointless day at school, he returned to the hostel, the news of his disruption at school would earn him punishment in the form of being gated at weekends, this meant he couldn’t go home and had to do all the crap jobs around the hostel while the other boys were on weekend leave with their families. Those who hadn’t gone home were allowed into town, or to visit friends, or just go out wherever they liked during the day. Guy wasn’t allowed outside the hostel gates, or school grounds, because he was always gated.
The Prefects didn’t like boys who didn’t conform, so they goaded him into making silly mistakes like answering back, which would get him gated again. Ralph and his good mate and partner in crime, the school psychopath just beat him, often the school psychopath, who everyone was terrified of, singled Guy out for special treatment.
The psychopath was a giant and also house captain, which meant he had his own flat in the hostel, so he could summon Guy, or anyone, it wasn’t just Guy, for an extra curricular private beating or just a bit of light torture whenever he was bored.
This giant bully was Captain of the first fifteen, a member of the New Zealand Schools rugby team, at least 6ft 3, School heavy weight boxing champion and all round nasty piece of work. He seemed to enjoy nothing more than punching, choking, whipping, and kicking boys half his size. He ruined people’s lives, but was a pillar of the school. His younger brother was smaller, but even meaner.
Sometimes the giant psychopath would invite Ralph round as well. Guy did everything he could to never go anywhere near the psychopaths flat.
Unfortunately he couldn’t hide from Ralph though, Ralph slept in his dorm.
The older boys recognised Guy as an outsider, too smart and too clever, always with an answer back, but a troublemaker. He didn’t fit in. So he was picked on by everyone, even the boys in his own year, largely avoided him, because they would get bullied by association.
Occasionally Mrs Doyle would intervene, overrule the gating and make Guy go home. She would also let him have the shelter of the sick bay for a day or two here and there, because she knew what was going on and felt sorry for him. The sick bay was a simple quiet room, near her quarters where none of the boys were allowed through, unless they were sick of course, it was like a sanctuary. Nobody knew he was there, they just didn’t know where he was.
This was Guy’s life for the next year and a half.
Meanwhile, Hemi was having his own challenges…
Categories: New Zealand