Hemi got off the bus as quickly 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 short man in a short-sleeved shirt, long shorts, knee-length socks and shiny brown 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 Dannevirke 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 yet his mate Guy was a turd, 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 ten minutes, as a way of corralling the kids, making sure everyone had turned up, and distributing school notices without having to have a full assembly. The tutor group was in a classroom, about 20 kids of mixed ages and forms.
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. Mrs Michaels was in her 40’s maybe, hard to say. She didn’t really look like a teacher. Short hair, lots of makeup on her attractive round face with bright red lipstick, which stuck out more than it should. She had a big friendly wide mouth. Hemi turned as red as 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 directly 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 the silent greeting. He was shown to a seat and he 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 and the dog’s 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 fourth 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 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 were overwhelming. There were hundreds and hundreds of boys, boys and young men in grey and black everywhere he looked. They were being shepherded into a large hall. Assembly. The large hall had a stage, with a large number of teachers seated.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 jockeyed 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. A large old man with very smart grey hair, wearing a grey suit and a robe like the two old men on stage and carrying a folder, strode by. The rector, who would be called a headmaster 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 struck 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, certainly 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 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 were marched across the huge school complex to their form room. This is where Guy first saw the rest of his class, form 3A2. Guy’s subjects were language based. He’d gone for languages rather than ‘manual’ subjects such as woodwork or metalwork, in addition to the core subjects you didn’t get a say in like maths, English, history, science, geography, social studies. He also had music and tech drawing alongside 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’, The form teacher shouted.
Now Guy was called ‘boy’, just like Hemi. Guy discovered that the only person who called the boys men, was Mr Muldoon. Most of the other teachers simply called him, or any boy at school, boy. Perhaps they couldn’t be bothered even learning their names. They’d be called boy or addressed by their surname only. Guy’s form mates 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 reckoned he could hold his own with them academically, but they all had more social experience than he did. He felt as though he had nothing in common with any of them. They were town and he was country; he was out of place. 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 a word he was being told or take in a word he was 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 didn’t have a creative bone in his body though, and he had 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 was good at spelling, English, maths; he had come top of his primary school in all those subjects. He was also a good writer, good at telling a story. He couldn’t draw water though, to coin a phrase—he was hopeless at art, or anything practical. He was all thumbs. Even his little sister, Nicky, was better at art and woodwork than he was, and she was 12 now.
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 tables. He expected to be okay at maths, Guy’s 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 didn’t have time. He had a syllabus to get through.
Last year, Guy left Awariki Primary School where he had the same teacher for up to four years at a time. The school had three classrooms and three teachers. Each classroom had a small number of children and the same teacher for everything, all day. 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 believed 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 had, within the first three months, reduced Guy to a troublesome, attention-seeking, detention-getting, bullied, sarcastic, inattentive, education system failure-in-waiting. The thing not one of them knew about Guy or bothered to find out what drove or inspired him. Guy craved recognition; Guy 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. He only ever received a single piece of recognition for something good the whole time he was at Palmy Boys. 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 in showing some love to a long-unloved instrument.
In those first three 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 realised he had never been good at maths; he was simply good at remembering numbers. He had never actually grasped any of the concepts of mathematics, he had just remembered the numbers of his times tables. Science went the same way. Because Guy isn’t scientific, he wasn’t encouraged. The subject bored him. Tech drawing might as well have been woodwork. Guy was hopeless at it; it was 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, only 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 use tech drawing might be. What’s the point of it?
Guy had a creative mind, but he was not a details-person. He had no idea of this nor did the people who were supposed to know the difference. Most likely they weren’t paid to care. English was good, but who knew it was so much more than reading and writing? 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 in what was above and underneath the earth. His teacher failed to know this was one of the few places Guy wasn’t disruptive in school, because how would he 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 their students; teachers who were in the wrong place.
There was nothing good for him here. 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 trudged back 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 to 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 such as answering back, which would get him gated again. Ralph and his good mate and partner in crime, the school psychopath, 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. He was the biggest boy at the High School. Huge broad shoulders, six foot three at least. He wasn’t the tallest boy at Palmy Boys, but he was the biggest. He had a square face with a big square chin and curly black hair. He was hairy, hairy legs, arms and you could see black hair growing above his shirt collar. After he shaved you could still see the black stubble. He was a hairy brute. Maybe being so hairy made him angry.
Because he had his own flat, he could summon Guy, or anyone, for apparently no other reason than to frighten, then beat them up. He’d start with an interrogation about something which had upset him, a comment, or an action he disapproved of. He’d then punch, or slap, or even stamp on the recipient of his attention. Ralph was often there, laughing, egging him on, joining in. Once he stood on Guy’s throat until he almost passed out from lack of oxygen. He was also a fan of whipping Guy with the cord from his kettle, he’d also used a cricket wicket as a weapon to beat the back of Guy’s legs. 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. Fortunately, Guy had never been on his radar.
The giant bully was captain of the 1st XV, a member of the New Zealand Schools rugby team, school heavy-weight boxing champion and all-round nasty piece of work. Guy did everything he could to avoid the giant, hairy bully’s flat. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hide from Ralph though; Ralph slept in his dorm. Ralph never did anything to Guy in his dorm. He’d save that for the flat. But he was there, like a constant threat and reminder. The older boys recognised Guy as an outsider, too smart and too clever, always with an answer back, 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 really more of a bedroom with a few extra blankets and a cupboard full of medical supplies, it smelled of disinfectant. It was like a sanctuary though. 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.