I grew up pretty-much by myself, alone on a plot on the outskirts of a conservative little mining town in South Africa, with just my mom and my ouma and a few doggies for company. Dad was home for a bit in the evening before I went to bed and was there most weekends, and we’d occasionally visit my gran or relatives, or my cousin Martin would visit, but my world was pretty small really.
I didn’t mind though. My mom read to me on an almost daily basis, so I loved books, loved the stories they contained and the things they could teach. With mom’s help I had taught myself to read when I was like 3 or 4, doing my best at the Bobby the Cat comics that came in the Personality Magazine each week. I had plenty of books, so I always had something to read, and when I wasn’t in the mood for that, I had all my stuffed animals to keep me company, or I’d play with my Lego.
As I grew older, my mom started talking about school, and how I’d soon have to go there to learn things. I was more than a little dubious about this whole concept, but she soon had me convinced as she kept telling me about how many books there were in the school, about all the children I’d meet, and as we got closer to the day, I actually couldn’t wait. So the year after I turned 5, my mom packed me into the car one day, and off we went to my first day of school.
Of course, reality quickly started disabusing me of my excitement. There were so many people! So many children and moms and a few dads and … Suddenly things seemed a lot less … cool. I was overwhelmed, and this growing sense of disquiet started creeping up on me. I couldn’t put my finger on what, but something just wasn’t right here.
We went and found a pair of chairs in the school hall. Each seat had a little red book on it, but for once I was too nervous to look what was inside, so I just sat with it on my lap. I looked around at all the other parents and kids sitting in nervous pairs along the walls and I just wanted to burst into tears.
Luckily I was seated next to a girl called Sara, and after having our moms introduce us to one another, we started a hesitent little conversation that soon blossomed into friendship. I don’t really remember what we talked about, but as we chatted my fear ebbed just a little and I relaxed.
A loud bell silenced us abruptly, and a few minutes later other children, older and obviously used to all the strangeness, filed in and went and sat down in something approaching neat rows in the center of the hall, a sea of purple and grey. At the front of the hall, a handful of grown-ups, the ones my mom said were teachers, took seats on the stage, and a tall, grampa-looking old man took what I later learned was called a podium.
He started by introducing himself as Meneer Viljoen, the principal, and welcomed all the dads and moms and new students.(Hey that’s me! ^_^) He said a few other things I can’t remember, and then he told us all to stand up. An older lady went and sat by the piano on stage, and everybody sang the national anthem, followed directly by the school anthem. I didn’t know the words, so I just stood nervously, feeling silly and really dumb. I glanced over at Sara and could see she was feeling just about the same as me, which made me feel just a little bit better.
Just as we were about to sit back down, Meneer Viljoen asked us to remain standing and open our little red books. The piano lady started again, and soon we were singing a song to Jesus … or rather, again, everybody else was – my Afrikaans reading wasn’t anywhere near as good as my English. Very, very dumb.
After all the singing, we could finally sit down again, and Meneer Viljoen talked for a long time. He talked about sports and about learning and about making friends and stuff, but mostly it just washed over me as I looked at all the kids sitting on the floor in their grey shirts and pants or their purple dresses …
And it occurred to me that I was dressed like a boy. My hair was short like the boys’ hair – my mom had cut it to my considerably protest the week before, assuring me that it was necessary for school. I sat there in my grey uniform, my short hair, my laced up shoes … and I looked like a boy. I didn’t understand how the grown-ups could’ve made such a big mistake, and I couldn’t say anything because the Meneer was still talking, and something just told me not to say and I just didn’t know what to do.
The older kids left first along with the teachers, and finally we filed out ourselves. I was on the verge of tears by now, and then my mom said that she would have to leave, but that she would be back soon, and that I had to be a good boy in school for her. I don’t know if she’d ever used that word “boy” on me before, but that day I heard it for the first time, and it fell on me like a planet. I just burst into tears, grabbing onto her and begging her not to leave me, that this was all a terrible mistake. A teacher came up from behind, and as she tried to calm me she hunkered down and turned me around to face her. She really was nice, but I didn’t want to hear any of it, and as she talked about how I needed to be a big boy now, my heart broke. I turned around for my mom but she was gone.
Pretty-much the rest of that day is a blank. I don’t remember any of it, and to be honest, most of my primary school memories are tiny, individual snatches here and there. But that first day …
1. Afrikaans for a smallholding, typically a parcel of land anything from 5 to 20 acres. My dad didn’t farm it, but rented out bits of the land for neighbouring farmers to work, and we had a small forest at the bottom of the property that I used to love as I grew older.
2. Afrikaans word for “gran”. Both my oumas were actually Afrikaans, but my dad’s side of the family was mostly English, while my mom had grown up English-speaking, so I grew up speaking both. Too bad I didn’t learn Hindi or Mandarin back then too. ^_^
3. The afrikaans version of “Mister”. It’s quite unusual for Afrikaans speaking people to actually use Meneer all that often, at least where I was from. Kids refer to older males as “Oom” (Uncle in Afrikaans), and adults simply refer to one another by name. Using Meneer usually indicates a really big difference in status.