I detested or should I say loathed my first year of high school at Pretoria Boys. It was a year in which survival more than anything else was my chief objective. While there were some promising signs that I would see salvation in the future when I think of those dark days of being bullied, tormented and humiliated I still shudder.
You see, I was a pudgy, sensitive kid with a positive attitude. The class that I was sentenced to for the entire school year of 1983 was populated by several ‘thugs’ (how I wish I wouldn’t have to use that word) who saw me and a few others as objects of derision. I remember being spat on, punched, shoved against lockers and mocked for not being the same as the others. Being Jewish did not help either as I learnt first hand a whole battery of insults from kike to yid to yeinkel to of course…jewboy.
Even now as I sit writing this reflection those painful memories still stalk me. Yes I fought back (both physically and mentally) and I remember being told many times that a bully always backs off when you stand up to him. However it never worked. The abuse continued for the entire year and it was only through my relatively strong grades (although far from my potential) that I eventually received placement the following year in a better classroom environment. But the damage to my sense of self was profound. What made it worse was the fact that I felt that I had no recourse for escape. Complaining to the school administration would have invited more torment and besides in those days one would most likely have been told to ‘suck it up and deal with it’ -words that were more hurtful to my being than the physical attacks that I endured.
As for the teachers they too were of no help, many of them were oblivious, or at least it seemed that way, to the goings on in their classroom. Their pedagogic style was strictly transmission based with a strong focus on coverage at all costs. The atmosphere in the classroom seemed to escape them although they frequently resorted to corporal punishment (the use of the cane was all too frequent) to demonstrate who was really in control. It was a world of Darwinian fitness and I was strictly on my own. I would survive but it was a hurtful experience that I would rather have done without.
Fortunately by senior year my determination to succeed academically had advanced me up the ranks of the school’s trophic system. This afforded me the opportunity to earn a place in DB Wylde’s English class. An Oxford don, Wylde was a constant champion of the Socratic method, but what came through most in his teaching was his love for learning and his subject in particular. He went about dissecting Hamlet, Death of a Salesman and Sons and Lovers with a zest that begged us to think beyond the text and transfer our worlds into the milieu of the book.
He understood the spirit of literature and asked us to surpass the obvious to interpret the philosophy. This appealed to me in every sense and I thrived in his classroom. For the first time in my scholastic life I actually looked forward to English classes, which I had earlier relegated to a distant position behind the sciences. My essay writing improved and driven by this new found enthusiasm so did the expansion of my world. I was gaining the early footholds of analytical writing that would serve me well throughout my later university career. Perhaps I would have achieved these skills through other avenues but I must nevertheless offer my gratitude to Mr. Wylde for challenging me to think the ordinary and not to subsist in the mundane, where so many teachers were content in those days in allowing their students to settle.