Everyone you meet in life teaches you something. Even if you just met, or liked, or disliked. The people you spent years with, or just a week. They all taught me something.
I was at Marist Brothers in Observatory Johannesburg. It wasn’t an expensive private school; it was the cheap branch. It was where those on the margins sent their sons to school. The Chinese, the Lebanese, the refugees, and those who couldn’t afford a Catholic school, but managed to persuade the brothers that they could.
Like my mother.
There was no way on earth that we could afford the fees. And so, I spent 13 years of my life with my fees in constant arrears. When my grandfather died in 1961, we suddenly had money, and my mother paid the arrears. But that meant that a year later, we were a year in arrears again.
But, let it be known. When I wrote matric, the brothers let me write, and they wrote off the debt. They don’t do that anymore. Three months, and you’re on the pavement, earphones, iPad, the lot. I went to the 50th gathering of my matric class. They only managed find 5 of us. (The rest probably were still serving time.) Brother Joseph asked me if I was in a position to pay my arrears yet. At the end of 1963, they amounted to about R120. We gave up trying to translate that into today’s money, so, again, he wrote it off.
I suppose the few left from those days remember some of the teachers. There were two kinds at Marist Brothers: the brothers, and the lay teachers. The brothers had sworn oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience. The lay teachers thought they may like girls cute sometime.
Mr McGirr (first name unknown), but we nicknamed him “Duimpie”. He taught Latin and was diminutive. I used to get to school early, anything to get out of the house, and I’d walk the fields with him. He spoke about everything on the fields. He left Cicero and Seneca to the classroom. I learned a lot about Spinoza, St Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Plato, and the other teachers. Years later, abut 1984, I bumped into him in Checkers in Yeoville. Old habits die old. “Mr McGirr, SIR, “I exclaimed. He peered at me. “Thomas. 1963…Why did to only get a C for Latin.” That sort of thing left me staggered. I couldn’t remember the name of the girl who had dumped me two weeks before.
Billy Singleton. He was rumoured to have no more than Standard 8, but he had been teaching Geography for 40 years, so I guess that made him qualified to teach the Seven Seas and Five Continents. That Ctesiphon is south of Baghdad, and that Everest is 32 000 feet above sea level. Life changing things like that.
It also made a huge impact on the couple of guys who couldn’t speak a word of English. They were refugees from Hungary in 1957 and had been placed in a range of Catholic schools. We made the welcome in our own way, not being able to speak a work of Hungarian. Wed turn to them and smile, “Is dit lekker om so lelik te wees?” They’d smile back. We were cruel. Just like all kids in the 1950s. And 60s, 70s, 80s, and today.
Mr “Duimpie” McGirr and Billy Singleton (Photo: Basil Brady)
Billy Singleton once made a disparaging remark about the Lebanese, and they swore revenge. You didn’t mess with the Lebs. I would pay then protection money to save me from the Ducktails (local youths who fashioned themselves on the London Teddy Boys, but had adopted the Elvis hairstyle, that resembled a dick’s tail behind their heads), and who hung out outside the Apollo Café in Raleigh Street in Yeoville. They would loll against the café windows, in their stove pipe trousers (stovies), and white socks above their pointed shoes (winkle-pickers). They’d sweep their hair back with combs that were clogged with Brylcreem. Others would casually swing bicycle chains, round and round, until I came cycling down the tramlines. Then they’d let loose of the chains and send them flying through my bicycle spokes. That had me on the tarmac with my blazer torn.
After that I paid my protection money. The first time the Duckies tried that with me again, I reported them to my protectors. The next day, I cycled past the Apollo and the Duckies wore arm slings, heads bandaged, and their cigarettes hanging limply from their swollen lips.
Anyway, back to Billy Singleton and his regrettable remarks. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but those were the days before political correctness, so it wasn’t a matter of reporting it to the authorities, it was a matter of brutal revenge.
He drove one of those box shaped Anglia’s. Duimpie also drove one, and the tow of then would vie for the one parking space in the shade of the trees. This day, Billy’s was in the sun. The Lebs opened his window (with a coat hanger, same as these days, and then artfully defecated (shat) on his back seat. Lots of it. By lots of Lebs.
That made big impression on me. Firstly, I laughed myself until I nearly vomited, then I imagined the smell. Then I pitied him because I am sure it destroyed his car. Finally, it made me respect the Lebs even more, and didn’t complain when they doubled my protection fee.
Like all English-speaking boys brought up in families that voted for Sir de Villiers Graaff, we didn’t like Afrikaners. We were carefully taught not to like them. My father called them skaaps, even though he’d fought side by side with them throughout the Second World War in Egypt, Libya, Palestine and Italy. You fought side by side with them, and then you fought against them. South Africa was, and still is, a crazy country.
In the same way they were taught to hate the “souties”. Few remember that apartheid was, in a way, three way, or four way, or any number of ways. White English didn’t like white Afrikaners, Indians didn’t like coloureds, whites didn’t like blacks – propaganda worked well. Lots of money was invested by the National Party into polarisation and “divide and rule”, so in the end you weren’t quite sure of you liked anyone at all.
Without getting into politics, it stood to reason that English speaking boys didn’t like the other compulsory language Afrikaans. Being a Catholic school, we also had to learn Latin, which I can still read and speak slightly, which is very useful, as you never know when you are going to meet the Pope.
Any way, we hated Afrikaans, and consequently, Mr Groenewald , the teacher. He was a pompous, humourless, colourless man with no distinguishing features, other than being so boring that we liked Afrikaans even less.
He once told a joke. Only once. He was telling us that in the early days of Afrikaans, when it was transitioning from Dutch, there were some people who said “I” as “Ek” and some who still used the Dutch “Ik”.
So, Groenewald drawled on and said there was a heavy discussion between two learned scholars, and finally, one said, “Ek sê ik.” Since it was supposed to be funny, we all hooted, held our sides, and rolled on the floor. For a long time. It took up at least 10 minutes of lesson time. Maybe, he actually thought we were laughing.
In fact, things in Afrikaans class were so bad, that on the first Thursday of every month, when the Catholic boys had to go to the chapel for confession, those who weren’t Catholic used to pay the Catholic boys a tickey to confess for longer, so that confession ate into the full Afrikaans lesson. They probably confessed to murder, and had the priest in a manic quandary about the confidentiality of the confessional.
Many years later I found out that Mr Groenewald was actually a giant of Afrikaans literature, -like Nienaber, Opperman and van Heerden. But just not giant enough to have a cushy job in academia. But I really did try to read “Loeloeraai”. It was just that smoking Lexington behind the swimming bath occupied too much of my scholastic time.