5th of February 1963. My older brothers had said to arrive early in the day. That way you'd get a good bed. I had no idea what made up "a good bed" but was determined to get one any way. So when Mum and Dad said "What time do you want to go there?" I said "As early as possible".
We arrived at St Patrick's College, Silverstream, at 10.30 in the morning, with a suitcase loaded with the dozen or so variants of the school uniform and the sun shining. I wore my first pair of longs - the pants of the dark, navy suit. France had said "You look quite grown-up in longs". To wear longs in those days was a sign you'd grown up.
Father Ward showed us around. No doubt my parents had seen it all before, but it was all new to me: the gothic brick buildings with virginia creeper, the smell of polish in the long corked corridors, the smell of rotting fruit in the alley, the grey and bricked quadrangle, the new Redwood House where only Seniors went.
"And Rick," said Father Ward, "would've been a prefect if he hadn't left school so early". It seemed like it was important to be a prefect, and I was already famous because he knew my brother.
In we went to the Assembly Hall with its polished wood and brick and high vaulted ceiling, and the bronze plaque of the War Dead with Mum's brother:
PEERS, R.G. Lieut, (A), RNZNVR
"And Rick was a natural leader and it was a pity he'd left school so early". And Rick was named after Mum's brother on the plaque.
Then "a good bed" in the dormitory was selected and Father Blake was the dormitory master and let me save beds for Terry Banner from Raumati on one side and Michael Satchwell from Springhill on the other.
Mum and Dad went home, and I was alone. Not many had arrived so early, so I went for a wander on my own. Two boys were playing handball in one of the courts in the quad. I stood and watched.
"Piss off, turd," sneered one. I did that. Suddenly the confident third former in his first pair of longs, was reduced to a blubbering heap around the corner. I wanted to go home.
It was one of many things I was to experience as a little fish in a big pond. Seniors would walk past, lift you high by the collar of your grey shirt, and say "What's ya handle?" They were reading your name on the collar of your shirt. Even if they didn't lift you in the air, "What's ya handle?" was for the next five years a way of asking a name.
Another ritual was for Seniors to grab the front of your shirt as you wandered by and rip it open with buttons exploding in all directions. Then they'd twist your nipples like there was no tomorrow. I suppose it was a bit like lion kings piddling along boundaries to delineate a territory. You learnt where and where not to go, and your place in the queue.
Michael Satchwell, Terry Banner, me
The other ritual was "deknobbing". This wasn't performed by Seniors; it was performed by the "Opposition". A trip to Wellington College would hopefully mean your school cap would be temporarily stolen. They would rip off the knob on top of the cap, and scornfully return the deknobbed cap. Most, including myself, didn't dare come to so close an encounter, so we deknobbed our own caps.
Quickly we learnt the routines and customs of our new school. We were to line up in classes not alphabetically, but from shortest to tallest. I was on the end of my row, being bigger than most. Over the year, places would shift, as some grew faster than others, only to be reassigned new positions in a few weeks. For we grew unpredictably and erratically and awkwardly.
The next morning we were to have intelligence tests, to see what class to be put into. The classes were 3P (for Professional), 3G (for General), 3M (for Modern) and 3S (for Agriculture). I've never been too hot at intelligence tests. They ask where five people are standing in a circle. Officially I have an IQ of 40. I must have fared better in the third form however, for I was placed into 3G.
One of the questions asked the height of Mount Everest and gave four options. Now I had, after all, won an essay competition writing about Sir Edmund Hillary. I knew how tall Everest was. None of the options given were correct, so I put "None are right" . Back came the paper with a cross for wrong. And so I learnt Geography in 3G instead of French in 3P. If Mount Everest was the height it should have been, I may have worked in Foreign Affairs and become a diplomat to Somalia. I may have become the leader of the United Nations and married a woman from Turkey and had seventeen children. But none of this happened. I took Geography instead.
On the second night I was caught talking in the dorm. You were not allowed to talk in the dorm; the dorm was a place of silence. I was sent to Father Blake. "Bend over!" A light tap with a cane hit my bottom.
"I caned Goodman because he's bigger," announced Father Blake. "Let that be a warning. For I will cane any one who talks, be they big, middle or little". And the dorm went into a reverential hush.
"Give us a look," whispered someone. And they crowded around as I proudly showed off my bum.
Lights out. And I slept the sweetest dream. In the whole third form, I was the only one with such a trophy. It didn't hurt. It didn't hurt a bit.
I was at secondary school. And surviving.
Go to the Next Chapter
Return to the Previous Chapter