A few months back I received a Facebook invitation to the Highlands North Boys’ High School Class of ’88 reunion. I marked that I was “interested”, but the truth is that I was ambivalent about going. It’s not that I didn’t want to hang out with big-bellied, bald men approaching 50 who would certainly drink too much and sing school war cries. It’s just that when I think of high school, I cringe.
It was the something of November 1988 when I finished my final matric exam and walked out of the gates of Highlands — pronounced Haai-lands — in northeastern
Johannesburg for the very last time. I was leaving behind boyhood and taking my first
tentative steps into the world of adulthood — long hair, beer and, hopefully, sex.
While I was waiting at the gate for my mother to fetch me, a speeding yellow Datsun stormed into the school. The tyres screeched as the car performed doughnuts and figure-eights, black smoke belching from its exhaust. The driver had his hand pressed down on the hooter — beep-barp-beep-barp. It was a drive-by hooting.
Pupils poured out of classrooms to watch the car race up and down. Then the Datsun
came to a stop and in what seemed like one well-rehearsed choreographed movement,
four doors swung open and six boys spilt out. They were my classmates who had also
just finished their school career at Highlands. They started pelting passing pupils with eggs. It was pandemonium. A teacher marched up to the egg pelters, who scattered. All the boys save one managed to jump back into the Datsun, which sped away. The teacher grabbed the hapless boy by his ear. The teacher’s car had been splattered with egg yolk. The boy he’d grabbed was a muscleman you would not want to meet in a dark alley — or in any alley, or anywhere.
“Please,” I willed the boy, “smack that smug look off his face.” I wanted justice for being the teacher’s punching bag — or at least one of his punching bags — when I was unlucky enough to be in his geography class three years earlier. He was due some
comeuppance and it would be symbolic if it happened on my very last day of school, my
final moments on Highlands soil, because there was no way I was ever coming back. The boy didn’t do it. Instead, the teacher made him take off his shirt, and the poor bare-chested guy cleaned the teacher’s car with it.
My high school years — 1984 to 1988 — weren’t all terrible. I had friends, I learnt stuff, there were some very good teachers (OK, there was one — thank you, Mr Ledwidge), I played sport and Highlands wasn’t Dotheboys Hall in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, where there are no holidays for the abused pupils who are whipped and starved by Mr Wackford Squeers. But there were many periods of terribleness. I endured Christian National Education, swart gevaar propaganda, veld school, cadets, corporal punishment and bullies — both in the form of sadistic teachers and brutish pupils. When I walked out of the gates in 1988 I had no desire ever to return. I had done my time. I didn’t want anything to do with the school.
While I was at school I’d fantasise about the day when one of the bullies would come
to see me in my huge office. I’d be all successful and have this huge grin on my face as he told me a hard-luck story. He’d call me Sir, issue a heartfelt mea culpa, beg for forgiveness and plead for a job. I’d shake my head sadly and say, “I’d love to give you a
job, Biff Tannen, but … nah!”
I also dreamt of bumping into my geography teacher and the headmaster, and belittling them. But mostly I just wanted to move on. And I did. That is, until Facebook happened and I found myself being added to a Highlands North Boys’ High School page, stirring up unwelcome emotions.
Thanks for nothing, Zuckerberg.
Highlands opened its doors in 1939 and when I arrived 45 years later it was a rough-
and-tumble school made up of boys from mostly working-class and lower middle-
class immigrant families: Italians, Portuguese, Lebanese, Brits, Greeks and Jews. That was our diversity.
It was said there were two kinds of boys who went to Highlands: lawyers and their
clients. Not too many Old Boys in my year became ground-breaking researchers or
captains of industry, and the Highlands old school tie is about as useful as an Iraqi
passport. As far as I know, our most famous Old Boy is cricketer Mandy Yachad, who represented SA in a single ODI (scoring 31 runs) because most of his career took place
during the international sporting boycott in the 1980s.
Our school was just another brick in the apartheid wall. Each year on Republic Day
(May 31) we were forced to take part in a military parade. We’d march around a field
being commanded to “eyes right”, salute dignitaries, and then stand at attention
behind a cheer-leading squad from Waverley Girls, our sister school. The cheerleaders bent over to pick up their batons, giving the boys behind them a split-second flash of their knickers. It was the highlight of the year. On “normal” days, 16-year-old cadet corporals would haul other boys out of the marching line and command them to do
ridiculous things, such as tell a joke that would make the troop of mini-soldiers laugh, or else he’d “liberty” them. Being “libertied” was Highlands talk for being punched in the face. The jokes that emerged from terrified boys whose minds had gone blank were inevitably of the racist variety, which tells you a bit about what commonly passed for humour in those ranks.
I remember one Monday morning hearing boys talk about how they had gone “K-bashing” over the weekend. I’m pretty sure it was nothing but talk, but the school,
like South African society, was sick, violent, perverse and toxic.
In 1991, three years after I left school, black pupils were admitted to previously all-white classes in a few government schools where “enlightened ” parents had approved plans for limited integration. I doubt if Highlands was one of them. I’m not sure when the school admitted its first black pupil, but I do remember doing a double take when I saw a black pupil in the blue-and-white-striped blazer.
My association with that blazer, like the old South African flag, was one of profound
racism. Although I kept my vow and never returned to the school, I’d occasionally visit
it virtually and hang out on the Facebook page, which for many Old Boys was a nostalgic romp through their glory days. My meander down memory lane was not
When I received the invitation, I wondered why high school reunions seem to mean so much to so many people. It’s even a whole Hollywood movie genre. Maybe it’s because we all started at the same place and we want to compare how we stack up against our peers. Yes, I was curious to see how my former classmates had turned out: who had been successful, who was on their third marriage, and who had been lucky enough to have kept their thick hair (not me, unfortunately).
I decided not to go. When I thought about why, I realised it was because I was ashamed of myself. I hadn’t stood up to the corporals. I hadn’t confronted the people who told racist jokes or who boasted about going “K-bashing”. I was complicit. I didn’t go because there was nothing glorious about going to an apartheid school. As it is for most people, my high school years evoke contradictory feelings — of longing and belonging, loathing and alienation; of moments of joy and an eternity of dread, humiliation and regret; of strong bonds of friendship and deep animosity. Of pride and of shame. I try not to think of school but when I do, Bright Blue’s haunting song Weeping plays in my head.