Government boarding schools in South Africa in the 1900’s was often an additional option for the education system to accommodate “problem children” from “problem homes”. These boarding schools are typically located in rural towns, away from the strife of the bigger cities and hence the “dumping ground” for many such children and so it was with Richmond Primary School. A thriving farming community, within a reasonable driving distance from the port city of Durban but far enough away to make it accessible only on a weekly and in some cases monthly basis, this little school was the first primary school established in South Africa by the British settlers way back in the 1820’s. As are most schools in South Africa to this day, they are run on the strict Victorian system of discipline, respect and order, all things supposedly needed by these supposedly dysfunctional children.
As a naive, sheltered farmer’s child from a loving family with a stable home, these children were quite foreign to me and my fellow country bumpkins but we all rubbed along together, learning from one another as we grew up living, learning and playing together in our safe environment of country school life.
My first friend at boarding school was a local Richmond farmer’s daughter, one of 5 children and the youngest of the 3 girls. She was duped into weekly boarding having been sold the fantasy that boarding school was just like a hotel… obviously that had been misspelt without the S!
That first desperate night in the little girl’s dormitory, with our older sisters down the passage in their big girl’s dormitory, we were assigned beds next to each other and stretching our skinny little arms across the narrow gap, we held hands and cried our homesick selves to sleep. That was the beginning of a lifetime friendship, with the expected hiatuses in between going our separate ways for high school and university, and maintaining a healthier emotional and physical distance over our adult years, I was honoured to be her bridesmaid at her wedding and am godmother to her first born daughter. Whilst we live in different countries, different continents and different hemispheres; lead markedly different lifestyles; have vastly different friend groups and see very little of one another, that trauma of junior hostel cemented a relationship for life: scarred by the same experience that we can recall with crystal clear clarity and thankfully laugh about now without any psychological damage to blame as a result.
To be fair to my parents for the choices that they were forced to make, primary school was not all bad! Thankfully I loved to learn so school work and classroom time was wonderful. My first friend and I competed fiercely for that first place prize each year and the much anticipated Prize Giving day was our best day of the school year when we would all line up, crocodile fashion, with our classroom chairs held over our heads and walk what seemed to be 100 miles, to the local farmer’s hall which is actually only approximately 1km. There we would place our classroom chairs in rows and rehearse the drill for the next day’s annual event. Mostly this was an exceptionally boring occasion for us primary school children as the headmaster and then the chairman of the parent group would address all the parents and explain what, why & how the school year had progressed. Us children would endure many threatening glares and “death-stares” from fraught, exhausted teachers whilst we fidgeted, nudged and irritated one another trying to stay awake for the best part: prize giving! Those who had achieved academic standards were singled out and proudly walked, what felt like a very long walk, to the front of the hall where hands were shaken before reaching for the prize which was usually a much coveted book. Most often, in one’s haste to claim the prized book, the order of hand shaking and thanking was mixed up to the scoffs of the children, the eye roll of teachers and the proud smiles of the parents.
The other big plus about “big school” from farm school was the sport which appealed enormously to my highly competitive nature! My sister was not only a big sister in age and stature but also in bravery: she could take on anyone and whilst outwardly we “hated” one another, inwardly I worshiped her with the pride that only a younger sibling feels. She was very fast for her age and held numerous school athletics records as well as a couple of provincial records too. This drove me to want to do just as well as her, something that I did not manage to achieve at primary school but it certainly motivated me to accomplish myself in other sporting disciplines, all of which I loved and that became something of my coping mechanism for dealing with hostel.
This is not to become a CV of my sporting achievements whilst at primary school but rather to tell about another athletic skill that I acquired at this time that developed from our evenings at hostel which were spent playing on the banks between the boarding house and the school buildings: handstands and all skills associated with youthful suppleness and flexibility.
I became something of a handstand celebrity at Richmond School as I developed the ability to go from a handstand and a walkover into a backbend and spider walk and then to walking on my hands anywhere and everywhere, on flat surfaces as well as being able to negotiate the school banks and progressing to being able to balance my school suitcase – no backpacks in those days – on my feet and walk on my hands! I became somewhat obsessed with handstands, cartwheels and walking on my hands that my Dad asked me if I intended joining a circus, something fairly exotic for a farmgirl so the sense of adventure appealed to my 8/9/10 year old person! He also eventually threatened to stop buying me shoes if I was forever on my hands!
This turning my world upside down, literally and figuratively, as it bought me a certain credibility among my fellow borders, became something almost subconscious in me to the extent that on one occasion of going to town as a family – this was an event that required us to dress up in our best clothes and to wear our shoes as one could not be seen running barefoot down the dirty town pavements as we were used to being barefoot at home on the farm – I distinctly recall, as if it is forever etched in my mind, the favourite dress that I wore that day: a pretty pink and white gingham sundress with a elastic ruched bodice and tiered skirt, needless to say I felt very sophisticated and pretty! As we walked down Church Street with Mum, I was on the pavement side of her as we passed a jewelry shop where we glanced in at all the wonderful jewels on display and agreeing that it was the smartest shop in town, we began walking on and all of a sudden, without a single thought in my mind, I was on my hands and my feet were passing Mum’s head! What a shock for her and for me when I realised what I had done in full sight of the Pietermaritzburg public, dressed in my best dress and feeling posh – obviously not!