Green peppers

2009-04-16 00:00

GREEN peppers. Which doesn’t sound like a very prepossessing title for a story, but you may have to be a little patient about that.

Those of you who went to boarding school will no doubt be aware that some youngsters coped, and some had a very difficult time. Nothing new about that, but one or two very interesting things emerge.

In the first place, going to boarding school becomes, for many people, quite a defining experience. It changes them, often quite profoundly. The other interesting thing that emerges is the variety of reasons for which youngsters find themselves being unhappy at these institutions, even the most expensive ones. These reasons are often completely misunderstood by the authorities or, worse still, they are dismissed as trivial, or as silly matters which simply have to either be endured or overcome.

I wonder how many pupils had experiences that were to exert significant and negative influences on their lives because something was misunderstood or overlooked that could easily have been put right? Don’t all put your hands up at once. I can only deal with one of you at a time and I’m still getting to the part about the green peppers.

Patrick (name assumed for purposes of story and because he may prefer it that way) was a chap who battled at boarding school. He was mocked and ridiculed by other boys for a variety of reasons and this affected his work and his general well being to the point that he became something of a problem.

I know all this because I was his housemaster and I acted in loco parentis if you like — a responsibility I took fairly seriously as you can imagine.

His unhappiness grew and my concern increased until the predictable happened. He ran away. He simply disappeared and it didn’t take very long to realise that he was missing. While this was cause for concern, it wasn’t dramatic as in some of the TV series we see nowadays because his grandmother wasn’t far away and he was not likely to go down in the street in a hail of bullets or be claimed as the property of the local drug lord because he had “wandered across his patch”. Nothing like that.

The point was that he was not in school where he was supposed to be and we were responsible. We phoned his parents who said, quite predictably, “phone his grandmother”.

Patrick was very close to her and had spent a great deal of time with her. I was forced to listen to a short sharp burst from gran about what terrible places boarding schools were, what an incompetent idiot I was, and what a lovely, misunderstood, and sensitive boy Patrick was, and then I was on my way to fetch him.

It was only about a 40-kilometre journey but that gave me enough time to reflect on how peaceful and easy it would be to look after cows or sheep, instead of boys, because I was driving through the most beautiful farming country.

When I got to gran’s it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I got another blast and a few withering stares, but before long Patrick, sniveling away, and I were on our way back to school.

We were not far from our destination when it occurred to me that I had better establish some sort of dialogue with the boy. Perhaps gran was right and I was an incompetent idiot. The headmaster would no doubt reinforce her opinion before very long anyway.

“So what’s this all about then Patrick?” seemed like a promising start. No reply. Nothing but a sort of miserable silence. I thought I’d better have another shot.

“Well if you want me to help you I need some clue about what it is that’s worrying you. Then I might be able to do something about it.”

By now we were approaching the school gates and I was going to need something to say to the headmaster, so things were pretty desperate. As we got out of the car with some undertaking to sort it all out the next day, Patrick suddenly said, very quietly, “green peppers”. I must have replied “What about them?” or something, to which he said, “No green peppers in this place” as he disappeared up the stairs to his dormitory.

When I went to report the incident to the headmaster I found myself again on the receiving end of the fairly predictable bollocking. “Are you aware of the goings on in your house? … Were you not aware that this boy was not happy?” etc etc. He banged on a bit about my responsibility to the parents but I seemed to survive and my flagging spirits were revived to some extent by a cold beer and the plate of hot something or other my wife put in front of me when I got home.

The other thing she put in front of me was the importance of Patrick’s reference to green peppers. I had long since dismissed this and decided that Patrick had run away or absconded like so many other malcontents because he was just dissatisfied or badly behaved. My lady simply said when I told her the story, “Maybe he really likes green peppers”.

Mothers can be very intuitive you know. She was so right. He missed his dog and his cat. He even missed his mother, but what he really missed was green peppers. He ate them like apples.

We had a long talk the following day and we struck a deal. I had a pretty ropy vegetable patch behind the house and there Patrick could cultivate green peppers to his heart’s content. For the next three-and-a-half years of his stay at the school he did exactly that — I think his reliance on them lessened as he got older.

Until he got them going I bought him one a week from Frankie the vegetable vendor who came round in his green truck every Wednesday. It was well worth it to avoid another one of those lectures from the headmaster. We never looked back!

Gordon crossley

Gordon Crossley is a retired schoolmaster who went to school in Durban and did a post-graduate diploma at Oxford University. He spent most of his teaching career at Hilton College. He enjoys cricket, vegetable gardening, classical music and cold beer. He does lots of reading and he plays golf.

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