My very first day at school: a response

2011-01-31 00:00



Being a Merchiston “mudrat” was tough for a Gem’s school farm boy. Subject to discipline, with no more days of red-eyed bulbul hunting, pony riding, or “zingale mbebas” (hunting striped field mice), instead, we were forced to pay attention to Mrs Van den Heever, the Standard 2C teacher at Merchiston Prep. Step out of line and Mr Guyton would dish out two whallops with a rolled up Natal Witness and, worst of all, there was the forced imposition of wearing shoes.

At Gem’s, shoes were taken off after nail inspection, or, if you lived “in-house”, they were not worn at all.

All those pupils in a single school room — some in Standard 3, others just starting, some were boarders and others came every day. There was Robert, who did not last long, missed most days and was often found wandering in the natural forest by Gem. He informed her that attendance at school was not compulsory. His father, Ray, shipped him off to Cowan House in Mountain Rise. I always did wonder if in those days Cowan House boys had to wear shoes, or if Robert understood those lessons taught to him in English when he only understood Zulu.

At bath time at Gem’s, to save on donkey-boiler-heated hot water, the boarders would all crowd into a single bath tub, so it became known as “Gem’s squashtime”, presided over by Mrs Zuma who was always in demand, being adept at the painless extraction of a loose tooth.

Then there was the other Robert, “dead-eyed dick”, who when asked to chase the ducks out of the vegetable garden felled the leading drake with a 30-metre Herschelle Gibbs throw to the head, and marksman Nunnu who not only out shot her brother but, when taking a tegwaan’s egg, (to add to grandfather Bawana’s egg collection) from the nest high in the tall Cyprus tree, became covered in coopie lice.

Started as a home school in 1951 for her own children, Gem’s school operated for 25 years and educated 174 children. Seven, including Floss, went on to be head pupil at schools in Pietermaritzburg and even far-off Harrow in England. Pupils came from as far afield as Boston, Mooi River, Merrivale, Karkloof and Dargle.

The Natal Education Department subsidy was only paid if her school returns were signed for by the headmaster so Gem’s school had one, even if it was in name only.

As for we Merchiston “mudrats”, times were tough, fuel expensive and visits by parents few and far between. Being a boarder meant being dropped off on the first day of the new term and collected at half-term. Pocket money was 20c a week, enough for a cream bun from the tuck shop on four weekdays. Fridays was hungry day and if you saved, there was enough for a ginger beer float at Christies tea lounge uptown on a Saturday morning — exeat day.

Floss, you had it good. Had I been able to prevent it there is no way that I would have missed your first day in the nail-inspection line at Gem’s school. You broke all records — six years without having to wear shoes. You probably had to tutor yourself in your Standard 4 year just so you could stay on at Gem’s and save on shoe purchases.

Recently we published an article by Floss Mitchell about her first day at school in 1953 where she mentioned her disappointment on finding that the boy of her dreams had been sent to Merchiston. Here the ‘boy’, IAIN SINCLAIR, responds

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