Let me paint a picture for you. It’s a Sunday night, my fiancée and I are doing marriage prep exercises. A question comes up, what was your greatest childhood trauma? At first I couldn’t think of anything. Could it have been the passing of my Gran? Probably should have been. Could it have been moving schools 4 times through my life? Or financial struggles as a teen? No it is was none of those. Do you know what it was? It was Grade 8 in a South African boys school. The most traumatic part was the first 3 days of the year and the last 40 days of the Matrics school year.
Do you know why it was so traumatic? Those first few days, I genuinely felt as if any day I went to school I might die or get severely injured. I am not being hyperbolic, that was genuinely how I felt. When I entered Grade 8, now 11 years ago. There were stories of physical abuse during initiation — in fact it was the norm. I had grown up with someone who was forced to crawl through pig scraps in grade 8 and do you know what happened to him? He got a brainworm.
I repeat, a brainworm.
Do you know what a common symptom of that is? Seizures, which he began to experience and the effects changed his whole life. His family moved towns and naturally he left that school.
The year before I entered high school there was a story going around with how hard boys had been beaten at another school. The school I went to was well-known for having one of the worst initiation processes. And what came out recently? The passing of a boy at Parktown Boys High.
Were my fears irrational? When I looked back I thought they were, but when I really think about it, they were not as much as they should have been. Just read the story above for proof.
It was on Sunday night talking to my fiancée and looking at what happened at Parktown boys that we realised I have to write about my experience. Let’s take a look at those first 3 days of Grade 8:
We had to go to school with no tie on, with a blazer and white shirt buttoned all the way to the top. 2 years ago, that just sounds like how I would dress to go to a wedding. In place of a tie we had to wear a board with things about us on it and our nickname. Ironically the nickname I wrote was Ty. I’m prouder of that irony than I should be.
We quickly found out that we were not allowed to look up until we had gotten our ties, which we would earn through initiation. A common occurence was being shouted at by a Matric for any number of things. It could be they found your nickname stupid or you were a Korean person so they thought it was funny to dub you infinity (a real thing that happened). The racism box was ticked off already in the first hour of Grade 8 initiation. The second box was a whole bunch of problematic. We also found out on the first day what the nickname for Grade 8s were. Take a wild guess?
Excuse my language, we were called faggots. That was the nickname for Grade 8s. This is all the information I learnt before lunch. Bald people (it was a tradition) twice my size were shouting at us for any number of things, calling us faggots and any other thing they found funny. All the while we had to keep our heads down looking at our shoes. My neck hurts now thinking of those 3 days. Lunch came along, and I needed the bathroom really badly.
I walked across the school to the nearest bathroom, I remember the horror I felt as I saw Matrics circling. Somehow there were Matrics in the bathroom waiting for any unsuspecting Grade 8s. Fortunately all that happened was the door got kicked open while I was on the toilet. I felt like so much worse could have happened.
The second day came along, the racist infinity joke was the main thing I remember. They would shout it and play a song of the same name that one of my Korean school mates had to dance to. The racism abounded. Other than that I remember someone passing out as we had to keep our blazers on all day in a hall with over 200 boys, that shouldn’t accommodate that many people.
As you can imagine, I couldn’t sleep on any of the nights that week. Worst of all the last day, Friday. We had a sleep over, where we were going to earn our ties. That afternoon was all about learning warcries in the afternoon before we went for a swim, which was where we thought maybe we had finally bonded with the prefects initiating us. Only to be screamed at in the early evening. After that 230 sunburnt young boys had to learn to sing Hey Jude by the Beatles – a great song, a bad moment. Funny but sad, I remember having a rather large boy next to me. My neck was burnt to a crisp (having to look down all the time made it way worse) and we had to put our arms around each other as we sang the Beatles. I can still remember the pain from that boys weight to this day.
After we had learnt to sing, we walked as a group to the girls school next door. As we walked Matrics circled us throwing eggs and whatever they thought was funny. The prefects apparently didn’t approve of that, if I remember correctly. Afterwards, with our breaking voices, we sang the Beatles to the girls school before heading back and going to sleep.
No sleep was had, I forgot my pillow so I had to lie on my arm. I tried my bag with all of my clothes. It didn’t work too well. Worse though was that the Matrics were up hitting on dishes or walking over us whispering whatever they felt would be scary or funny — so verbal abuse essentially. This carried on for what felt like years before we were all woken up urgently to go do a test to see if we could make it as a [name of the school I went to]er. We sat in a corridor in the pitch black waiting to see what this test was. It felt like it took forever, we were lined up alphabetically. Fisher is early enough that it was better than most, but late enough in the alphabet that you still have enough time to think, screw this and duck out. Which I thought about heavily.
A prefect greets you at the door at the end of the corridor and gives an impassioned speech about how this will be the scariest thing you’ve ever done but if you get through you will be in the great hallows of this esteemed school. He said we don’t have to do it, and that brave people have turned it down. I braved it. I stepped through the door.
A tie was handed to me and I was asked to sign the schools book. As I was signing it, I felt something tap my bum. Naturally I jumped up and looked back, it was the principal of my school with a thin wooden stick. It was just a love tap, which is creepy enough. However, I remember thinking in that moment, wow, that means that people used to get hit hard with that stick. Again, what one might consider physical abuse today.
I felt relieved as I was told I was now officially a part of the school. We then sang a warcry once everyone had their ties and went home. I thought it was over. Only to discover the next week, that as a grade 8, the hazing is year-round, especially on bus trips or if you walked past the matric grounds.
I was scared to go to school every day of grade 8. Were there good times in Grade 8? Definitely. Was some of what the matrics did funny? Yes, some of it was really funny. One of the funniest for me was a friend of mine having to wear a cut waterpolo ball on his head as they pushed him around as if he was a waterpolo ball. That is a funny image, I giggled thinking about it. However, I think we can all agree it was still wrong.
What is the worst part though, is that the hazing was not just from the Matrics. It was from every grade other than grade 8. Everyday someone screamed the word faggot at the grade 8s somewhere.
I do want to say this. I enjoyed the rest of my high school career. I had a ton of fun, and made lifelong friends. Two of whom are going to be groomsmen at my wedding. There was real good which I experienced at school, thanks not to the school, but to the individuals I met along the way.
I also, want to say, I did not change anything while I was at the school. I acted exactly like the matrics before me when I was in matric. We were indoctrinated, so we couldn’t see just how wrong that behaviour really is. I am really sorry for what I did or didn’t stop in Matric.
Additionally I was a day scholar, that got a lift with my parents to school in grade 8. For the boys that were on the bus or in the residence, it was apparently far worse than my experience.
The phrase, “you guys were the first grade to have it real easy”, was said constantly throughout my high school career. Which means it was worse! And we thought worse was better! Another frequent phrase was “univesity initiation is far worse because there are no teachers and now you can handle way more.” From some of the stories I have heard about seniors forcing first years to down alcohol and more, I think that might be true. Fortunately I skipped that whole process.
Was I ever at risk of dying? Probably not. However, that kind of behaviour could easily result in the death of a boy or severe mental health issues or in men not being able to handle their emotions properly. One of the biggest evils in South Africa at the moment is the abuse of women. When I think about my Grade 8 year and the kind of behaviour that was encouraged, I can easily see why South African men are abusive. We are trained and indoctrinated to be so.
With last year’s #EnoughisEnough, #AmINext and the drowning of the boy at Parktown Boys High. We have to address this. How are we preparing young boys to become men who treat women and other men well? How are we training men to engage with their emotions? How are we training young men to cry and to love? To challenge the status quo when evil is taking place?
How are we training future male CEOs to understand what one of their employees might be going through and have empathy for that? I don’t know what initiation is like now but if it has not changed we are training boys to say, “well when I started working” or “you’re too soft”.
Most people will argue for initiation by saying young boys need to be disciplined or taught respect. It’s what we used to say in school but who is the best kind of person you have met? It is someone with empathy, and initiation does not teach that. Also, indoctrination is not discipline.
In the wake of the tragic passing of Enock Mpianzi, some people have made the connection between initiation and the way it can result in an accident like this. Which is very true. However, sadly not enough of us that went to boys’ schools have come out against initiation. In all honesty, I didn’t even think about doing so until my fiancée told me I needed to write about this issue in addressing male vulnerability. So here I am trying to do that.
I have not mentioned the school I went to by name. The reason for that is that I do not believe it can be punished now, for what other decision makers allowed then. I know the governance of the school has changed with a much more open-minded principal. Which is encouraging. It does still have a race problem, which I hope they are working on.
I don’t know what schools are like now, but in closing I want say this. There is a better way to introduce a child to a high school. Here are the requirements for that to be better:
- It needs to teach boys to deal with their emotions
- It needs to teach boys to treat other genders well
- It needs to teach children to treat other races better
- It needs to be prepare kids to enjoy their school
- It needs to create a space where kids perform well academically
- It needs to set the foundations for a child that will perform well after school
- It needs to improve a childs mental health rather than worsen it
- It does need to teach discipline
- It needs to be constructive and not destructive
- Lastly, the children need to survive the process without being abused
I am not an expert on education or childhood development. However, I have lived the life of someone who went to a boys school and I can see the pitfalls of that. We need to improve that. South Africa is in dissaray and by simply improving the first year of high school, you could definitely improve that. Hopefully recent events spurn schools into action.