The author in high school
I would like to tell you a story. This is not an ordinary story but it has all the elements of a usual story. I have been wanting to tell this story for a while now, but I have been scared – scared that I might not see the morning if I told it at bedtime. It is not a fictional story like Little Red Riding Hood. Oh no, this is an account of true events.
So, like any old story, I should start from the beginning.
When I started high school I was a year older than most of the boys in my year – my grade 2 teacher told my parents that I was a bright kid but I was not ready to move onto the next grade. The same teacher screamed at us and taped our mouths shut with masking tape if we “spoke too much” or “spoke too loud”. I was told years later by someone that she had a troubled marriage and was either separated or divorced from her husband.
The same teacher also failed to notice that I was bullied a lot by both the girls I played with at break time and the boys I tried to make friends with to cover up the fact that I wasn’t too interested in the “boys’ things”. Since the second grade – round two – I noticed that I was in most instances more emotionally mature than all the kids in my class. Even with that emotional maturity, I was shorter than most of them and looked probably at least two years younger! Even to this day people struggle to believe that I am, in fact, in my late twenties.
How I ended up at my high school is a story in itself. The high school I went to is an all boys school and has a primary school. I didn’t go to the primary school though. I went to a co-ed school in a less fancy part of town. In my last term of primary school my class teacher told me, as she passed out application forms for a co-ed high school that most of the kids from the school went to, that she wouldn’t give me one because I should go to the all boys school in uptown. I argued that I might not get in at the all boys school so needed to apply to both schools to be safe. I never did get that application form.
So, before the end of that year I attended an interview at the all boys school. I was a nervous wreck before the interview. I compared myself to the other boys waiting to be interviewed. They all wore blazers – my primary school didn’t have a blazer, you were considered ’elite’ if you owned a school tie! I was head-boy, so I had a tie. My shoes were shinier that theirs; I stayed up late the previous evening prepping my uniform. Eventually, my nervous self and my parents were called in to the interview.
Even after 13 years or so, I can tell you where exactly my parents sat and what some of the questions asked were. The man who interviewed me was a grey-haired man. He had an interesting face… His smile seemed sincere but there was something about his eyes. He had gone to the school in his youth and had always maintained a connection to the school even when he was not working at the school. A few days or weeks later we received a call to say that I was accepted to the school. That was one of the happiest days of my life. I had dreamed of attending the school for as long as I had known about it from my cousins that attended there. Also, I had already established that I was interested in boys. What’s better than being surrounded by boys to occupy your mind when it wanders off in maths class?!
The man who conducted my interview later became like a grandfather to me, and most boys at the school. He was there on our first day to welcome us to the “great institution” and he was there when the school lost old boys either from illness, old age or more tragic circumstances. He was also there to remind us of the traditions and values of the family we were part of. He was there when we celebrated our wins against rival schools. And I knew his wife.
In my last years of high school my own grandfather passed away very suddenly. It was the first death I ’felt’. His was the first death in my family! After a week or so following his funeral I went back to school. I was sitting on a bench under a tree at the school waiting for my best friends to come back from a run, deep in thought when I felt a presence behind me. I didn’t look back. I felt a hand on my shoulder and knew exactly who it was. The hand felt warm and comforting. It was the man who conducted my entrance interview. He immediately picked up that I was not feeling well and we spoke at length about my grandfather and what his death left me feeling. He wasn’t the only teacher that cared at the school. There were many teachers that I considered to be “in my corner”. It really is a wonderful school.
Some seven years later, after having moved away from my hometown and having spent some time abroad, I went back to the school to help out at the annual eisteddfod as it was hosted at the school. This was a week-long engagement. I had not been back at the school for many years. The school has a reunion celebration every year and I had thought I would have gone back for everyone but it never happened. Anyway, back to the eisteddfod… So, I was helping out in the speech, drama and poetry section. It was wonderful to be back in familiar surroundings. I had always felt safe at the school. In my teens I ran from a sexuality-inquisition at home and found freedom to express my whole being at school. Even with some of the worst bullying, I still felt more comfortable there.
I saw some of my old teachers in that week and met some of the new members of staff. That old face with the sincere smile and deep eyes was still there! I bumped into him in the corridors on one of the days. We shook hands… and shook hands… then as I was about to break the handshake I felt a finger brush my palm. Now, I had lived in England long enough to have been educated about what that handshake signalled. Urban Dictionary has an explanation here. I was rather thrown by that but ignored it and pretended that it hadn’t happened. Also, I noticed that when we were talking, his eyes were studying my face very intently – especially my mouth. I assumed that he was going deaf in his old, old age and was reading my lips. We agreed to meet later in the week to catch up properly and for him to take me on a tour of some of the new facilities at the school.
Now, I wasn’t too keen on spending an hour with an old man talking about the past but I had also learnt over time that sometimes we ’younguns’ spend too little time with the older generation and miss out on valuable knowledge, etc. So, I wanted to get it over and done with ASAP.
We had agreed on a day to meet but not on a time as the eisteddfod programme ran really early on some days and really late on others. I was informed that on the day he came to the venue to check if I was available almost every hour until eventually at lunchtime I went to see him.
On the way to his new office we stopped in one of the corridors and looked through the window at a building across the quad. He pointed out some structural changes and as his hand came down it landed on my shoulder, then slid down my back to the small of my back. I froze! What do I do?! I took a couple of steps forward and out of his reach.
At the time, did I think this was sexual? No, not at all. How could I? I knew his wife and his children. He was like a grandfather. It did feel uncomfortable though. I didn’t want to be rude or offensive. That’s why I didn’t say anything and just stepped away. So when we reached his office and he walked in and sat down, I stood at the door. I wasn’t sure what to make of the incident a few seconds ago.
We proceeded to his car as he was he was going to take me on a “walk down memory lane”. In the car we talked about what I had been up to since leaving school. He asked about my best friends and I was surprised that he asked about my ex-boyfriends. He knew them by name. Apparently, sometimes he would use his wife’s Facebook, as he was not on Facebook, to look up what some of “the boys that meant something” to him were up to. He told me about a friend of mine that he had been in contact with but had lost contact with them. I suggested that I would speak to the friend and ask him to contact him.
He told me about another boy he had helped with a medical issue that he had lost contact with. This particular boy had come up because I was asked whether I had been to initiation school (ulwaluko). I was asked in detail what the experience was like and in even more detail, what my manhood looks like now. As mentioned before, this man had been there for all the major – and minor – events at the school. The school is in the heart of the Eastern Cape, South Africa. A part of the country with probably the highest concentration of Xhosa people. He was therefore, at all the talks at school before initiation season. Having a discussion with him about this subject was not concerning. As much as he probed, I felt confident enough, though, to only answer as much as I felt he needed to know. He told me – rather proudly – how he had helped the boy mentioned before, basically, masturbate (on school property!) to loosen the skin around his penis which was a result of scarred tissue from traditional circumcision surgery. As this didn’t do much to help, he arranged for the boy – then a man – to have a procedure done by a medical professional at his personal expense.
We arrived at the location of the bench I mentioned a little while ago. The bench was no longer there. He brought this up and referred to the bench as MY bench. To be fair, I did wait around for my friends a lot on that bench. As we sat in the car he took my right hand in his left hand and squeezed it for a second then just held it. I must have been shaking like a leaf but my right arm went dead; it felt so heavy. I think eventually I was able to pull my hand out from under his and point at something, a building that was built after I left the school, I had read about in the alumni newsletter. Even at this point I was telling myself that this COULD NOT be sexual. He was an old man, a few months from full-time retirement, near his death… he was just being sentimental.
* It just occurred to me that on one or two instances while I was in high school I had been in his car and he had found a reason to touch my thigh, but not for longer than a couple of seconds. It was a running joke that he rubbed up boys’ thighs when he was riding with them. *
After what felt like a long time parked under that tree he said there was one more stop. He drove to a building I had seen many times while I was at school but as it was part of the primary school facilities I had not been into. He opened up and I walked in. At this point I felt I needed to find an alternate exit in case things got out of hand. My eyes quickly swept my surroundings and I went left around a wall of photographs – nothing, just a stainless steel urinal and wooden benches, I think. I pretend to be looking at the photographs because I do not want to make eye contact. He stands very close behind me and places his hands on my shoulders. This time, it is not comforting. It is not warm. I feel really cold but sweating slightly. I move out of his reach, again, to the right and I am met by lockers and more wooden bench.
I turn around and he is there. Literally centimetres from my face and he goes to grab for my crotch. Like a scene from a movie – I am watching this happen from outside of my body – I jump back as his hand almost makes contact! I shout so loud that it shakes me back into my body – NO! No sir, I can’t, no…
He says: “Oh, so you’re not into that…” What?!
I think I stutter ’no’ a few more times. He casually sits down on a table behind him. It dawns on me how much more comfortable he is with our surroundings than I am. I am left standing in the middle of the room and he is watching me. He suggests that I sit down on the wooden bench. I do that. I bring my feet up on the bench and sit in a sort of foetus position, hugging my knees.
He tells me how he used to get “so randy” for me. He asks about my parents, I think, and he asks about how they were when I came out to them. He says how things are so different now as opposed to when he was younger.
He tells me about times he had met and did things with some boys his age when he was at school. He tells me about a sort of hide-out they used to go to. He tells me that some of the boys were black. He tells me about how he always made friends with people of all races. He tells me about sharing a locker with a black student at university and his many non-white friends in the mines. He also tells me about how the apartheid Secret Service had known about his “meetings” and friendships with the black people.
He tells me how they made a deal with him to “lose” his file in exchange for information about a workers’ strike that was to take place. Of course, he gave them falsified information but they never found out. He told me about one of his university lecturers that was the father of a famous politician. All the while I am just sitting there, stuck to that spot on the wooden bench. He sat on the edge of that table and would adjust his genitals every now and again.
I waited for an apology. I waited for him to beg and plead with me not to tell anyone. I waited for an explanation.
As I only had an hour for lunch, I asked that we get back. When I got back to the eisteddfod venue I had stopped shaking. I was, instead, laughing in disbelief!
I spoke to one of the people I was working with and told him what had happened. He asked me what I thought was going to happen, because this man was known to be a ’creep’. He told me about how he had tried to kiss another boy who had gone to the school.
It was at this point that an ex-teacher at the school told me how this man had worked in the primary school and had left around the same time rumours of his touching the boys had surfaced. After some time he came back to town and started working at the high school.
I could not, and still cannot believe that people, especially those in decision-making positions, knew what he was capable of – or at least what he was accused of – and still allowed him to work with such a vulnerable population. I can only imagine how it would have fucked up my psyche if this had happened to me while I was still at school. God knows how much he would have been able to get away with because I was already a mess in high school, as most gay teenagers are.
I have not been in touch with him since that day. I got home and blocked his wife on my Facebook. For months I could not think or talk about that day without my heart racing and my palms becoming clammy. I did not know whether to get in touch with the school or what I could do without it becoming a “my word against his” situation. Also, without being sued for defamation.
It has taken me a year to be able to write this. I know of people who keep this sort of thing a secret for years! I am glad for my life experience – especially the work that I have done. I think that it has built a stronger, more resilient person. Now, I can help others.
Have you ever experienced anything like this? How did you deal with it? Have you told anyone about it? How do you feel about it now?