Starting a high school chapter

My mom is a person of perfection. She is elegant and tall and made from obedience. She is also made to be obeyed. Throughout my primary school years she insisted on piano lessons, extra-mural activities and academic achievement. In the shadow of her pointed finger and clanking gold bangles I spent half an hour before school practicing my scales and every weekday afternoon struggling to perfect things like chess and hurdles and my twelve times table. Then things shifted: One ordinary afternoon her car revved up our farm’s driveway and brought with it its usual fume of panic and “have-I-done-all-my-chores?” But when she pulled open the glass sliding door and stepped into the kitchen, I knew that today the first question wouldn’t be, “Is all your homework done?” Something significant had happened. Her eyes were alive in a new way; not tired or frustrated from the daily rub of farming and expectations. Instead bright and excited, relieved. And in her hand she held up a big, white envelope.

“Look what arrived at the Post Office today, Dakin.” She didn’t even wait for my reply. “You’re in, my chick! You’re going to Pretoria Boys High School!!”

And so we began reading through orientation literature and making lists of compulsory clothes, toiletries, books, stationery. Together we completed forms of required information, shopped for my new uniform and argued about buying it one size bigger than needed: “Maah! This blazer is huge on me.”

Later she sewed nametags into white collared shirts and khaki shorts. She stitched them onto the label behind green-and-red-and-white-striped ties and inside grey socks that had those same colors along their top. Then she crafted sock garters out of ribbons of broad elastic that Nanna had found in her sewing room and promised that my He-Man pajamas and A-Team duvet cover would be the envy of everybody there.

“Yah, for sure, Dakes. You’re going to be so cool,” Tristan cheered, with Raine standing behind her, nodding.

I had never seen my mother sew before; that was the province of Nanna and Lichtenburg’s tailor. But then my acceptance letter arrived with the school’s impressive façade and clocktowers etched on the front cover and its beautiful emblem embossed grandly across the top of every page. I started seeing a different side of her. Maybe I was growing up, maybe she was softening, or maybe that’s just how moms acted when their first borns went to boarding school.

That day finally arrives and we are sitting in the dining room of Solomon House. Heavy wooden chairs, eight at a table, slide up to patterned tablecloths underneath sticky, plastic coverings. “Manners Maketh Man” is framed above the doorway and three black men in white chef-like jackets and neat trousers stand, seemingly at attention, in front of the pass-through to the kitchen. The grey in their beards tells of the many groups they’ve seen start this journey. Seventeen “New Boys” and their parents listen intently to Mister van den Aardweg, our Senior Housemaster, welcome us to “a school of old fashioned values” and a “new and exciting chapter in his and your lives.”

Van—his nickname, whispered in the corridors earlier—talks in heavily rounded vowels about “the necessary weaning-off period” and that we “aren’t allowed any contact whatsoever” with our families for the next 28 days. That “experience has shown that this is the best way to break the bonds to home and get your son past his homesickness quickest.” My dad nods in agreement. My mom sits silently between he and I, and just squeezes my hand. I wonder what that would be like, no contact with anybody I know. I think of all of the new rules and worry that I’ll forget one and make a mistake and somehow disappoint Van or my parents. My mind goes back to the grounds tour that we took this morning and how much more imposing the school buildings are in person; big blocks of sandstone standing strong under the weight of copper domes and red roofs. I realize that I’ve already forgotten how to get to the school hall. Then to the unpacking that we had just done—lifting neat squares of clothing out of my blue metal trunk and onto the steel shelves of my assigned locker, my mom swopping piles back and forth, unable to make up her mind about what belongs where. I see my tuckbox alone in the now-empty blue trunk, locked up and stored in the luggage room down the hallway. I worry about whether I’ll have enough tuck to snack on in the month before my family is able to bring me some more. All the while I feel a big, heavy ball grow larger in my stomach.

Applause brings me back to the dining room where arms are stretched out and introductions are being made. Van’s ash blonde hair, cut in a short, straight fringe, jerks over a large, pasty forehead as he shakes hands with square-shouldered fathers and nods at straight-faced mothers. Words like “fine chap” and “we’re very happy to have him here” and “don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on him” swim into my ears as I try to remember the name of the boy I just met, the one whose bed is next to mine in our dormitory upstairs.

Outside the sun is setting over the city of tall buildings and malls and parliament up on another hill, across the housed valley. I’m standing on the edge of the hostel lawn, watching my mom open the back door of our big silver BMW. Tristan and Raine shuffle along the back seat, eyes in their laps. My dad starts the ignition, his lips pulled back in a straight-lipped smile. My mom settles into the front seat with Jorja—still in nappies, sucking a dummy—on her lap. They reverse out of their parking space slowly. I try to smile. The only place I can focus on is the license plate of their car. LYX 735 T. My dad paid someone in Lichtenburg’s traffic department “a little extra” to have the numbers match the model and is as proud of finally owning an impressive car as he is of his ability to get things done. That thought flashes a genuine smile across my face for a moment. The car drives around the fountain in front of the main school building. I stretch my neck and catch the last glimpse of the bright red taillights as they bounce over a speed bump and disappear down the hill. In my mind I follow them as they take the slow bend down to the bottom terrace of the school estate. They’re driving past the tennis courts and cricket pavilion and athletics track—overwhelming monuments to the excellence that has come before, reminders of what is expected of me.

By now the huddle of silver metal would be rounding Loch Armstrong and following the row of tall, ancient oak and bluegum trees that wood the perimeter. I picture my dad slowing down and taking the final speed bump before passing under the white security boom at the school’s main gate. He’s probably lifting two fingers to his forehead in a nodded salute to the uniformed security guard, just like he acknowledges patrolmen on our farms. A warm trickle runs down my cheek. In their final turn I feel all of them—Mom and Dad, Trissy, Raine and Jorja—join the buzz of traffic in the apricot haze of early evening. A leafy suburb settles in for the night while they—farmers from the Platteland, just as out of their depth here as I am—settle into the three-hour journey home.

I am thirteen years old. I should not be crying. So I pull down the front of my blazer and wish away the water welled inside my eyelids. I turn around, walk across the lawn and up the front steps of Solomon. Around me tall boys bowl red cricket balls to each other in dusk’s last light. Others sit around and compare stories from their holiday. A few are just arriving—clearly not New Boys—and are dragging their trunks up the concrete stairs. They high-five friends who stroll around with white shirts untucked, ties a little loose and blazers hooked over their shoulders.