Back in the 90s, I lived in the coolest town in Johannesburg—Kensington. I worship
ed every stone and sand particle of it…because it’s where childhood resides. You know all those 80s movies where kids with mullets, caps and Dungeons & Dragons T-shirts cruise the neighbourhood on bikes wielding walkie talkies, with synth swooning in the background? Well, the Kensington Chronicles is my version—only with Monopoly, techno, the smell of African rain steaming off the hot tar and my own bare feet to get me around.
Three tall palm trees. Protracted sentinels that stand a tier above the field, towering above the main school building; their silhouette in the periphery of every sports day, break time and every friendship forged or broken…every memory. That time I ran away from Rebecca Sher or when I jumped down the grand stand and earned the nickname “MacGyver”; the harrowing science lesson when I held a writhing earthworm on the bare skin of my palm, choking back tears of terror—they were there. Watching. Guarding. Encouraging. Superintendents of childhood. A subliminal comfort. Their spikey green fronds spilling extravagantly over thick trunks protruding neatly from the earth; like fingers, steadfast in the dirt—a hand lurking beneath, ready to break free at the hint of incursion. Exotic protectors. They are a moment in time. A whisper in the wind. A voice out of reach. Yet pledged to the earth and to their duty; a talisman to all who passed under their watchful shadow.
Kensington has 117 suburban streets (all in alphabetical order), named after six British Generals and notables, 76 battleships (16 of which derive from mythology) and a bunch of towns and counties in England. An ode to British imperialism. Basically. The entire area is a ticking time bomb, apart from Albertina Sisulu Highway (that’s replaced part of Kitchener Avenue). Rhodes Park definitely sleeps with an eye open.
Leicester Road Primary, where I went to school, is sandwiched between Derby Road and Leicester Road; ironic invocations of their pastoral namesakes (Derbyshire and Leicestershire)—there are no soft green hills or Hobbit burrows here on the highveld. The sun is hot, the air is dry and the rain rambunctious; in winter the grass dies and sticks to the knit of your school jersey, refusing to budge for time immemorial—a strange type of suburban camouflage that bonds school kids to the land.
Teachers’ cars spanned the length of a long tar driveway that granted senior kids access to the beige-coloured main school building on the Derby side. Typically, ‘gradies’ (junior kids) entered the school by a smaller entrance on Leicester Road—we’d congregate on the junior playground for a mini assembly before school, where we listened to notices, said the Lord’s Prayer and sometimes sang Gladys the Camel (another version of that song about a million green bottles hanging on a wall, only this was a camel with a million humps). There was also a game where teachers would hide away and we’d wait for them (with eager eyes peeled for our own special teacher) to appear one-by-one from around the corner. It never got old. The seniors had a similar sort of arrangement in a quadrangle a couple of tiers down but without ‘Gladys’ or hiding games—no such frivolities for old timers. At break time we were given space and freedom under the all-seeing eyeball of the teacher on duty and the Standard 5 prefects (who were like magical beings from yonder planet of senior school), who always seemed so much taller, older and wiser; not at all how I felt when it was my turn.
As a Gradie, the Derby entrance was of mythological proportion; a gate of wonder and terror that would shoot flames into your soul like the Sphinxes that guarded the Oracle’s path in The Neverending Story; if you passed without rite of passage (an elusive, exclusive aura that came with being senior) you were dead. My pal Kirsty Redman lived opposite the school on Derby Road and I am pretty sure she didn’t walk all the way around the block when she could cut through the school via the great gates to get to the junior buildings…and she was not burnt to any sort of crisp; she must have known a spell or something.
My school adventures began with a mega satchel, army green with reflective orange lights on the front straps, which spanned the breadth of my shoulders; I was ready for battle and also likely to topple over if a strong enough gust of wind took me by surprise. My dress was the longest of all the girls in my class—literally. As in…lit-e-rally. A class photo taken at the end of the year (do note) features all the girls lined up in the front row, and my dress is the longest; bought to last me my entire seven-year primary school career. Thanks mom. Our school summer uniform was an exciting tone of beige, like the school building and the dry winter grass that stuck all over us in colder months—a reminder of the veld that owned the view from the front door of our once-upon-a-time Germiston house and the shading on the conch shell my dad collected from rock and sea that time in Margate; the vaporous hue has since taken on the brighter colour of memory as I’ve twirled through life. In winter we wore a chocolate brown pinafore over a white long sleeve button-up shirt and a diagonally striped orange tie. Hair bands could only be brown or orange. I had an orange bobble (I was excited about this!), with two little plastic balls on each end that wrapped around each other to secure my ecstatic head of hair (no joke—in Standard 1 Graham McDougall called me Tina Turner; it was my hair, not my voice), which was usually tied in a ‘top knot’—I don’t know if this was an actual hairstyle but that’s what my mom called it. In Grade 2 my hair was cut short like a boy’s—it was the nits. Brown uniform. Short hair. Not my best look. There were, however, compensating factors making up for the unfortunate aesthetic of my 6-year-old self—friends, fun and school.
Grade 1 was a good year. Ashleigh was my friend. I lost my first tooth; it came out in the flesh of a juicy green apple after an enthusiastic bite at break time. I wrote a neat little story about Peter Rabbit being turned into a pie by Mr McGregor, which made it into the Jubilee Magazine that year, and I met one of my favourite teachers who subbed our class for a term and then joined the school to teach me in Grade 2—also a good year. It was in my second year at school that I read a bunch of Roald Dahl books and spent many hours practising cursive writing—line after line after line, and sang a lot. Mrs Witelson played the guitar and taught us songs that I can still sing; there was one about spreading peanut butter on bread (I’ve taught it to my kids) and then there was this one:
Singaba hamba yo thina
Kul lom hlaba
Ke pha sin e kha ya, e Zul wi ni
Singaba hamba yo thina
Kul lom hlaba
Ke pha sin e kha ya,
E Zul wi ni (Si thi)
Hale lu ya (Si thi)
Ha le lu ya (Si thi)
Ha le lu ya, ha le lu ya, ha le lu ya (Si thi)
Ha le lu ya (Si thi)
Ha le lu ya (Si thi)
Ha le lu ya, ha le lu ya, ha le lu ya (Si thi)
A Zulu song about leaving this world but having a home in heaven. Our little voices rose high, in a language we didn’t understand but a promise that we hoped for.
The buffalo stands at the waterhole, its jaw casually traversing space—grass between its teeth, eyes staring blankly. But do not be deceived. This buffalo could charge at any second. Mild-mannered, placid…and then boom—you’re squashed, gored; before you have time to bat an eyelid. A buffalo does not flee. A buffalo does not apologise. A buffalo doth charge.
I was in the green house at school – that’s right, Buffalo – one of the big five; the most dangerous, according to some. My first sports day involved some sort of bean bag race; I had green ribbons in my hair and one pinned to my PE top, which was beige (ever been stalked by a colour?) with the orange LRS logo (two lions standing on either side of a shield). As the youngest in the school, we sat at the bottom of the grandstand and joined in with the war cries: “I saw a cool cat walking down the street/ I said ‘Hey cool cat don’t you dig that jive?’/ Come on Buffalo, skin ‘em alive!”—it made no sense but also perfect sense; my tribe was going to war and we were yelling about it. This was enough to raise the spirit of competition in any mild-mannered Gradie. I quickly caught the vibe. Competing was serious stuff. Fun – always – but, for real…none of this ‘medal for participation’ nonsense.
We took sports days and swimming galas seriously. Whether we were yelling about jiving cats, passing a relay baton or diving into the pool, we did so with vigour. At these events not only were we participants but ambassadors for our respective sporting houses – Buffalo (green), Giraffe (orange), Sable (red) and Zebra (blue) – and wore our team colours with pride. No matter who your friends were, they were frienemies on sport or gala days. On these days, your friends were the people in your team even if you didn’t hang out with them at break or speak to them much in class—for a couple of days each year, you were united by colour. Everyone competed and if your house won the day, you earned massive street cred’ on the playground. Winning mattered. Losing was an opportunity to learn; to practice harder and do better. There were art and science fairs (with winners) and speech competitions as well as sporting teams – netball, cricket, soccer etc. – that played for fun but also…to win. The spirit of competition motivated, encouraged and inspired. These types of events forced us out of our comfort zones—not everyone loved to swim or run or even participate but it was the school rule and kids took one for the team. Because in life, sometimes that’s what we have to do.
Swimming galas were a riot. I couldn’t swim until I was about 7 and so my Grade 1 gala contribution was ‘the walking hat race’—a relay where kids had to walk a hat (placed on their heads—yup) to the other side of the pool. Once I had learnt some strokes, I swam in the relays—mostly breaststroke. I was a decent middle-of-the-pack swimmer, nothing special, but being part of a team and representing my house kicked ass, as did the special ice lollies we got after each gala day. Even if kids didn’t like swimming, they sure as sugar liked a complimentary ice cream.
I was a great runner for a couple of years; peaking for a brief moment and then back to reality. In Standards 3 and 4 I was one of the two fastest girls in my grade, so I ran the flat race (never winning) in both years and in Standard 3 I hit the big league by running in the ladder relay, which pitted all the fastest kids against one another. This race, other than the Standard 5 boys’ flat race, was the biggest race of the day. In my year Wesley Spring was the Usain Bolt of the school and everyone waited to see him run—he was in Giraffe but other houses knew talent when they saw it and meted out respect accordingly. Kids in the ladder relay were pulled out of class to practice the race before the big event. It was that big. There’d be an announcement over the intercom and as you rose to oblige the call to rehearse, everyone would know that you were the fastest; the best of the best, even if for only a minute. On the big day I was practically belching nerves, terrified I’d drop the baton (I didn’t) in spite of all the practice; I ran as fast as I could go and the rest is a blur. The next year (Standard 4) I was second fastest and ran the flat race and the mixed relay (which was second in stature to the ladder relay). And in Standard 5 I ran the novelty race—this was for the kids who were slow. Oh, the humiliation—it burns my face even as I remember it now. I think my excuse was that I tripped or something when we were running for places but really, I’d lost my mojo and in a split second decided that if I wasn’t going to be first or second, I’d just be last.
I hear my mom’s words that follow me everywhere in life: “You’re cutting off your nose to spite your face, Andrea”—ya ya. I watched Wesley Spring from the grandstand that year.
One of the greatest honours of school life at Leicester Road was being chosen for the Scholar Patrol team. This job went to kids in Standard 4, who were deemed sensible enough to know when it would be safe for school children to cross the road—so like a LollyPop Lady but a team rather than an individual. I was a pole-holder on the scholar patrol team, which meant that when the team leader blew a whistle, I’d swing open my pole (which had a STOP sign attached, directing cars accordingly) and a second whistle blow would alert children that it was time to cross. There were two teams running crossings in alternating weeks. The team on duty would congregate next to the hall, put on orange hazard bibs and collect the equipment before marching to their respective gates in tune to the song of the attending leader or team captain, calling “left…left…left right left”—like troops on the march. The job required dedication, discipline and punctuality. Not only were we responsible for keeping kids safe but reporting bad behaviour (pertaining to both children and parents) who disobeyed the safety rules. If you didn’t pull your weight, and let down the team, you’d be kicked out. Do your job properly or not at all.
I cried on the bus home. I couldn’t help myself. The slump after adrenaline overload and then the complete humiliation and fury at having played so badly. Netball was not really my sport. I am a bit of a thug. The game requires a finesse that I had in only the slightest of amounts. My athleticism, natural strength and ball skills were pretty good, which is why I was in the Open A team in Standard 5. But really, I was not that great. I played Goal Defence—the worst position (bar goal keeper), and I wasn’t remotely tall either. We had set off for a netball tournament that morning, spirits high. We were a good team but played against many Afrikaans schools, who were totes phenomenal. I nearly got sent off the court in one game for ‘contact’ (netball is a non-contact sport and you will be blown up for foul play and receive a penalty against your team if you touch the player you are defending). Like I said, a bit of a thug. At the end of it all I felt like I had let my team down, and I had let myself down. And I had tried hard. I hated that feeling—that actually, my best wasn’t good enough on that day. So, I cried. And hated that I cried. And hated that my friends saw me cry. I had failed—objectively or subjectively; it didn’t matter. I’d damn well do better next time. And cry about it in my room, not the school bus.
The brown bench
It’s true—school can’t make you do anything. Ultimately, there are choices and consequences. There were school rules, which we obeyed. Sure, there were kids who pushed the boundaries but the general ethic was that the rules weren’t debatable. If you were in trouble, you’d be sent to Mr Johnston’s office and would wait on the brown bench to be called in—thinking, stewing, cringing in terror; awaiting conversation and outcome. This sitting apparatus, which lived outside the principal’s office, was never spoken of as merely a bench; it was always the brown bench and like the Derby Road gate it was enveloped in mythical reverence. I sat on the bench, in all its brownness, one time—not because I was naughty but because I had nits (for, like, the third time) and was waiting for my mom to fetch me from school to de-nit me. Surprisingly, the bench didn’t eat me and in fact, I received a compliment about my “beautiful blue eyes” whilst sitting there. I remember the compliment to this day but my experience was not everyone’s experience.
Whilst a school can’t force it can encourage. And I am not talking about behaviour necessarily but just general attitude and action. Some of us try hard naturally, others ride the wave and might continue to do so unless given a proverbial boot to the rear. I was the latter. I coasted, quite happily (always responsible but far more interested in staying under the radar, where it was safe and quiet, than any other option) until I was appointed Deputy Head Girl in my Standard 5 year. Kids voted, teachers voted and what the heck—it was me. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Two girls, two boys. Four head prefects: Stacey, Stuart, Duncan and me. I didn’t think I stood out in any way. I had made a pretty successful effort to ‘just be’ at school. I was a big fan of comfortable. The largest audience I ever received was when I was in the school production of Snow White—I was a dwarf; not one of the seven but one of the general dwarf population (the kids who weren’t great actors but wanted to be included). I had the first line in the play: “The bells are ringing! The prize giving has started”. In another year, I was a dancing doll in some or other scene that involved a bunch of toys having a party on stage in the school’s production of Pinocchio. Or maybe it was the same play? The memories are clear but the context is vague. These moments were the most ‘in the spotlight’ I’d ever been. Now, I was Deputy Head Girl. I did feel proud. I did feel honoured. I was pleased. And grateful. This, of course, means nothing in my 37-year-old life (I had the badge for a year, that’s it) but looking back it was a pinnacle moment for me; where I made the choice to rise to the challenge—to step out of my comfort zone. The four new head prefects were called out of class at the end of Standard 4 and congregated in Mr Johnston’s office (or “Johnnie” as we called our principle out of earshot), where he gave us the news. He said to me: “Andrea, I have been watching you since you were in Grade 2.” Ha. So, I had not managed to stay below the radar after all. I did get a good work certificate in that year—maybe it was that. Whatever Johnnie saw in me, I was given an opportunity and I took it.
In 1994 I went from cruising through school to full on activist. I performed my prefect duties with pride, if not some hesitance—encouraging rather than bossing (much to my brothers’ disbelief!), playing in the Open A Netball team (and crying when the Afrikaans girls beat us) and helping lead a student council that had the ability to make a small but significant difference in the life of our school. I learnt that I could take charge and organise. I might’ve figured this out at some point, eventually, but having external responsibility thrust my way (over and above the “be a good sister and look after your brothers” kind) at this exact moment gave me the kick in the butt I needed, which sent me off to high school with ambition and confidence in my pocket. For this, as well as the happy times and beautiful friendships, and for making me feel uncomfortable more than a lot, I am grateful.
At our final assembly in Standard 5, we sang (or tried to—the key of this song was not written for pre-adolescent boys) Aladdin’s A Whole New World before the head prefects collectively presented Mr Johnston with a small bar fridge for his office – to keep his Cokes cold and within easy reach (he loved the stuff; probably got him through all those brown bench conversations and kids with nits) – that we bought with money collected from our year group. I ended the assembly with the school prayer:
We shall pass through this world but once.
Any good, therefore, that we can do or any kindness that we can show to any human being or animal, let us do it now.
Let us not defer nor neglect it, for we shall not pass this way again.
It is a good prayer
No, it is a great prayer.
Aside from friends, tradition is what made my general school experience, like, totally epic…dude (hail to the 90s); it’s that special thing that makes you feel like you are a part of something—something that grounds you in time and space. Mr Johnston sitting on the Dunk-A-Dolly plank, waiting for some joyous child to hit the target and send the school principal careening into the water beneath (what a legend!); this kind of thing. Family Fun days at Leicester Road were all about fun, festival and community—Johnnie in the thick of it. It’s these types of apple pie places that my mind conjures when it wanders back to childhood; memories that you want to share but also know that the only people who will really appreciate them are the ones who were there.
I found this great video online – an interview with Mr Johnston by past pupil Richard Sherman – that made me laugh for hours, enraptured in the joy of ‘those were the days’. Johnnie talks about the school’s first Family Fun Day as “the most amazing day” but let me paraphrase:
There were about one hundred different activities happening in a rather confined space and virtually every one was dangerous. The Soap Box Derby had children flying down Leicester Road (a pretty steep hill) in amateurishly made soap boxes, going faster and faster; losing control, flying into the pavement, flying through the air, being taken away in an ambulance some of them. That was one of the events. Then there was another event; a shooting event with pellet guns and one mother working in the stall was shot. Twice. There were ramps for skateboarders outside the principal’s office with children leaping over things and falling on the tar, grazing knees. There was a foefie slide that went from the cricket nets (outside the swimming pool area) over the wall of the swimming pool and the barbed wire and then across and into the swimming pool. The idea was that children would let go at the deep end of the swimming pool but some let go over the concrete and some let go over the shallow end. There were injuries and casualties all over the place.
Johnnie ends his video piece with, “Not one of my better moments, that day”. Are you kidding me? This is what made childhood so damn great. It’s what made you, Johnnie, so damn great—allowing life to happen. I mean, if your mom and dad allowed you to foefie slide over barbed wire into a swimming pool and you fell off or jumped in the wrong place, well, you probably wouldn’t make the same mistake next time.
Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin
Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.