Miz Zobbs was scathing: Why can’t any of you whistle? Listen to Claudio! HE can whistle. Show them Claudio. It takes a boy from Italy to show you lot how to whistle!
Poor old Claudio Bellato dutifully pursed his lips and tootled some Italian to show us how it was done while probably thinking . . You Don’t Pronounce My Name Clawed-ee-oh.
See?! *SNIFF* *SNIFF* You see! shrieked the old duck, sniffing loudly and wobbling alarmingly.
Dora Hobbs, snuff-sniffing tour de force of Harrismith Volkskool could rampage. She would march up and down like a galleon in full sail, never happier than when commanding a choir.
She stopped us in mid-song once to berate us: How many of you can say that!? Huh? How many of you can say you’ve fought and won!? she demanded.
Us ten year-olds stared at her blankly. What was she on about? Did she think we actually thought about the kak we were singing? Weird.
We’d been singing:
There was a soldier, A Scottish soldier
Who wandered far away, And soldiered far away
There was none bolder, With good broad shoulder
He’d fought in many a fray, And fought and won
How many of you can say you’ve fought in many a fray? she brayed.
Dripping disdain and snot, with snuff stuck in her moustache, on her glasses and on her ample bosom, she’d close her eyes, toss her head and mince around on her toes like a bulk ballerina. I think she was living in another world. When she opened her eyes and saw not dashing broad-shouldered soldiers in kilts, no underpants, wanting to woo the wee svelte lassie inside her, but instead snivelling pint-sized Vrystaters who would rather have been anywhere else in the dorp other than in “singing,” her mood probably grew dark.
Anyway, she probably didn’t know we fought of something totally different when she said ‘fray’ – and no we hadn’t done that either. Yet.
She could be vicious, too, I’m afraid. She beat Dries and Alvaro mercilessly when they irritated her. Across the shoulders, on the top of their heads, stalking them from where she sat behind us. Face-to-face she would smash the heavy 40cm wooden ruler on their fingertips. She was rooted in Olde English educational methods:
A. Find out what a child cannot do; and then . .
B. Repeatedly demonstrate that he cannot do it;
Stand him up in front of the class and order him to do that thing that you know he cannot do; HUMILIATE HIM; followed sometimes – depending who the child was – by . .
C. a public beating.
A bad show, really, even granting that having Std 1, Std 2 and Std 3 in one class was probably not easy. Still: Not right. 26 kids in a class is far from the most anyone ever taught. She picked on the vulnerable. I suspect she knew none of their parents would challenge her on their behalf. Nor would the headmaster. Others of us never got touched; never even a harsh word.
Years later I read a review of what James Joyce had written when his character’s knuckles had been viciously beaten by a sadistic Catholic priest in front of the whole class. I found it now:
Stephen knelt down quickly pressing his beaten hands to his sides. To think of them beaten and swollen with pain all in a moment made him feel so sorry for them as if they were not his own but someone else’s that he felt sorry for.
Stephen – the character in Joyce’s novel A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man – reported it to the rector and got at least some satisfaction and admiration for being bold enough to defy convention and make the cruelty known. In Harrismith Volkskool no such justice was done; nor even attempted, to my knowledge; no-one brave enough, me included; no-one believing it was any use to expect any justice or fair play.
volkskool – primary school
fought – thought
fray – woo, neck, kiss, make love, first fumblings
kak – shit
Vrystaters – citizens of the Free State; which was anything but