I said ‘Prefect’, not ‘perfect’

I picked up John Cleese’s autobiography, ‘So Anyway’ the other day. Cleese was at our school some years back when it was used as a film location for the movie ‘Spud’ which he was acting in. I also played alongside Cleese in the movie. When I say played alongside him, I mean I was one of about thirty extras in a scene that he was in. If you look carefully you can just make out the back of my head in the film. Actually I was surprised I was in it at all given what happened during the filming of the scene, that is perhaps a story is for another time, suffice to say that it involved my malfunctioning iPod, an irritated sound technician, an irate director, several takes and an impatient cast including Mr Cleese.

Anyway I wanted to see if Cleese’s book was worth my time reading and if Cleese mentioned the time he was at our school and perhaps even the aforementioned scene. It wasn’t and he doesn’t, but while I was flicking through it I came across a passage about his final year at Clifton College when he was up for selection to be a prefect. He writes, “I walked into North Town (his school house) and strolled up to the notice board to confirm that Mr Williams, my housemaster, had finally made me a house prefect. This was not an unreasonable assumption: in the summer, I’d been in the School XI, captained the House XI, passed three A levels, completely reorganised the house library, played the lead in the house play, and stolen more cricket equipment from the other houses than had ever been nicked before. Besides all my other friends were not merely house prefects, but school praeposters, official Big Cheeses and none of them seemed so vastly superior to me as the discrepancy in our social status would suggest…It never occurred to me that ‘Billy’ Williams would withhold this trial act of recognition any longer.

“But, as you have guessed, he had. I stood there, staring at the blank space where my name should have been, as I experienced first utter disbelief, then hurt, and then contempt”

It is that time of year in our own school when as the boys in the senior year head off to write their final examinations, we appoint a new round of pupils to leadership positions. I am not looking forward to it. Over the years I have sat with countless boys trying to come to terms with the fact that they have not been made prefects. Like Cleese there has been disbelief and hurt, but also tears, frustration, anger and confusion. Like Cleese many of them cannot see how their friends and peers who are really not that much different to themselves suddenly seem to have so much more social status that comes with being a Prefect.

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I think part of the problem is that it is such an either, or, winner takes all system. You are either a prefect, or you’re not, with all the privileges and status, or not, that it entails. For many boys it feels like stamp of approval on them, or not. Either validating who they are and their efforts or seemingly ignoring them. Of course we know that being a prefect makes no material difference to your later life, but it does not seem that way to a seventeen year old boy at the time. With a prefect badge and/or tie you are someone, without it you are no one.

Just recently I found myself watching ‘Spud’ on television. This was not to reassure myself that the back of my head was still in the film, but rather because as the father of three teenage boys you often find yourself watching movies of this genre and my eldest is now physically strong enough to ensure I can’t wrestle the remote control out of his hands anymore. For those of you unaware of the books and movies that bear the name of Spud, these are simply the fictional diaries of the life of a boy named John Milton at boarding school in South Africa. This was now the third in the series and along with the usual fare of farting, body parts, alcohol and obsession with sex, a good portion of the film focused on the fact that John Milton and his peers are up for prefect selection.

I popped into our school library after watching the movie to pick up the book. The idea of PFP or Pushing For Prefect is preeminent throughout and refers to the lengths boys will go to in order to impress staff and other boys in order to make convincing case that they should be prefects. It also alludes to the damage done to the relationships of the boys as they compete and jostle for only a limited number of positions. At one point near the end of the book, one of Milton’s friends who goes by the nickname of ‘Garlic’ gives his reasons for wanting to be a prefect:

  • Nobody can boss you around
  • Tea and snackwiches are made for you whenever you want
  • You can tell people that you are a prefect and not be lying
  • You never have to make your bed or pick up your laundry
  • The prefects room is like having your own private lounge
  • Everyone respects you
  • You can punish anyone you want whenever you feel like it
  • You don’t feel like a loser
  • You get a prefect’s tie, which you can wear to a job interview to impress bosses.
  • You’re guaranteed to score more chicks
  • People take you seriously
  • You rule the world.

In the diary when Milton hears his friend recite this list he records, “And then it sank in. I do want to be a prefect. I do want all these things. I also want to be taken seriously and be respected by the other boys…I want to walk around the house like I own the place. I want it all desperately!”

A 17 year old boy wants to be someone, they want respect and to feel that they are taken seriously. It is quite a devastating blow when in their minds they miss out on the one vehicle that they feel can help them achieve this. Many boys, of course, cope with the disappointment well, but there are those who do not. It would be fair to say that some boys can become very difficult in their final year as a result of not being selected for leadership. It is as if the last incentive for good behaviour and attitude has been removed from their lives. In his autobiography, John Cleese shares more about his feelings around not being a prefect, “The hurt was not that I had wanted so much to be a house prefect, that hardly mattered at all. What wounded me was the put down, the undeserved insult. The dull ache of this stab in the ego began to throb, but was suddenly engulfed in an extraordinary upsurge of high minded contempt.”

For Cleese it was a seminal moment, “I believe this moment changed my perspective on the world’. He explains that up until that time understood that those in authority were basically fair, but with his frustration around this event he says, “I started to become sceptical of authority as a whole…I responded rather splendidly, throwing away my North Town cap that very day and borrowing one from Wiseman’s House… and wearing it defiantly throughout my last year at Clifton.” He also started to hate his Housemaster, “Up that point I had tolerated Williams but now I realised that I really disliked him.

All Housemasters I suspect have seen this sort of behaviour to a greater or lesser extent from disenfranchised boys and with a bit of imagination it is not hard to see why. It is interesting to me that well over 50 years later John Cleese can remember and write about these emotions so vividly.

Times have changed in some ways but there are always problems and issues when it comes to selecting some boys over others in such a value laden arena. So what do we do about it?

  1. We have to remember what a big deal this is for the boys in our care and that the precarious self-esteem and confidence of a 17 year old boy is a precious and fragile thing.
  2. We have to be extremely mindful of these young men when we frame and manage the process of leadership selection. The process must recognise both their dignity and emotional capacity.
  3. We must be honest in acknowledging the flaws in the system and that we too as adults make mistakes.
  4. We must continue to explore other models of leadership more in step with the modern world, that move away from privilege, control and direction to those which recognise the importance of serving and relationships more suited to leadership today.
  5. Finally we have to try to bring perspective into the lives of these young men. Whether they are prefects or not is not significant once they leave school and so, either way it should not define their experience at school. For that to happen, as parents and teachers, we have to make sure we first keep perspective on the issue. For parents this means not being overly invested in whether your son is or isn’t a prefect. For staff it means the onus is on us to ensure boys are not put on too high a pedestal by virtue of the fact that they have been chosen for a leadership position.

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As the adults in their lives, our boys will need our support and guidance whether they meet with success or failure around leadership selection. As teachers and parents we need to be able to say to them, as  Kipling said:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same…

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.”

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Better out than in?

Three days are spent in the Berg. Photo: Paul Fleischack
The High Berg. Photo: Paul Fleischack

I am not the most athletic of people. OK I am not at all athletic, the less charitable of my colleagues might go so far as to say that I am a trifle overweight. In addition my bush craft is somewhat lacking, while I can navigate round the mall with the best of them and triangulate with unerring and pinpoint precision the nearest coffee shop, my sense of direction deserts me the second the words outdoors and, great, meet up together. In short I would much rather be inside than out. So it was with a sinking feeling (a sensation that I was to experience again too soon) that I caught my lift to take me out to join a group for the second week of our school 13 day ‘Journey’ experience.

Involving six full days of hiking including the ‘barrier of spears’ of the high Berg, three days of mountain biking, three days of paddling and 40 hours of solitude (which has a certain satisfying Biblical resonance to it), this expedition is not for the fainthearted. Add in to the mix that for staff comes the added responsibility of making sure the 25 or so boys in your group are fed, watered, cared for and behaved for the duration of the journey. Not so much 24/7 then as 24/13. There is often no privacy, no bathrooms, no downtime, no escape. When nature calls, heading off under the gaze of 25 adolescents into the bush, complete with toilet roll and a spade leaves no room for doubt in terms of how you will be spending the next few minutes.

On one previous occasion when I had finally ensconced myself in a location designed to provide maximum privacy in order to complete my rudimentary morning ablutions, I had an overwhelming sense that I was being watched. Given the vulnerable stage in the proceedings that I found myself, I was unable to move and so slowly turned my head while trying to maintain my precarious balance (the consequences of toppling are best not spoken about). Sure enough three pairs of curious and intent eyes belonging to a family of giraffe no more than a stone throw away were silently observing me with no small degree of curiosity.

In the mountains one boy thought he had headed a decent distance from the camp, however altitude can do some funny things to ones sense of perspective and distance and he made his midden in full view of the campsite. Given that it was an extremely windy day and that the young man failed to get full control of the toilet paper, the results were unpleasant both for the participant and forced observers alike. Suffice to say the view of the Berg was somewhat sullied for all concerned.

Putting such thoughts aside I grabbed my final cappuccino for some days from the ‘Pig & Plough’, the name of which should have given me enough of a clue as to the type of landscape we were heading into. Sure enough under an hour later I joined the group in a field full of cows and where there are cows there is always … yup you guessed it, it seems that part of the journey involves dealing with excrement of one kind or another. It was a treat though as we braaied T bone steaks kindly provided by the local farmer. It was less of a treat as we cooked them in a cattle feeding trough while standing in the middle of unseasonably cold and wet weather.

Bikes
The long and winding road. Photo: Helen Bownes

The next few days were more of the same, punctuated by 20 kilometre walks, with fully laden backpacks, splashing across rivers, clambering over, under and through barbed wire fences. The one evening was spent with four other staff uncomfortably squashed in the back of the small support vehicle sheltering from the weather while listening on the radio to South Africa being beaten by Japan in the rugby. Not the best Saturday night I have ever spent.

I also struggle to understand that no matter how tired you are, sleeping in a tent on the ground means that you will wake up more exhausted than when you went to bed. I use the phrase ‘wake up’ in the loosest possible way of course as it implies that you had actually slept beforehand when nothing could be further from the truth. Then of course come the joy of packing up a wet tent, while it is still raining, before heading off on the next part of the journey.

There are wonderful moments of course, arriving at a venue with a flat lawn, or where the farmer has allowed access to hot showers, or even provided fresh bread, farm milk and butter for your weary arrival. Many groups also cross battlefields, Spionkop included, and this provides a wonderful opportunity for hands on spontaneous historical, geographical and political lessons. For me what is perhaps most notable is that one learns to value and appreciate the simple things, shelter, food, warmth and water (hot or otherwise).

OK I spoke to soon, I am not sure I learnt to value water. The final three days of our journey involved paddling down the river. This was demanding on the lower back, shoulders, biceps, abdomen and hands.  Added to the fact that I was partnered with someone who had certainly not paddled before, and possibly not even during, his time with me on the plastic contraption that passed for a canoe. Despite this all was going well until the end of the second day when we had our safety briefing for the next day when we would head into ‘The Gorge’. The fact that we even had to have a safety briefing is cause enough for concern in my eyes. I don’t want to go into details but the phrase ‘foot entrapment’ wedged itself in mind, apparently if that happens your foot is actually the last thing you have to worry about. A more wide-eyed and attentive audience of teenage boys is hard to imagine. Once the briefing was complete a subdued group of teens and staff headed for yet another night of restlessness, made worse by dreams of rushing water, rocks and yes ‘foot entrapment’.

One of the Tugela Gorge rapids. Photo: Paul Fleischack
One of the Tugela Gorge rapids. Photo: Paul Fleischack

The following morning we headed down the river picking up our white water guides (one of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to a character from the Hangover) before stopping on the final bend to listen to a technical briefing about which route to take down the approaching rapid. I say listen, but due to a combination of nerves (fear) and the roaring noise from around the corner no one really heard anything. This was evidenced by the glimpses of legs, paddles and safety rope that went flying into the air as the first few boats headed into the Gorge. Somewhat mercifully for those of us waiting to go we could not see much more than that due to the drop at the entrance to the white water.

Finally my nautically deficient crew mate and myself launched into the current, to our surprise picking an almost perfect line into the drop. That was about as good as it got. I am not sure what happened next, just that there was a lot of rocks, a lot more water and even more adrenaline. I managed to ride the entire rapid, some three hundred metres in length, the only problem being that I was no longer in the boat. I have to stress that this was not recommended in the safety briefing, I learnt the hard way that rocks in a river are much harder than a 40 + year old body.

I am told that the spectators at the bottom the rapid saw first my one shoe appear, followed quickly by the second, then by my paddle and finally myself. Of the boat there was no sign but I took the words of the guide that you are to look after yourself first and your equipment second, very much to heart. Hauling my already bruising body out of the river I coughed up a good portion of the Tugela River. In terms of appreciating water, I think I swallowed more in that few short minutes than I had in the previous five days. As I lay on the rocks recovering, my aquatic partner, who had managed to get to the side soon after falling in, made his way to me down the bank and asked what had happened to my shoes. I replied that the river had not only robbed me of my shoes, but also my courage and my dignity.

So why do it? Well there is lots of literature to support the idea of outdoor education in terms of the benefits it brings. Appreciating the simple things in life, working within the rhythms of nature, rising with the sun and sleeping under the stars, cooking your own food, relying on the kindness of strangers, time spent away from electronic devices and having time to talk to others. I had some wonderful conversations with staff and boys alike that I would not otherwise enjoyed. As per the Outward Bound philosophy, it is also good for young people to overcome real mental and physical challenges. The phrase ‘character building’ is often overused, but it is apt in this case. A psychologist friend of mine says that character is built when we choose to act ‘contrary to impulse’. We do what we don’t feel like doing. There was plenty of this over the last 13 days accompanied by moaning, whinging, crying, swearing and anger outbursts, and that was just the staff.

Building character and developing resilience or grit we know to be key for success later on in life, so much of which is pushing through when we don’t want to or even feel we can’t. Do you have to be outdoors for this? No, but when you are outside, away from your home comforts, the consequences of not doing what needs to be done are immediate and vivid. Teenage boys need this in order to learn. If you don’t put your tent up you will get wet, if you don’t cook your food you will go hungry, if you don’t read the map correctly you will walk an additional 12 kilometres in the hot sun and if you don’t listen to the briefing you will fall out your boat.

Road
Take me home. Photo: Helen Bownes

The same psychologist friend describes fathers and mothers today as ‘Gourmet Parents’ He believes that we give our children the fillets of life without any of the roughage or emotional fibre. By giving young people the best of everything all the hard digestive work is done for them leaving them vulnerable when they come up against serious obstacles, challenges or failure for the first time.

Perhaps it is true that some things really are better out than in. Rivers for sure, but also maybe character education and learning for life. I hope these young men are able to internalise some of the lessons they learnt while in the great outdoors and apply them to their day to day lives both now and in the future. Oh and I really did learn to appreciate water, just so long as it is not white and full of rocks.