First Day at School

Garry Gillard

I was in great perplexity. It was my first day at the school, and I did not know where my class was. In the foyer there seemed to be a general sense of purpose; people were properly prepared for the new year, and were moving smoothly around the building. Some looked at me, and I realised that I was not adequately dressed; I had no tie on and my shirt was unironed and missing a button, and I noticed that my socks were white. Thinking that if I could find the Deputy Headmaster's office I would be able to read the timetable and find where I should be, I went through a door to one side of the foyer, opposite the Headmaster's suite, where I believed the Staff Room might be. The building was old, the doorway heavily timbered. In the large room lined with lockers and shelves the masters were busy with their preparations, some writing at the long tables, others reading notice boards or conversing seriously. I looked for the locker which might be mine, and one of the masters indicated one on the lower level which was vacant. I could deposit my load of books there. But what books should I take to my first class, and in what room and what building was it? Again I looked around the Staff Room but could see no timetable. I left the room, crossed the foyer with the gold-lettered honour boards, and at last found the pencilled timetable pinned up outside the Deputy's office. I was sweating, because by now the first bell had sounded, and my class would already be waiting impatiently to see their new teacher. I hurriedly copied down the first half of the first day's program and made off down a corridor, which was already almost empty. The noise was now only that of classes beginning, a few ironical cheers, and the firm tones of the masters.

Fifth Form French had been somewhat disturbed with irrelevant questions, and I was relieved when the bell rang and I could go down the two flights and back to the Staff area. I crossed the yard, and, as I was about to enter the door, a boy leaned out of a window and called out something that sounded like 'Socksy.' I learnt in this way that I had already acquired a nom de guerre. The caretaker was busy near the door as I passed through. He said, 'You can tell which are the teachers and which are the masters.'

The Film Room was much too small and barely held the full class. It was a hot day, the black curtains were closed and the dim lights were on. the boys were packed in next to one another; the raked benches allowed the maximum amount of interference one with another. The noise was very great. I knew that I had only one weapon left: loud bluff. I raised my voice to the fullest extent, but the boys had no need to call my bluff, or change their behaviour in any way: they simply could not hear me, not matter how loudly I shouted or how red in the face I became. I did not know what I could ever do.

I had to take the Fourth Form for gymnastics. I had no experience in this area, and even the equipment was strange. Vaulting horses and bars were familiar enough, even though I had no skill at them, but there were rings and other sets from which it looked as if it might be difficult to escape. I started the boys tumbling on mats, and they took to it well enough; in fact they looked like a veritable pack of pale monkeys. Then I had them use the springboard and horse, but they soon tired of that, and I saw that my resources would soon be at an end. 'Why don't you have a go, Sir? asked one boy, in what seemed a rather sarcastic tone. "Yes sir, show us how it's to be done!' said another. I didn't see why I should amuse this tribe by getting myself all dirty and working up a sweat, but there I was rolling up my sleeves and swinging on the trapeze. I tried to hang upside down as I had seen others do, but slipped and fell to the floor, hurting my ankle. The boys simply watched impassively as I crouched there in pain. "Well, he's no instructor,' said one, and they began to play at 'Brandy'. One boy stood at each end of the gymnasium and threw a ball with all his force in an attempt to hit one of the rest who ran between. Anyone hit had to go to one end to join the throwers. Soon, no-one was left in the middle, and the boys turned their attention to me, waiting to one side. They began to amuse themselves by throwing at me and catching the ball where it bounced, and throwing again. 'Why should they not?' I thought to myself. 'Their parents have paid good money for the privilege, and it's a small enough sacrifice. I defended myself as best I could, but I suffered many bruises before they left off and went to the changing rooms.

I ordered the boy into the caning room, even though I had decided to avoid corporal punishment. I had resolved to avoid falling under the sway of the law of the jungle, but finding myself thrust into such a wild place, I wished to eat rather than be eaten. In the room was nothing but a small cupboard upon which was the record book, and selection of the conventional instruments of punishment. One door led into the corridor and the other into the Staff Room. There was just enough room to swing the cane. I ordered the boy to touch his toes, as I had heard others do, and swung the cane inexpertly, hitting the walls on the way. With the skill born of practice, the boy straightened as I hit him, and I could tell that little force was transferred to his rear. 'Down again, sir!' I ordered, but he stood up instead. I noticed that he was taller than I. 'I think you would do better if you used a backhand stroke,' he said. That way, you utilise the spring of the cane, and you also gain the element of surprise. Your movement does not give away the timing of the blow to the same extent' 'I see what you mean,' I said. 'I'm much obliged to you.' 'Look here,' he said, and essayed a few practice strokes in the air. "Very nice. Now if you would just oblige me by returning the cane, we may proceed.' 'Let me complete the demonstration,' he suggested, with a gentle smile beneath his curving moustaches. 'Will you bend down? I felt I could not but oblige, and I was impressed with the skill with which he laid into me. Not only was the blow unexpected, as he said, but he was also able, with a clever double action, to get in a second stroke before I was able to stand erect. 'Well,' I joked, rubbing the affected part, 'this certainly hurt me more than you.' 'We must not spoil the child.' he retorted. 'And now get out, and don't let me catch you in here again!' He tossed the cane onto the floor, and turned away to record the punishment in the book. Chastened, I cast myself out into the corridor, into the tide of boys, hoping to hide my shame among them.

The Head had me on the carpet - on my first morning! Apparently I had not been doing my quota of woodwork instruction, like every other member of staff, and, like every other member of staff I would not admit it was because I was fearful of the consequences. But the Head had me trapped. It was in my contract, at the conclusion of paragraph 6B: '...pastoral care and the useful arts.' I had to proceed immediately to the woodwork shop at the bottom of the school grounds, down the angle of the bitumen path, past tennis courts where a luckier teacher disported himself with some younger boys. The class was waiting there and it was hard to tell what its mood was. They were waiting almost silently, in a ragged line, waiting to see who their instructor was today. They could show no sign of recognition, as I was new, and at first it seemed as though they might remain obedient, but it was not to last.

First we had the round ruler, an exercise in planing. I lectured them on the principles of the bisection of angles, by means of which, as the number of planes tends to infinity, we make a round peg from a square one. Unimpressed by theory, they wanted merely to get to their vices, to take up their tools. Soon there were shavings everywhere, on the floor and the window ledges and the boys' clothing. One young worker was gazing at or near me in a way which combined inquiry with surly resistance. 'Come along now old chap!' I urged, but it was my undoing. one. 'Why don't you make things for us? he demanded. 'And what's in the storeroom, anyway?' He picked up a chisel from the tool rack. 'How would you like this in your guts?' I backed away, saying nothing. At his signal, five or six of the biggest boys ran up and took hold of me, pushing me here and there, tearing my clothes. Finally they opened the door of the Manual Arts Centre and threw me out, so that I landed on my back in a drain. I heard the door locked from the inside, and their faces contemplated me briefly through the windows. Then they went away and I heard them all laughing in a contented way, as if they were at their ease in a club. After a while I went carefully to a window and looked in. Of course they had stopped work and were playing at various games.  A few were playing French cricket in the centre aisle, others were playing hangman or battleships on pieces of technical drawing paper. A game of marbles was also in progress. How, how I longed to be with them, how I wished that I had not been shut out, sent to Coventry! I felt the tears on my face.

There were two separate assemblies, one secular and one sacred. I was late for the first; penalties were very severe. Any lateness was automatically written into the boy's Report Book and had to be shown to his tutor. The Deputy Headmaster was always on duty in the forecourt, or two of the Prefects. I was not sure of the procedure for staff, and besides, they had already gone in. It seemed that they had processed in and taken their places on the platform after the school had assembled. I had to find my way in alone, during the Headmaster's welcoming remarks, and the only place still available was in the front row. I had no gown; I had not yet been able to afford one; and I must have looked a poor spectacle as I tried to appear inconspicuously before the whole school at this, the first assembly of the year. There was an audible murmur at my old-fashioned dress, my cuffed trousers, my white socks. Even the Headmaster hesitated in his delivery, and I expected to hear about it later in the day.

After the usual announcements, the usual castigations for unsuitable dress and table manners, and the usual exhortations to do better for the sake of the school, the boys were formed up and marched to Chapel. The Hall for the earlier assembly was also the gymnasium, and the boys simply stood in class ranks on the floor. The Chapel was designed to look like that of one of the Great Schools. Plain choir stalls in the centre were augmented along the walls with more elaborate carved seats where the staff sat. I slipped in late, hoping the Head and Deputy would not observe my tardiness, and joined in the last hymn.

I recognised the tune: it was Nicaea; but there was something odd about the words. Instead of 'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty', the congregation was singing the single word 'boring' repeated again and again. After the hymn the School Captain went to the lectern to read the lesson for the day, but he seemed to have got the class lists mixed up with the Bible text; he read out a list of surnames with 'begat' between them, thus: 'Abernethy begat Atkinson, and Atkinson begat Bevan, and Bevan begat Bowden...' and so on. No-one seemed surprised; in fact no-one paid any attention at all. Many of the boys and masters pulled out reading matter of their own to pass the time: I noticed the daily newspaper, and several obscene publications. Two boys exchanged chewing gum; some played the ubiquitous hangman game on pieces of paper. When I looked to the lectern again, I saw that the Headmaster had taken the place of the Captain for the reading of Infractions and Inflictions. He began with trivial offences: Smith had walked across the oval, and would be pilloried at lunchtime; Brown had made an indecent suggestion to Mrs Colquhoun and would have to draw water in a sieve during Physical Education; Jones had cocaine and would be denied the Geography excursion to Kiribati.

Then suddenly I heard my name called out. For masturbation I would have to stay in after school: I would miss the bus! I sprang up. 'But Headmaster, it's not true; and anyway no-one could have seen me!' I shouted. 'You admit then that you've stopped beating your wife,' he called back. I was puzzled at this, being a bachelor, and stood at a loss in the centre aisle. 'Repent!' one of the prefects called, and all they boys took up the chorus: 'Repent! Repent!' The noise was loud, and frightening, and I ran out of a side door into a small graveyard, from which there was no escape.

This was written to be read to the Geelong Salong, a writers group which met in the honeymoon suite of a hotel in that city, and since revised in the light of comments made by its members.

New: 27 October, 2011 (written about 1982) | Now: 22 November, 2015