A pair of fifth formers walked down the bus queue. They asked the same question to each of the new boys: "What class did they put you in?"
It didn't occur to me to lie. "3A," I replied.
One of the fifth-formers grabbed me by the bottom of my shorts and tipped me onto my head. Then both of them spat on me. A few seconds later, speechless with shock, I managed to pick myself up. Two quivering oysters of mucus were sliding down the front of my school shirt. Another gob of spittle was smeared across one of my cheeks.
There was a damp patch in my hair. My head had struck the concrete path, and I wondered if I was bleeding. Gingerly, I touched the wetness. When I inspected my hand, glistening strings of saliva were dangling between my fingertips.
It was my first day at Paremoremo Boys' High School.[*]
The suburb of Paremoremo sits upon a low peninsula in the mudflats between North Lynn and Glencoe.[**] On hot days, a faint tang of dead shellfish hangs in the air. In wet weather, the ground turns into slimy grey mush. The undesirability of Paremoremo as real estate means that the Ministry of Education has become the biggest landowner in the area -- with a primary school, two intermediate schools, a deaf school, and boys' and girls' high schools.
A street sign on the main drag warns motorists: "Six Schools Ahead!" As my bus chugged into Paremoremo each morning, it felt as though the sign's message was "Abandon Hope". A sensation of almost primaeval misery would descend upon me.
The boys' high school functioned -- if that's the appropriate word -- like a cross between Stalinist Russia and Lord of the Flies. The bigger boys brutalized the smaller ones; the smaller boys brutalized each other; the teachers brutalized everyone.
This culture of Paremoremo was aptly demonstrated in two incidents from my first weeks of high school. The first incident occurred when I was sent to visit another class on an errand. I noticed an unusually frigid silence in the school-room. "They're feeling sorry for themselves," the teacher explained casually, "because I've just strapped them all for not doing their homework."
The strap lay on the desk in front of him. It was a formidably solid-looking lump of leather; I could almost have mistaken it for a piece of wood. It bore the inscription: "Approved by the Department of Education, Wellington." I wondered who had the job of authorizing straps and canes for use on children. How did they test them? Was there a bureaucrat who carefully selected the instruments of discipline, packaged them lovingly, and then dispatched them to teachers around the country?
The second incident took place as I was kicking around a football with some friends at lunchtime. We were approached by a sixth former from one of the school rugby teams. "I don't like seeing kids playing soccer," he said. He'd heard that rugby enrolments were declining as a result of the "nonsense" about the South African tour.
"We've just had to bog-flush some of the junior soccer team," he continued. "I mean, we can't let rugby die out, can we?" He gave the impression of a man who'd played a role in a noble and patriotic event. "Think about that if you decide to continue with soccer," he added.
The threat of violence was omnipresent at Paremoremo Boys' High School. It taught me some useful life skills: avoid eye contact with people; don't draw attention to yourself; don't show any signs of weakness.
Some of the violence that I experienced was racial in nature. Many Polynesian immigrants had settled in West Auckland, and their presence was strongly resented by the European population (who accused the Polynesians of "stealing" their jobs). Racism was widespread; there were police raids and mass arrests of illegal immigrants. It was perhaps only natural that some of the Polynesian boys would vent their anger on their European school-mates.
Sadly, even at school, the Polynesian pupils had good reason to be resentful. Paremoremo was organized into academic streams from 'A' down to 'N'. The streams at the lower end of the alphabet were disproportionately composed of Polynesian immigrants. It was widely acknowledged by teachers that boys in these classes were only "baby-sat" until they turned fifteen and could leave school. One teacher joked that the 'N' academic stream stood for "nigger"; another used to admonish our unruliness by saying: "Don't behave like a black class."
I thought this was appalling -- but, unfortunately, I was never given the opportunity to explain my sympathy to those who perpetrated random violence upon me. I was obviously European; I had the misfortune to have been assigned to the 'A' stream; and, even worse, I was the second-smallest boy in the class. It made me an obvious target.
At the opposite end of the bashing colour-chart were the 'Boot Boys'. I never figured out if ours were official gang members or mere wannabes -- but in a sense it scarcely mattered. When I accidentally splashed a Boot Boy's trousers with water, he kicked me so hard in the arse with his steel-capped boot that I developed a contusion of truly awe-inspiring proportions. Over the course of three months it gradually progressed through every colour of the rainbow. My right buttock featured a noticeable dent for several years afterwards.
Some days the atmosphere of violence in the school would reach fever pitch. Rumours would be whispered: "There's gunna be a rumble"; "The Boot Boys are gunna bash some coons". Punches would be thrown. A shout would go up: "There's a fight!" School-boys would stampede to catch a glimpse of the action.
A week of rain was usually sufficient to douse these tensions. In theory, we were allowed to remain in the classroom during wet lunchtimes. In practice, the weather frequently failed to follow the specifications of the forecast. We would be locked outside in torrential Auckland downpours, huddling for shelter under trees and eaves of buildings.
At times like this I felt that even the school's architecture was against me. Someone once told me that Paremoremo Boys' High had originally been designed as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. I could easily believe it: concrete blocks and fibrolite; dank echoing stairwells; hardboard interiors with curling linoleum; the smell of dead ants. It was enough to make you turn to God.
The school's Christian Fellowship met at lunchtimes. The group was organized by the same teacher who'd strapped his entire class. "What if you see a woman, and -- y'know -- you want to screw her?" he asked us one day. "Well, in God's eyes, wanting to screw her is as bad as actually screwing her. And guess what God has to say about that? He says: 'If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee!'"
As it happened, having sex was practically all I thought about whenever I saw a woman. Could the teacher really be suggesting that I rip out my eyeballs? And, if so, why didn't I see more eyeless people around?
The Christian Fellowship meetings played an important role in the formation of my religious beliefs. "You can only truly be a Christian through the Bible," the teacher assured us. "So how many of you have actually read the Bible? Can you honestly call yourself a Christian?"
I went home that night and dutifully opened a copy of the King James. By the time I reached Genesis 19:8, I'd become an atheist. It probably wasn't the outcome that the Christian Fellowship teacher had in mind.
Paremoremo Boys' High School made a philosopher out of me. Everything seemed so meaningless: the institutionalized violence, the pointless rules and regulations, even the design of the school uniform. We were required to wear short trousers all year round. Hadn't anyone noticed that it got cold in winter? Bare legs, a school jersey, and a thin cotton shirt provided almost no protection against freezing southerly winds. As I waited for the bus on frosty mornings, I could watch a queue of school-boys slapping their legs to keep the blood circulating.
Of course, such worldly concerns were never an issue for the First Fifteen -- whose superiority was acknowledged by a special uniform with luxurious full-length trousers and a cosy blazer. More than anything else, this typified the school's attitude towards education. If there was some sort of philosophy behind the madness, it resembled one of those crazy Nazi party slogans -- perhaps 'Erziehung durch Rugby'.[***]
School assemblies consisted of nothing more than the intoning of sports results. From time to time, the headmaster would depart from his text to administer praise, admonishment, or (on occasion) vague threats: "The Second Fifteen lost again on Saturday. This isn't good enough, and if I don't see improvement next week I shall have to take action."
It astounds me, then and now, that our teachers -- grown men -- could take schoolboy sports so seriously. When one of my friends was offered a place on the Auckland cricket team, he was subjected to a spot of blackmail worthy of MI5.
"From an academic point of view, you'd be foolish to leave the school team," my friend was informed by a senior teacher. "If you're playing for the school, and you're not doing so well in your tests -- then, of course, we'll know it's because you're working so hard for the cricket team, and we can take that into consideration. But if you're playing for Auckland... well, I can't imagine that we'd have any sympathy at all."
A more disturbing incident was related to me by a member of the First Fifteen. He'd intended to leave school after fifth form, but was persuaded to stay by assurances that he'd be "looked after". At the end of sixth form, he was accredited his university entrance qualifications without having to sit the exams. This was quite astonishing, he claimed, as he'd barely submitted any academic work during the whole year.
In light of such events, the actual teaching at Paremoremo Boys' High seems almost irrelevant. Our school-masters ranged from excellent to alcoholic. We had an art teacher who criticized one of my friend's paintings via the well-established method of punching him in the head. A geography teacher once began a lesson by asking: "Why should we be proud to be New Zealanders?"
I can remember contemplating his question. Was he referring to Kate Sheppard and the granting of universal suffrage in 1893? Or perhaps the social welfare system initiated by the first Labour government?
The geography teacher answered himself: "Because New Zealand is the greatest rugby-playing nation on earth! Never forget that!"
At the other end of the educational spectrum, my Latin teacher must have been something of a genius to enthuse me for his subject. A history teacher and a mathematics teacher were also competent.
An English teacher, Mr Roberts, would frequently greet me with the words: "You're looking even more imbecilic than usual, Haywood. I wouldn't have believed that possible." Despite his unnecessary levels of honesty, he possessed a passion for poetry and literature that I found genuinely inspiring. We studied Wilfred Owen, Roger McGough, Dylan Thomas, and Shakespeare -- I loved every word. Who knew that Shakespeare was such a brilliant writer? Who would've guessed that poetry could actually be enjoyed?
At the age of fifteen, I experienced a dramatic growth spurt, and my height suddenly overtook many of my classmates'. The tormentors from my third and fourth form years departed school (one of them embarked on a career as an armed robber). Only the effeminate boys were bullied. Male homosexuality was illegal in New Zealand, and there was a general feeling amongst my schoolmates that it should be 'stamped out'.
With my disinterest in rugby, I worried inordinately that accusations of gayness might be levelled against me. One of my friends, a particularly witty and intelligent chap, asked me my opinion of homosexuality. I condemned it in the most unmistakable and unforgivable terms. Soon after leaving school, my friend bravely announced that he was gay. I can only imagine what he suffered at school, and the effect that my words must have had. It seems ironic that those vilified as unmanly are often called upon to demonstrate more courage in life than any number of All Blacks.
After my school certificate examinations, I was advanced directly to seventh form (along with many of my classmates). There was a slightly Faustian aspect to this apparent bargain. It was expected that the ablest pupils would repeat their seventh form year, and -- on their second attempt -- score much higher marks than a conventional single-year seventh former. Possibly this would be advantageous to the student; definitely it would benefit the greater glory of the school.
On my first attempt, more by luck than talent, my bursary marks were sufficient to allow me entry to any university course that I cared to take. I discovered that I wasn't particularly troubled by the glory (or otherwise) of Paremoremo Boys' High School. As far as I was concerned, fate had just handed me a get-out-of-jail-free card -- and I intended to use it.
I phoned the school to announce my leave-taking. The school phoned back to announce that I had been summoned to an interview with the senior master "to discuss your possible plans". My possible plans were actually definite plans, but strangely I went to the interview anyway. I don't know why -- perhaps merely for the pleasure of defying a teacher.
The interview included four of my fellow pupils who also planned to leave. The senior master had never heard of such a thing before. He accused me of encouraging the others (this was a contemptible lie; I had only encouraged three-quarters of them). He predicted that we would do badly at university; he lost his temper and accused us of betraying the school. At close quarters the senior master bore a remarkable resemblance to the British comedian, Benny Hill. It was hard to take his words seriously -- especially when you knew he couldn't cane you any more.
The interview ended badly, and we were dismissed without goodbyes. I was so disconcerted by the degree of acrimony that -- in the manner of an institutionalized criminal returning to jail -- I inadvertently began to make my way into the school rather than the outside world. Abruptly backtracking, I nearly collided with the senior master marching down the corridor in the opposite direction. His face was flushed with rage. He turned and spat a couple of contemptuous sentences at my back.
His words lingered in my ears as I passed out of the school gates for the last time: "You're going to be a failure, Haywood. Remember that."