LONDON LETTER: Lessons in humility and magnanimity

I HAD the privilege of going to a private school, mainly because I grew up in Mozambique and my parents wanted me to have an education in English.

The upside was that I got taught well. The downside was that I was dragged off semi-tropical beaches to a rigidly-traditional establishment in Johannesburg where you got caned and ‘fagged’ for seniors.

It did me no harm. In fact, it pretty much made me what I am today. (Okay, the more persuasive argument is that it DID do me harm.)

What my school did was show me that a good establishment is bigger than an individual.

The overriding memory of my schooldays is not winning colours for rugby – although that is my proudest – but of my housemaster who gave me a lesson in both humility and magnanimity.

He wasn’t particularly fond of me, and with good reason. I finished my final matric exam, and then had a week to kill before the year ended.

Seven of us went to Hillbrow where barmen served beer even to shorties like me.

We started at Mike’s Tavern at 3pm, so were pretty rat-faced by 10 when we hit the zero-star Ambassador Hotel.

Someone then suggested we return to the school and cause some mayhem.

My memory is still hazy, but I am told I tried to drive a tractor into the swimming pool.

Fortunately, it wouldn’t start.

We then drove past our boarding house and hurled mega-decibel abuse at the housemaster.

That was bad enough, but we also threw in some choice comments about his 16-year-old daughter, whom at least three of us in the group had a crush on.

In my defence, it was Mr Fermented Hops talking, but the reality is that there is no defence.

Forty-seven years later, I am still mortified.

Memories of that night were just a blur when we returned for the last day of our school lives.

But reality hit soon and hard — literally.

We had barely arrived when we were summoned to the headmaster’s office.


He was shaking with anger. He outlined our punishment; six lashes on the butt and effusive apologies to everyone we had insulted.

But that was just piffle; the real punishment was that we would get no reference from the school. We were blacklisted – forever.

Three years later, after a less than average academic stint at the University of Natal, I returned to Johannesburg to kick-start a glittering career doing … I hadn’t a clue.

But as a Brit passport holder, I needed a work permit.

However, you first have to be offered a job to get a permit. The banks were hiring almost anyone so I banged on the door of Standard Bank’s HR manager and told him he need look no further.

Fine, he said. ‘But I want a reference from your school.’

With absolute dread, I returned to the crime scene. The headmaster, who’s last vision of me was flexing a cane in his hand, had moved on.

So I was referred to my housemaster, the same guy I had shouted awful drunken things about.

I knocked on his door, absolutely terrified. He let me in and coolly asked the nature of my business.

‘I need a reference sir,’ I stammered. I could see in his eyes that he remembered exactly who I was.

‘Come back tomorrow.’

The next day he handed me the reference. It was open, so I read the first paragraphs. It gave the dates of my school attendance, then to my astonishment, bullet-pointed a list of positive traits: I didn’t give up; I was (reasonably) popular; I accepted consequences for my actions. In short, I was (almost) a good guy.

I nearly wept.

‘Thank you, sir,’ was all I could mumble.

He smiled. I put out my hand. He shook it.

He could have got sweet revenge. He could have made sure I didn’t get a job.

Instead, he lived by the school code. He believed that one aberration does not define a person. He believed in me – I still don’t know why.

But I know this. That act of kindness has affected my life more than anything I learnt in the classroom.

Graham Spence

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