9. Battswood College, Wynberg
First day at school
by Julian de Wette

I fear the ruler and the blackboard and the cane . . . Ciarán Carson

Tables weren’t meant to be sat at
but things to be said out aloud.
My proficiency on the first day
would set me apart from the crowd.

Why did I deserve punishment
for raising my cap to an elderly gent?
Why did the strap make me cry?
Why did it hurt so much I could die?

I’m confused by what is custom,
what’s done for politeness’ sake.
Such confusion is regarded as error
and all that follows in its wake.

Where were the games I was promised?
The see-saw and the swings?
The sandpit to build castles,
the song of Grasshopper Green?

The flowers I picked that morning
wouldn’t calm my teacher’s rage.
Nor would the words impress her
I’d written on a page.

“There is no secret to it, boy.
It amounts to insurrection
when snot fouls your hanky
before handkerchief inspection!

“And should you scuff your shoes
or scrape your knees
you’d also stand to lose
that gold star for appearance.

“So remember, your conduct in this quad
should honour our principal and God.
This is education – reciting verse and solving equations
as you rise up through the ranks.
And never forget to give thanks . . .”

Battswood Practising School, Wynberg 1958.

PHOTOGRAPH: Battswood Practicing School, Wynberg, South Africa.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem was written some years ago after a chance meeting with my very first school teacher – who changed my enthusiastic attitude towards learning on the very first day of my arrival at school. I wrote it without rancour, but retain a longing for the many interesting things I may have learned had things turned out differently on that day.


Julian de Wette
, a U.S. citizen, was born in Cape Town, South Africa. He is the author of a novel, A Case of Knives published by Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House, South Africa (2010). His play, Sister Priscilla’s Dilemma: Nun with a Gun was published in English and Spanish by Proyecto 34 Degrees South (Theatre in Translation) in Buenos Aires, Argentina (2012). Over the years, he has published poetry in literary journals such a Poetry Australia, New Coin (South America), The Observer (New York) and Contrast (South America). His poetry has also appeared in numerous anthologies. He is now resident in Napier, at the Foot of Africa.