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First day of the laaitie’s next year

Wednesday. It’s barely 7am. I’m already bathed in sweat. I’m in flip-flops and shorts. I’m shirtless. I might as well be wearing overalls, boots and a balaclava for all the relief it’s bringing me.

It’s a big day. Our 11-year-old, uZoks, is starting grade 6 at his new school. I’m stoked. uZoks’s old school was on the other side of Durban. It took a year to get him into somewhere closer to our new home. And better resourced.

We’d resigned ourselves to another year of 5am wake-ups when the school where my older sons, Big James and Small James, had done their primary education, called in December to say they had a space for him.

uZoks is also stoked. This means an extra hour’s sleep every morning. Or an hour on the PlayStation, on days like today when his mom’s not around to tell him — and me — what to do. It also means fewer days spent doing nothing because his class teacher didn’t pitch and being able to use a working toilet during school hours.

Our man looks great in his new uniform. Loose blue-and-white checked shirt, blue drawstring shorts, white socks and black shoes. uZoks doesn’t have the floppy school hat yet. They only sell it at the school shop.

I snap a quick selfie for uZoks’s mom. He doesn’t just look good. The uniform is a practical, sensible outfit for a kid going to school in this heat. It’s designed to make sure that uZoks and his colleagues are as comfortable as possible while they’re learning. It’s an acknow-ledgement of where they’re at, an acceptance that the laaities are in Durban, South Africa, and that it’s damned hot.

uZoks’s outfit is a far cry from the faux English old school tie bullshit I experienced at his age, when I landed from Belfast in April 1976.

The tight cap, long socks, tie, blazer and tucked-in shirt forced on us at the “preparatory” school I went to up the hill from uZoks’s Greyville kingdom was torture. It was way more suited to London than Durban, even in the winter months. In summer, it made even less sense, especially for the laaities like me who walked to and from school.

The uniform was an act of violence against us. It was a brutal, arrogant homage to all things white and colonial, performed at the expense of the children whose lives it turned into a sweaty hell. It was also part of the process of dehumanising us so that we would be happy to dehumanise others, or at the very least stand by and watch. Along with the daily lessons in race and class-based supremacy. And the canings for dissent. Just like the high school it fed. Not a fuck was I gonna send my elder kids there. Likewise uZoks.

Institutional memory runs deep. So does mine.

I pull on a shirt. It’s that time. I haven’t done first day at school in forever. I’m excited. Proud too. I’m lucky to have a second crack at this.

We land at uZoks’s school. It’s changed since Big James and Small James were there 20 years ago. It’s more organised. There’s teachers directing newcomers to their classrooms. Everything is free-flowing. No queues.

The school’s cleaner, too. Bright and friendly. There’s a big art room. A music room. They’ve added a pool and extended the sports fields. Our man is something of a Renaissance man. He’s academically quick and loves music, art and sports with an equal passion, so he’s in the game.

The kids have changed as well. When the Brothers James were there, black youngsters were in a minority. Greyville was still predominantly white working class.

Today, there’s a sea of excited little faces of every possible hue, all focused on their first day back at school for the new year, streaming noisily through the main gate. There’s a few white kids in the crowd. They blend in, rather than stand out.

We check the notice board. uZoks is on the list, unlike Carl Niehaus. I ask him if he’s nervous. He shakes his head, no, nervously.

We head for the grade 6 classrooms. They’re on the top floor. The box with uZoks’s stationery for the year is killing my back. He’s three steps ahead of me. Amped to get going, the ballie’s forgotten.

We meet uZoks’s teacher. She’s about 30. Black. She gives us the welcome briefing. It’s detailed 
but relaxed. She’s warm and friendly but firm and clearly into what she does.

She claims our man for her athletics house. It’s a sharp move by the class teacher of a new arrival with a clearly complicated parental situation who wants to keep as much of an eye as possible on her new charge while he settles into the new school environment. She clearly cares about the laaities in her classroom. Sees them as human beings.

I’m happy, uZoks is in good hands. This is a teacher.

I shake uZoks’s hand. Wish him good luck. He insists on a hug. Our man is still a baby. I squat. Wrap my arms around him. Pull him close to my chest. Watch him as he turns and motors into the classroom and the next year of his life.

My eyes fill with tears as I head down the stairs.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper

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