Monday, 21 March 2011 02:00

Have You Earned Your Stripes, Soldier?

Chief General Principal was the headmaster of St Pauli High. He wore his trousers navel-high and a military-issue moustache occupied his maxilla. He believed in order and symmetry, he was a man of straight lines. "Your belt should match your shoes," is what he would tell the boys. Needless to say, his always shone like smiling Sunday school children. "Decorum" is what he insisted on in every school assembly, though none of the students ever ventured to ask what the word meant. "Jam tart" is what he demanded of every athlete on the sports field, and "woe betide" the soul that dared to bring him a confectionary. This was a man with no reverse gear; a man who didn't need to cut his hair, he simply dared it to grow. He ruled with an iron fist. He ran a tight ship. He was the king of his castle and no one questioned his authority.

On Tuesday afternoons, he would fold his navy blue pants along the line of the iron crease, and change into his PT shorts: still navy, still navel-high. With a tucked-in shirt that never dared to disobey, he would whip the school boys in the "General Mile", an aptly-named race that the principal always won. Stragglers would crawl in, choking on half a lung, to find Chief General Principal warming down with precautionary stretches. "I'm forty-six years old. You guys are a third of that age," he would chirp as he reset his watch, beaming at his time.

Chief General Principal had two daughters at the school: Kele and Me'shell. The entire student body sympathised with their plight. Dutiful skirts covered their knees and unforgiving ponytails warped the freckles on their faces. They were present at every school function and were seldom seen "out". They participated in sport and cultural events to which they were never late. They were never absent, never spoke out of turn, never talked to boys, never smoked, never drank, never got into trouble. The staffroom sniggered of Chief General Principal's "projects" because the poor pair were not treated like children. At the end of each school day, they could be seen seated in the Mercedes, seat-belted, straight-backed, as solemn as convicts in transit.

On Thursday mornings, Chief General Principal would meet with his heads and stress the importance of the "united front". "When we are in here, we can tear into each other, but when we are out there, we must be like this," he would say, referring to the pyramid of interlaced fingers hovering just below his blue eyes. Lombard and Visser, headgirl and headboy, would lap this up with voracious nods. Van Vuuren and Zikalala, their respective deputies, believed their brains could do more than keep their craniums from caving in. There was a rumour floating around that on votes alone, Zikalala was the rightful headboy, but Chief General Principal had vetoed the result because it would not do to have a rogue leading the school. They had clashed on many occasions, Zikalala and the principal, and their working relationship was strained. "I know you don't respect me," Chief General Principal would say, looking Zikalala squarely in the eye, "but your peers respect you so regardless of what you may think of me, could we please present a united front."

On one particular morning, Chief General Principal called an assembly in which he read out student names from a list. Feet shuffled about nervously as the students who were called up did not know why they had been summoned to the front of the hall. When he had reached the bottom, he descended from the podium, addressing the seated students at what he believed to be eye-level. "We have a thief in our midst, a rabbit in our garden-patch and it is plundering what we have been trying to grow at this school." Chief General Principal waited for the obedient echo to return the words it had taken from him. "All the students standing up here have reported a cell phone stolen or missing just this term alone." A collective sigh of relief issued from the line of students as their status as victims of crime and not perpetrators of it was established to them and to all. "It is clear to me that this is the work of a syndicate and I am promising you that that syndicate shall fall. Woe betide he who thinks he is cleverer than me. He shall soon be humbled."

The assembly was disassembled and the school day went on as the timetable promised, with learners shuttling from venue to venue. The exercise resulted in dampened brows and damper armpits, a situation that was not helped by Chief General Principal's strictures on school uniform: the privilege of summer uniform had been revoked in favour of blazers and ties as Chief General Principal had placed "pride in the badge" above all other practical considerations. So grade eights waddled from class to class in jackets that were supposed to last them 'til they were seniors. Reduced to caricature, the students moved en masse like a flock of penguins with briefcases. The new ruling had not gone down well with the seniors and there were rumours that a number of prefects had threatened to hand in their badges. The story goes: they were unwilling to enforce rules they themselves saw as ridiculous. They could not see themselves handing out detentions in forty-degree heat to students who had done what any mammal in discomfort would have done. So during break time, blazers littered the fields: used as goalposts and picnic blankets. During class time: they warmed the backs of cold chairs or were gobbled up by hungry schoolbags. In between classes: they served as parasols with convenient storage space for lip gloss. Needless to say, Chief General Principal was not happy with this perverse un-blazer-ly use of the only item of uniform that prominently displayed the badge. He rallied his lieutenants and privates to the cause but his subordinates were simply too hot to serve. Unrest was brewing in the St Pauli camp, ladle by ladle, it filled the king's goblet, and Chief General Principal feared that before long, he would know the taste of mutiny.

A police squad car pulled into the school gates and parked directly in front of the principal's office. As lunch came to a close, the learners dispersed, heading off to their respective venues. Those who had seen the boys in blue passed on the news like an Olympic torch. Within thirty minutes the student body was ablaze with speculation and conjecture. Those who were innocent thought nothing of the police presence, knowing their principal's well-documented ties to the army could plausibly have occasioned a visit from law enforcers he might have served with. Those with heavier breasts tended toward astuteness and quickly realised that this was no social call. The students were told to remain in their classrooms even as the school bell sung its afternoon song of freedom. Officious members of staff with lofty titles - the Head of Science, the Deputy Principal, the Academic Head - barged into unsuspecting classrooms with squadrons of prefects instructing students to take off their shoes. Bags were ransacked on tabletops, pockets were pilfered with impunity, and intimate zones were infiltrated by suspicious hands with points to prove. They pillaged 'til privacy was empty, provisional and still they could not find what they were searching for.

Chief General Principal would not surrender to children so next he charged his recovery task team with raiding the school lockers. One by one, bayonets at their backs, the students were marshalled to their lockers. Again and again they were opened and closed and still what was lost could not be found. Chief General Principal would not admit defeat even as angry parents queued outside the locked school gates. They hooted and shouted, "For fuck's sake man!" at the helpless security guard manning the gate. "I am only obeying instructions ma'am. There has been a theft at the school and the principal is looking for the culprit." It was all he could say in his pitiful defence but the parents of the privileged could not be pacified. "This is utter nonsense man. Open this gate this instant," but the obedient security guard stood fast. They came out of their cars with choreographed coordination, descending upon the school gates like marauding Indians. If their kids couldn't come to them, they would retrieve them themselves and remove them from Chief General Principal's custody.

As a white Opel Astra stopped at the boomed exit, Chief General Principal peered in through the window. "Have these boys' lockers been searched?" he foolishly asked the irate parent, anticipating a courteous response. "Yes, and you will be hearing from me tomorrow morning," was the curt reply as the Astra sped out of the school. Seated at the back, were Zikalala and Moroka, and safely nestled in the boot, was Chief General Principal's cell phone.

Zikalala arrived at school early as usual the next day and immediately went to the library. Gurty was seated at her usual spot but instead of a greeting, Zikalala heard the following: "Did you hear what happened to Moroka yesterday?" Zikalala's small intestine immediately seized up. That was it then, the ruse was up. "He got hit by a truck," Gurty continued but Zikalala could see she was toying with him. "Just come out with it Gurty," urged Zikalala, "does Chief General Principal know?" "Maybe," she conceded, "it happened yesterday afternoon while he was crossing Witkoppen Road. Mr Andre was the first one on the scene so the news might have reached the principal by now." "Gurty could you please stop fucking around! This is my future we're dealing with here." "Your future?" queried Gurty, slightly annoyed, "Moroka's the one in the ICU. If you don't believe me, phone his mother. She was at Sunninghill Hospital all night."

Zikalala had had enough of Gurty's nonsense so he stormed out of the library toward the public phones. He fished his phone card out of his Bondiblu wallet and expected to be fully embarrassed. "Mme Moroka, how are you today? Is it true that Moroka got hit by a truck?" "Yes my baby. He's in the ICU. He's broken both arms, both legs, and the doctor tells me he has a blood-clot the size of a coin on his head." She was impressively calm, spine-chillingly calm, and Zikalala wondered whether this was a setup. He watched his words though his heart pumped fire through his veins. "How did this happen?" he asked Mme Moroka. "He went to the garage to use the public phones. I don't know, maybe he tried to call you. On the way back, while he was crossing the road, a cement truck hit him at eighty kilometres per hour." Zikalala wanted to see for himself. "I don't know what to say. Can I come see him?" "Only family is allowed in the ICU my baby, but let's pray that he gets better and gets transferred to another ward so that his friends can come and visit him." She hadn't once tried to catch him out even though she still sounded remarkably composed. Perhaps she had cried herself into resignation but it was all starting to feel a bit too real. "Okay Mme Moroka, I'll be praying for him," Zikalala promised guiltily. "I'm sorry about all of this." "It's not your fault baby. Moroka needs us to be strong."

Something told Zikalala he would not retrieve the prize he and Moroka had so strategically won. Moroka had lain in the sick room, keeping coast, while Zikalala snuck into the adjacent office and unplugged the principal's sleeping Nokia 3310 from its unattended socket charger. Moroka had taken it home with him after it had been retrieved from an anonymous locker. Now Zikalala saw it smashed to pieces somewhere along Witkoppen Road, and his friend Moroka lay smashed to pieces somewhere in Sunninghill Hospital.
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Lumumba Mthembu

I am a PhD candidate at Rhodes University.