The first day at high school was an ordeal more dreaded than the first day at primary school, not that I could remember much about my first school. I was only there for a few days and remembered the wide footpath into the school grounds and looking out of the classroom window at the huge, empty playing field. I got told off for doing that and not paying attention. A ruler was slapped on my desk with a loud thwack. Stories of what to expect on the first day at high school had been rife for weeks – all unbelievable.
My mother waved me off on my bike, a change from the walking-to-school I had been doing for years. I left home in my navy serge with knife-edge creases; knee socks gartered two fingers down, shirt hairy like an inside-out dog. My brilliant new black shoes flashed as I pedalled. I sailed forward; pushed by the tail wind, warm now it had left the mountain behind, rushing to the sea.
The bike was parked with its trendy, horned handlebars with flash new handgrips, a present from my father. It looked lost in a shed of a hundred bikes. With my pristine school satchel, a Christmas present from my mother, slung across my shoulder, I sauntered with other stragglers through the main gates, under the memorial arch towards the assembly hall. My hands were deep inside the expansive pockets of my new shorts, as yet unfilled with the detritus I collect. An unknown figure loomed from the shadows and whoomped a fist on the enamelled metal badge perched on my cap, sinking its lugs into my forehead. My eyes did tricks they had never done before and I sank to my knees, hands covering my face to hide the tears and the pain.
A foot booted me from behind; I sprawled forward, struggled to my feet and, supported by the wall, wobbled up the steps into the assembly hall, my bum cheeks tightened in agony. I listened to a tall senior boy’s instructions and stood in a line. I tried to follow the directions of a military figure barking from the stage, spittle spraying from under his moustache into the dust motes filling the light shafts.
Once I was lined up with other dazed thirds, none of whom I knew with not one of my old primary school friends anywhere to be seen, I stood, strained to attention, too scared to do anything else. Soon bat-gowned, grey-headed, stern-faced men marched up onto the stage and sat facing the assembled horde, hands on their knees or with one hand clutching an armful of books and papers. A sterner-faced, greyer giant blared out prayers and instructions. It wasn’t long before the whole scene became clouded and wavy. I sank, vision impaired, crumbling at the knees, into the aisle. A huge boy appeared from nowhere, hauled me up and out into the sun where I sat on the steps with my head pushed by my saviour down between my knees.
The morning passed in this cloud. I wandered from room to room, building to building, following the crowd, wary of everyone bigger than I was. Someone said it was midday break and, in a daze, I searched for somewhere to eat my first packaged lunch. I ended up near the swimming pool nestled in a tree-lined grove with terraces and sloping lawns. I sprawled to recover under the arched fronds of a young ponga. I stared in amazement at the naked figures of all sizes and degrees of hairiness running about the place, leaping about in the water, jumping and yelling as they threw themselves off the high diving board. Some students were happy school was open again.
Lunch forgotten, I sagged again and later came to with a face above, cradling me, saying he would take me to Matron. With a mate, this guy supported me up a wooded path through some bush to the school infirmary. Matron laid me out, gave me an aspirin, mopped my brow with a damp flannel, covered me with a scarlet blanket, and commanded me to sleep.
Hours later, released by Matron and declared okay, I retrieved my bicycle – now minus its Christmas grips – from the silent shed, and pedalled home. It was not in the comfort of a tail wind. It was a struggle forward into the relentless gale, pedal push by pedal push, the front wheel twisting from side to side as I forced the cogs around. On one of these thrusts, my smooth, new, leather sole slipped off the pedal and, in an instant, searing pain from the bike bar flooded my groin. This wiped away any thoughts I might have had of one day achieving the essentials of manhood I had seen for the first time at the pool.
After a period of foetal writhing on the grass berm, I walked home, wide-kneed, not about to mount my beast. It took a while, but once through the gate, Mother greeted me. She was all smiles and hugs: excited her eldest son had survived his first day at high school.
I sensed a possible problem. I had a funny thought. How much would she need to be told? Up to now I’d always told her everything. But now? How much did she need to know? Some events didn’t need to be spoken of for everything to be okay. She wouldn’t want to hear of me being a sook or the fainting. She would hope the day went well without any problems. I’d tell about the badge. Yes, just that. Might be a scab. That would do. Might be blood – or worse – downstairs too but I saw no need to tell about that until I had done my own inspection. Being home was safer than school, I’d found that out all right, but I knew tomorrow was another day.