St Stithians College after 60 years
My old school, St Stithians College, is celebrating its jubilee this year, 60 years after its founding. Yesterday they arranged a reunion of sorts, of those who had been at the school from 1953-1957. Our recent holiday in Namibia took me back 40 years into the past, this took me back 60 years. Only one of my classmates was there, Chris Aitken, who had been in the same class from 1953-1956. But there was no one there from my matric class of 1958. What a bunch of old fogeys we were! I didn’t recognise anyone, and I don’t think anyone recognised me, without looking at the name tags.
It started with a service in the chapel, and with the usual Gauteng traffic jams I arrived 10 minutes late — it still takes more than an hour and a half coming from Pretoria. The chapel was packed — they obviously can’t fit the whole school, with more than 2000 pupils, in there now, so it was just the senior boys, grade 8 and over. The next day there was to be a celebration involving the whole school, which was to be held on the playing fields, because there was no indoor space big enough to hold them all.
The school chaplain, the Revd Dan Nkomo, spoke, and Alastair Stewart showed something of how the school had developed in the last 60 years. A choir called “The Dukes” sang a couple of things, and once again I was impressed by their musical prowess, which was way ahead of anything that we had had back then.
Then we went on a walkabout, touring the school under the guidance of the head of the boys’ college, Dave Knowles. When St Stithians started in 1953 the school was one, but now it is divided into four — a boys’ college, a girls’ college, a boys’ prep and a girls’ prep, each with its own head, and a Rector in charge of the whole lot. So the biggest change was the sheer size of the place, and the facilities, like WiFi everywhere, that were beyond our wildest dreams in 1953.
One of the things that sold me on St Stithians when I first went there was that it seemed to be on the technological cutting edge compared with other schools that I had been to. The boarding houses were wired, not for the Internet, in 1953, but for radio. Each bedside was equipped with earphone sockets and a volume control, and the idea was that the housemaster would switch on the radio at lightsout at 9:30, and we could listen to it before going to sleep. It never worked properly, however, at least not in the first couple of years. And then demand for boarding accommodation exceeded the space available, so they put four beds in a dorm room designed for three, so the fourth bed did not have an earphone jack. But by my final year it was working after a fashion, and every Monday night we listened avidly to Strangers from space. It started rather scarily with a news item about global warming, and the polar ice caps melting, and the sea levels rising, and scientists trying to discover the cause. It sounded quite real. That got us hooked. After a few episodes it became apparent that the author was running out of ideas, and after about a year it fizzled out, but it was quite exciting when it started.
When I first went to St Stithians in 1953 I was in one of those three-bed rooms, with Chris Aitken and Edward Reeves. Then Edward Reeves broke his arm and moved to a single room, and we were joined by Peter Wallis, a new boy who arrived halfway through the year, and mysteriously disappeared at the end of it. In 1954 we were joined by Billy Glass, and he too was at the reunion.
I think back then I was 12 years old, Chris Aitken was 13, and Billy Glass 14, and we looked a lot different from what we do today. There’s a picture here showing two of us back then — can you guess who we are without looking at the caption?
But going round the school was also a somewhat fractured experience. A housemaster told us how the boarding houses are divided into “family” units, each with a master in charge. He said that there was not much fagging, as there had been in boarding schools in the old days. And I felt as if I was in a time warp. Harking back to 1953 seemed to be taking a trip into the future, because there had never been fagging at St Stithians in our day. It may have existed in other privatre schools in South Africa, but it was known mainly as a throwback to English public schools of 60 years earlier. It was the kind of thing that in the 1950s we read about in books like Biggles goes to school, which was set in the pre-First World War period, which seemed to be in a remote past almost impossible to imagine. And yet we were stepping out of a past that must seem just as remote to the present pupils of St Stithians. Apartheid? What’s that? Something you learn about in history lessons, perhaps.
And yet the present St Stithians seemed in some ways to belong to that remote past. All my fellow old boys were wearing suits and ties, or at the very least, blazers and ties. And the pupils all addressed us as “Sir”. I thought that had disappeared from schools long ago. It felt, in some ways, like the “Stepford wives”.
We were taken to some of the old classrooms, the ones that had been built when we were at the school. And we were told that the first headmaster, Wally Mears, had incorporated his philosophy of educzation into bricks and mortar. He believed in small classes, and the classrooms were built small, with load-bearing walls between them, which made it rather difficult to knock two of them into three, which had been done. And Wally Mears had brought in Steyn Krige, whose progressive ideas about education and discipline had got him thrown out of the school in 1969. His name has returned to the school, as one of the new blocks is named after him, but evidently his ideas have not.
So in some ways St Stithians seems a bit further back in the past than it was in 1953. In the first couple of years there were no fags and no prefects, and on the first day, there were no rules. Wally Mears said, to the first pupils who had just arrived, and didn’t know each other at all, “You will make the rules by your own behaviour.” Even the talk of fags seemed odd. The word has changed its meaning since 1893.
But I suppose that back in the 1950s we didn’t look all that much different from the present-day pupils. Here’s a picture of some of my friends from my matric year, 1958.
And two of those who appear in the following picture were at the reunion event yesterday — Iain Thornton and Owen Walton.
Those are just a few of the memories and reflections evoked by the gathering, and it was a very pleasant and well-organised affair, and ended with an excellent lunch kindly provided by the St Stithians Alumni Association.