Misadventures of a Reluctant Student—A Whimsical Memoir

Nils A. Haug

The foundation of every State is the education of its youth

— Diogenes, 300 B.C.E.

Education. What does that really mean? Does it imply certain requirements such as a university degree or a high school certificate to succeed in life? And, what about the “university of life”? What is it exactly that makes a person educated?

All of the above are necessary, and more. Much, much more. My journey to enlightenment commenced, quite remarkably, with my birth in 1952 in the peaceful, idyllic, but frozen land of Norway, home of the illustrious Viking conquerors. My family had lived in Norway—and neighbouring Sweden—for thousands of years, but enough was enough decided my parents, Arne and Ruth, before spiriting off my little brother and I as toddlers to conquer the sunny climes of darkest Africa. My mother, little brother, and I arrived aboard a cargo ship, Tatra, after a six-week voyage with my father having gone ahead some months previously. At that time, South Africa was in the grip of Apartheid, a dark place for the majority populace yet pleasant enough for whites: the illegitimate rulers of a country with amazing and colourful people, incredible natural beauty, and a climate second to none, with warm sunshine for over 300 days a year. No snow, ice, long and harsh winters with limited daylight where we would set up our new home.

Unable to speak or comprehend either of the official languages of English and Afrikaans—a form of Dutch—my brother and I were packed off to pre-primary school, located in a serene parkland well located in the beautiful sub-tropical coastal city of Durban, Natal Province—now Kwa-Zulu Natal. After successfully negotiating the academic demands of pre-primary, it was time to graduate to primary school. By now we had increased our English vocabulary and anxious to make friends, my brother appropriated a large banknote from our mother’s meagre savings and treated our new friends to candy galore at the school tuckshop. That did the trick and we became immensely popular among our band of outlaws. During my primary and secondary schooling, albeit very young, I was compelled to walk alone some distance home after school with a leather school satchel on my back, on mostly uphill terrain as Durban is located in a hilly area. That was a most pleasant time in my youth but like all idyllic periods, change comes unannounced to devastate one’s little world. One dark day, my parents announced that we would relocating to the Drakensburg Mountains area, some 150 miles inland from Durban. They explained that they had purchased a country hotel, along with some friends and relatives as partners. The year was 1963.

The relocation necessitated a change of school. The closest primary school was some 20 miles away from home in a rural one-horse town, the center location of a farming community comprising both English and Afrikaans speaking members. The road from the hotel, where our home was located, was loose dirt and when it rained became very slippery, resulting in us becoming ditched quite often. As kids, we hoped the rain would intensify so the road would become completely impassable, which happened every now and then to our great joy. We were delighted, not only to miss school but to avoid going to the school’s boarding establishment for farm kids—those who lived a distance away like my brother and I. The long narrow building on the school’s premises housed girls at one end, with boys on the other with only a locked door separating the two. We stayed there from Monday to Friday when our parents or a driver fetched us for the weekend.

School life was fine except for the fact that I had not been confronted with Afrikaans speaking kids previously: kids who had no knowledge of English nor wanted to speak it. Not only that, I was a foreigner, an outlier to all the kids and, moreover, I came from the city and they were country grown. The kids whose farms were located closer to the school, attended daily. Among those were two brothers who horse-backed to school daily with the groom waiting in nearby open cattle pens until the ride home. The Afrikaans kids were tough, some were very poor and didn’t own shoes going barefoot, even in winter when frost abounded. Others collected insects like scorpions which they kept in boxes under the bed, terrifying the rest of us with them. It was not long before some kids stirred up animosity against my brother and I, being foreigners. So much so that one boy, an English-speaker surprisingly, challenged me to a fight. Having the foresight to avoid any perception of weakness, which would later lead to bullying, and on top of which I had a duty to protect my little brother from such events, I accepted the challenge. I was 11 years old and never been in a fight before. The hostel master, an Afrikaner and a fair man, supplied us with boxing gloves and we slugged it out wildly. I prevailed, and victory was declared. The boy and I soon became friends, he was a decent chap. Some respect was grudgingly given and no bullying ever took place. It was the first of a number of milder fights, all done to preserve the hierarchy and to maintain respect.

In 1967 it was time for High school and the nearest was some 30 miles away, again on bad dirt roads and again boarding was required. This time it was different for the rules allowed only one weekend home a term—four terms in a year—and one Sunday afternoon a month, apart from the normal school holidays. That was it. I hated the place from the moment I arrived until I left five years later. I still hate it now, 55 years on. I hated the weekly canings by sadistic masters, the fights, the awful food, the ultra-strict discipline, the pedophile senior master, getting up at 4 in the morning for milking duty on the adjoining farm, the accommodation in large dormitories, side by side with strangers (initially my bed was located on an open upstairs veranda, with a roof fortunately but open fronted due to shortage of accommodation and freezing in winter with frost abounding), the initiation process, humiliation in front of boys and girls alike, the compulsory sports, the cadets every Friday while standing and marching in our immaculate uniforms in the hot sun until those alongside me fainted from the heat (they were left there until they revived themselves), the rugby matches away to compete against distant schools taking hours by truck. Yes, open truck: no buses in those days for us. In winter, the rugby season, we almost froze to death sitting huddled together for warmth on the open back of a truck, bouncing around—safety belts and safe seating not yet invented or considered necessary; the constant canings if you were one second late for roll-call, for not eating all the ghastly food on your plate, for cheek, for not making your bed in accordance with strict rules, for your towel not set straight at the end of your bed, for failing school tests, for “out of bounds,” or anything else the hostel masters could think of.

Fortunately, there was one redeeming factor: girls. It was a co-ed school and we were teenagers, oversupplied with testosterone, so the idea was to find a like-minded member of the opposite gender. The wise ones among us sought a girlfriend who was a day-scholar, not a restricted hostel-dweller. My girlfriend was a lovely, decent girl, a daily scholar and high achiever, whose home was only some 300 yards from the school gate. I chose well, congratulating myself as being the wisest one of them all despite being the worst one academically. Yet, who cared, the objective was emotional survival. Temporary escapes from the unpleasantness of hostel life into the arms of a loving girlfriend was my aim, not academic achievement. At least I had my priorities right. There were consequences from this attitude, of course, for I failed twice academically but, due to pressure from my parents, the Headmaster pushed me through on one occasion. I therefore had to repeat only one year, and that made me even more rebellious, angry, hostile, and aggressive. I was a victim of my environment, wasn’t I, of the horrid school and hostel; my choices were definitely not my fault. All this made me rather unpleasant, ask my parents and my brother.

At last, my schooling was completed for I had scraped through year 12 with barely a university pass, a rather poor showing. So off to study in the big city of Durban. The year was 1971 and I was 19. At that time, military service was compulsory with most white boys going for at least one year if not two. There was an active bush war on the country’s borders and in Rhodesia a full-blown liberation struggle by Marxist-supported revolutionaries was taking place. As a foreign citizen I was exempt from the military, and through this advantage the lost year at school was compensated for. My casual, carefree, approach to academic work was worth it after all. However, my ongoing attitude was to cause complications in the years following.

Suffice it to say, my dedication to a healthy social life—to put it mildly—after the prison-like confines of boarding school for 5 years, grew exponentially. After all, this was the era of the hippy movement; of the “summer of love,” free-love, marijuana, and “flowers in your hair.” An exciting time for a young adult, but one who preferred beer to drugs (which I have never tried); and free-love—never free nor easily available despite what the Woodstock crowd promoted—preferring trouble and mischief rather than inane pacifism. I soon linked up with school chums who were as socially-focused as I was, except for one thing: they were determined to attain their university degree whereas I believed deep down that in all probability I would not get there. My misadventures could fill a book so I will have to curtail this journey by summating my academic career at university—for what it is worth. I eventually attained a B.A. degree majoring in Philosophy and English Literature; a four-year law degree; a Masters degree (cum laude) in Biblical studies with specialization in ancient Jewish Rabbinical hermeneutics of the Second Temple period; a Ph.D. degree in Theology with focus on Apologetics. How this this came about is a story that one can only imagine but beyond confines of this essay. I have to confess that most of my knowledge was self-generated through decades of private study, but university courses laid the foundation.

My advice to reluctant and recalcitrant students is to study, study, and study some more, whether formally or informally. To attain a comprehensive education—I am taking about the humanities only—study political theory, philosophy, theology, Greek and Roman classics, English literature, law, history, psychology, Jewish studies—for there is found the source of Western culture, of our values and ethics, sociology, and religious studies. In so doing, make sure you have a good time, a full life and, most importantly, marry well. For men, seek a wife of “Noble Character”—Proverbs 31; and for women, seek a man who loves God, is crazy about you, believes marrying you the greatest privilege of his life; and treats you with kindness, love, respect, and gentleness. Serve God, serve each other, raise your family according to traditional, conservative, values; serve your community and support those who might not be as fortunate as yourself. Becoming a decent human being is, after all, the ultimate purpose of education.

Photo by Kenneth MacClune on Unsplash

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