I was a Waldorf child.
It’s not something I’ve been very public about because people can be cruel, mainly because they’ve lost touch with their guardian angel or are not eating enough yoghurt. But I was one, for better or for worse.
Our class was a tight-knit family (one plain, two purl, cast one off … yes that woollen tiger is coming along beautifully…), and we learned about the world in a free-flowing way. Sometimes also a free-falling way: I recall a lot of tree-climbing and quite a lot of crying. Our uniform was the dirt on our knees and the only examinations we ever had were for lice.
Soon, however, it was time to choose a high school. I was proving exceptionally talented at Israeli folk-dancing but I was not sure that this was a career that offered comprehensive medical cover and so I decided to go mainstream.
Which is how I found myself in a Cape Town school called Westerford, learning the school song.
The idea of a school song was new to me. Up until that point I had sung about maidens buried under ash groves and it seemed silly to sing about a suburban high school. But I obeyed, and learned the quasi-Victorian, paranoid dirge.
“In Westerford’s historic morn,” we droned, “an outpost stood where brave souls manned the lonely breach twixt Cape of Storm and Afric’s rugged hinterland.”
It turned out that Afric had only been rugged for a few years. The line used to be “Afric’s savage hinterland” but the words had been changed to reflect the times and to, you know, avoid committing a hate crime every Monday morning.
Yes, the times had changed; and now, the second verse of the school song explained, the outpost had been replaced by “our school, a living citadel”, standing “firm against the foes of good”.
So who were these foes of good, you ask? That was obvious. The greatest threat to that outpost of righteousness — indeed, the spiritual danger looming over all of humankind — was a boy with an earring and long hair.
You think I’m being facetious but I think it’s in Revelations: “And then, as I watched, from out of the loins of the she-beast issued forth a boy called Gary with a man-bun and a small stud in his left ear, and lo, the heavens did plunge.”
humanity’s greatest enemy
Hair length was policed with messianic zeal. Now and then a girl would ask if she could wear cycling shorts under her skirt so as not to freeze or have her underwear on display and her request would be ignored because, obviously, girls aren’t people so what the hell are they doing wanting to wear human clothes, but mostly because it distracted from the important work of hunting down humanity’s greatest enemy: the boy who wants to shame his sex and his nation by growing his hair an extra two centimetres.
The staff made noises about hair getting in your face and oil and pimples, but the dogma was clear. Men with long hair were dodgy. Except for Jesus, obviously. For the rest, short back and sides were a sign of self-discipline and a good attitude. Except for the defendants at the Nuremberg trials, obviously.
I hadn’t thought about that stuff for decades. And then, this week, News24 screamed in terror.
“Long hair, man-buns, earrings for boys at Cape Town school”, the headline howled like a man in a cardigan who has spat out his pipe, launched himself out of his armchair and is sprinting down a street in 1952, begging women and children to cover their eyes.
I read the story and discovered that Westerford, the living citadel, has finally been overrun by the foes of good. The school is doing away with gender distinctions in its regulations around hair and jewellery. From now, as long as they keep things neat and tidy, boys may wear their hair long and have studs in their ears.
The news spread like the Marxism that has clearly infected Cape Town’s schools. A city radio station asked its listeners for their take and got what you’d expect from people who feel they need to respond to a story about boys and girls being treated equally.
“Liberals”, I heard, were “letting things slide”. A “lack of discipline” was inevitable. I discovered, with some surprise, that the only thing standing between us and anarchy was an intact male earlobe.
When I swapped fairies and feyness for exams and scrubbed knees, I learned that things change without breaking. “Savage” can become “rugged” and nobody dies. But this week my old school reminded me that, while things change, people push back.
And when it comes to our beliefs about boys and men, so dutifully learnt when we were children, that outpost still stands; manning the breach twixt a fragile identity and an onrushing, inevitable future.