CHAPTER 3 – High School Days 1955 – 59
February 1955: My first year at Napier Boys’ High School – its motto Justum perficito nihil timeto (Do what is right and fear nothing).
What a horrible year it was! Being dressed in dark navy-blue rough serge shirt, black shorts, cheap leather belt, rough woollen socks and clumsy black shoes, and wearing a cap! couldn’t hide my American accent, my total ignorance of Kiwi life, nor my total lack of physical fighting or quick verbal skills. I was bullied and teased.
Even the teachers could not resist having a go. Your name? Michael Phillips. Your father’s occupation? Pharmacist. We don’t have “pharmacists” here, we have Chemists! Sniggering as he turned to the boys. All the boys called me “Yank” – a cruel expression. “I’m not a Yank. I am a Noo Zealanderr.” There was an undercurrent of ill-will and envy among many NZers about the GIs and prosperous Americans which still exists to this day. And there were no foreigners within 500 miles of Napier. The ubiquitous Chinese kept a low profile and the Maori people were still largely a rural population. The only alien was me and many took pleasure to make sure I knew my place.
Every major provincial city in New Zealand had a Boys’ High, just like Napier Boys’, modelled on English public boys’ colleges like Eaton and Harrow: boys were ranked by intelligence testing and grouped by subject choice: professional, commercial or trade. Rugby and cricket dominated life, as did the prefect system, caning (of which, I have a belt with 26 notches), cap stealing, shirt and fly button-ripping. The staff, in their black under-graduate gowns, remained aloof from the boys, unless one was a Prefect or a member of the First XV Rugby team.
Army Barracks Week
We were still preparing for war at school. “Barracks” was first two weeks of February when the staff became army officers and the boys dressed in khaki shorts, paraded in ranks, slung old World War I .303s, presented arms and tried to stand at ease in the hot mid-summer sun. We even got to shoot .303s at Roys Hill Rifle Range. Regular Army and Air Force officers scouted for recruits, and some boys were chosen as budding officer material to attend Linton Army Camp during the mid-winter holidays. It was at Linton Camp we learned to put “spit and polish” shine our boots and about bullying and “black-balling”, that is, rubbing nugget on the genitals of those unlucky enough to catch the eye. And the officers remained aloof. The only place one could go for sanctuary was to stand on the parade-ground, the “holy of holies”, forbidden territory. At the end of this little experiment in World War III preparation, all 100 or so boys were sent back in carriages tacked onto a freight train, stopping at every little railway siding for a journey of 120 miles in 14 hours! Boys hung out of carriages, skipped over cattle cars, chalked every conceivable surface, played tag and ran onto flat cars, all while passing over some of the most precipitous viaducts in New Zealand.
Scraping through School
My father made my career choice at the very beginning. I was to be an civil engineer. In the 50s and 60s, civil engineering offered world-wide prospects especially since governments worldwide were building dams, roads, bridges and rail infrastructures. I managed to get into 3A, the top stream class, after a term in 3B. But most of the top-stream class took professional subjects like French, and Art, while I had to do Technical Drawing and Manual Training. This meant separation from my peer group. That separation remained a divisive influence right through school: the staff would always see me as a half-academic, half trades student, and in the crucial Fifth and Sixth Form years, I was placed in B level science classes.
Lazily, I managed to scrape through School Certificate, Chemistry and Physics giving me enough marks to make up for poor English and Maths marks. In the Sixth Form, we went through the ritual of University Entrance. Each school was allowed to give accredited passes for university matriculation. Up to two-thirds of the students gained U.E. this way. A list of the successful candidates was published on the school notice board. We already had our own predictive list made of all the scores of all the Form Six candidates and we drew a line 2/3rds of the way down the list. And sure enough, the boy who was the key First XV forward, and who had failed to make our cut, was placed one step up and accredited U.E., while the unlucky non-First XV student just above him was failed.
Looking back now, it was just as well that I took Technical Drawing in the Sixth Form. I gained top marks in this subject, mainly because it attracted very few academic students. It was a breeze drawing epicycloid and hypercycloid constructions. A hypercycloid is a curve traced by a point on the flange of a railway wheel as it turns on the track – of importance only to railway engineers.
And finally in Form Seven, most of my age group had left school for commerce and trades. Only those wishing to go to university remained. Even accountants did not then go to university. There were only 12 of us left, and only two who took History and French. The rest did the hard sciences and maths. My only claim to pride of a sort, was to get second in Maths and Applied Maths with scores of 16% and 23% respectively. It did not auger well for us future university science students.
Amazingly, I had managed to keep pace with my peers in sport as well: I had served my apprenticeship as a Rugby lock, buried deep in the rucks, right through five years of High School until in Form Seven I managed to make the First XV and got “capped” – given one of those little felt skullcaps with a tassel, which marks off the men from the rest of humankind. Such masculine, British, Imperial pride that even now, after all these years, I still treasure that little “cap”.
By the end of the year I had decided to be a teacher, mainly because the government would pay all university fees and grant a living allowance as long as one successfully completed each year of study and one’s parents signed a bond of good behaviour. Us budding scientists, engineers and science teachers would go to Canterbury University in 1960.
Two teachers stood out from the rest: one was my firm Fourth Form English teacher, who spent most of the year teaching us how to parse English sentences. This was a most enlightening experience. Here was structure. Clear and definite, like Algebra. The other teacher was my Form Seven English teacher, shy, quiet, bushy-eyebrowed Mr O’Connor, who believed in the beauty of English literature and who taught us Hamlet. I responded to him to the extent that my formerly miserable English marks improved to give me a fourth ranking. He was the only Catholic teacher in the school, he had more than two children. He was the only teacher who received a present from our class to honour the birth of one of his sons. Strangely, I was to meet this new-borne son, Gerard O’Connor, as a teacher of English at St John’s College, twenty years later.
Of my school friends, Brian Grouden (RIP), remained in touch through most of my life. At school he was the odd man out. He just didn’t fit. He was one of the very few Marist Brothers boys at NBHS, a Catholic and quite self-consciously defensive about being surrounded by us “heathen”. But his wit was superb! Milliganesque. He could mimic all the voices of the Goon Show, and quote one-liners at will. He painted his bike outrageously tiger-striped. He wore tan shoes with pink shoelaces. He was caned often. And all with a Cheshire Cat smile. He saw through much of the pomposity of the school rituals. He left school with UE to become a draughtsman. Barry Mountjoy, the school Dux, I was to meet up with again much later.
1950s American pop music dominated the culture of us boys. Elvis of course was Number One, but Buddy Holly was a close second. I picked up a battered old guitar and learnt to play and sing along – after all – most pop songs were three
One of our music teachers had just returned from the USA and sported an Ivy League jacket. He played us My Fair Lady on the latest LP record player not even then available in NZ. But other music teachers were no more than singing teachers to prepare us for end-of-year prize-giving.
In Year 11 I courageously entered the school singing competition, not having any idea of what to expect. I chose “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from a famous American musical. The winner, a trained singer, sang a classical piece which no-one of our peer group had ever heard of – rubbing our noses in our sheer barbarism. At least I got a polite acknowledgement from the pianist for even trying.