My first day at Patterson: I shone my shoes, I straightened my tie, I ironed my grey trousers and white shirt. I was ready as I could be. I wanted to look as smart as I could. Patterson was one of the better schools in the part of PE where I grew up. A “coloured” area. When I went into Grade 8 we had just moved there into a two bedroomed house, with a yard, a sitting room, bathroom and kitchen. It was a new start and we were full of hope. My mom and dad had worked really hard for years in factories in PE to get us out of the shack in someone’s backyard where we lived before. I had worked hard and I did well in Grade 7 and got into Patterson. My family teased me, I was the quiet, clever one.
On the first day of high school I was ready. I couldn’t wait to learn. I was going to pass Matric and make my parents proud. And it was with that expectation and excitement that I went to school with my older brother that morning. He was already in Grade 10.
It was at break time on that first day that Julian Booysen cornered me in the boys’ toilets. I had seen him sitting at the back of class, chewing gum. My brother had warned me to stay out of his way. “He’s got a gang. Those boys suck up to him. They know it’s either that, or get bullied. Stay clear of him.” And I had meant to. But on my very first morning, just as the bell was about to ring I needed the toilet urgently. He must have been watching and waiting because he was there, like a shot, and I was trapped. He was standing in front of me, bigger, stronger, taller. I looked around. We were alone. I couldn’t scream.
“Tell me, Shorty,’ he said and licked his lips, “How come you so dark and your brother’s so fair? Darkie! How come you got such kroes hare? Your mommy like the darkies, does she? You got a different Pa, is that it? One from the township? Is that it?” And then he got me by the collar of my new shirt and twisted it.
I am dark. There’s this thing where I come from. Everyone wants to be fairer, paler. My brother has got a fairer complexion, but I am pitch black. “You must be proud of it.” My mom says. “It’s your great-grandmother’s blood in you. She was Mfengu from the Knysna region.” But still, it was hard to be proud, when fairer was what the families around us looked for in a new born. When a baby came out light, there were smiles and comments: “He’s so fair, and beautiful.” And I was pitch black. “The black sheep in the family,” my uncle used to joke. They laughed good humouredly, but the only thing I felt was disappointment.
Julian Booysen tightened his grip. I could feel his fat fingers around my neck. There was no answer I could give that would satisfy him. I knew that. There was no answer that would stop what was about to happen.
“Tell me! ” He was pulling and ripping my new shirt with his thick sweaty hands. I stood there, frozen, praying someone would come into the toilets and rescue me. But the bell had already gone. The kids were back in class. I was going to be late for my Maths lesson on the first day at school. Deep inside, in the brave part of me, I wasn’t going to lower myself to answer such a question.
“I said…how come you black, darkie? Don’t you know this school is only for coloureds. There’s another school for darkies like you…”
There was a moment when I thought he was going to let me go and walk away. But later I came to know that Julian Booysen couldn’t lose face, ever. He had to win. He had to crush. Later I came to realise that it was fear that drove him.
“There’s a punishment for not obeying me.” He said. He was pushing me backwards into the toilets now. He crushed my neck until I knelt in front of the toilet bowl. “You’ve got one more chance. I said… why you so dark and ugly?” Then he shoved my head into the bowl and held my neck down. I struggled for a few seconds as my face was under water. I couldn’t breathe. Then he flushed the toilet and the water choked me. He pulled my head up roughly. “There’s only one place for darkies like you.” He said. “For shit like you…it’s in the toilet.” And he pushed my head under again.
He did it again and again, until I felt like I was going to die. I was swallowing water. And every time he yanked my head up, I gasped just enough air not to drown. And then I heard a shout.
“Booysen, is that you?” It was one of the teachers. Booysen let me go then and whispered “Crying like a baby, now? Only a mother could love you….” And he slammed the toilet door, leaving me on the floor wretching and crying.
After that I tried to stay close to other kids. But he had a way of following me. I gave him my lunch, and any change I had, for the whole term I went hungry.