Michael Trapido
Michael Trapido

Highlands Boys, Kes — the wonder years

The death of a King Edwards Secondary School (Kes) pupil brought memories of my childhood flooding back — Highlands North Boys’ High School, 1973-1978

Living in Highlands North, Johannesburg, in the Seventies meant apartheid, isolation and racism, but it also meant no fear of crime, freedom to roam the streets on your bike and girls.

Maybe, because I was a child, things seemed far simpler then. My entire world revolved around school, then soccer and/or rugby at Highlands and Balfour Park. (Playing pinball at Rocket and Zephyr cafés also featured quite prominently, but I digress.)

Lou Tankel was coach at Balfour, feeder team to Highlands Park FC, and many great players would emerge from this time — Richard Gough (captain of Scotland), Gregory Bolus (Kaizer Chiefs), Mich D Avrey (Ipswich), Mickey Osato (best of the lot in my humble opinion — but no major team) and on and on.

The main focus, however, was to be on my high school — Highlands Boys, pronounced “Haaaalands” by its former pupils, had been a bit of a disaster until a tough Irishman by the name of John O’Meare became it’s headmaster in the late Sixties, early Seventies.

This former brother at CBC (Pretoria) had been my father’s teacher and then my principal — a tough-talking, no-nonsense educator, he turned the school around, taking it from about 500 reluctant pupils when he inherited it to roughly 1 300 boys when I left in 1978.

He was a great believer that boys should be educated, participate in sport and maintain discipline at all times. This was achieved, primarily, through corporal punishment, rugby and cadets.

No former pupil would forget the pride and passion of the Highlands rugby teams of those years. Gone were the days when Highlands were some sort of joke on the sporting fields. Our teams competed against the toughest and the best.

Top of our list of priorities was to beat our most hated rivals at Kes.

Highlands, drawn from “the Grove”, Highlands North and surrounds were made up, in the main, of your middle-class income group. Kes, where allegations of player poaching abounded, drew from Houghton and other areas where, as far as we were concerned, the Toffs lived.

In my matric year, our firsts — captained by Chesney Thomas — won every game that season but lost to Kes. In 1979, Charl Gusenhoven’s firsts had an average season but beat Kes at Kes.

I wonder, even now, if the class of 1978 wouldn’t trade our season for Charl’s winning game over the old enemy.

Two other memories will live with me until Alzheimer’s finally sets in.

The first involves one of my classmates, Tyrone Anthony, who I haven’t seen in about 25 years. Tyrone was part of the Lebanese community I grew up with. Later, when I needed articles for law, it was my Uncle George (Gogh) Michaels who was to arrange it through his son-in-law Theo.

But circa 1975, Tyrone, probably the most naturally bright student I ever encountered, was also one of the naughtiest. Despite missing half his classes, he would still somehow land up getting As.

Unfortunately he also landed up in front of the boss (O’Meare) on a regular basis. This meant his father being repeatedly summoned by the headmaster to his office. Ty’s dad was less than pleased by these regular excursions.

On one occasion when O’Meare told young Anthony to “bring yer father ter see me”, Tyrone decided that he could not incur his father’s wrath once again. Instead, he and a number of his mates enticed a hobo to appear before O’Meare, posing as Tyrone’s grandfather.

While it went off smoothly enough, I will never forget how Tyrone, funny at the best of times, described a minor flaw in their plans. While the hobo had been cleaned up to a greater or lesser degree, nobody thought to ask him when was the last time he had eaten a meal.

O’Meare used to keep a large box of Baker’s biscuits for guests and the image of Tyrone’s “grandfather”, demolishing an entire box of those biscuits and swilling down tea while a bemused boss, in that Irish brogue we all knew so well, tried to enlighten him about his grandson’s conduct, will live with me until the day I die.

Of course O’Meare also wanted his boys to learn a bit of culture. He was often on at us at assembly about “casting pearls before swine”.

The second unforgettable memory arose as a result of his decision to try to bring ballet to the boys of one of the most feared schools in Johannesburg. He had invited the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (Pact) to put on a performance in our hall during school.

The entire school had crammed into the hall at about nine in the morning — 1 200 boys, happy to be missing class, oblivious to the nature of the offering about to begin.

The stage had these large blue curtains that blocked out everything behind them. The boss came out and told us that “Highlands expected …” and then retreated.

What came next nobody expected — the curtains drew back and showed an empty stage. From the right, one male ballet dancer in tutu, with package, pranced across the stage and exited behind the curtains on the left (1,5 to two seconds tops).

I’m not sure what was meant to follow because we never saw it.

There was a split second of deathly silence — might have been shock — like a cat being thrown into a dog pound for Rottweilers, and then a roar of laughter that I will never forget.

Once started it went on and on and on … and the more we laughed the more we laughed, until it was beyond control. Nobody was trying to be funny or gee us up — we just roared and roared.

What made it hysterical was that we weren’t being prompted, nobody poked their friends and pointed; it was simply a spontaneous outpouring from 1 200 swine who could not believe that the boss had the audacity to cast this pearl before them.

The big blue curtains closed.

The prefects, then the teachers and finally O’Meare could not stop us laughing, try as they might and threaten what they did.

I’m sure that poor ballet dancer is still in therapy even as I type this.

We landed up doing detention for a week and Pact had a world record — closing the curtains after just two seconds.

I’m glad that life was simpler then and that outrageous was sending a hobo in to see your principal or laughing Pact off the stage.

I wouldn’t have it any other way!