Writing today feels a little like a visit to a confessional; or at least how I imagine it might feel, never having actually been to confession.
Truancy was the topic of the morning. When I arrived at the university this morning I was greeted by a colleague who, having read my piece on this blog yesterday (On the school roll, but more likely on the beach) was eager to tell me about an occasion when he had skipped school in order to join a friend on a fishing trip. It was the only time he behaved in this way, and he could recall how he had felt anxious all day, lest he should be caught. When his father discovered this heinous crime (he tells me he was “grassed on” by his sister), he was made to write a letter of apology to the head teacher of his school, and accompanied his father to deliver it in person the next day. He recalled this event in his school days as one of the most embarrassing of his life.
“So, did you ever play truant?” he asked me.
“Of course not”, I replied, “I was far too fearful of the consequences to ever contemplate such a misdemeanour.”
Later this morning, thinking about this conversation I suddenly realised that my assertion of innocence had not been wholly true. However, reflecting on this, and the occasion when I did deliberately miss school, I found myself wondering about how I might have regarded this situation had I been the head teacher of my school at the time.
The date was 28th January 1970. The South African national rugby team, the Springbocks, were scheduled to play a match against the Southern Counties at Kingsholm, the home of Gloucester Rugby Club, during their tour of the British Isles. I was a keen rugby player, representing my school and playing for a local club, and a supporter of Gloucester Rugby Club at this time. Under other circumstances, and had it been another touring team such as the New Zealand All Blacks, I would have been eager to attend the game. However, this was a tour taking place during the terrible apartheid era in South African history. Nelson Mandela and many of his colleagues were in prison, and the Springbok rugby team comprised only white players.
During the week prior to this sporting event I had been involved in organising a meeting of my school’s debating society, where the motion of the day was “It is more responsible to devote an afternoon in opposition to a racist rugby tour than to attend school on that afternoon.” Along with several friends at school at this time I was committed to the activities of the anti-apartheid movement, and was totally opposed to the rugby tour.
The head teacher of the school, having noted the debate, attended by no more than forty pupils, and in particular observing that the motion was carried by a significant majority, had advised us that he would not tolerate any student playing truant in order to join a political demonstration. I cannot say that I did not hesitate before going against his advice, and with a few friends joining several thousand demonstrators on a march through the city to the venue of the match. I like to think that we were in good company as we marched alongside such eminent figures as the the Bishop of Gloucester, Basil Guy, and a young future cabinet minister Peter Hain.
It was with a degree of apprehension that we returned to school the next morning, and sure enough we were soon stood before the head teacher. He lectured us on our responsibilities to our studies, though I recall he also listened as we, with what I suspect was a somewhat superior air, responded that we felt that whilst there were students in South Africa being deprived of their right to educational resources because of the colour of their skin, we had a greater responsibility to protest. Having courteously heard our arguments he duly passed sentence and we spent the following evening in detention for an hour after school. The punishment for our actions could have been far more severe. Had he wished I suspect he could have suspended us from school for an extended period. We later discovered that a number of teachers had intervened on our behalf, using much the same argument that we as offending students had offered, though clearly with more authority. I recognise now, of course, that our actions could not have gone unpunished, and that justice had to be seen to be done.
Recalling this event this morning, I found myself asking a number of questions that probably never really crossed my mind at the time. Was the action we took at this time justified? It would be pretentious to suggest that our participation in this protest on the day made a significant contribution to the ending of apartheid, though I do believe that the sustained efforts of leaders of the anti-apartheid movement such as Fenner Brockway, Trevor Huddleston and Gordon Brown in the UK did have a major impact.
Had I been the head teacher of my school at the time, how might I have reacted? With a responsibility for managing a school and overseeing the discipline of my students, would I have tolerated the disobedience of the students in my charge? Could I have condoned truancy, no matter what the cause? Did I appreciate at the time the difficulties that I, along with my friends, might have presented to those teachers who spoke up on our behalf?
The wisdom of hindsight is a wonderful thing. I like to think that the experiences of the days surrounding this event contributed something to my education and compensated for the lessons that I missed for one afternoon in January 1970. You may have your own views on this and may indeed be able to see important factors that I have overlooked.