There was a time, quite a few years ago, when I used to cover provincial swimming for this newspaper.
It mainly involved going to the national aquatic championships each year and something happened at one of those events that came to mind while dealing with the reaction to my chirp last week about the ranking of the top schools in Africa.
In those days the championships would conclude with a compulsory formal dinner attended by all the swimmers and at which prizes were handed out.
There was a donated trophy for the winner of every championship race. I’m not sure that they still have those, but I do know they no longer have that presentation dinner: a combination of rising costs and the poor behaviour of the swimmers, schoolkids, mostly, who tended to drink too much on a night when the tension of all that training was lifted, put paid to that.
It was tradition for all the competitors to wear their “number ones” to the dinner - blazer and tie for the boys, skirt and blazer for the girls, including green-and-gold blazers for those with national colours.
I sat there watching swimmer after swimmer go up to collect their trophies, without a single one bothering to collect their blazers from the chairs they had drooped them over before meeting the dignatory making the presentation - not even those prized green-and-gold ones that they probably didn’t get much opportunity to wear.
Then, at a table next to ours, a young man heard his name being called out, donned his then-Northern Transvaal blazer, neatly buttoned it up, and went to have his hand shaken. I had to ask when he came back: “What school are you at?” His reply: “Pretoria Boys’ High.”
It’s really not a big deal, I guess, but looking back, the incident epitomises the sorts of things schools like that insist on.
It was Pretoria Boys’ High that time, but it could have been any one of a number of the traditional schools I have interacted with over the years.
It’s an insistence on doing the basics right, and it plays a big part in the success those schools enjoy in everything they do.
I’ll give you another example. I was asked last year by SA Rugby to take a former Australian international player to visit a rugby school. He was a retired teacher over here to watch the Wallabies, and he wanted to get a feel for local education and schools rugby.
So I took him to Jeppe High School for Boys. His wife, also a teacher all her life, came with us, and on the way back to their hotel much later she expressed her amazement that every schoolboy she came across throughout the day had a polite “Good afternoon, ma’am” for her.
You don’t get that at Australian schools, she told me. Well, you don’t get it at all Joburg schools either.
Not long after that day I went to one of our biggest northern suburbs co-ed schools and I genuinely feared for my safety as I made my way, against the flow of foot traffic, admittedly, away from the ground at the end of the game I had watched. No polite greetings there.
It’s an educational version of New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken window” policy at work.
Pupils who take pride in their appearance and who have had the importance of good manners drilled into them will find it easier to do what’s required to succeed on the sports field, in the classroom, and in every aspect of school life.
Sure, I’ve been talking about the posh, well-resourced schools, but these things obviously don’t only happen there. I sometimes see boys who attend the school I used to teach at years ago in the streets around town and I can tell you they are better turned out and take a lot more pride in their uniform than the pupils in my day, who came from far wealthier homes than they do.
It ought to be one of the categories that are evaluated when they draw up those “top school” rankings.
“Are the pupils neatly dressed and do they greet you?” Discover a school where you find that and, I’d wager, they do most of the other things properly too.