My first day of school in New Zealand wasn’t going very well.
Me being a tall, gawky kind of kid freshly arrived from America, I didn’t fit in.
After causing much hilarity in Geography class, where I knew nothing of the southern hemisphere and couldn’t pronounce the Maori place names, and History class where it was the same thing, I got along to my next class, 5 Ac II English.
English. At least I spoke that. But guess what? Only having been in New Zealand a couple of weeks I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. They spoke so fast and used words I didn’t recognize.
My usual response to any question was, “Huh?”
Which made everyone laugh at the dumb yank new boy.
Unlike morning Assembly, with its repressive atmosphere, or Geography or History where I didn’t know what they were talking about, I enjoyed Mr Olinski’s class. He was a good teacher, I thought, and the hour in English flew by on wings.
Mr Olinski was speaking to the class, when in through the door stepped Henry. As Henry waited to interrupt Mr Olinski his eyes scanned the classroom. Seeing me, he laughed derisively.
“Blimey!” he guffawed. “What happened to you?”
The class looked from him to me and they laughed.
I had got a terrible haircut, that’s what had happened to me. It made everybody laugh.
I had met Henry before, last week when we had taken an intelligence test to see which form we would be placed in at school. We were both new students. He was from England, I was from America. At sixteen-years-old, he was two years older than me.
I had had a haircut since we had met and it was my haircut that had surprised and shocked him. It had surprised and shocked me too. It was a hideous haircut, called a ‘short back and sides’ but no name could do it justice. On the day I had taken the intelligence test I had been ordered by the assistant headmaster to get my hair cut before I would be allowed to attend school.
Unfortunately, a joke had been played on me and I received a haircut normally reserved for inmates of the lunatic asylum.
You might have read about it in the book I wrote, HOLD THE BEETROOT.
Henry handed Mr Olinski a slip of paper. In that instant, while Mr Olinski’s head was down reading, Henry twisted towards the class and made a silly face, screwing up his nose, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue.
The class erupted in raucous laughter. Mr Olinski looked up at the class, then over at Henry. By then Henry had composed his face. Now, with his innocent eyes gazing heavenward and a look of modesty adorning his face, Henry looked every inch the pious schoolboy.
“Very well,” said Mr Olinski to Henry, unimpressed. “Please take a seat.”
Henry took a seat and the lesson continued.
There sat Henry, slouching in his chair with one leg outstretched and his chin in his hand. He looked bored. I noticed his hair had been cut since I had seen him, but it wasn’t cut by much. It was nowhere near as short as mine.
But then, nobody’s was.
I laughed to myself when I recalled that Henry had predicted, before the intelligence test, that he would easily be in a class higher than me, two classes higher probably, when the bell in the hallway outside started ringing.
Class was over.
I gathered up my things. Before I had even managed to get to the door, Henry had caught me up and was jabbering away.
“Blimey! Who butchered you?” he snorted, indicating my hair. “And how’d you get in the advanced class with me?”
We weren’t in any advanced class. It was just 5 Ac II English with Mr Olinski. I changed the subject. “I’ll tell you if you tell me how you passed the haircut inspection this morning.”
“The what? Haircut inspection? Missed it, I reckon. I got here late.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“Trouble at home mate,” he explained. “Wif me Mum. Missed Assembly completely. When I got to school I was told to report straight here, and here I am.”
He made a theatrical bow. It was a natural gesture, with tremendous charm.
Standing up, Henry sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I won’t be in this bloody school long, anyway,” he bragged, looking around him with disgust. “What a dump! I’m just killing time here until me Mum goes back to London. She’s got a posh new boyfriend back home and I’m going to live with them.”
Henry breezily told me all this in his cocky way, as if he were a movie star allowing me a glimpse into his beautiful, fabulous, jet-setting life. It sounded like a tall tale to me, especially with the braggadocio with which Henry told it, but I suppose stranger things have happened. He talked about how good things were going to be back home in England.
“Then it’ll be the sweet life for me, mate!” Henry bragged. “London. It’s so much better than here!”
‘So much better than here.’ That comment stung me, because I realized I was beginning to think that way myself and I didn’t like the way it sounded when Henry said it out loud. I noted it’s negativity and snobbishness, two things I detested, and imagined how insulting it would sound in a New Zealander’s ear. Of course, Henry didn’t think he was being insulting or snobbish or negative. He wasn’t even bragging. He was just giving me the facts, enlightening me as best he could while preoccupied as he was with his own sweet life.
“Yeah, he’s loaded,” continued Henry. “Owns a cinema on the High Street and a pub on the Lower Side. He’s promised me me own car, too, soon’s I get a license. Yeah, that’s nuffink to him. A little motorcar? Nuffink mate!”
By now we had reached the end of the hallway.
I pushed open the doors and stepped outside into the sunlight.
“Sounds great,” I said. “What kind of car do you think you’ll get?”
It was lunchtime. Students gathered to sit together at tables or under trees.
“Hey you wanna have lunch together?” asked Henry.
“Sure,” I replied.
My first day of school in New Zealand was half over.