I picked up John Cleese’s autobiography, ‘So Anyway’ the other day. Cleese was at our school some years back when it was used as a film location for the movie ‘Spud’ which he was acting in. I also played alongside Cleese in the movie. When I say played alongside him, I mean I was one of about thirty extras in a scene that he was in. If you look carefully you can just make out the back of my head in the film. Actually I was surprised I was in it at all given what happened during the filming of the scene, that is perhaps a story is for another time, suffice to say that it involved my malfunctioning iPod, an irritated sound technician, an irate director, several takes and an impatient cast including Mr Cleese.
Anyway I wanted to see if Cleese’s book was worth my time reading and if Cleese mentioned the time he was at our school and perhaps even the aforementioned scene. It wasn’t and he doesn’t, but while I was flicking through it I came across a passage about his final year at Clifton College when he was up for selection to be a prefect. He writes, “I walked into North Town (his school house) and strolled up to the notice board to confirm that Mr Williams, my housemaster, had finally made me a house prefect. This was not an unreasonable assumption: in the summer, I’d been in the School XI, captained the House XI, passed three A levels, completely reorganised the house library, played the lead in the house play, and stolen more cricket equipment from the other houses than had ever been nicked before. Besides all my other friends were not merely house prefects, but school praeposters, official Big Cheeses and none of them seemed so vastly superior to me as the discrepancy in our social status would suggest…It never occurred to me that ‘Billy’ Williams would withhold this trial act of recognition any longer.
“But, as you have guessed, he had. I stood there, staring at the blank space where my name should have been, as I experienced first utter disbelief, then hurt, and then contempt”
It is that time of year in our own school when as the boys in the senior year head off to write their final examinations, we appoint a new round of pupils to leadership positions. I am not looking forward to it. Over the years I have sat with countless boys trying to come to terms with the fact that they have not been made prefects. Like Cleese there has been disbelief and hurt, but also tears, frustration, anger and confusion. Like Cleese many of them cannot see how their friends and peers who are really not that much different to themselves suddenly seem to have so much more social status that comes with being a Prefect.
I think part of the problem is that it is such an either, or, winner takes all system. You are either a prefect, or you’re not, with all the privileges and status, or not, that it entails. For many boys it feels like stamp of approval on them, or not. Either validating who they are and their efforts or seemingly ignoring them. Of course we know that being a prefect makes no material difference to your later life, but it does not seem that way to a seventeen year old boy at the time. With a prefect badge and/or tie you are someone, without it you are no one.
Just recently I found myself watching ‘Spud’ on television. This was not to reassure myself that the back of my head was still in the film, but rather because as the father of three teenage boys you often find yourself watching movies of this genre and my eldest is now physically strong enough to ensure I can’t wrestle the remote control out of his hands anymore. For those of you unaware of the books and movies that bear the name of Spud, these are simply the fictional diaries of the life of a boy named John Milton at boarding school in South Africa. This was now the third in the series and along with the usual fare of farting, body parts, alcohol and obsession with sex, a good portion of the film focused on the fact that John Milton and his peers are up for prefect selection.
I popped into our school library after watching the movie to pick up the book. The idea of PFP or Pushing For Prefect is preeminent throughout and refers to the lengths boys will go to in order to impress staff and other boys in order to make convincing case that they should be prefects. It also alludes to the damage done to the relationships of the boys as they compete and jostle for only a limited number of positions. At one point near the end of the book, one of Milton’s friends who goes by the nickname of ‘Garlic’ gives his reasons for wanting to be a prefect:
- Nobody can boss you around
- Tea and snackwiches are made for you whenever you want
- You can tell people that you are a prefect and not be lying
- You never have to make your bed or pick up your laundry
- The prefects room is like having your own private lounge
- Everyone respects you
- You can punish anyone you want whenever you feel like it
- You don’t feel like a loser
- You get a prefect’s tie, which you can wear to a job interview to impress bosses.
- You’re guaranteed to score more chicks
- People take you seriously
- You rule the world.
In the diary when Milton hears his friend recite this list he records, “And then it sank in. I do want to be a prefect. I do want all these things. I also want to be taken seriously and be respected by the other boys…I want to walk around the house like I own the place. I want it all desperately!”
A 17 year old boy wants to be someone, they want respect and to feel that they are taken seriously. It is quite a devastating blow when in their minds they miss out on the one vehicle that they feel can help them achieve this. Many boys, of course, cope with the disappointment well, but there are those who do not. It would be fair to say that some boys can become very difficult in their final year as a result of not being selected for leadership. It is as if the last incentive for good behaviour and attitude has been removed from their lives. In his autobiography, John Cleese shares more about his feelings around not being a prefect, “The hurt was not that I had wanted so much to be a house prefect, that hardly mattered at all. What wounded me was the put down, the undeserved insult. The dull ache of this stab in the ego began to throb, but was suddenly engulfed in an extraordinary upsurge of high minded contempt.”
For Cleese it was a seminal moment, “I believe this moment changed my perspective on the world’. He explains that up until that time understood that those in authority were basically fair, but with his frustration around this event he says, “I started to become sceptical of authority as a whole…I responded rather splendidly, throwing away my North Town cap that very day and borrowing one from Wiseman’s House… and wearing it defiantly throughout my last year at Clifton.” He also started to hate his Housemaster, “Up that point I had tolerated Williams but now I realised that I really disliked him.”
All Housemasters I suspect have seen this sort of behaviour to a greater or lesser extent from disenfranchised boys and with a bit of imagination it is not hard to see why. It is interesting to me that well over 50 years later John Cleese can remember and write about these emotions so vividly.
Times have changed in some ways but there are always problems and issues when it comes to selecting some boys over others in such a value laden arena. So what do we do about it?
- We have to remember what a big deal this is for the boys in our care and that the precarious self-esteem and confidence of a 17 year old boy is a precious and fragile thing.
- We have to be extremely mindful of these young men when we frame and manage the process of leadership selection. The process must recognise both their dignity and emotional capacity.
- We must be honest in acknowledging the flaws in the system and that we too as adults make mistakes.
- We must continue to explore other models of leadership more in step with the modern world, that move away from privilege, control and direction to those which recognise the importance of serving and relationships more suited to leadership today.
- Finally we have to try to bring perspective into the lives of these young men. Whether they are prefects or not is not significant once they leave school and so, either way it should not define their experience at school. For that to happen, as parents and teachers, we have to make sure we first keep perspective on the issue. For parents this means not being overly invested in whether your son is or isn’t a prefect. For staff it means the onus is on us to ensure boys are not put on too high a pedestal by virtue of the fact that they have been chosen for a leadership position.
As the adults in their lives, our boys will need our support and guidance whether they meet with success or failure around leadership selection. As teachers and parents we need to be able to say to them, as Kipling said:
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.”