Imperfect Prefects – Part 1

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.

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 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.

Here in a ‘Chums’ Annual from 1934 prefects are clearly distinguishable by their blazers.

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.

As John Cleese says, “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.”

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. Validating who they are 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.

For Cleese it was a seminal moment, “I believe this moment changed my pperspective on the world’. He explains that up until that time he understood that those in authorfileity 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 to 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. I think it is important to recognise that a prefect system:

  1. can cause resentment and hurt
  2. creates at least as many losers as winners
  3. has the potential to divide peer groups

Then when it comes to 17 and 18 year old boys, can they ever be equipped for the disappointment that comes with not being selected? Can they really manage the responsibility if they are? More on that in Part 2.

It is noteworthy that John Cleese can remember and write about these experiences and emotions so vividly over 50 years after the fact. We take this matter lightly at our peril.


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