Imperfect Prefects – Part 2

When it comes to 17 and 18 year old boys, can they cope with the disappointment that comes with not being made a prefect? Can they really manage the responsibility if they are? This post is a continuation of  Imperfect Prefects – Part 1

One weekend I found myself watching ‘Spud’ on television. Not out of choice but as the father of three boys these things can happen. For those of you unaware of the books and movies that bear the name Spud, these are the diaries of a fictional John Milton while at boarding school in South Africa. This particular movie was now the third in the series and along with the usual fare of farting, alcohol, fascination with body parts 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.

Tom Brown Intiation
Illustration from Tom Brown’s Schooldays

On the following Monday morning I popped into our school library 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 impress staff and other boys in order to make a 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 a limited number of positions. At one point near the end of the book, one of Milton’s friends 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!”

This excerpt from the book and the feelings associated with it ring eerily true even today. While times have changed in some ways there are always problems and issues when it comes to selecting some boys over others in such a value laden arena. 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.file1

For those that are chosen, many grapple to understand what is truly required of leaders. We are expecting a lot from a 17 year old who is quite naturally only just learning to lead themselves, let alone others. Private and personal leadership must come before public leadership and most boys haven’t got there yet. There are some exceptional boys who can manage this, but they are just that: the exception.

So what do we do about it?

  1. Be realistic. A 17 year old boy is not allowed to vote, buy alcohol or drive on their own (for good reason) and yet we give them that most difficult and complex of tasks: leadership. Many are simply not ready for this and revert to the list above or model themselves on previous prefects (revert to the list above). Any leadership model in school must support and clearly guide these apprentice leaders and put in place scaffolding and boundaries to limit the consequences of mistakes that will be made.
  2. 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. The process of choosing leaders must recognise both the dignity and emotional capacity of all boys.
  3. We must remove the link between leadership and privilege. Specifically privilege that comes at the expense of others. Having the right to demand tea and toasted sandwiches for example, bears no or little resemblance to leadership, at least not the kind the world needs today.
  4. We need to create or reinforce the link between leadership and service. And not the one where people serve you as the leader. Rather we should require a relationship where the leader seeks to encourage, support, empower, grow and develop those around him.
  5. Finally we have to try to bring perspective into the lives of these young men. Whether they are prefects or not is insignificant once they leave school and so, either way, it should not define their experience at school. 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 that boys chosen for leadership are not put on a pedestal.

Spud was based on the author’s experience of his school days around a quarter of a century ago. Tell me we have moved on since then? Please.


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