The Boys from St. Ambrose

The recent series streamed from Showmax and set in a fictional all girls’ boarding school in the Midlands leads to some important reflections for its non-fictitious all male counterparts.

It is not often that I get to binge watch a series set in a school. As a teacher it is intriguing to see the way that educational institutions are portrayed by the entertainment industry and perhaps how we as a profession are viewed by those outside. ‘The Girl from St. Agnes’ allows just that and it doesn’t make for a comfortable watch.

Not only is this a school based drama but it is a South African school based drama, specifically a single sex boarding school based drama. The only other one is the movie ‘Spud’ and I can think of nothing worse (except for Spud 2 and 3). Essentially then, for me as an educator, in a school of similar ‘genre’, this makes it compulsive viewing.

I am four episodes in and there is enough so far to believe that someone with inside knowledge of these types of schools has been involved. However if this were a realistic portrayal of education and the teaching profession we would all be in a lot of trouble.

Quad at night

The premise is a missing school girl, later found dead (spoiler alert) and the consequent unravelling of what came before. The unravelling seems to be left somewhat inexplicably, to the Drama teacher. A part, ironically, unconvincingly acted.

Well I think she teaches Drama given that I haven’t seen her do anything  yet that resembles teaching. It’s a good three hours into the eight hour series before there’s even a clue that any of the St. Aggies girls or educators get involved in anything as mundane as a lesson. The first hint of any marking only comes in Episode 4, although that’s not surprising given there can’t have been much work to mark.

Instead the teachers, if that is what they are, spend a lot of time doing yoga (I’m no yogi but they seem quite good at it) and taking lots of smoke breaks, although I am not sure what they are breaking from. As well as these onerous activities there is also a lot of cathartic running through the woods with tortured expressions on their faces. I’m not sure what to read into that given that’s my default expression under any form of physical duress.

Perhaps such angst stems from the fact that just about all of the adults have, or are suspected of, inappropriate relationships with their pupils. A Chaplain who you wouldn’t want to lay hands on you, a Headmaster with a more than close relationship with his head girl and a security officer who clearly isn’t doing his job properly given the premise of the story.

The issues that we face in high school do impact our lives … For men at school, for boys at school, be aware of your actions towards the females at school.”

And then of course there’s the boys from the neighbouring school of St. Ambrose. Ah the boys. We are first introduced to them on the bus as they roll into town heading to the Valentine’s Day dance, happily singing misogynistic songs. Delightful. So far, apart from this scene, the boys’ involvement has been (mercifully) limited to beating up a teacher and lashing each other (mercilessly) with a cricket bat, for reasons I can’t quite fathom.

Despite such relatively few appearances I can’t shake the feeling that the boys are not out of the woods yet. When it comes to the dead girl there have been enough hints to suggest that the boys’ behaviour and abusive, sexist attitudes are at least in part to blame.

I listened to a recent interview with Celeste Khumalo the actor who plays Kholwa, the head girl, “The issues that we face in high school do impact our lives … For men at school, for boys at school, be aware of your actions towards the females at school.”

Given such a warning when I find the time (I’ don’t work at St. Agnes) to watch the conclusion of the series I shall do so with some apprehension as to the boys’ role in it. In our society males are too often permitted and even encouraged to act in ways that are harmful to others, male and female alike.

When I think of our boys (from St. Ambrose or elsewhere) I know they are more than this. That we have to tackle beliefs and behaviours that damage them as well as the women and girls in their life. We love these guys and want them to be the best versions of themselves, not a pale caricature of hegemonic manhood. ‘The Girl from St. Agnes’ is a reminder that attitudes effect actions, and actions have consequences. For boys and males to look in this virtual mirror and reflect on theirs is no bad thing.

More to follow…

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