There is a certainty about state institutions that ingrains itself over time in the minds of everyone in any way connected to such a place. When you’re the new kid, trying to slot into a place with a bunch of strange, new people – most of them the kind of kid your parents have always fought vociferously for you to stay away from – you have no way of knowing what’s in store. But they do.
Ever watched a movie in which the protagonist gets sent to prison? The way the seasoned inmates circle like a pack of hungry hyenas? It’s really like that. They’re sizing you up, watching you to see how you’ll adapt to the setting you find yourself in, looking for any signs of weakness that can be exploited along the way. Trying to figure out where you’ll fall into the pecking order. Deciding whether you’re worth getting to know.
Because there is definitely a pecking order and no matter how unique you think you are, when you become a ward of the state, nothing about you belongs to you anymore.
Once the pleasantries were out f the way, my father suitably satisfied that I was in capable hands, the tone switched quickly from Summer Camp to No Nonsense. I was escorted with my belongings to “Die Wassery”, where everything I’d brought with me was unpacked for me. I was issued with a number – 59 – which was to become my “identification” number for the duration of my stay. Everything I owned or was issued was marked with this number, including bedsheets and blankets. My clothes were stored in a locker marked with my number and from this, one of the women we knew as “was tannies” would issue 3 sets of clothing along with a school tunic – a thick, scratchy, royal blue crimplene number, formless and beltless, as if someone in the system had picked up a few pointers from the Magdalene nuns. Can’t have a bunch of sexually charged pre-pubescent females running around drawing attention to their bodies! From this moment, the Transvaal Education Department would ordain my every activity, portion and ration everything I would eat or drink, decree my sleeping and waking hours and be my constant companion, day in and day out, with the exception of school holidays and family weekends.
Mostly, it was okay. It was okay to have a set and rigid routine because a) EVERYONE had the same routine b) knowing exactly what is expected of you all the time helps you to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble and c) as a child, you’re kind of used to having your life dictated to you anyway. At least, you did if you were a primary school kid in the 1980’s and early 90’s.
And yet, to think on it now I can’t help but wonder whether thinking that way is the effect of having undergone that institutionalisation…?
It seems to me that, once in the care of the state, there was only one direction to go and nothing I could have said or done would have changed the course of events to follow. Everything from that point on would be decided by someone else.
The school ostensibly being a place of rehabilitation, there were of course measures in place through which its charges’ behaviour was supposedly to be modified. I’ve mentioned the psych visits before. Those, combined with a weekly report based on teachers’ constant monitoring and evaluation of us, would see each of us placed in one of four groups each week, labelled from A to D.
Placement in group A meant that a child had behaved in model fashion, complying with any and all expectations and requests made of him, etc.
Group B was what you’d expect: 2nd place.
In group C, you were bordering on trouble and in group D your behaviour was utterly unacceptable.
Those who made group A would be given R2 on the Friday afternoon of that week and be permitted a 2 hour “pass” into town.
Those in group D would have all privileges revoked, such as they were, and the rest of the school were discouraged from associating with them.
I struggled a lot with myself, wanting to enjoy rewards and earn my way back into “normal” society while hating the powerlessness of being a child, forced to conform to someone else’s defiition of “acceptable”.
Luckily for me, I’d had plenty of practice, having lived under my father’s wife’s thumb for years before they’d decided to ship me off to reform school. But that’s a whole other part of the story.
So this was the general way of things, inside of which there were many smaller controls and systems. That’s the thing about how institutionalisation works – It’s such a slow and insidious process, you don’t even know it’s happening….