I went to Scots College primary school.
When I was in Form One the whole junior school put on a production of Oliver. In Form Two we did Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat. In each production there were the kids cast into roles who appeared on stage, and the rest of the school who formed the chorus. I was in the chorus where everyone who couldn’t sing, or was shy was relegated. Both of those musicals featured a song with a long list in it. In Oliver there was a list of foods that orphans would like to eat. In Joseph it was a list of the colours of the coat. In both cases the headmaster, who was a charismatic fuckwit, liked to scream at the chorus for not perfectly remembering these lists in our rehearsals. He was a nasty little man.
Oliver is a perfect musical for a boys’ school because there are so many boys in it. Of course there is one key female role. Nancy is a pivotal and tragic role; a victim of domestic violence who comes through in the end (prostitute with a heart of gold kind of stuff). At our school it was absolutely inevitable who would be cast as Nancy, and everyone’s expectations were fulfilled by the casting teachers.
My first really clear memory of J was of being driven to his birthday. There was a group of us in a car, just coming over the rise out of Marsden Village and then down into Karori proper, and we were looking at the wondrous image of Madonna on the cover of Like A Virgin which is all bustier and swept over hair. Being prepubescent boys there was something both stimulating and confusing about Madonna and this cover. In the unlikely event that one of us had stumbled into the scene that the album cover depicted we wouldn’t have had a clue what to actually do and what ensued would have been less like sex fantasy and more like T-Rex encounters rabbit.
On the other hand there was her fabulous music which was all shimmery pop confection; a bit cold, a bit hot, and very cool. Madonna has made a lot of successful shifts in her career since but for me nothing has topped her first flare across the night sky: Get Into the Groove, Like A Virgin, Crazy for You and Dress You Up.
J was bullied a lot at school. He was not what a Scots’ boy was supposed to be. He wasn’t good at sport, or interested in it. He was thin, and feminine, and interested in acting and singing, and without sufficient nous to hide the fact. When you wanted him to just catch the ball he would flinch. That flinch earned him the scorn of his peers, and – worse – the scorn of some of the teachers. There was one particularly hirsute teacher who loved to humiliate people who didn’t conform. He was not a caricature, and like the headmaster he had good points, and the capacity to be kind, or to see the funny side, but his normal disposition was to isolate and humiliate the outsider. Of course, once a teacher is seen to be doing that, it becomes open season for most of the students.
I sometimes went to J’s house. He was an only child like me, with a single parent like me, and I think his dad fancied my mother (a feeling that was not reciprocated). His house was huge and mostly empty. When I was with him I enjoyed it, and we got a long fine. He was a nice guy and I was not overly macho myself. Not that I remember us doing anything in particular other than bouncing on his trampoline. I wasn’t, though, sufficiently sure of myself to be too much of his friend at school. He was, after all, one of the few boys who kept me off the very bottom of the social ladder. The last thing I was going to do was openly side with him in public. Social self-preservation kicked in.
It was J who was cast as Nancy in our production of Oliver.
When we finally performed Oliver the audience reacted to Nancy boy in a specific way: when J. first came on they would quietly titter – “look, a boy dressed as a female prostitute” – but by the end of Nancy’s big number, and death, that same audience would give him a big hand. J. was very good as Nancy. Aside from being able to sing, and being a decent actor, he was – as I said before – quite effeminate, so he carried off the whole thing with great aplomb. Curiously it turned into his triumph. The school which had previously tacitly accepted his bullying now celebrated the things that made him a target for that very bullying. It was expedient. Cynical. Probably not thought about in too much detail.
I was pleased for him. But, you know, I kept my head down. Complicit to the end.
This week at the secondary school where I teach we are having a Pride Week. When I drove past my school today – a Sunday – I saw it flying the LGBT flag and I felt very proud. When I went to school with J the idea of a school flying that flag or having a Pride Week would have been totally unthinkable. Totally unacceptable. There are a lot of hateful things in the world at the moment, but this might be a good time to acknowledge some progress in the area of love. Progress not triumph. Progress and not total victory, but a little progress.
Here’s to love.