Our new school, Tideway, was located high on the Sussex Downs in the south of England. It was still under construction when we were moved from our old school, which was targeted for closure.
There was some benefit to the unfinished school: Piles of neatly stacked bricks destined for future construction provided a refuge we could hide behind to smoke Woodbines and play three-card brag. A downside to the new facility was that for Physical Education, we often spent the hour picking up flints from the newly-levelled soccer pitch so that footballers of the future wouldn’t cut their knees if they fell.
Sometimes, instead of flint clearing, we went cross-country running. For a lazy thirteen-year-old, neither was appealing. On the runs, Eddie and I would hide in the bushes, have a smoke and join the runners as got close to the end of the run.
The boys’ washroom facilities were larger than the old school’s and had five toilet cubicles, instead of two. After a run across the muddy fields, creative Alan Funnell, Fuzz to his friends, took advantage of the increased access by sticking his soiled foot and shoe into the toilet bowl and pulling the chain several times to flush off the clinging mud. The practice became so popular that you had to wait in line for a cubicle after the cross-country run. The sodden feet left multiple wet trails leading out of the washroom.
There were five sinks across from the toilet cubicles. A week after we arrived, liquid soap dispensers were installed above the sinks. Each dispenser had the word Zalpon emblazoned across the front in black letters.
Some fifty years after this event, I wondered if Zalpon still existed and looked it up on Wikipedia: Soft Care Zalpon is a pearlised handwashing product with bacteriostatic properties, made in Nigeria.
Thanks partly to an African country, our new school washroom was a bastion of increased cleanliness possibilities—not only did we have a larger capacity to flush off muddy running shoes, but there were five stations to ensure bacteriostatic hands. Zalpon was ejected onto the hand by pulling a stainless steel lever directly beneath the dispenser. We found if the hand was wet, a violent pull on the lever would ricochet a blob of Zalpon off the hand and across the room. If the hand was angled towards the door, with some practice, you could hit unsuspecting classmates dropping in for a piddle.
Zalpon’s description as being pearlised sounds elegant but just meant it was sticky—sticky enough that you could carry two or three shots in your hand without it dripping off. It was also colourless, meaning you could wipe it on someone’s chair without it being noticed, at least in the beginning. About two weeks after the Zalpon installation, students inspected all seating surfaces before sitting down.
One day Eddie Hubbard and I got to school early, an unusual event, but one we decided to use creatively. We were often urged by our teachers to “apply yourselves.” We realised there was one surface that the bacteriostatic soap had not been applied to, the metal push panels on the doors. Old style doorknobs were no longer used in our new school. All doors were opened by metal push panels.
We filled two paper cups to the brim with Zalpon and smeared liberal portions on every door panel we could find. Much of the school population would soon have bacteria-free hands, sticky bacteria-free hands. We sat on the stairs and watched the results of our labours as people walked through the doors: The girls squealed loud “Oohs,” as their clean feminine hands came into contact with unidentified slime. The boys swore, “What the….?” and then laughed as they got it. The teachers said nothing but pursed their lips and looked angry. We saw Mr. Higgs sniff the substance on his hand then covertly wipe it off in his pocket.
The best was yet to come: In the once-a-week school assembly, where all the students piled into the gym, our deed got an honourable mention, an anonymous honourable mention — the best kind. We used to sing a hymn in assembly, followed by vice principal, Sid Ray, announcing upcoming events, and then, last but best — news of student misdeeds. They’d recently dropped the hymns. Too bad, I liked singing, especially “Morning has broken.” It got your lungs working and opened up your heart to the day.
I didn’t like Sid Ray. He was a short, bald, ex-navy disciplinarian, maths teacher who had once slapped me in the face for ‘looking arrogant.’ I enjoyed seeing Sid on the stage feeling uncomfortable in front of everyone. We knew, and he knew, he was powerless to find out whodunnit. His brisk, military-style voice barked down to the one hundred and thirty-two upturned student faces. “Some person, or persons unknown, thinks it’s funny to smear liquid soap all over the door panels.” Hearing explicit details of our deeds officially announced in Sid’s sonorous tones made it even funnier. Eddie and I convulsed silently, our stomachs heaving, our lips pursed, hoping we didn’t look any different from our comrades; we didn’t, they were also trying to contain their mirth.
“This sort of… of behaviour, this very stupid behaviour will stop, immediately.” He leaned forward and yelled. “And whomever is responsible will be punished.” Ha, you wish Sid! You haven’t a hope in hell of finding out. Students one, Sid zero.
Then, one day when I was sixteen, one ordinary windy day with white clouds billowing across the sky in June, at quarter-to-four, I walked through the schoolyard gates for the last time. Washroom pranks, Zalpon soap, smoking behind the bricks, and eluding teacher surveillance were over for ever.
I had learned random facts about the world: red blood cells carried oxygen, Ghana exported bauxite, and mercury wouldn’t freeze. But facts aren’t wisdom. The most valuable knowledge had been acquired outside the shiny new classrooms. The rough and tumble of teenage years taught me to value the warmth of friendship and the healing salve of humour, that I should question everything, and to stand up for myself if attacked — life-rings for the choppy waters ahead.
My school days are long passed; dear Eddie left us at age 18. But even as an elder, I still have fond memories of school friends and the giddy laughter of youth as healing balm on my journey towards becoming a person.