Part 1: The first hurdles

THE FIRST HURDLES
Written by Bert Plomp
Translated by Helena Clarkson

When in the beginning of September 1963, I placed my then still far from robust young shoulder against the gigantic front door of the main entrance of the RHBS-secondary school on the Kruisstraat in Utrecht in order to move that door inwards, while at the same time I attempted to push down with all my might the handle of that huge door. I realized then, that with opening this heavy old creaky door I was standing on the threshold of a new and perhaps somewhat nerve wrecking chapter of my life, that was about to begin. As soon as the colossal door collapsed under my weight and allowed an ever so slight narrow opening, I inhaled a smell of a mixture of sweet adolescent sweat, turtle-wax and pungent
Cigarette smoke, in short; a delightful blend of odors traveled up my young nostrils.
The day in question was not yet a real school day, but a day to collect the schedule and the so-called book list. That list contained all the textbooks to the most recent print, which would be used by our instructors to teach their curriculum, in which they would go into much more detail over the coming year to prepare their future academic students. It was important for pupils to have the most recent publication, because a somewhat older print version could cause a fair bit of confusion. Publishers and everyone else who earned a living in that business, already realized that lots of money could be made with every small change in the text-book compared to the penultimate edition, however insignificant.
When I appeared on the Kruisstraat that particular Friday and looked across the street of the RHBS, I sadly recalled how my parents had cruelly banished me from home and family a few years earlier and had sent me to spend my summer vacation at a colony for pale faced youngsters low on vitamin D, in order to get some sun and fresh sea air into their lungs to improve general health. I was a little boy then, but now I was fourteen years old and I would join the second grade RHBS. A few years earlier, after a rather pathetic try, I had tried to get admitted to this prestigious school through the regular entrance exam; but at that time it was very important from what kind of family background you came from, as well as which school you attended and this combination could make or break you later on for a successful career. To be honest, I must admit that I did not have a cat in hell’s chance to pass that exam then. I lacked maturity as well as personal motivation at the time and there was absolutely no encouraging parental support and zero effort from my former elementary school teachers to prepare us for this tough entrance exam. So, like many of my classmates, I finished up going to a bit lower level school “the Mulo” instead. After two years of following this form of education with good result, I was now able to transfer to the Kruisstraat for another stab at the prestigious RHBS.
When I had finally managed to open that gigantic door far enough, so I could slip in unnoticed, there stood a pontifically dressed individual in a neatly pressed custodian uniform in my way, who prevented me from walking any further. He pompously announced that his name was Master Van der Kuile and I was now privileged to meet up with the “auxiliary concierge” of the school of higher learning: the Rijks Hogere Burger School. Although I would ask nowadays: “Oh yeah dear auxiliary concierge, can you just show me some ID, so I can believe you really are who you say you are? I was not yet mature enough to figure out the importance or lack thereof, regarding the man’s job. Much later, when I became aware of his nickname “poop-eye” and I had to deal with him on a daily basis, I probably would have answered him with a more inappropriate “smart-alecky” comment.
After successfully taking the exact instructions of the assistant custodian and following them verbatim by using the left stairs to the first floor and not the right staircase, which was intended only for members of the fair sex, I hesitated halfway down the first floor because there the two flights of stairs met up in one flight, but then eventually became two-way traffic. I finally ended up in a classroom with a provisional sign 2A attached to the door. The classroom was filled with boys and girls, with whom I would enter the school adventure in the coming year. After a very modest acquaintance on my part: as I did not know any of the students present, while most of them knew each other from an earlier school year, I quickly then left with the book list in my hand on the way to a special school book store in the center of the city. After searching around for hours, I had collected almost all books. They were exclusively second-hand books and certainly not in the category “as good as new”, let alone falling under the category of last print edition. It was a huge collection of crumpled decrepit old textbooks: in those days we were taught in eighteen different subjects. There was no budget to buy those books new and I considered that if ninety percent of the contents of the book were unchanged, then I certainly would be able to improvise on the 10% that had changed.
I had to wing it a lot anyway during that time. For example, for mathematics I did not always have a compass. I found it rather amusing to dig with a lot of fanfare and hocus pocus a series of round jars and cans at the beginning of the lesson from my school bag. Like an accomplished magician, I would place all these odd items on my desk, which always caused a certain amount of hilarity. My bag was not really a schoolbag, it was an old military kitbag that barely survived the Second World War and I had bought it at the flea market on the Paardenveld in Utrecht. And, to be fair, that desk was not an office desk, but an old-fashioned wooden school desk with a “pock marked” slanted work area due to some messy graffiti by bored former students. The chair and writing top were attached in this unique antique furniture. Two students did share one desk, and, in my case, I was seated next to my schoolfriend Jaap van der Heide. If the two of you were sitting in that school bench and you imagined a winter landscape around you, you had the feeling that you were in a horse sleigh.

TO BE CONTINUED

For more free stories and columns, sign up on my FB-page:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/377554749281077/