It was a tough call. 64 boys aged 10 to 20, and only two of us on the staff! Well, it was 40 years ago, and things were often like that.
First thing we did was to break down the numbers into ... how many groups? Well, there were only two of us, so it was easy: grade school and high school. In the “junior” group there were (conveniently) 24, and at one end of the building we had two dormitories with room for about twelve beds each. The older or “senior” group numbered 40 who attended a range of schools from ordinary high schools, technical or trade schools and others. The trick in programming at any time was to identify at least two roughly age-appropriate activities or tasks “and do the best we could.
The kids were tough, and an implacable pecking order was in place, as was the “code” of, what? – survival, brotherhood, honour. Defences were high and the two of us had to spend months of hanging out, listening, talking, doing together, eating together, to soften the edges.
I always remember the first signs that we were gaining precarious toeholds in the granite cliffs which separated “us” and “them” “the barriers which forebade fraternising with the enemy, loosening the grip on the power, belonging, loyalty, which had held them together, embattled, shielded, for over fifty years.
My first “activity” with the “juniors” (aged between 10 and 15) was regularly to read to them at night in one of their dormitories when they were ready for bed. And even though these juniors were a hardy group, between two and four years behind their age group at school, I knew that none of them had ever been read to, so I started at the beginning. Winnie the Pooh, Beatrice Potter, the whole trip. Not one of them left the dormitory. The initial pretending (yawn, yawn, sissy stuff!) didn’t last out the first ten minutes. There wasn’t a sound. They sat, stood, leaned, lay and kneeled, on, between and around the beds, in awe, transfixed, and I knew that we had unearthed the shared, universal human language of stories and characters and make-believe. By Day Two the reading before “lights out" had become an established tradition, omitted at our peril.
The “seniors” scoffed. Complained that we were spoiling the juniors, “girlifying” them, turning them into pansies and softies. The “juniors” resisted these attacks and demanded their stories night after night. It was, at this stage, more than our lives were worth to offer similar services to the seniors. At this stage.
A few short weeks into this activity, one night we were finishing Chapter Two of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and to a chorus of protest I was cajoling “Time for bed, now” when I noticed that there were not 24 kids in the dormitory – but rather more than thirty. And, not sheepishly but naturally and entirely unselfconsciously, eight or nine of the “seniors” were getting up from their places and making for the door to rejoin their own group.
It was a beginning.