Age is also in the Eye of the Beholder

©2012 Edward C. Lunnon

Friday 18 May 2012: 5 years 8 months on … Deuce

For some time now I have been reading up on the history of the Grey Institute (which was the fore-runner of today’s Grey High and Grey Junior Schools in Port Elizabeth).

The history of “The Institute” is, to a large degree, the history of our city, Port Elizabeth, which we all know commenced when the 1820 Settlers landed here on the shores of Algoa Bay from Britain almost 200 years ago.

Why this interest in history?

Firstly, because it would appear to me that the older one becomes the more you pay an interest in your past. And when you have a terminal illness and you are facing the end of your earthly journey, that past starts playing an even more important role in your life.

But, secondly, the reason for reading so much is because Lindsay Pearson, headmaster of Grey Junior asked me many years ago now (I must admit) to try and settle an age-old dilemma: just how old is Grey Junior School?

So, I have spent many hours reading and delving into the past.

There are many books, many records and many stories.

In the final analysis, the age of the school is in the eye of the beholder … why do I say this?

The human race has developed many conventions over the years that we all accept as fact. For example, we all accept that the age of a person is calculated from the day that person was born – their birth date which becomes their birthday!

 An argument could be made that the age could be calculated from the date of that person’s conception, i.e. add nine months to everyone’s age currently calculated from their conventional birthday and make them just a little bit older!

Another argument could be made, as in the case of our youngest son Phillip who was born at twenty seven weeks (some three months prematurely), that his age should be calculated from his supposed birth date in September 1995 rather than the July 1995 in which he was born. In which case, we would have to subtract three months from his current age of 16 years and 10 months and make him just a little bit younger! (Bad luck for that pending learner’s licence at age 17!)

However, we all accept the convention – human age is calculated from date of birth. No arguments!

Not so in the case of schools. There is just no publicly accepted convention that determines when a school is born and hence what event starts its age clock ticking.

In most cases, schools (or rather the people that manage them) determine arbitrarily what event to use as their date of birth. It all depends on how old they want to be – do they want to be wise and aged (like a good whiskey) and to be seen as the doyen of those schools around them, or are they vain (like humans) and pretend to be “Forever Young”.

So, in the case of Grey Bloemfontein, for example, in order to make themselves the patriarch of the pack, they adopted the date (1855) on which Sir George Grey wrote out a personal cheque in order to establish the school in Bloemfontein as their birthday.

Queen’s College in Queenstown uses, as their birth date, the date (1858) when the Cape Colony government took over an already existing private school.

Grey High Port Elizabeth originally used, as their birth date, the day in 1859 on which classes commenced in the new Institute Building that was erected on The Hill. They celebrated their 50th birthday in 1909 and then sometime, thereafter, decided to make themselves three years older when they adopted 4 June 1856 as their birth date. That was the date on which the bill establishing the Grey Institute, ”Act No 6, 1856: An Act for Regulating the Public Schools in Port Elizabeth upon the Grey Foundation”, was passed in Parliament in Cape Town and signed into law (assented to) by Sir George Grey, the then Governor of the Cape Colony.

So where does the current Grey Junior School fit in?

In trying to make a valid decision, one’s mind tends to be clouded by the educational terms, rules, policies and conventions of today. However, one needs to take the following into consideration:

In the years 1820 onwards, Port Elizabeth was in a British colony at the southern tip of Africa known as the Cape Colony. There was not a united South Africa until 1910.

There were no structured education departments, school boards, school committees, governing bodies, etc, as we know them today. Privately established schools were the order of the day. Each often determined its own policies and procedures, and these were usually left in the hands of individual teachers and headmasters, and church ministers and town councillors. Over the years, these establishing principles developed into uniform policies and educational standards that we are accustomed to today.    

Port Elizabeth was a little village of only some thirty years old when discussions were started to create some educational order and to establish a new government school. The total population of the village was some 2000 people – less than the number of people (teachers and staff) who today occupy the Mill Park campus of the Grey Schools!

Children often went to school when they were as young as four years of age and most of them left by the age of twelve to go and work. Words like Elementary School in those days referred to those very youngsters and High School referred to children often from as young as eight to twelve years old. (The change-over from Elementary to High was not determined by age but by ability – to read, write and do arithmetic. The change-over criteria constantly altered over the years. Standards (Grades, as we know them today), jockeyed up and down – sometimes being part of the elementary school and sometimes part of the high school.)

Be that as it may, then, when the Act to establish the Grey Institute was assented to in 1856, it made provision for elementary and a high school. In fact, the “elementary” school opened its doors to learning on 1 February 1859, two months prior to classes starting in the “high school” on 4 April 1859.

From the beginning, the elementary “feeder” school to the “senior” high school was housed in the same Institute building (the current MSC head office on the Port Elizabeth Donkin.) As the dividing line, the requirements and enrolment of the senior school changed, the physical location of the elementary school changed.

Over the years, the Elementary Division (School) moved in the same building from one floor to another and from one wing to another.

In later years it moved from that original Institute Building to another totally separate building, and then back to that Institute Building when the High School moved in 1915 to the present Mill Park campus. Finally, when it too outgrew the Institute Building, it also moved in 1930 to its present Mill Park Building on the joint school campus.

During all of those years, the Elementary School Division was in a lesser or greater manner under the authority of the High School Division, but both being parts of the “Grey Institute”.

In 1930, when standardised Union of South Africa educational policies required change, the Grey High School and Grey Junior School came into being as two autonomous schools – each with its own School Committee.

So when was Grey Junior School born? How long is a piece of string?

With no standardised convention in place, the “date of birth” becomes a subjective decision.

It could be:

  • ·         The day when John Patterson established the first public school in Port Elizabeth (1841)
  • ·         The day when a decision was made to establish the Grey Institute (1855)
  • ·         The day when the bill was passed in Parliament to establish the Institute (1856)
  • ·         The day when classes started on The Hill (1859)
  • ·         The day when the elementary division “moved down the road” to a separate building (1908)
  • ·         The day when the division moved back into the Institute Building by itself (1915)
  • ·         The day when it moved to the Mill Park campus (1930)
  • ·         The day when it became the autonomous “Grey Primary School” (1931)

My view is that Grey Junior School grossly underestimates its age as being a “youngster” of 82. 

If wisdom and experience come with age then it should put itself up there in the company with the schools and the sages of time, as does Grey High School.  It should recognize its birth date as 4 June 1856, the date of the passing of that bill that founded the Grey Institute and would change the educational landscape of Port Elizabeth and indeed South Africa forever.

In the case of human beings, no one would argue that separated Siamese Twins should consider their birthday as the day on which they were separated and commenced living autonomously.

Least of all, would we argue that one’s birth date was the day on which it was born and the other’s the day on which it was separated from its twin.

To me, it makes perfect sense to argue that Siamese twin’s age is calculated from their date of birth rather than their date of separation.

My vote: Grey Junior was born in 1856 together with its twin Grey High (maybe with just two months head start and experience on the High School if one considers when each started breathing with commencement of classes!).

I can’t wait to see at the top of Grey Junior School letterheads: “Founded in 1856”!

Happy 156th Birthday, Grey Junior School, next month on Monday 4 June 2012!


By the way, as we are talking birthdays:

Happy 20th birthday Sean, on Sunday 20 May 2012.

(That is, of course, if we are calculating your birthday from when you were born in 1992 and not from the previous August in 1991 when you were conceived!)

(When I received my health news six years ago, I had never hoped to see you leave your teens. We are both truly blessed to be able to celebrate another milestone together. See you at your 21st next year!)