Read of the Week

Before the wax melts

Keith Richardson


Review: Karen Watkins

The compulsory age of retirement for principals is 65. What a shame, especially when a principal is still physically and mentally strong and has so much knowledge, experience and passion for teaching. This is the case with Keith Richardson who retired as headmaster of Wynberg Boys’ High School in 2015, on the eve of the school celebrating its 175th anniversary.

From the age of 11, as a Bishops boy, Mr Richardson dreamt of becoming a teacher, and he did. His subjects were Latin, English and history but he was also fanatical about all sport, hockey and cricket in particular.

Having taught Latin for the majority of his career, he chose a classical theme for the title of this book. He says a boy is three seconds away from prison, from death, where they have to make an instant decision. “Our job is to catch boys before the wax melts,” he said, referring to the mythological character Icarus who flew too close to the sun despite the warning from his father that his wings were made of wax. He writes on the importance of setting boundaries so that boys can see how far they can fly.

Since retiring her has moved to Clovelly, has travelled and also taken on a number of projects, including penning this memoir. Based on entertaining blogs he has written since he became principal at Wynberg in 1999, the thread weaving throughout is one of boys and how their minds work.

Another project is the Principal’s Academy where he currently curates and mentors 18 school heads in the Western Cape. He writes that running a school involves instant decision-making and dealing with a variety of ongoing crisis from 800 teenage boys, not to mention their parents and teachers.

As a journalist I found his comments on the “feeding frenzy” of matric results released in the press in January every year much food for thought. Mr Richardson believes that matric results are not the be-all and end-all and that other questions need to be asked about the state of education.

He has skillfully woven life lessons through anecdotal blogs of iconic figures from Mandela and De Klerk to past pupils such as the architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd and sportsmen Jacques Kallis, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Jody Classen.

The foreword is by politician and arms deal author Andrew Feinstein. The afterword is by Derrick Fine who also edited the book. With photos by Old Boys the book has a handy index. It will appeal to a wide audience, from teachers and principals to mothers of sons, and probably daughters, in fact anyone who is curious as to how an adolescent boy’s mind works.