A 15-year-old's cold pride

In the next in our series of winter essays, John McCrone puts pride before warmth. -

What is the definition of stupid teenage pride? Me in the winter of 1972 when I trapped myself into not wearing a jumper or jacket to school. Not once, not ever.

I was an Auckland fifth former. The uniform was dark grey woollen shorts, light grey cotton shirt and long grey socks. For some reason I decided the school's grey woollen jumper was too scratchy a fabric for my skin.

It itches, I told mum. Although also I coveted the blue blazers that were the rather cooler alternative my friends were wearing.

Waste of money, Mum said. Brought up in Central Otago, a sheep farmer's daughter, she knew weather. And an Auckland winter barely counts. It barely lasts a couple of months. Just a few rainy squalls, a rim of ice on the puddles on the coldest mornings.

She said, at your age you will outgrow a blazer and get no wear from it next year. So began the silent protest. Right, I thought, I would rather go cold these next few weeks than give in and start taking that dumb jumper to school.

There was no family comment as each morning I left the pullover balled in a corner when I went off to catch the school bus, even as occasionally nippy autumn turned into winter proper. And then it became a public thing - at least in my mind - as I had to stand with the 20 or 30 other kids waiting for a bus that always seemed to run late.

The longer I didn't wear a jumper, the more impossible it seemed suddenly to turn up wearing one like I should have been doing all along.

My plight was not helped by my habit of being a multiple school uniform offender. Everything had to hang half-mast. Socks had to be around the ankles, bare calves exposed. Shirt must be half untucked, half unbuttoned, sleeves rolled to the elbow. Even a belt was, like, too restricting man.

The look I was going for was ostentatiously scruffy, which made the daily wait for the bus a still chillier dilemma.

It was like the reverse of the boiling frog scenario. Each Monday the thermometer would have dropped another degree or two. Did I pick up the jumper, finally put it on, discover it was not so scratchy and maybe even a little cosy? Chances were, after a weekend, I might escape attention. Or did I tough it out another week, continue to pretend to anyone watching I felt no discomfort? That I was simply the sort who doesn't experience the cold.

As the definition of stupid teenage pride, you can guess what I did. I not only left the socks down, shirt gaping to the sternum, but made a show of standing out at the edge of the pavement, leaning into the grey wind, while the rest of the bus stop huddled close to the shelter of the wall.

So today the bus is even later than usual? And those are actual goose-bumps on my forearm? My back is going into spasm as I attempt to stifle the shivers? The sky has darkened further, the wind whipped up even more? Well, yawn and stretch to hide it. Rub your arms together casually as if it were an absent-minded itch.

It became a trial of strength. Something to keep doing because you keep doing it, despite the blatant pointlessness. Because in truth, no one else either remarked or cared. My parents never gave a hint of noticing. Nor did any of my school friends. Not once was a comment made.

However I did stick it out the whole winter and eventually earned a small private victory of sorts. Class photo day came around. We all lined up while the Swedish PE teacher fussed over his camera.

Up popped his head quizzically several times. Something was off, not properly symmetric. At first he couldn't figure out quite what. Then came the bellow.

"McCrone! Haven't you got a jumper or blazer to wear like everybody else? I can't have you spoiling my picture slouching there with in your shirt-sleeves, all ostentatiously scruffy." Or words to that effect.

There was an exasperated roll of the eyes when I said I hadn't brought anything to school. Don't bother with explanations. Just borrow a jacket or whatever from another class. Hurry along now.

Afterwards, a few of my friends remarked, oh yes, it did seem odd you go about so under-dressed. But it was said with a general shrug. My feat of willpower was considered too meaningless a gesture to warrant greater interest.

And thankfully it was a one time deal. The next year was sixth form with a more grown-up uniform. Long trousers. A creamy wool jumper that was not at all prickly.

However, every winter still reminds of a windy Auckland bus stop and the furious effort of a 15-year-old pretending not to care.

The Dominion Post