Lost & Found

Teen Tragedy Brings New Meaning to Professor’s Memoir

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Glen Retief

By Victoria Kidd, editor

A white South African boy stands atop the classroom building of his apartheid-era boarding school, leaning precariously over the balcony. An American boy from rural Pennsylvania stands on the berm of a busy highway in the middle of the night, watching a tractor trailer approach. One takes a step forward; the other, a step back.

Glen Retief, associate professor of English and creative writing, was the 12-year-old South African boy on a ledge; Brandon Bitner, the Susquehanna Valley teen who, on Nov. 5, 2010, stepped in front of an oncoming tractor trailer and took his life. Retief read news of the teen’s tragic death and immediately related to his misery. His memoir, only months away from being published, chronicled the extreme anti-gay bullying he endured decades earlier at a whites only, militaristic boarding school in his homeland.

In The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, Retief reveals the mental and physical torment he experienced at the hands of a 17-year-old prefect and his lackeys, and examines the toll it took on his life. “There’s something wrong with you. We want to toughen you up, make you a man.” That was the logic they presented to young Retief when they thrashed and berated him. He says the worst bullying occurred when the prefect invented “the jack bank.”

“Jacks” is South African slang for beatings, and Retief and his schoolmates were given the chance to volunteer for jacks, which were entered into a ledger and earned “interest” in the form of future beatings. The rationale behind the jack bank was that, when the students misbehaved, they could avoid punishment by drawing upon the beatings they’d already saved up in their “accounts.”

“What haunts me after the fact is we willingly participated in it. That’s the part of it that made me want to write the book,” Retief says. “Why did everybody go along with this to the extent that we put peer pressure on each other to be beaten? How crazy is that?”

At the height of the abuse, Retief found himself on the top floor of the classroom building, looking across the pastoral landscape toward his village, wishing he could go home and contemplating how much easier it would be to jump than endure more abuse. “I don’t think I was desperate enough, but I do have a very clear memory of toying with that idea, so when I heard about Brandon, I remembered that and related to his despair,” Retief says.

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