Of Whistlers, Top Layers, Doublers and Lion Sharers (Pt.1)

This is a story from my high school years. As you all know, food plays a very important role in a teenager’s life. At that point in life, one doesn’t have to worry about rent, loans and school fees.

It’s all taken care of by the parents, who of course do this so you can concentrate solely on your academics. Little do they know that food is a more pressing issue. The thing with high school food is that it can never measure up to your mother’s cooking, no matter how hard the kitchen staff tries.

Not that they put any effort into making good food, truth be told. Maybe it’s because the food is prepared for hundreds of people, and as such is not expected to be tasty. Or, maybe it’s because the administration is hell-bent on cutting costs, so forego “expensive” ingredients like spices.

Spices maketh food…or do they?

Once in a while, we’d receive very important guests in the school. Ministry of education officials for example, and the food on those days would magically become very tasty. We found it hard to believe that it had been prepared by the very same cooks who prepared our “daily bread”.

What I’m saying in so many words is that high school food is no different from prison food. At this point, I’d like to state that I’ve never been to or tasted prison food, so take that last statement with a pinch of salt.

Anyway, back to high school, and specifically, the dining hall. In most high schools, food is taken so seriously that there is a dining hall captain. This is a student representative, a prefect who takes care of the student population’s interests, as far as the stomach goes.

He reports to the boarding master, a teacher who is responsible for ensuring the students live comfortably in the dorms. You wouldn’t believe how much power the dining hall captain used to wield.

The school cooks effectively reported to him. He had the power to influence their hiring and firing. He also received many favors from the students, just so he could reciprocate in the dining hall. You do not want to be in bad terms with a person who can cut off the supply of food to your stomach, do you?

So the dining hall captain, apart from having access to the best food, was always “rich” courtesy of all the bribes he received from the other students. This means that he never, ever whistled.

The Oxford Dictionary defines whistling as the act of “emitting a clear, high-pitched sound by forcing breath through a small hole between one’s lips or teeth”. This definition also applied to high school whistlers, but the context was a little different.

You see, most people whistle in excitement or as a way of catching someone’s attention. In high school, you whistled because your pockets were experiencing an economic downturn.

Let me explain further. In high school, we were treated to three square meals, which is normal. What was unique was that in the morning we actually took milk tea, with a quarter loaf of bread. Most schools only provided white porridge.

Sure, you needed to work hard to convince your taste buds, but there was milk in the tea nonetheless. Apart from the three square meals; breakfast, lunch and supper, we were also provided with strong tea twice, during 10 am and 4 pm breaks, or recess.

Each dorm had two to five big kettles, clearly marked with the dorm name. A student was appointed to go to the dining hall every day at 10 am and 4 pm to pick his dorm’s kettles, full of hot strong tea.

Remember break time was less than 30 minutes long, so you had to take this tea fast so you could get back to class. In the morning, we were all provided with a quarter loaf of bread, but at 10am and 4pm, it was just strong tea.

You either went to the canteen to buy a loaf of bread to accompany the strong tea or took it plain. So you have a student who’s taking steaming tea, and he’s time-barred, so he has to take it as fast as possible.

Because he can’t just gulp it down, he would try and blow it, then “suck” it into his mouth as a way of cooling it. This blowing and sucking inevitably produced a whistling sound, hence anyone who took plain strong tea was branded a whistler.

Pictured: whistler

In the morning, there was not one whistler to be found in the whole school, because we were provided a quarter loaf of bread. With a piece of bread in your mouth, it was very hard to produce that whistling sound, even if the tea was hot.

But at 10 am and 4 pm, there were whistlers to be found in every dorm. The thing with whistling is, it wasn’t a permanent situation. It mostly depended on how capable you were, money-wise. If you could afford to buy loaves every day, then you never whistled.

Also, as the term progressed, so did the number of whistlers increase. In the first weeks after opening school, and following visiting day, everyone was flush with cash, so whistling was a very rare phenomenon.

But as the term progressed and pocket money got depleted, more and more students found themselves depending solely on school food, so whistling spiked significantly.

In the second part of my story, I’ll tell you more about the top layer, doublers and lion sharers. Thanks for reading!!

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