When I was 17: Mr. Duykaerts


Set the Scene:

At 17, I was in a Belgian school in the town of Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo]. I missed a couple of years, so I ended up finishing my high school at 19, not at 18 like everybody [else]. So I was at that time, in Kinshasa, living with my parents. My dad was CEO of a company and he was selling some kind of farm equipment there. We had a property house. Since it was more convenient and because there was a lack of public transportation there, my dad gave me an old Jeep to drive and I loved it because it was a very iconic vehicle. The school hours were very different than my dad’s business hours so he couldn’t drive me all the time so I had my own vehicle. The interesting thing is that he gave me the Jeep and he gave me a box of tools. Why the tools? He said, “You will see.” Of course, it was an old used Jeep that could use a lot of TLC. I’m not, I’m still not, mechanically inclined, but according to him, it needed to be part of my education. So, that Jeep had always had kind of a nasty habit to die on me on Saturday night, the time to go to a party. It never died on me when it was time to go to school. I don’t know what the magic was that my dad put in that vehicle. [Laughs]  Of course, I was going camping in the backcountry a lot and driving out about 30, 40 miles on jungle roads to a nice beach on the Congo River. There was time to be back home in time to go to school the next day, but I had to do some repairs. So, I learned mechanical school of hard knocks kind of. That was what I remember at age 17. Of course, in the time I spend between driving the jeep in the backcountry and camping, I would go and ride at the riding club. The folks, they rode English there. There was no Western riding. Then, I even ended up being a part-time riding instructor. That’s what I was doing at 17. I think I became a riding instructor at 18, 18 and a half, but that was my way to get there.

Did you ever imagine yourself a teacher?

Oh, never! As a matter of fact, I had not a very good relationship with my teachers. To me, it was kind of an evil to be enrolled in those times. When I could skip school, I did. That was in high school. I didn’t get along with them [my teachers] too good. My history teacher was a good buddy because we shared common interests. But geez, science and math, woah. It was a constant conflict. Until, I changed later when I went to college, to architecture school. And all of a sudden, I started to understand why science and math were important because they were related to very practical things. I’d just blamed the teachers because they never explained that to me. Of course, I blamed the teachers. I should have blamed myself for not making the right effort to understand that. But, when you’re seventeen, you don’t think like that.

What happened at your time at school and how were you involved?

I think you asked me that question so, you could compare [my experience] to the Thacher school. Everything happens to you guys here. I was just going to school when it was time to go to school, and when the time was over, I was at home. I had to do my homework and I tried to do that most efficiently and as quick as possible. So I could work on my own projects.

I had to play soccer at school. I didn’t really like that much. I broke my right foot playing soccer. I was too tall for that. You know, to play soccer you’ve got to be a little shorter. I think so. Somebody knows certainly better than I do. We had a lot of gymnastics at school for the week. We were at school six days a week, not five. We started in the morning at 8:30 and were done in the evening at five, with a break for lunch, a recess in the morning and no recess in the afternoon. So, there was a lot of time in the classroom. The classrooms were not air-conditioned in Zaire. It was hot, but the way they were built, with a lot of cross ventilation, so it was bearable. We were used to the heat. No problem. We all dressed accordingly. It was, of course, a co-ed school at that time because there were a lot of kids and they couldn’t do two schools- one for the girls and one for the boys. So, it was co-ed. It was pretty nice.

We had a play once. We played, of course, a French Moliere. I was one of the actors in the play. I still don’t know today how I managed to deal with that! Moliere is not my favorite. It’s a very old style of French. I mean, Moliere, it’s from the King Louis XVI era, so it’s old French. But, it was a very interesting social subject for us to be reading, so at that age, it was very interesting to look at it that way. That’s the big thing that I did.

My younger sister, who’s nine and half years younger than I am, she danced ballet. With some of my friends, I was behind some of the tech. There were no electronic things. You had to manually lift the curtain and manually bring the decor into the building. It was pretty fun. We did a lot of manual things.

This is later on, I was older than seventeen, but at the riding club, we had a play called La Fête du Far West, the celebration of the far west. It was a kind of a Belgian comic strip story that we were playing and of course, all of the [actors] were in the big arena. When we were speaking, people couldn’t hear [us], so we pre-recorded the dialogues and we had to dub in, like karaoke. The timing of that was really difficult to achieve so we had a lot of rehearsals. We [also] had to have a lot of decor being built, like all the façade of an old western town. We had to design, build, everything. We didn’t subcontract it. We had to paint it, so on the weekend or in our spare time, we would do some painting. So there were a lot of extracurricular activities we did on the side. But, that was not really the school that was really the riding club.

First kiss or love…

Oh, oh boy…



[Laughs again]

Well, when you start to be a teenager and you know, the hormones are kickin’, you go to find the girls. I was in school and it was coed, so there were girls in school. You start looking around with open eyes and new found desires and you hope. Of course, they’re never interested in you. Well, class is not a good place to do that. So where did we [meet] girls? I [thought] the riding club. There are horse and girls love horses so let’s  [meet] girls there. So, I [joined] the riding club and rode horseback. Pretty soon, though it was more fun to ride the horses than to [try to meet] girls.

I was naturally introverted at that time, and I had a hard time to do that [talking to girls]. Of course, being introverted, you never ever see the girls that are after you. That’s the thing that [my friends] said. Can’t you see that gal she likes you pretty much, and I’d say really? Really? Well, I’d never see that.

I had a girlfriend when we were at school that I really liked. She was the daughter of a teacher of the University of Slovenia. Her parents were very strict, Catholic, you know, very religious. So, it was a very, I’m going to say, platonic relationship. A few kisses, but a lot of romance. Some romantic letters- I was very romantic then. It kind of stopped there. We got separated because she went back to Europe and I stayed in Africa, and when she came back to Africa, I was sent to Europe. You know how that goes.

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