The big kid trick
a short story by Dan Byrnes
Perhaps a class of schoolboys is a social entity with a single mind. Perhaps it isn't, quite. If it was, our new headmaster certainly understood how to deal with it.
He was a big man, thankfully not sporty. Just by his attitude to the page, he made Literature and History seem important, not just something to be used for filling in time before the next football game.
He could declaim long passages from a stunning array of plays by Shakespeare, he knew Hopkins well. Though, his feel for the individual poetic image was... well, incomplete. He was enthusiastic. That was the main thing.
HE CAME IN THIS DAY WITH A SMALL PAPER BAG WITH SOMETHING IN IT.
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He was a great relief. A class of 28 boys, most quite intelligent, all inured to the quaint innocence, the non-worldliness, the you-really-can-plan-your-life-in-a-world-of-secular-perfidy, of the Christian Brothers, 1965. He was the first teacher we'd struck in seven or eight important years who regarded us as if we had any intelligence at all. It had been a long wait. In fact, it was a wait we didn't even know we'd been enduring until he came along and made the difference apparent.
Now, we could say aloud some of the things we thought. I can't recall if anyone actually did get up and actually say anything like "God is bunk"... but if he did try it out, the repercussions would have been minimal, unremembered and unrevenged, part of an intellectual exercise in contemplation of the futility of a world, a life, without faith, love, hope, mercy, belief. Without Heaven. Or, Hell. But he would not have been punished.
It took us two months to become aware, and confident, that the new climate he set up really was one of tolerance, of exercise of intellect, albeit with that spiritually sly, somehow superior, also depressing, conviction, there is nothing new in human nature under the sun. The world, the flesh and the devil are never quite brought to heel. Beware. The kind of radiance seen at Hiroshima was new, though. This hadn't yet in twenty years been fully realised.
ABSENTLY WAVING THE BAG ABOUT AS HE SPOKE, HE JUST NATURALLY MADE US CURIOUS ABOUT WHAT WAS IN IT.
We all played football together, stayed back late on afternoons or came in Saturday mornings to do science experiments, and we split, like some globe of mercury, into about five basic groups as we all went our different ways home each day. We knew each other, perhaps too well.
"Not `fevver', son, `feather'," said one of the black-gowned men - not the headmaster - to the fellow with the poor speech habits at the beginning of the mass thrash. Whack! Whack! with the evil, superbly stitched strap. The strap. The enemy of years. What, me worry? Illicit competitions to find out who had taken the most punishment from it so far this year. Prison yard perversities also seen, years later, in movies about prisoners of war, and uncommonly well understood.
Poor Fevver. He joined the navy and was knifed to death in a brawl in a Hong Kong alleyway.
A mass thrash was a punishment for crimes committed in common, crimes counted up and set aside for a judgement day, permissible wrath of the moment for group crimes of the moment. Ten lads guilty. Ten lads lined up holding out their hands as a black-gowned man with a deliberately blank face (his blankness was as fake as our remorse) walked down the line - mass thrashing. Whack! Whack! Allright, son, hold your hand out properly. Whack! Whack! Right down the line. It was production line sadism.
We were well used to the custom, but even so, we thought it was odd. There is something of the theatre about public punishment that distracts the soul from examining itself for guilt, and from the inspection of new leaves that should be turned over. Punishment in private is so much more instructive, or at least, insidious. Most of the black-gowned men punished in public. There was never supposed to be anything personal in any of it. This policy of punishing only in public we later realised did have at least one virtue. Our teachers couldn't exercise private vices in private rooms.
WE MUST HAVE DONE SOMETHING MARVELLOUS AND WERE BEING REWARDED - THIS WAS WRITTEN ALL OVER HIS FACE.
The ritual of being made, or not being made, a prefect. Responsibility. Cadets. At Ease! The amusement of giving orders, the lovely chatter of the Bren gun, the slow rattle of .303 rounds in the hand, the weight of the rifle on the shoulder, the heft of dummy grenades. The year the army booklet came out with such an interesting article on the tunnels the Vietcong used to dig. The fall of Dien Bien Phu. A whiff of a feeling the Vietcong were being so dashed unfair, doing something as age-old, as tricky, as sneaky, as digging tunnels. As though the writer of the article was afraid all over again of the Trojan horse, saying to himself, "If the little yellow bastards would only use trucks and helicopters, we'd be right! We'd have 'em in no time."
But what were the French doing in Vietnam anyway? Their presence there wasn't exactly emphasised in our history books. For that matter, what were our own army advisers doing there, producing articles like this?
INTO THE OUTSTRETCHED HAND OF ONE OF US, YES, IT ACTUALLY WAS, UNBELIEVABLE, A BLACK JELLY BABY.
Greeks had the corner store. It was as though Greece had taken over every ice cream outlet in Australia in some quiet, unpublicised grab. People made grey and quiet by relentlessly long hours, yet they never seemed greedy. Always well-mannered, friendly. The only people in town who didn't seem to have any spare time. We knew we had brains. We suffered from our curiosity. We wished we had cars. We wished we had girlfriends. Only a couple of us had anything but a bus-stop heart-throb. We were dimly aware that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, meant something really important. But what? The world, blown up from the mouth of the TV tube, was becoming larger every day.
Mass. The missionary priest from New Guinea, who laughed with the congregation about how the fuzzy wuzzies recited The Lord's Prayer in pidgin. But no one got up to ask why God's People didn't have the ability, or the dignity, or the respect, to teach natives everywhere how to speak the English language properly. So then they come south for a holiday and laughed at fuzzie wuzzies from the pulpit. It was not seemly.
The awareness of knees. No one knew as much about knees, one of the least-known parts of the body, as kids at a Catholic school. Going rabbit shooting with a priest was to really go backstage, see life in its shirtsleeves. Bowl 'em over. Poor little buggers just lie there, twitch a couple of times, and give up the ghost, buttonholes of blood on their necks. What'd-ya-do-that-for? eyes - the eyes of all victims. Raise the .22, the quickest eye the most praised. Crack! Lemon squash at the pub. A few dirty jokes, even. A certain view of manhood striding over the ridges, hardly a woman in sight, really. That sort of tenderness, those sorts of tendernesses, non-discussable. It had occurred to some of us that maybe, in those large Catholic families, whether the rhythm method was reliable or not, no matter what the Pope said, a dire secret was going in. Pregnancy was cheerfully being used as a contraceptive, a road to unlimited sexual indulgence. Perhaps there were possibilities after all?
HE WAS ACTUALLY DOING IT, GOING ROUND THE CLASS HANDING OUT BLACK JELLY BABIES, HIS GRIN BRIMMING WITH MORE AND MORE HUMOUR.
As tension grew, with the final exams coming up, in stepped the vocations brother. He was supposed to look over the academic record, obtain a precis on your personality, intelligence and prospects from the brothers who knew you, then interview you. We became wary. We did surveys on the questions he asked in the interviews. It seemed - no matter what your occupation was going to be, uppermost in his mind were the sins of the flesh you might encounter. Most stunning of all was the man's ignorance of the great wide world out there, his powerlessness before it, his inability to assist us. Our resentment camouflaged our disappointment. He was after all supposed to advise us. We suspected his own temptations had killed his idealism as a teacher. The pattern of our plans had been broken by the rock of irrelevance. Our talents had just been overlooked again. We hated.
THE CLASSROOM RESOUNDED TO THE WET NOISE OF BIG BOYS' MOUTHS CHOMPING ON JELLY BABIES AND GRINNING.
No single mouth of our group mind said a word. We were all too busy smiling and chewing. Big men, eh? Going to teachers college and university? Going to inherit the farm? Well men, here's perhaps your last real taste of childhood. Isn't it wonderful, being reminded, feeling proud, now, sharing pleasure, best of all, sharing the joke. We're all little boys inside the man, men inside the little boys. Everyone knows what a jelly baby is for. Even me. Now I'll have another one myself, just to be greedy.
"No, you can't have a second one till I've been around everybody."
JUST THEN, THE DEPUTY-HEADMASTER CAME IN. THE HEADMASTER, TRYING HALF-HEARTEDLY TO CONTROL HIS MIRTH, GAVE THE BAG OF JELLY BABIES TO THE SCHOOL CAPTAIN, WHO OFFERED ONE TO THE DEPUTY, WHO INNOCENTLY TOOK IT.
"You could open up `The Passage', the headmaster told us, "at page 62." Then he earnestly turned again to his deputy to discuss what appeared to be a matter of discipline. The Passage by Vance Palmer was the set novel. It was a book from which surprisingly little about anything could be learnt. And still we were thrown entirely. Was the deputy headmaster in on the joke, or had the headmaster by way of using the school captain decided to pull the deputy's leg for our benefit? We didn't know. We'd never know.
We had all shared the determination of football teams because we had created the teams. But this form of complicity was entirely new to us. With it, and the hydraulic pressure of young manhood, just as we had now been collectively plunged back into being four-year-olds again, we juggled questions. Was the deputy a straight man or not? Did he know what was going on, or not? Would he have minded if he did know? Were we to believe his boss was deliberately taking the mickey out of him, breaking the ranks of the black robes and coming over to our side, right in front of us? It was unthinkable.
Still happily chewing the jelly baby he had been given, the deputy departed on whatever business he had, leaving us mystified. It was the strangest communion of our entire school career.
AT LAST HE RETRIEVED THE BAG OF JELLY BABIES AND PUT THEM IN HIS POCKET.
Still beaming at us as we beamed back at him, he explained, "I have to save these for next year, you see."
He seemed to be very content that we had all understood something very well, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves to boot.
"Now if someone who has finished his chewie could begin reading from page 62?"
He'd hugely enjoyed himself too. But now the moment was over.
He only ever did it once. Over Saturday lunchtime beers in various cities when some of us have met we have wondered, how many other rooms full of arrogant men-boys had he cleverly subdued, so unexpectedly, with this big kid trick?
And most of all, had he thought it up himself or had it been passed on down through the ages, like a lot of sermons had been passed down? As we would later discover how sermons had been passed down.
I prefer to believe he thought it up himself. Something about a certain kind of sense of humour. Most of all, something about individuality shining in the middle of an entire decade dominated by swishing black robes and whack! whack! whack!
As far as proof was concerned, there was nothing more meaningful involved than a bag full of black jelly babies. Yet it seemed to me that in ten short minutes, an entire education system had mysteriously been subverted, as though a finger had beckoned... Freedom.
THE HEADMASTER CAME IN THIS DAY WITH A SMALL PAPER BAG WITH SOMETHING IN IT. ABSENTLY WAVING THE BAG ABOUT AS HE SPOKE, HE JUST NATURALLY MADE US CURIOUS ABOUT WHAT WAS IN IT. WE MUST HAVE DONE SOMETHING MARVELLOUS AND WERE BEING REWARDED - THIS WAS WRITTEN ALL OVER HIS FACE. INTO THE OUTSTRETCHED HAND OF ONE OF US, YES, IT ACTUALLY WAS, UNBELIEVABLE, A BLACK JELLY BABY. HE WAS ACTUALLY GOING ROUND THE CLASS HANDING OUT JELLY BABIES, HIS GRIN BRIMMING WITH MORE AND MORE HUMOUR. THE CLASSROOM RESOUNDED TO THE WET NOISE OF BIG BOYS' MOUTHS CHOMPING ON JELLY BABIES AND GRINNING. JUST THEN, THE DEPUTY-HEADMASTER CAME IN. THE HEADMASTER, TRYING HALF-HEARTEDLY TO CONTROL HIS MIRTH, GAVE THE BAG OF JELLY BABIES TO THE SCHOOL CAPTAIN, WHO OFFERED ONE TO THE DEPUTY, WHO INNOCENTLY TOOK IT. AT LAST THE HEADMASTER RETRIEVED THE BAG OF JELLY BABIES AND PUT THEM IN HIS POCKET.