Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Value of a Private Education

The Value of a Private School Education

You want to know about the process? In hindsight, I don’t think the process would have worked in an ordinary school. Then again, I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have worked on an ordinary student. We had the fortune to want for neither.

(Granted, what I know about “ordinary schools” could be written on the back of a postage stamp – an expression not all that meaningful to the youth of today – but it’s true to say this wasn’t an ordinary school. The buildings pre-date the first colonies in the New World, and the architecture is, strictly speaking, Gothic – not neo-Gothic, let alone Edwardian-Gothic – simply, Gothic; steeple-fanged, with ogive windows to inculcate a monastic sensibility even when doing something irreligious as gazing idly out the window. There’s also the position on the higher ground above the river valley to consider: in the Autumn, the fog can turn the plateau into an island cut off from the world, assuming you don’t get to thinking the world’s been erased altogether. My point is, there’s a lot you could believe about the place, if you were suggestible. On the other hand, when the river floods in the Spring, you might wake up to see ducks waddling across the quadrangle. It’s not all Gothic.)

So, when I say “the process”, I don’t mean to be coy, but it’s important how we frame the subject matter. You might dismiss it out of hand if I gave it its familiar, idiomatic name. You have to understand, the process is effective because you’re dealing with potent neurotoxins. One of the school’s groundskeepers gave me the idea one day, when I encountered him uprooting a cluster of Fly Agaric, sprung up by the oak overshadowing the Science block. The ancient people, he said, used to eat these to commune with their ancestors; a schoolboy like you – well, a little less smart than you, perhaps – might just end up in the infirmary, puking his guts out. It’s all about what you expect. Hence the idea that I put to the others. The beauty of it, I said, is that no matter what happens, it’ll be a shock to the system, and if he believes he deserves it, all the more so. Why we didn’t worry about a fatality is beyond me.

(In other words, the school had a part to play in what happened. As a physical link to the distant past, our very surroundings primed us to think that – idea-wise – not everything from the distant past could be without foundation, either. That there can be ideas that take centuries to hatch; like the beetle that crawled from beneath the bandages of the mummified head, in the glass case in the Upper Library. The case itself was as old as its contents – a bequest from an Old Boy of the school, who happened to have been an explorer in the mid-19th century. We all saw the beetle crawling about in there, beneath the khaki-coloured misshapen ball that could have been a wasp’s nest or a tree’s withy, were it not for the glimpse of yellow teeth, still lodged in the lower jaw. It’s funny how the eyeless head in the case was more disturbing to me, those late nights researching the process, in the library, than the thought of what I was actually researching.)

Actually, there’s a very good reason why we didn’t expect a fatality. Why we collectively howled with laughter in the Junior Common Room, when the possibility of his dying – permanently – was raised by one of our number. We literally fell about laughing – someone perched on the edge of the Billiard table, fell off, and I had to cover up the fact that a small maggot of mucus had escaped my nose, along with the first burst of laughter. What if he dies? was the original question, and from someone more quickwitted than I, Weren’t you listening? We just bring him back… There was also, I suppose, a less good reason why we didn’t expect a fatality. Call it superstition, but a pupil had already died during the time we were at school – it was large enough that, statistically, it had to happen one year in ten, given the population size. The death was a sudden one, involving a car, driven at speed round a sharp corner, and blind, what with the thick bushes. Nothing sinister about that death. None of us were able to picture the Yearling in question, but we felt protected by statistics.

(I apologize if I’m being secretive about the other students involved. It’s not that I’m concerned what you’re going to do with the information, it’s just that I didn’t keep in touch with them. They ended up in The City, I’m guessing; “The City”, as opposed to merely “The Capital”, although – Yes – we’re all eyeball-deep in capitalism. The fact that we were able to go through with the process, from a practical / logistical standpoint, reveals a lot about the school; I mean, it’s that combination of vast amounts of money in the hands of teenagers, and the kind of arrogance or entitlement that lets you think you can do anything. The fact that at least one of us had a parent who could mislay a credit card, without noticing, has its own moral – maybe it wasn’t a sense of superiority to the rules, but a congenital fecklessness.)

Still, I have a lot of affection for the school; the stained glass windows, the worn steps outside the classrooms, the archaic traditions, and all. Filing into chapel each day, my favourite inscription, in stone scrollwork, was the one that reads Absentes Adsunt. It translates adequately as The Absent are Here, but it’s best in the Latin – the similarity of the phonemes underscores the paradox that to be nothing is still to be something, for those that remember; that Life is a hair’s breadth from Death, and I think it’s metonymic of that greater paradox that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human: that we’re the animal that thinks itself more than animal, precisely because it’s most self-aware. Then again, given what happened next, maybe the human condition isn’t Self-Awareness at all, but Denial.

(You have to understand, before you condemn us for going through with the process, we didn’t think of him as human. So much so, we didn’t even dignify him with an original nickname. Our nemesis we simply called “C***” and the name was unambiguous in its referent. His very existence and cuntishness overrode all our liberal sensibilities about using a term that implied contempt for the sex of which that orifice might be deemed metonymic. Because it’s not the only name of that musky and enticing fur-covered opening, for which we feel plenty of affection, when the bravado’s put aside; it’s just one of many names that even a teenage boy can use with a firm grasp on its nuances. The guy was such a c***, he made you call him a c***.)

Anyhow. If you want to be prosaic, the main ingredients are Datura Stramonium and Tetradotoxin. The first is a type of cucumber, if I remember correctly, indigenous to not-all-that-many-places, hence the need for a credit card, to pay for couriered delivery of the specimen. The second is the venom of the Puffer fish, although a near-identical molecule occurs naturally in several other species. As the Biology-expert among us, I was in charge of writing up a plausible request for the sample, on the grounds it was needed for research into its properties as a cardiac stimulant. Thing is, it’s not just about the chemicals. I’m not defending my actions by trying to persuade you he deserved it; I’m simply saying that’s how you get the best results. The third ingredient is (as my father would put it) a complete-and-utter tosser. Not someone like the poor guilty idiot who ran over that other kid, whose friends and family might want our kind of revenge, but someone whose prickishness stems from an ineradicable self-hatred: belittle and undermine everyone around you, so they won’t notice you’re an easy target yourself. That’s the third ingredient. Any others are just for the tourists.

(I’m not sure if it’s connected, but I haven’t been back to the school in years. It was ten years before I even visited the neighbouring town, because of the unpleasant coincidence that a friend whose family lived there, had been recovering from a freak accident that left him with 2nd degree burns over 80% of his body. That day was my first chance to recognize that most towns don’t have cobbled-streets, cafés that churn their own clotted cream, and a shop exclusively dedicated to dolls-house supplies.)

See, I’m not totally callous. During the preliminary research into the process, I wondered plenty of times what would happen to the victim, after the Tetradotoxin’s been administered. After all, there’s a risk that he wakes up on an autopsy table, or inside an oven at the crematorium, neither of which were concerns for traditional practitioners. The original technique hinged on the assumption that they wake up in a coffin. That’s the first shock, and if their mind doesn’t crack at that point, it’s what they see when they’re exhumed that seals the deal. So, going back to the plan, we were taking a double risk – that there wouldn’t be an autopsy, and there wouldn’t be a cremation. Eventually we realized the risks were too great. The best thing would be to dose him on Saturday afternoon, in his own room; wait until his heart-rate slowed to nothing, and then get him down to the cemetery, after dark, even if it meant disguising him as a drunk student being pushed in a shopping trolley. Mostly, we were concerned with how we were going to get out of school.

(Costumes, of course, are crucial to the ceremony. Naturally, everyone wants to be the Baron, which led to a discussion about who could afford the best costume, complete with top hat, sexton’s frock-coat, and a suitably ancient-looking spade. We’d certainly need the latter to actually dig the shallow grave to put him in, if we couldn’t find one conveniently left open. I pointed out that our victim wouldn’t have a clue whether or not the costumes were authentic; we just need to look suitably inhuman, and unidentifiable, in cemetery light. Our victim’s eyesight would be weakened by the hallucinogenic effects of the Datura already (administered by rubbing into the gums, shortly before you expect him to fully regain consciousness from the Tetradotoxin trance). That, and the guy was practically blind without his contacts. Some of the others used rubber masks, caricaturing politicians, with the eye and mouth holes cut raggedly so that they became deformed and unrecognizable. I ended up being the Baron, for our ceremony. I was the tallest, and skinniest. Probably still am…)

In the school photo that year, you could probably pick him out. He’s not the only one not-looking at the camera, but he’s definitely the only one not looking at anything in this world. We had him by the balls for the rest of the year. Not literally – that would be disgusting. We made sure he couldn’t tell anyone – we said his mouth would fill up with grave-worms if he tried, and the words would wriggle away on the page. Then we backed away from the grave, and left him in the cemetery, to find his own way back to school.

(I’m assuming you want to know about this because you’ve been wronged in some way? If you can call it an ingredient, the most important one is that structure of belief. You have to be immersed in a culture where you can believe in the power of the houngan, or boukor, or whatever, to bring you under their will. It’s no coincidence that the typical victims are hardened (but-not-exactly-successful) criminals; among people like that, superstition and credulity goes with the territory. Like the rest of us, our own victim remembered the myth of the year above us experimenting with a Tabloid Ouija board (the letters cut out of The Sun, and pasted on the underside of a desk-drawer). Because it was another year, we believed it was possible, but I think every group of First Years that passes through the school tries to make its own planchette – tries to make contact with the Other Side. (If you’re interested, there’s a whole mythology in place, involving the ghosts of consumptive orphans, and some other stuff about “The Levels”.) My theory is, we spontaneously invent a higher order that’s scarier and weirder than the one we’re trying to figure out – day by day, lesson by lesson – because if you can reconcile yourself with a Death that never ends, maybe you’ll get through the next five years at a school like ours.)

I regret that I didn’t take down more people’s numbers before I left. I regret that I had too much time on my hands that lazy summer before university, but never learned to play guitar. I regret we didn’t try to persuade him to serve any of us – because it would have felt a bit too much like fagging if we succeeded, and could have given away who we were, if it didn’t. Otherwise, I think I made the most of a privileged education. Regret-wise, though, I don’t think I’m missing anything else off that list.

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