MEMOIR: LIFE AND DEATH IN PRIMARY SCHOOL

MEMOIR: LIFE AND DEATH IN PRIMARY SCHOOL

When I was a little kid in lower primary school, the most terrifying place in the entire school was not the headmaster’s office, though that was plenty scary, because you got sent there when you did bad stuff, and the headmaster gave you “six of the best” across the palms of your hands with the cane.

No. The most terrifying place in the entire school was the entrance to the girls’ toilets.

The toilet block was a big red-brick building longer than it was wide. On the side facing the central quadrangle was the entrance for the boys’ toilet. Going in there was risky, but hardly a source of terror. When I say risky, you had to worry that the cubicles had walls that did not extend all the way to the ceiling: boys in adjacent cubicles could pop up and say hello, offer trenchant and smart-arse commentary regarding your activities and output, or just hurl abuse, as was the way.

I hated the pop-up.

But I also hated standing up pissing against the steel urinal panel. You’d get a line of boys standing there, jostling each other, yakking, giggling, trying to write their names on the urinal panel with the force of their own urine jet. I remember some whose flow was so powerful, so prolonged, so laser-like, that they managed to leave a tiny burn in the steel surface. All that uric acid blasting away at it. It was something to have seen. These boys had been there. They had left their mark. Because they were boys.

I had a few goes at this meagre sort of immortality, but my waters lacked vigour. It was all they could do just to escape my body, as if fleeing a burning building. They didn’t care about laser-focus or acid-based immortality on the urinal wall. My waters just wanted to get away from me—and who could blame them?

The thing about standing there at the urinal wall was the furtive comparisons. Everyone had a look at everyone. There was nervous laughter, giggles, boys bouncing on their toes.

There was the smell of piss and urinal cakes, and we all wondered what the hell urinary cakes even were.

On freezing cold winter days, your stream of piss was wreathed in steam as it shot out of you, and you imagined it freezing on its way down.

You heard tales of unpopular kids getting flushed. Their heads forcibly shoved into a toilet bowl as deep as possible, and then subjected to a full flush cycle. It was used as a severe punishment for boys who’d broken the unspoken code. The code which defined what a boy was and what he was not. What he could do, how he should carry himself. I never saw it written down. I never heard it referenced in any systematic, legalistic manner that would be recognised in court. There was no jurisprudence.

But there was a code, and we all knew it.

The so-called “Royal Flush” was bad, but for us little boys in lower primary school there was one sanction above all others, a nuclear option, so terrible we hesitated to invoke it. I saw it only once, perhaps twice. A boy in violation of the code to such a degree—though at this distance I can no longer remember what kinds of infraction might have have warranted this ultimate sanction.

It would have had to be extremely serious. Insulting your mate’s mum. Something at that level. Betraying a friendship.

There would be a meeting, and then the deed would be done.

The offender would be apprehended, horrified, screaming, protesting, trying to negotiate, panicking—and carried around to the other side of that red-brick toilet block, and to the entrance used by girls.

The most terrifying place in entire school.

It was dark. Standing there outside the doorway, you couldn’t see much. The entryway had a dog-leg built-in. You took one step in, then turned left, then about two steps that way and then you were in the toilet/change-room, same as the one for boys, except no urinal wall, and more cubicles. I learned all this years later.

But when we were all little, when our eyes were bigger than we were, when our panicking hearts wanted only to leave our sacrifice here at the mouth of the volcano, that didn’t matter.

The offending kid had to die. He had broken the code. We, literally, four to six of us, holding him so he couldn’t touch the ground, flung him into the dark cave of the forbidden land of the women.

He crashed in a heap of limbs, shrieking with the worst sort of terror, flailing as if the floor and walls were electrified. It actually pains me to think about this, thinking about how he might have grown up, the man he might have become, especially these days. When we were eight, it was 1971. It was grimly serious, but we were also playing. It was all in good fun, but it was life and death.

Because this was Girls, and girls were spooky, strange and weird. They had Girl Bugs. You could get them on you. It was bad. Next you’d up liking poetry and sunsets and collecting pretty leaves, or some damned thing. Girls were Other. We did not understand them, not yet. How serious was this fear of girls, all this “girl bugs” business? It’s difficult to tell. It probably varied from boy to boy. But there was, for want of a better word, a “vibe”, a feeling, even a “hysteria”, if you like, about anything to do with “girls” (as opposed to individual girls whom we actually knew in class). There was a suspicion of girls. Girls were up to something, though from what I could see, the something they were up to was mainly complicated rope-skipping games.

I think I more or less went along with this nonsense for the sake of getting along. I struggled in primary school. I wanted to be left alone to read books, but I also very much wanted to belong, and be one of the boys, because if I were one of them, they’d stop tormenting me. I’d be one of them. So I did things with them sometimes. Things like this.

But on deeper reflection I don’t know for sure whether I was a participant or a grinning, laughing witness. I can’t remember, and it bothers me that I can’t remember. I know I definitely saw it done. Because this thing we did feels now like terror, like abuse. I remember how the victims screamed, and how we all laughed, and it horrifies me. It’s a truism that kids can be horrible, but here we are, being horrible. Because of the ideas we all carried in our heads. The code, the violations of that code, the shame of it, the powerful sense of deepest wrongness—and then the ultimate sanction, death.

Where did all this come from? Why did we have these ideas in our heads? Why were we like this about girls? What had girls ever done to us? We knew girls—they were fine! But this sense of panicky weirdness about girlnesswas something else again, something alien, boiling up from our bone marrow, from the bowels of our tiny premature testicles. This sense of profound revulsion. There was no conscious thought to it, nothing rational, nothing you could explain.

And this feeling we boys had about ourselves about this “code”, these rules? How to be a boy? Fifty years later, I still struggle with this question. I don’t think I’m very good at it. I think I’m a very poor boy now, just as I was then. But how did an assortment of eight-year-old boys in 1971 get it in their heads all at once that there was a way to do things in order to be a proper man? Was it TV? Songs on the radio? Was it our dads? Was it our mums?

The kid flung into that doorway quickly got up, gathered his wits, had a bit of a squizz in the girls’ loos, and quickly scooted back out into the welcoming community of us boys—all forgiven, laughing, happy, reborn, alive again. It was a miracle. I saw it with my own eyes.

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