On Being Advised To Not Take A ‘Girl’s Role’

Shortly after I began attending a boarding school in the ninth grade, I was approached by our ‘senior master’ and asked if: a) I could ‘act’ and b) if so, was I interested in trying out for the annual school play. I had done some acting in school and youth club plays in the sixth and seventh grades, so I answered in the affirmative to both questions. On  hearing this, the senior master asked me to attend a ‘reading’ that night where we would go over the play’s script. I agreed. When I told my classmates about this invitation, I received many congratulations. Acting in the school play was a prestigious business; being invited to act in it was an honor not accorded to many. I was suitably pleased, and resolved to write home to my mother as soon as I could that I had begun to rack up laurels here in my new school.

That night, I showed up at time in the school library for the reading. I was handed the play’s script, and the reading began. (If I remember correctly, that year’s play was Joseph Kesserling‘s Arsenic and Old Lace.) The senior master pointed at me and asked me to read–again, if I remember correctly–Elaine Harper’s part. (I do know it was a young woman’s role, and Elaine Harper is the young woman in Arsenic and Old Lace. My school was a boy’s boarding school, and we did not import actors or directors for the school play.) I did not mind being asked to play a woman; I vaguely remembered my father telling me that: a) in Shakespeare’s time, boys and men often played girl’s and women’s roles and b) that he himself, in college, had played a woman’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the college Shakespeare Society. If my father–a man who would go on to fly fighter jets and fight in two wars–could do it, so could I.

Our reading went on for two hours. By the time I returned to my dorm, it was after ‘lights out;’ everyone in my dorm was in bed, and seemingly fast asleep. I quietly changed, went over to my bed, and lay down. As I did so, my neighbor stirred and spoke.

“What role did they offer you?”

“I”m supposed to be a young woman.”

“Are you going to take it?”

“Yeah, it sounds interesting.”

“So, this is just something I want to tell you. Every year there is a school play, and every year, someone has to play the female parts. The boys who play those roles, they become the sissies in school. No one ever lets them forget it. They get teased and bullied all the time. They get called ‘girls’; people copy them walking and talking and putting on make-up. Last year, X did the girl’s role, and no one has stopped teasing him since. You’ve just joined this school; you still haven’t made that many friends. Some people don’t even like you because you’re from the Rector’s old school, and they think you’re his pet. I wouldn’t do it. This is just my friendly advice.”

[Or something like that.]

I lay there in bed, listening to that seemingly disembodied voice whispering at me in the dark. The vision it conjured up for me was equally gloomy; I knew exactly what he meant. I had already seen examples of how quick and efficient and cruel my school’s bullying and teasing was; many boys were permanent outcasts, shunned and sent off to the margins for faults imagined and real. I knew X was an outcast; now I knew why. I lay under a thick blanket, but I shivered nonetheless. I didn’t want to be a girl in a boy’s school.

The next day, I told the senior master I couldn’t do the role. It went to a boy a year younger than me. He was a wonderful actor and brought his role to life. For the next year and a half, every time my class mates and I walked past him on campus, someone would wiggle their hips, giggle, put on a falsetto, and call out his name. He never returned our gaze.

On Bad Memories And Moving On

A few weeks ago, while stumbling around on Facebook, I found an old ‘acquaintance’ of mine: a man who, over thirty years ago, went to the same boarding school as I did. I poked around further; his page was not guarded by his privacy settings from snoops like me. On it, I found a group photograph taken in my boarding school days: a dozen or so familiar faces stared back at me. I hadn’t seen them in thirty-five years. I poked a bit further, as I clicked on their tagged faces in the photographs, and visited their friends’ lists. On one of them, I found a Facebook profile of a ‘senior,’ someone who used to be a member of the class that had supplied the prefects for my last year in boarding school. (I left my boarding school after the tenth grade, after two short years there; this gentleman was the member of the graduating class that year.) On his page, I found photographs of a class reunion, conducted on the campus of my old boarding school. There they were, the members of that graduating class, the ‘Sixth Form,’ ex-prefects included, lounging about in suits and ties,  all of them grey-haired, some pot-bellied, reenacting their glory days by posing in front of various school locations, swapping tall tales about the good ‘ol days.

I stared and stared. Here they were, the officially sanctioned bullies of the senior class in school, the ones given license to enforce the school’s draconian disciplinary code in their own particular style: they could make you run punishment drills, the dreaded ‘PD’s, for a wide-ranging list of offenses; they could hit you with cricket bats or hockey sticks, or just slap you hard across the face if you were deemed insolent; they could tell you to go get your trouser pockets stitched up by the school tailor if you were caught walking around with both hands in your pockets; and on and on it went. They could, and they did. Power of the absolute varietal was granted them, and they exercised it; here, there was no shyness to be found. And it corrupted them, if their interactions with those below them, their subjects, the ones who dreamed of becoming abusers themselves when their turn came, was any indication.

I was tempted to write, as a lurker, in the comments space, “Did you guys reminiscence about the time when you were bullies and beat up those younger and weaker than you?” But I didn’t. They’d moved on; they had to. My memories remained; they had been stirred up by the photographs I had just viewed, and I’d already found other ways to integrate them into my life. (Including writing a book, in progress, about my boarding school days.) The academic philosopher in me also said that these were not the same persons I knew; they had changed, they wouldn’t know what to make of my gate-crashing remark.

I clicked out, and moved on. And wrote here instead.

Prisons And Boarding Schools: The Informer Phenomenon

I’ve made note here, on this blog, on some interesting similarities between prisons and boarding schools: the discipline, the regulation of time, the uniforms, the social dynamics. Yet another similarity may be found in the ubiquity of informers: moles, spies, double-agents, leakers, snitches–call them what you will–conduits for the passage for information to administrative and disciplinary authorities on inmate (student) activity.

In my boarding school, where discipline was enforced by schoolboys themselves–the so-called ‘prefects,’ drawn from the ranks of the graduating class, the ‘sixth-form‘–informers were feared and despised alike (as they always are.) Complaints and mutterings about heavy-handed punishment–perhaps via the dreaded punishment drills–all too often, and mysteriously enough, found their way to the ear of the prefects concerned, and reprisals and crackdowns against those who had dared question authority quickly followed. The identities of the informers remained artfully hidden: they never informed carelessly enough to allow their cover to be blown;  “there were only three of us present when we talked about X; you and I were punished, so the informer must be Y.” Instead, these informers only informed when they were sure they had enough obfuscatory cover. (Shades of crypto crackers not making it too obvious that a particular cipher had been cracked by not acting too expeditiously or efficiently on the revealed information.) On one occasion, a large group of students in a classroom made some bitter comments among themselves on how some prefects had been a little too heavy-handed in their dishing out of corporal punishment during punishment drills; a day later, two of the students in that group found themselves dragged out of a basketball game and forced to perform a particularly exacting drill supplemented with occasional slaps to their faces and the back of their heads. (The informer’s most valuable reward–over and above any material benefit–was to be free of the worst of these disciplinary crackdowns.)

My post today is prompted by the note on self-policing in response to pervasive surveillance that I posted over the weekend; the methods change, the effects are the same. For of course, all too soon, we, the inmates, suspected each other to varying degrees and the quality of our conversations and interactions suffered as a result; we were not sure what would be reckoned as subversive or offensive. Planning for illegal activities like sneaking off for a smoke was obviously problematic, but what about saying something rude about a prefect or a teacher? Better to be safe than sorry; better to zip it.

The informers’ cover was not perfect, of course, and sometimes, by dint of informal detective work, a pattern of sorts of emerge, and a suspect or two would be identified. Reprisals against them were brutal; they came at the end of the year, when all scores were to be settled. Sometimes these consisted of beatings on campus; sometimes these took place off-campus. If this sounds horrifying, it should be. But then, so was the system of penal discipline imposed on the students in the first place.

‘Orange Is The New Black’ And Boarding Schools

As I make my way through the second season of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s original series based on Piper Kerman‘s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison about her experiences at FCI Danbury, a minimum-security federal prison, I’m struck again by how much of the prison experience reminds me of my days–two academic years in all–at a boarding school. In saying this, I do not mean to, even for a second, minimize the hardships of the incarcerated, but rather, to point out how boarding schools create conditions analogous at one level to that of jails. Both are similarly inspired by confused notions of discipline and order; both show what happens when humans are confined and regulated by these.

It is all here: the correctional managerial staff i.e., the faculty; the supervisors and guards i.e., the prefects (drawn from the senior graduating class, thus forming a layer between us and school administration); and the inmates i.e., the students. We were subjected to regulation and discipline from on high, from our waking moments to ‘lights out’; we were subjected to arbitrary, often harsh disciplining from prefects (this included the usual ‘six of the best’ and punishment drills); we had fixed meal-times; our uniforms were prescribed and monitored; we could not walk with both hands in our trouser pockets; we could not complain about the food (the food parcels we were sent from home were quickly consumed by our ‘friends); we had limited allowances that we spent at the ‘commissary’; we could not meet our parents except at prescribed times and places (because my family was away in a distant city, I did not meet or talk to my mother for nine months); ‘sickbay’ was a refuge and relief; our every hour was planned and regulated. Some thirty-four years after I left my boarding school, I can still effortlessly regenerate the daily time-table for a school day, right down to the hours.

But the most interesting parallel for me is visible in the personal and social dynamics. Boarding schools, like jails, featured miniature societies, complete with their own pecking orders and hierarchies on the ‘inside.’ There were bullies and master manipulators–like ‘Red‘–who ruled the roost; they were feared and revered and resented in equal measure. There were weak ones–‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’–who were subjected to bullying and abuse. If you were smart, you sought out and found protection quickly. Some manipulators–like ‘Pennsatucky‘–ruled over mini-groups; their hold over these was–like that of ‘King Rat‘ in James Clavell‘s novel by the same name–a contingent matter, dependent on them being able to continually spin their web of control. The weak quickly came under such influence. Scores were settled by violence and intimidation; sometimes you were cornered in bathrooms, sometimes in a deserted dorm; when a fight broke out, no one intervened till a prefect showed up. And no one, ever, ever, complained about a beating.

When the academic year ended, discipline was relaxed for the last day or so–teachers left campus, prefects gave up the pretense of policing. More scores were settled, more brawls broke out; the buses to take us to train stations and airports for our journeys back home could not arrive soon enough.

And when I got back home, I kept the ‘best stories’ to myself. Folks back home ‘wouldn’t understand’; you had to be on the ‘inside.’ I could write a book about it all; someday, I will.

Concert at the Corner

The boy with the violin case came around the corner. On time, as always.  Head bowed, feet dragging on the sidewalk, the case drooping by his side, as always. He approached A__’s gang, scattered on the sidewalk, oblivious to their presence.

Till A__ spoke.

‘Hey!’

The boy looked up, alarm running through his body quickly and efficiently, flushing his cheeks and warming his ears, bringing him to attention. He had dreaded this confrontation, accepting its inevitability, and yet was no less stricken by fear when it finally arrived.

“What’s in that case?”

“My violin.”

“Yeah? What’s it for?”

“I play music on it’.

“Yeah. Well, play it for us, maestro. Let’s see what you got.”

It wasn’t an invitation to play; it was a message indicating the penalties for refusing to play. An elementary inference.

The boy picked up the violin. Lessons for the day had ended a while ago; his performances hadn’t. And his taskmaster in the chambers he had left behind was, despite his gruffness, brusqueness and peremptory commands, an infinitely less demanding audience than this one.

He began to play, drawing the bow across the violin’s strings. He always wrapped himself around the strange new beast–violin plus bow–that emerged when horsehairs made contact with catgut, but today, he held on to its familiar shape just a little tighter. As if it could protect him from the beating that lay close by in his future.

He picked the longest composition he knew, the Spring Sonata that would go on and on for twenty-two minutes. He’d enjoy them while it lasted.

The notes rang out clearly and sharply; they moved down the street and around it; they floated up around the gang’s ears.

They reached A__ too. He had heard violins before. He had heard their sound. Sometimes his uncle, his mother’s brother, who lived crosstown and visited for dinner when his father didn’t mind, played the violin as accompaniment to a meal he had finished quicker than the others.

The sound was familiar but still novel. At home, his uncle often played over the sounds of dinner: plates and spoons clanking, babies crying, men shouting, women chattering. At home, the violin was background music, just one more component of an inchoate sound that filled their home in the evenings. It was never allowed to stand out, always relegated to a humble plebeian standing.

This was different.

A__’s gang stood on the street corner, not moving. The maestro stood next to them, playing, not daring to look up. Eye contact might break the spell, might dispel the mood. It was not a chance he was willing to take.

A__ was motionless. He wanted the music to stop. He wanted to get on with the rest of the act: the smashing of the violin on the sidewalk, the flinging of the bow across the street, the punch in the face and the kick in the pants that would propel that little whiner home.

He remained motionless.

The sonata ran out. The boy added a flourish or two and then stopped. The bow came off the strings; the violin dropped to his side.

A__’s boys stared at him, awaiting directives for their deployment.

A__ finally spoke.

“Go home.”