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.

A Memorable Brawl, A Template For Fantasies Of Resistance

Despite a personal history that showcases an active interest–participatory, not just spectatorial–in the pugilistic arts of boxing, I’ve not been able to bring myself to become a fan of ‘mixed martial arts’ or ‘UFC’ or what have you. But that does not mean I cannot appreciate the skills of the martial arts. I did, after all, like many other schoolboys of my time, grow up adoring Bruce Lee, wishing I could attain even an infinitesimal fraction of his estimable coolness. And to this day, the most exhilarating brawl I’ve witnessed–pardon that celebratory adjective, but that’s how it felt at the time–featured a brilliant demonstration of precisely the kind of moves Lee specialized in. By a fellow schoolboy. And like any memorable event, it remains so because it quickly became assimilated into subconscious yearnings and aspirations.

Shortly after joining the ranks of fellow sufferers at my boarding school, I learned of my school’s enduring and bitter football (soccer) rivalry with a local school. Indeed, so pointed and edgy had this relationship become that by way of a prelude to a scheduled encounter at home, the student body was treated to a sonorous lecture by the headboy on the need for all spectators i.e., us, to be on their best behavior during the game. No abusive language; no yelling at the referee; and so on. I also learned, soon enough, that our last game with them had featured a brawl. Provocations were sure to ensue during this game; we were to take the high ground.

These warnings came to naught. The first twenty minutes of the game featured some hard, physical soccer with plenty of rough tackles and pushing and shoving, even as the referee–our physical education teacher–sought to maintain some control over the proceedings. From the sidelines we roared on these bruising encounters, thereby raising the temperature of all concerned.  It couldn’t last, and it didn’t.

Halfway through the first half, as our team launched a counterattack, only to see it foiled on the left flank. As our forward sought to regain control of the ball, he was pushed, hard, once again, by the opposing team’s full-back. He shoved back, and then astonishingly, we saw the full-back take a swing at him. What followed next remains unforgettable after all these years. Incredibly enough, our forward dropped into a crouching stance, his knees flexed, his arms raised: a fight was on. And then, with a quick spin, delivered a lighting roundhouse kick straight to the full-back’s face. As that worthy went down for the count, his team-mates rushed over to help. So did our team. In the next few seconds I saw the forward’s cousin–by a coincidence, playing on the team with him–come to his rescue by launching a flying kick at a miscreant approaching him from behind. And then, utter mayhem broke out, as a rolling melee developed, made only worse, by a full-fledged spectator invasion (which I did not join, realizing that was beyond the pale, and that brutal disciplinary action would follow.)

I was young and impressionable, a notoriously poor brawler, often incapable of resisting the depredations of schoolboys bigger and stronger than me. That demonstration of skill and strength was instantly memorable, and remains so after all these years. For one brief moment, suddenly, I, the perennial ninety-seven pound weakling, saw a fantasy made manifest: I would be pushed around, and I would fight back. In style. Years on, that fantasy hasn’t gone away; the tools of resistance have changed.

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.

Flirting With Perfection: Spelling It Out

We often dream of perfection, but we rarely, if ever, achieve it. There was one exceedingly minor business, in one all too brief period,  in which I did attain such heights: my spelling prowess in my early school grades. I do not know if I ever attained the competency levels of those who excel at the national spelling bees that continue to enthrall so many folks every year, but there was no doubt I was a contender. Classroom testing of spelling prowess was carried out by dint of the dreaded ‘dictation test’: our teacher would read out loud, first, a list of words to be spelled out, and then, a short passage. We listened and wrote.

Through, I think, the fifth grade, (after which such ‘dictation tests’ ceased), I maintained a perfect record in my spelling examinations. I did not spell a single word wrong. (I also never suffered a single spelling correction in any of my essay assignments–this record ran through my high school years.) Indeed, I was often puzzled by the fact that my classmates did not score similar grades. What was the problem–did they not know what the word looked in question like? My spelling prowess was not a secret; word of my never-ending stream of perfect scores in these tests was not slow in spreading among my mates–we were a nerdy bunch. Needless to say, I lapped up the ensuing admiration.

Interestingly enough, I only encountered spelling difficulties–of a kind–once I began using word processors. My physical connection with the medium of writing changed, rewiring my linkages to the written word. I was bemused by the number of typos I generated in my writing assignments in graduate school. (I had written with a fountain pen till my undergraduate days; something about writing with that implement had required a certain deliberateness which militated against the introduction of spelling errors.) Identifying and correcting these added labors to my writing that I was unfamiliar with.

The differences between the two modes of writing were many–perhaps too many to list here. Some were immediately relevant to my spelling difficulties, to the business of orthographic errors. In writing with a word processor, I interacted with a keyboard; my fingers found keys and transferred letters to the screen. In writing with a pen, I traced out the shapes of the letters, my hands pressing directly upon the surface of writing. A word processor always produced a printed draft that I read and corrected before handing in the final version; perhaps I grew careless, trusting myself to remove spelling mistakes from the final version. A fountain pen produced a near-final version in ink that was not easily or cleanly corrected; the tracings of my pen were infected with this awareness. (The introduction of spelling and grammar checkers in word processors might have made things worse for some folks, tempted now to plunge ahead and correct later as the offending words are flagged in rude highlights.)

The valorization of spelling prowess seems, for some reason, a curiously old-fashioned affectation. I’m not sure why. A misspelled word still seems an abomination of sorts.

A Long, Hot, Sickened Journey

The worst of the heat might have receded from New York City but that’s not going to deter me from churning out another hot weather-related blog post. On this occasion, about a time when a combination of heat and a mysterious ailment combined to induce in me a misery that has, thankfully, not been rivaled since.

In 1979, I went on a schoolboys trip to a national park, one organized by my school. The trip was everything it was promised to be: though we missed out on spotting a tiger, we saw plenty of wildlife, swam in rivers, went on long hikes, and rounded off each day with a festive campfire. It was a boy’s dream; I loved every minute of it and was saddened by the dawning of its final days. Those entailed a long bus ride back home to New Delhi.

It was April, and the summer had settled in on North India. Daytime temperatures were already reaching into the high nineties (Fahrenheit) and past the hundred mark. The journey back, in a non-airconditioned bus, promised to be a  trying experience. It soon acquired a terrifying new dimension.

For by its commencement, I had become sick. Perhaps a stomach bug of some sort, but though there was pain and churning aplenty in my belly, there were no frequent trips to the bathroom. Instead, I felt weak and nauseous, with a head that spun furiously. I told my companions; little interest or sympathy was forthcoming. I informed the master in charge; he seemed nonplussed. Tired, worn out, and to be honest, a little scared, I withdrew–unmedicated–to a seat by a window, and waited.

Our bus drove on, on roads that were sometimes narrow, sometimes bumpy, sometimes dusty, past field and village and town. As the day progressed, so did the heat and my discomfort.  I kept the window open, hoping for a breeze or two, and sank into a sweat-lined heap at its base. I was sick, sick, sick; a bundle of desperate sensations, hoping for relief in any shape or form.

Toward the middle of the afternoon, we approached a scheduled halt. We would rest and partake of lunch in a park. My illness was now at a crest; I felt close to death, hideously miserable and discombobulated. I staggered out and took a few steps toward a shady spot beneath a tree.

And then, the miracle. I vomited spectacularly, bringing up a torrent of unprocessed material from my last meals. My company scattered, perhaps in fear, perhaps in awe. I swayed; my ability to stay on my feet still seemed in question. But a few seconds later, I felt better. The expulsion had, mysteriously and thankfully, possessed a cleansing quality.

A few minutes later, someone pressed a glass filled with crushed ice and a Coke into my hand. I drank it greedily–the sweetest nectar ever. I still had no appetite, but a cold, sweet drink was welcome.

Home was still several hours away, but for the rest of the drive home, though I still felt weak and exhausted, I was never as sick as I had been earlier in the day. I reached my destination at night, back into the arms of my concerned mother and a bemused father.

I still do not know what had afflicted me that day. And I still continue to hope that I will never, ever, approach the desperate depths of discomfort attained that day via a toxic combination of head-spinning nausea and heat.