Saturday, June 30, 2012

"How small everything has grown..."

"If I had to pass through Eastbourn I would not make a detour to avoid the school: and if I happened to pass the school itself I might even stop for a moment by the low brick wall, with the steep bank running down from it, and look across the flat playing field at the ugly building with the square of asphalt in front of it. And if I went inside and smelt again the inky, dusty smell of the big schoolroom, the rosiny smell of the chapel, the stagnant smell of the swimming bath and the cold reek of the lavatories, I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself!" George Orwell, "Such, Such Were The Joys"


Quoting Orwell here is a tad misleading: my eight years at Saint Andrew the Apostle bore no resemblance whatsoever to Orwell's miserable tenure at Saint Cyprian's, and yet these final moments in his essay resonate. The baffling childhood blend of knowledge and intuition, enthusiasm and fear manifests itself pungently during grade school, where you learn politics, authority, and personal limits each day during each innocent recess. In addition to being a fabulous sensual and narrative account of the writer's early days at school, Orwell's essay is an attempt to describe those dawning moments when a kid realizes that the world is not only larger than himself, but incomprehensible and unjust to boot, governed by seemingly immutable laws of nature under which wealthy, good-looking children are prized, ugliness and stink seek out and adhere to the unfortunate, and adults mete out punishment as if prodded by enormous, inevitable forces.

Here's Orwell after he's received a second beating at the hands of the Headmaster:
I had fallen into a chair, weakly snivelling. I remember that this was the only time throughout my boyhood when a beating actually reduced me to tears, and curiously enough I was not even now crying because of the pain. The second beating had not hurt very much either. Fright and shame seemed to have anaesthetized me. I was crying partly because I felt that this was expected of me, partly from genuine repentance, but partly also because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.
This kind of helplessness is visited upon every child, with degrees of intensity and melancholy. Thankfully I was spared such treatment, but not the creeping, grim acceptance of the world's rules, trivial or otherwise. Beyond the frames of these photos below that I took recently on a visit back to St. Andrew's: at a low brick wall a kid beckoned me over to where he was standing with his popular buddies. Doubtful, I nonetheless joined them. He motioned me to sit down on the wall; I did so into a cleverly concealed puddle of fresh saliva. Hoots and jeers, momentary anguish and great embarrassment for me, and a wet seat all day. An unimportant rite of passage, acted out every day across the globe, bullying much less awful than what a lot of kids at St. A's endured. And yet, despite how small everything has grown, how large a memory looms.

I'll look at the slides and swings instead, where we had fun and tried lifting ourselves beyond it all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the way the photo of the swings continues the thought--the attempt to lift beyond and the eventual dragging of heels across reality.