The scene is well told. A sea of children. First day of seventh grade. Parents huddled close. Ignore the tears, instead see the trembling hands of mother and father. It is always father who disengages first, his fingers slowly unclasped from his child’s sunken shoulder. Mother stays behind, perhaps for another two minutes, another twenty. Then her grip loosens too and she leaves, as she must, turning from the child. Mother and father drive away.
Ask any of us old Holroyd kids, and you hear some version of that story. Our last day with our first parents.
The day I found out what I was, and therefore who I would become, began just like any other. I woke to the smell of toast, the din of tea, and Julian Macintyre screaming from our matchbox kitchen that it was time to wake up.
Julian: early riser, my first roommate, my best mate in those early years at Holroyd House. I should clear up one matter. Whatever you might have reasonably assumed from his name, Julian Macintyre was almost as brown as me. Skinwise I mean. So it was pretty unusual that we were quartered together. As you may know, the boarding schools for Seconders now have strict rules to prevent kids with foreign-born parents being placed together.
The reason these rules exist depends on who you ask. Some say it was to ward off the mischief we would get up to if we lived with our own kind, so to speak. Others say the rules actually protected us from being bullied: the argument was that moving through the world as a pair of brown kids was more conspicuous than moving through it as an individual brown kid. I’m not sure how true that is, I’m just giving you the theory as I understand it.
How did Julian and I slip through the cracks and live in the same dorm for two whole years, when our parents came from not only the same country (Sri Lanka) but also the same town (Yalpanam)? I have a simple theory. I think Holroyd House just looked at Julian’s name on his parents’ application form and assumed he was another poor white kid, instead of a poor coloured kid. So they assigned him a roommate called Karuna.
My theory has some holes. For one, our parents had to send the school certified copies of our passports, with colour photographs, as part of the long application process. But I suspect that back then the schools were just much more relaxed than they are now, at least on the racial question. I know it’s fashionable these days to put forward conspiracies to explain such irregularities, but my considered view is that old fashioned human error explains how Julian and I were quartered together.
The school didn’t make any immediate moves to correct the error, either. Yes, it is true that the marshals and prefects gave us funny looks for a while, and we suffered far more random spot checks than other kids. Perhaps someone even filed a formal report – it’s hard to check on that sort of thing so many years down the road. In the end I reckon they figured that my quiet and reserved nature meant that any major trouble was unlikely. If that was their calculation, the error was in underestimating the other side of the ledger.
When I think of him now, and I think of him often, I find myself remembering a passage from a history book I found in Mister Burgess’ library. It told of how the Roman Emperor Commodus, in a fit of rage, waved the decapitated head of an ostrich at a group of senators at the Colosseum. Most of the senators sat in silence, terrified, but one of them found the scene so ridiculous he had to stuff his mouth with a laurel wreath to stop himself laughing out loud.
You see, the thing about remembering Julian is this: depending on exactly what memory surfaces, he could be the laughter-muffling senator, or he could be the imperious and deranged Commodus. But in the end, right at the end, wasn’t he the ostrich?
Julian was a lesson learned, like the other “free spirits of Holroyd”, to use Mr Benton’s tired phrase. The ones who couldn’t finish their time, for one reason or another.
The day I find out is midwinter and the morning air is so chilled that my ears feel alight. Our textbooks are scattered over the dining table, a mess accumulated by a weekend of cramming. We quiz each other as we nibble at lightly buttered toast.
“Painful?” asks Julian.
“Schmerzlich,” I reply. “Too easy.”
“Das Fenster. I’m not worried about German. I’m worried about Maths.”
“Me too. But look, mate. Realistically, there is no way we are going to master so much trigonometry in forty five minutes,” he says as he checks his watch. “No sense in worrying about it. We are beyond that stage now. Just try to ace the German paper. Stimmt?”
I am worried, though – the kind of free floating worry that drifts towards us when we discover that effort is not always rewarded by outcome, that an absence of talent cannot always be held ransom by grit. This kind of worry bites worst in my first few months at the school, when the endless exams somehow seem both completely arbitrary, but also clearly designed for some higher purpose. When a carryover error on a maths paper seems like it will burrow its way worm-like into all my possible futures.
“Karuna,” Julian says, trying to breach my reverie. “Universe to K-dog. Do we have a signal? Hello Mistah K?”
There is a signal, but it is weak, for my mind is thinking not of the German language but the big kid in ninth grade who is known simply as The German, the kid who sneaks from his dorm after curfew and makes his way to the big red gumtree and examines its trunk, etched as it is by hundreds of axe marks. A stale plan, hatched weeks before, returns to my mind, perhaps more as a fantasy than a real idea.
“The German,” I say.
“That’s right. If we ace German today, maybe it won’t matter if we totally bomb out in the Maths paper. Maybe – ”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean The German. That kid in ninth grade.”
“What about him?”
“Let’s sneak out tonight and meet him at the tree. Let’s ask him what the deal is – why we keep getting slammed with all these tests, day after day. He’s ninth grade – maybe he knows everything. He can tell us why our parents dumped us in this place. He can tell us what happens next. Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to be at least a little prepared?”
For the briefest moment you can actually see the fear in Julian’s face, and the realisation he had been snookered. He is the daredevil of our duo, the prankster; he cannot turn down my proposal without losing face.
I know he is spooked by the way Holroyd looks late at night, and that big old tree. We all are. And what’s more, like all of us, an important part of Julian does not want to know what awaits us in the years ahead. The part of us that understands that we are stuck here, that our parents are not coming to take us back home. That seventh and eighth grades are a respite before ninth grade, when things start to happen.
The unstated wisdom, passed on through locker room innuendo and schoolyard legend and toilet graffiti, is this: you are better off not knowing certain things until you have to know them.
“Sure,” Julian says. “Tonight. Let’s do it.””
The maths paper is worse than I feared, a nightmare of angles and asymptotes. It is a small mercy that it is over so early in the morning. Numb, I move on to the next lesson, philosophy.
We drift from class to class with rehearsed ease. We have no sense of the deep history of how each subject landed in our curriculum. The high level wrangling that has taken place over decades is all a mystery to us.
It is only much later that someone points out to me that philosophy is not even taught at most Seconding schools. I suppose in retrospect that is obvious. There are very few philosophers around who have the financial means to adopt a Second. But back then we didn’t know that. We were just kids who turned up to the classes on our timetable.
Julian would have told you that I the reason I liked philosophy class was because of Chantelle Lane, but that is not quite the whole story. It is at least as true to say this: I liked Chantelle Lane because of philosophy class.
On this particular day, Mr Benton is teaching us about the pre-Socratics. As is often the case in Benton’s classroom, the discussion meanders somehow to the question of free will, and whether it exists.
“One of the great virtues of Holroyd,” Mr Benton says, “is the opportunity you have to learn from each other, not just from these textbooks.” He pushes away the book on his desk in a gesture of abdication – Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy if I recall correctly. As though it were a second thought, and not a book he will ask us to learn back to front for an exam in two weeks.
“Take Karuna, for instance,” he says. I freeze, knowing already what was coming next. “Karuna, you are, as we know, a Sri Lankan of Tamil ancestry. The Sri Lankan Tamils are inheritors of a long and proud civilization, with all the cultural and philosophical insights that come with that. Perhaps you could share with the class what attitude the ancient Tamil scholars – the sangam, if I am using the term correctly – held towards the ideas of fate and free will? Perhaps a summary of what the Thirukurral has to say about the matter would be a fine entry point.”
To be fair to Benton, he is not deliberately crucifying me. Benton is a genuinely curious man and he probably thinks he is giving me an opportunity to share my knowledge to the class. The problem is that I do not have this knowledge to share.
“Sir, I don’t think that the Thirukurral actually has much to say on free will or fate. My understanding is that it is more a book of – homely wisdom.”
I have no such understanding, having never read it.
Benton looks puzzled, disarmed. I am worried that if left to his own thoughts for much longer, he will realise that I am a stranger not only to the Thirukurral, but to Tamil literacy in general.
And that is precisely when I am rescued by Chantelle Lane for the first time (I have been rescued by her three times in total).
“Mr Benton, Karuna and I have looked into this before,” she says. “He has a point. From what I understand about Tamil culture, as an outsider of course, the Thirukurral is a highly revered philosophical work, renowned for its structural symmetry and poetry – but it is also a book of homely wisdom. You will find people from all walks of life in Tamil communities quoting it. It is quite different from a Greco-Roman work like, say, On the Nature of Things, which deals directly with the free will issue. Lucretius is certainly mesmerising to the ear in the original Latin, but he is hardly quoted by the average Jo Bloggs on the street now is he?”
This is vintage Chantelle at work – a masterful deployment of limited but decisive knowledge (she knows less about Tamil literature than me), guesswork, an appeal to Benton’s innate elitism, and most critically, ending with a reference to a Roman philosopher. Pretty much a guaranteed way to divert Benton’s attention till class dismissed.