Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Primarily Ethics

The school comprised the left, older part only. Where the old meets the new, there was an outside toilet. The windows were purposedly high. To limit distraction.  I have always loved clouds.

My primary school teacher, Lily Cowan had the biggest bosom it was possible to have in the 1960's. Her bust would announce her approaching self before she entered a room. The whole magnificent globular cluster was a source of great mystery and wonder to me. She held her twin armfuls in check by employing an intriguing combination of the barely visible and the patently obvious. Her undergirdering, whilst effective and magnificently engineered was a part of the mystery. These great boudin blancs would move only slightly in response to her occasional sneeze or laugh or launched attack with duster or ruler. The effort caused just sufficient strain on her immaculate cream nylon blouse to only just betray the potential for a Hindenburg like disaster. Her decorum never nudged, she plowed through her small world with determination and the certainty of Scottish Presbyterianism. Breasts to the fore. Badged with heather and a pearl and seemingly only ever signaling her tight wound femininity by weight. Lily and lust were long ago estranged I assumed. Who knew?

Her carriage must have caused her some concern. Never less than straight and set fair, the pull on her dorsal muscles and on her lumbar spine would nowadays be offered help by friendly plastic surgeons over coffee. Lily had only herself to pop and twist into support garments both above and below the skirt line. The whole was representative of unwavering authority, tempered by regular and necessary inspection in covertly placed looking glasses hidden behind doors. She was the very essence of decorum in the scary red and black world of threatened communism and Martin Luther King. This altogether concentrated teaching machine held us all safe whilst the fear of Bay of Pigs and reckless rock and rollers roiled about us far away.

And all the time, she taught me physics, maths, classics and ethics without ever knowing it at all.

Our little school held fourteen pupils all the time I attended with my younger brothers. There being two years between us all, it was never likely that we would share a class so, as the new family, arrived from England with our flat vowels and our apparent and assumed confidence, Lily's task was probably just a little daunting. I was aware by the age of six, just how much easier the world became to manage if adults were regarded as dangerous but generally benign beings who enjoyed the lack of effort needed to maintain my interest. Reflecting back words and phrases offered to me was a skill I adopted early. Avoiding precociousness became my life's work. Lily allowed me some respite from this effort. She recognised in me an eagerness to learn and, while short on time she made every attempt to foster this by offering bok after book after book. Eventually, I was given the job of Library monitor, enabling the first choice of the bi monthly delivery. I spent the majority of my school day reading, fingers in ears or lying in the playground staring at the clouds and dreaming. Either way, it suited Lily.

Realising that intonation and correct vocabulary were more important than context more often than not, I must have been at times unbearable. I generally got away with it however. There was a quick understanding sealed between Lily and me. I was a competent reader with no comprehension problems. The level of numeracy I was expected to achieve in comparison to my peers was already in place. There was time to nurture a mutual support system. It was hard to remember not to overdo it sometimes but the system worked. She left me mostly to my own devices whilst I occasionally dropped back into 'helpless' in order that we neither of us forgot just who was holding things in check.

Mornings at Dervaig Primary began with exactly the same ritual each day. We had slim green, hard backed hymn books from which Lily would choose one of four that she could competently play along to on the piano. She favored 'Jesus Loves Me' over others. I imagine this choice was due to the refrain being relatively short and requiring little prompting to keep to rhythm. Following the successful rendition of this assurance of divine adoration, we were required to recite 'The Lord Is My Shepherd' before finally topping this mini service off with The Lords Prayer.
I was impressed by the words of the 23rd psalm. It felt more poetic than the other stuff we intoned. Lily smiled over my careful phrasing. We were as one in the recitation. We understood the cadences as having import and it felt as good as any of the many compulsive rituals that bind a class together. But then, one Tuesday, she caught me out in a tiny moment of deceit. An act seeming so trivial today as to be laughable but on that day, an act of such personal portent as had not been witnessed since Martin Luther's nailing of his theses to the church doors in Wittenberg.

Dervaig Village Church

Our mother had made it her business to ensure that any good that was to be squeezed from the drying fruit of her Catholicism should be regularly reapplied as varnish to her eldest's soul. I accompanied her to mass from very early on. My life thus far and the tall, spicy, draughty caverns of the church were intertwined. Beginnings and ends of the week punctuated by observance of this or that.
Prayers said, penance shared. Magic witnessed and revered. My father did not share this stuff. He proclaimed a mysterious claim what he called agnosticism. A term that was to come to mean more than faith or atheism together later on. A get out of mass free card which I assumed was bought at a cost to his future destiny. Being certain of my fate, I wondered what prizes awaited the agnostic. My assumption was, as far as I could see at that time, that he and other such uncertain men would be granted visiting rights or holidays in paradise where we would keep their beds and houses clean and warm for their return. Young boys and their mothers meanwhile resided in the blessing of full tenure.
What became of the uncertain soul between these celestial holidays remained a hazy conjecture. How long they were expected to remain outside the gates.. who knew? Our future glory as full communicants was assured, if only due to the tedious adherence to a powerful ritual that my father and his ilk were blessedly permitted to ignore. He was a regular at a table where Pascal's was the best wager on offer. My mother and me were not allowed to play.

The Lord's Prayer as recited by our church differed from the Protestant version in a number of ways. Where they had Debts and Debtors we suffered Trespasses and Trespassers. Our verses felt a little longer as a result and we added an extra 'Ever' into the mix, finally emphasising the nature of infinity as understandable only by us catholics and no others. Our Ad Infinitum was a better class of the Unbounded altogether.

I managed the recitation of this difference as covertly as I could. I would mouth the requisite Protestant version whilst thinking the longer one alongside. This gymnastics was frequently too much for my brain to manage and I would come to a grinding halt, allowing only the faintest expressions of fading adoration to expire between my lips. On this Tuesday, I opened my eyes in an unconcious attempt to pull both halves of my cortex into play. And met Lily's own, first astonished, then with a furious light rising behind them as she gathered herself for the recrimination.

'You are a wicked little boy'. she moaned, 'Wicked and sinful for taking the Lord's Prayer and turning it into a NURSERY RHYME'. Her voice rose in a measured cadence like the bellows of pre partum cattle by the loch.

Suddenly I understood two things simultaneously. I understood why some writers liked to use the phrase 'She Thundered' and, in the very real blink of an eye, I understood the true nature of oraganised ritual. All this intonation. All this singing and recitation was for Lily. For the fabric of the school and her position as conduit of all things right. My previous understanding of a forgiving, lenient god flew from my world to be replaced with plain and simple compassion for Lily in her insecurity. I understood that any sense of right and wrong was, from this point on,mine to negotiate with others and it had never been in the gift of an inexplicable myth.

This was the day I turned to the gaming tables and wondered what the wager would benefit me. It was a little while later that my purse was snatched from me as I laid my bets, by an itinerant priest with little good in him at all.

(an audio version, recorded under the stairs with lapel mics is available here)


StLouisMan2 said...

You have a real gift for/with words. Twice, I stopped and rolled them around in my head.

tearose68 said...

Beautifully and affectionately written. I attended Junior School in the 1950s and the syllabus was very similar!! We had outside toilets too !
My teachers nurtured a love of literature and poetry that has stayed with me all my life.they seemed to have so much time for my enquiring mind.Oh, and I too love clouds, for precisely the same reason.High windows !
A wonderful blog post.