When I was sixteen years old my parents sent me away to boarding school in Ireland. The decision wasn’t that difficult to understand; I remember not even being angry. At the time, my local public education system was experiencing cutbacks and teachers were almost constantly on strike. As I was skipping school a lot and failing some classes to boot, my Irish mother decided that the best way to arrest my downward momentum would be to send me abroad. They picked a little Protestant school my cousin was attending in the Republic of Ireland.
The school was fairly remote, located a few miles from a small town where most of the day pupils lived. Its students were mostly farmers’ children, half of them Catholic despite the school’s official denomination, and the tuition was a fraction of that of any comparable institution back home. It was ruled with an iron fist by a head administrator whose antiquated title was, literally, “The Warden.” The Warden held a strange mixture of Marxist-Leninist and fundamentalist Christian convictions, allowing him to expound on the virtues of leftist social revolution in Latin America at morning assembly and call girls wearing eyeliner “tramps” in the lunch line all in the same day. He infamously told one of my classmates that the school was not a democracy but a dictatorship – and he was the dictator. He uttered this during one of the interrogation sessions he carried out several times a year to determine who in the school was selling hash.
Out of the three hundred pupils at the school, roughly half lived in the drafty, stone-built school dormitories, which were separated between boys and girls. For boarders, life was strictly regimented, punctuated by morning prayer, supervised evening study and weekly chapel attendance, absence from which could lead to expulsion. In a similar vein, anyone caught in the dormitories of a member of the opposite sex would be instantly expelled. The nightly segregation from females, harsh discipline and deep-seated paranoia of the administration helped those of us who boarded there forge close friendships, based on a kind of solidarity in our shared lack of liberty.
I was lucky to have entered the school at age sixteen – this put me in “fourth year,” and thus the older half of the six “years” that made up the school’s cohorts. First- second- and third-years were typically thirteen, fourteen and fifteen years old. Some first-years were as young as twelve. This created a huge gulf between the lanky near-adults in the upper years and the small children in the lower years. The younger boys had different communal showers (which usually had no hot water), fewer privileges, and generally a shittier standard of living. I remember being taken aback by the casual violence inflicted on them by my peers. If a fellow from the younger half of the school spoke back to you or showed any disrespect, the accepted response was to punch them as hard as you could, especially if they were very small, as this augmented the level of insult.
Having missed the first three hellish years of boarding school that my peers had all experienced, I was somewhat uncomprehending of the behaviour that was expected of me. My own initial inability to stomach the practice of “giving a dig” to a twelve year old kid led to a couple of instances when I nearly got beaten by a swarm of them. Only when I returned their blows did I actually get them to back off, an experience that left me feeling queasy and slightly humiliated, both at my perceived weakness and the response that had been necessary. The furious words, postures and gestures of violence and aggression always felt demeaning to me; I never believed myself in the role.
One night, near the end of my first year at the school, I walked back into my dormitory from prep period to the sound of low voices and laughter. My friends were practically jumping with excitement, punctuating their speech with a muted form of the high-pitched yelps country Irish make when excited (“Eeyoo!”). Through the low murmur I could hear snippets of big talk – “I’ll fookin’ burst ‘em out of it” – through which I eventually learned what the plans were for the evening. In the middle of the night, the boys in the top three years were planning to put on balaclavas and steal into the lower years’ dormitory, armed with Maglites. In the dark, we would beat them with our flashlights and leave before we got caught.
I’ll never forget what it felt like the first time I got hit with a flashlight. One of the dormitory prefects, a hulking sixth year rugby player, walked into my room after lights out and beat my legs while I was laughing at a joke long after everyone was supposed to be asleep. The pain was shocking and embarrassing, leaving welts and bruises that lasted for days.
Every year I would lie in my bunk on the night chosen for this adventure, listening with bafflement to muffled screams, shouts, and bangs, and the finale of thunderous footfalls and whispers that announced the victorious return of my peers to their own dormitory. For the next few days I would overhear stories of the assault: one or two of the bigger fifteen year-olds usually fought back and took a few lumps for it, the younger kids who got hit usually just cried.
Years later, I was sitting in a smoky living room in Dublin, drinking with my high school friends at Christmas time. We were all in our mid-twenties now and settling into our semi-adult lives. Sometimes during these yearly meet-ups we would laugh at the surreal experiences we had shared as boarders, awkwardly reflecting on the behavior that had passed for normal back then. Most of the time we preferred to overlook the stranger memories we had in common. On this particular night we were teasing each other (a practice known as “slagging”), and I was getting special attention for my numerous failed courting attempts with various female boarders, a sore spot. During a lull in the conversation, I saw my chance to get even.
“Lads, remember how you all used to put on balaclavas and beat children with Maglites?” I watched the faces of my friends as they giggled with a mixture of shame and pleasure. We were adults now, and the present-day incongruity of this completely accurate accusation underscored the absurdity of our former lives. “That was pretty fucked up, wasn’t it?” I continued, confident of having scored a point. My friend looked at me as my question reverberated around the room, grinning and cocking his eyebrow. He addressed me with false gravity and a hint of embarrassment through the boozy haze: “Well, you know, Charles – you let it happen!”
In the back of my mind I was faintly disturbed by his response, but I couldn’t stop the giggles that began to bubble up from inside me. I burst out laughing, the others joined in, and I can’t really say why. To this day, I couldn’t explain it to you if I tried.