I attended a modest school near our home, but when we moved downtown, my life changed momentously. The headmaster of a better-known school persuaded my father to move me to his institution. I was switching from middle to high school, and his key argument was that superior education would be greatly in my interest. It was a larger school, with a bigger building on a major avenue. The big sign proclaiming its pretentious name suggested I was ascending to a more exalted circle.
A curious factor reinforced that awareness. I had been a good student, kept company with other good students, sat in the front bench (an individual desk was an inconceivable luxury then) and was recognized as a brown-nose ‘good boy’ by teachers and students alike. But, before joining the new school I was required to take an admission test, and the result had somehow placed me in the lowest quartile of the new class. Much to my parents’ anguish, I had to join the fourth and lowest-ranked section of my class in the new school.
The section had the worst students and the teachers had the lowest expectation of them. This was a new and intriguing experience for me. Earlier teachers expected consistently good answers from me. Now, if I gave a half-way decent answer, the teachers looked askance at me, as if I had performed a miracle. I liked to surprise them, but I quickly learned to offer the correct answer only if the teacher directly asked me. In the present body of students, it would never do to raise a hand to show that I knew the right answer. That would invite class-wide derision and the swift contemptuous label of a ‘teacher’s pet.’
I craved to be one of them, to be, in fact, one of the recognizably naughtier ones in the class. I wanted the prized halo of a wicked lad. If it meant to remain mute when the teacher asked a question, I elected to do so despite an inner good-boy urge to pop the desired answer. I gained class status instead by doing naughty things, like ascribing witty names to teachers or writing off-colour limericks about them. My standing peaked the day I sketched and circulated during the math class a picture of the well-endowed girl who stood occasionally at the window of a neighboring apartment, to the everlasting prurient interest of my classmates.
After that, I longed to do something more dramatic and gain the adulation of the class. The best opportunity was the practice of Shorty, our literature teacher, who – doubtless to spur our reading habits – encouraged us to bring a favorite story to the class, read it publicly and lead a critical review of the story. Through diligent search I identified a short story by a reputed author that begins innocuously as a family story and ends in a shattering, literal account of an abortion.
In the next literature class, the moment Shorty broached the idea of a story several classmates pointed to me on a cue and yelled that I had been skipping my turn.
Shorty asked me to oblige. My reading began. It was a good story, and everybody paid full attention, including Shorty. Toward the end he started fidgeting a bit, possibly intuiting something untoward was about to happen. When the climax came, with the uncovering of a mutilated fetus, the whole class was stunned and silent. Nobody had anticipated the ghastly and explicit outcome.
Shorty looked mortified, not just from the story, but also from the inappropriateness of such a story read by a student to all other students. Almost incoherent, he muttered, “Well, well… That’s not the kind of story I expected!” After a pause, he declared, “I don’t think we will have a discussion of the story today.” He didn’t, couldn’t say any more. He got up and left.
I had made my mark. I became the hero of the class. At the end of the year, based on my results, I moved to the best section of the next class. I returned to my erstwhile role of being the good student and good boy.