John Curry

Kid Seeks Intellectual Freedom

Like most children, I didn’t spend a lot of my time in reflection. Mostly I did the normal kid routine of school and home. For fun I watched T.V., read Biggles books, ate sweets or played football (before the world told me I wasn’t very good at it). But, on a rare occasion, something would happen that would really make me think.

I was maybe 9 or 10 and there was a new boy in school who had lived in Africa and was going to be in the class for this year but only for a year and then he would be going to America with his parents for some exotic reason. You know the type. He was a little browner than us but I don’t remember his ethnicity. And he was very beautiful looking like Mowgli in the Jungle Book. He was also very confident, highly intelligent, articulate and languidly graceful in his movements. It was probably a razor-edge decision whether we would decide to love him or hate him. But he was a very gentle, kind fellow so we all loved him.
He used to sit beside me in class and he would sit with his head propped on his hand and then kind of slide and squirm around as he would get more bored and distracted during lessons until sometimes his head was on my copybook or against my shoulder. I was massively offended by his very un-Irish lack of physical inhibitions and would sit there fuming with indignation until I could bear it no more and then I would push him back on to his side of the desk. But he barely noticed and would end up sliding back. And in the end I was quite proud that this alien being was my friend and comfortable enough to serially invade my space.

Battle Royale

Our teacher, who was a prig and used to try to devise ways of “challenging” the “clever” kids, came up with the idea to have a debate. The motion was something like “We should have longer school hours”. The new kid would talk for the motion and I, as an incumbent clever kid, would be against. The winner would be decided by a popular vote of the class.

I sweated over the idea of doing a debate. I wasn’t quite sure what a debate entailed and what was required of me. And when I say I sweated over the idea of the debate, that is precisely true.. I couldn’t bring myself to think of the content of what I would say at all. I just entered this existential angst, if it could be said that a 10 year old could experience existential angst. Actually, all through school and well into my college career I never completed any project assigned to me by any teacher or lecturer. I could do bog standard homework that was required for the next day. But projects, multi-day commitments that required thought freaked me out. My reaction was something like: “They already have me here in body. They’re not getting my mind too!” I always got away with it too. Like normal people, teachers don’t care about projects.

Anyway, I wrote something up on the morning of the debate but I knew it was a bit silly and obvious. It pandered to the crowd with things like “School is very boring. And we do enough of it. Free sweets for all!” and then there were bits for the teacher like: “Children should be out in the fresh air for the good of their health!” Stuff along those lines. I got embarrassed about how awful it was so I scrunched up my page and put it in my bag and pretended I’d forgotten it. But the teacher wouldn’t relent, so I had to fish my speech out of my bag and get on with it. I had this sheet of paper that looked like it was an old bag of chips and I read out my piece of crap in a very nervous, embarrassed kind of way. I was surprised when the class gave me a good round of applause. I guess it was received as a pretty good “Man of the People” effort– like Bertie Ahern (ex Taoiseach of Ireland)’s speeches where he muttered things about soccer while wearing an anorak. Pretend you’re a bit thick but a good sort and they will love you.

The new kid had his speech done out on several pages of very big, neat handwriting. He talked for a good 5 or 10 minutes to my 1 or 2 minutes. He was very much at ease. And worst of all, he had this highly developed argument. He was talking about how kids in Africa did 10 hour school days and walked miles each way to school and used up their candles and their eye-sight studying at night so they could be doctors and save their nation. So why were us privileged kids being so lazy?

I knew I was fucked. But I just couldn’t believe the margin between us. I had been the clever kid in class and this guy had just trounced me. The class voted and they backed me something like 10:1 but it didn’t mean much. I was a corrupt, lazy, stupid crowd-pleaser. The teacher, prig that he was, went back on his rules and declared the new kid the champion. Fair enough really.

The Gladiator Licks His Wounds/Doubts the Nobility of the Games

I worried that this kid was cleverer than me. Jesus, he was just better than me in every way. It was all quite depressing. I thought and thought about what went wrong. And I knew I was in error for being so lazy in preparation and so venal in my arguments. I really blamed myself.

I was also a bit uneasy about the role of the teacher and the new kid in the whole rout. But I couldn’t put my finger on why. It was only years later that I realised the stuff the kid had come out with was insincere. I mean he spent most of the day, half asleep and drooling on me, like a bad neighbour on a long-distance flight. Like me, he found most of the lessons boring and useless. Did he really think we should do 10 hour days? Probably, his parents had helped him with the speech quite a bit. Also, his logic wasn’t great and could be challenged pretty easily. But I wasn’t used to actually thinking in school so I had all these kinds of reactions in proto-thought form. I couldn’t articulate them.

Internalising the Standards of the Oppressor

Instead there was just this fog of unease and doubt in me. Later on, thoughts came to colonise that space and the vague, uneasy feeling turned into a realisation that much of what we think of as educated and sophisticated is just empty, vain and often ingratiating to power. And I started to rebel against that- spending hours reading Chomsky instead of going to my lectures in college.

The other kid must have come to similar conclusions. I bumped into him in college days and he was as personable, kind and striking looking as ever but now in a counter cultural-kind of way. He didn’t remember me at all but we had a great chat and arranged to meet up that night at the pub. I didn’t turn up. I was probably still jealous of him for beating me in a game I thought I had rejected. My struggle for intellectual freedom not quite complete.

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Published on on 05/01/2012.


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