Thursday, 15 November 2018
A moderately famous South London public school in September 1984. Its chilly. My first rugby lesson. Studs clattering on the tarmac, we cross the road to a playing field. I don't know who any of the other boys are, so I feel wary. I know next to nothing about rugby, but don't like the idea of tackling or scrums.
The games master is an old man, bald, very keen on the game. Many of masters in the school are former players, and I think he was one of them. We're supposed to bring both a blue and a white jersey to every games period, but many of us haven't. "All right. Shirts v skins!", we are instructed. I'm one of the skins. It feels fated that I would be. It wasn't like this in primary school.
A hailstorm starts. I know that in my primary school this would cause the lesson to be abandoned and we'd make our way back indoors, but this doesn't happen here. Nobody mentions the possibility. I feel cold and don't like the hard tingle of the hail on my skin.
We are instructed in how to form a scrum. I am in the middle of the formation. I feel very uncomfortable. I don't like being unable to control my own movements. I don't like being pulled by the motion of others. I don't like being topless and cold. I particularly don't like the forced proximity to 15 other boys and the strange, automatic, insensitivity that seem to take over them. I feel trapped and frightened. I start to cry. I start to keen.
The master stops the scrum. He pulls me out. The feel of the muscles of his fingers on my feeble naked bicep. He seems stunned. "You, boy! What's wrong with you? What are you doing?" "I'm crying, Sir" "What are you? Are you a girl? This is rugby!"
I rejoin the scrum, and continue in silence, feeling the same discomfort. The other boys respond with contempt and disbelief. By the time the lesson is over, I leave the field a different boy than I was at the start. My unsuitable disposition for this education has been revealed, both to my peers and to myself.
I often think back to this pivotal scene, and age has given me a different perspective. I'm surprised by the master's astonishment, and retrospectively I'm aware of holding a fleeting, momentary, power in the instant of our exchange. I know now that what I should have done was to shake my head, say "I'm not doing that again" and refuse to go back into the scrum. There would have been unforeseeable repercussions, but as my response had already exposed me as irrevocably different, I wouldn't have had anything in particular to lose. And because the situation had never happened before, the school wouldn't have had a set response to it. I think that a present day schoolboy probably would successfully get out of it.
You have three options in dealing with authority; obedience, struggle or revolt. My habitual reaction is struggle, but this was one occasion when revolt would have been the right decision. Not though I knew it at that one moment.