Lessons from Aylesbury
In my seven-year old mouth, in 1959,
in an old fashioned primary school in Aylesbury,
there is a lump of gristly meat, part of my school dinner,
which I have been chewing forever.
I dare not leave it: leaving food is not allowed.
I cannot keep it in my mouth: the rubbery texture is vile.
I may be forced to swallow it,
but that does not bear thinking about.
In a moment of fearful criminal inspiration,
I surreptitiously transfer it from mouth to pocket.
I have learned my lesson for today:
how to dissemble in order to survive petty coercion.
Same dining room, different day.
My seven-year old arms are folded behind my back.
They are twisted peculiarly and they hurt.
All the children have twisted their arms in the same way.
One of the men teachers is punishing us.
He has been very clever in his teaching.
We have learned that we can receive a cruel impulse from another,
and inflict it upon ourselves.
I am setting off to walk to school.
Autumn is well advanced and it is cold.
My seven-year old body is shivering,
but I cannot wear a coat.
I joined the school after the start of term
and there was no peg left for me to hang my coat on.
I have learned this: in an environment
of fear and indifference, it may be wisest to suffer silently.
It is PE time. I am part of a seething mass
of seven year old boys hacking at a football in the playground.
There is aggression and shouting and no discipline.
None of us has football boots.
The boys with football boots are on the football field
playing properly, with the teacher refereeing.
To them that hath, privilege shall be given;
to them that hath not, abandonment shall be their fate.
In the art room the teacher is very happy.
We have produced good work and he has given us stars.
Then someone makes a remark he dislikes;
he turns angry and shouts; he cancels the stars for us all.
As the glowing beauty of my picture fades to mud,
I learn that an arbitrary authority
can transform the happiness of achievement
instantly into bewilderment and silent resentment.
Over the years I have wrestled with these lessons.
I have toyed of course with anger, and revenge.
By now, the teachers will probably be dead,
so perhaps I should seek out their children, and grandchildren,
and visit my vengeance upon them,
even unto the fourth or fifth generation.
But instead I have tried to seek out the cruelties within me,
and, using love, transform them into love.
My sweetest revenge is to try to manifest kindness,
and loving consistency, in my dealings with children
(we are all children).
In this I celebrate the survival of my integrity.
I have learned this:
there are lessons we may have the misfortune to learn
that we would do well to decide never to use.