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Professor Lucifer in the Arena of Angels

September 26, 2006 10 comments

“. . . Zooplasty on a grand scale, Uncle’s
yen to adorn the soul with sense beyond
Xs sewn for eyes on sock dolls (Jacko’s
watch, a parallax in that lax, cross-eyed
vision: sight sans insight, its dazzled look
under scrutiny), hence, mind, rather, how
the mind, being an appendage to the
soul, is in the scheme of things meat met with
raison d’être for a treat, then the barbe-
cue where for dessert there shall be apple
pie flown back from Eden, a rare entrée
of undetermined fare preceded by
none other than a gangrene salad, a
much-maligned primordial soup, and, at
last, appetizers beneath a spell of
knelling, metaphysical handbells—no
jumbo tolls, no subliminal signal
invoking a horde of winged dogs to the
hunt. O, my incalculable lovelies,
gods of the loft that in such myriad
forms are but air, stacked vapor, and old light
everywhere but where you are, which of you—
deaf ears, hollow eyes, numb tongues, and no thumbs—
can tell me whereabouts besides the foul
bowels I shall make the incision, what
angle take to free from flesh the angel?”

by Karl Elder

For online definitions of “zooplasty,” see here. -Eds.

Categories: Education Tags:

The Investigation

September 22, 2006 5 comments

It was the year that Lisa Lisa rocked the charts, and G-Force dominated every dance floor, and Sporting-Waves pomade was in the hair of the bad boys (not me), and almost all the girls had breasts the size of tangerines straining from behind the blouses of their school uniforms, and some of the boys (the bad ones, again) claimed to have “pressed” them.

It was also the year my bunkmate Mike Denani, who was not a bad boy, astonished me one afternoon behind the Social Studies building by telling me exactly which of the two holes in the mysterious region below a woman’s waist babies emerged from. That was a disgusting thing for him to say, and though I laughed it off at the time, I could hardly look him in the eye for days afterwards, mostly from the suspicion that he was actually telling the truth.

The main trouble in those days, though, was with the toilets attached to the house, which were in an awful state, regardless of how much the one-eyed Warrant Officer who served as our House Master screamed about it. They had to be scrubbed clean every Saturday morning at the first sign of daylight. The finger and palm blisters we got from cutting grass with dull cutlasses were far better than the stink and gloom of the shithouse, and every first-former wished dearly for a lawn or farm assignment on Saturdays rather than toilet duty. The toilet was so foul, in fact, that many of the pupils preferred to squat in the wild bush behind the dormitory and wipe with leaves. Yet, though in those days I missed toilet-paper with an intensity I have never since then felt for any absent lover, I could never bring myself to wipe with leaves: too oily, too crinkly, too unpredictable. And what if the leaf tore and I got shit on my hands? What if I accidentally used lemongrass and carried an itchy ass around for two days? Or, worse, if I attracted the curiosity of one of the black mambas that nested in those tangled grasses?

No thanks. I was happy to take my chances and stand tiptoe over the horrible open pit in the unlit toilet and do my business there. I washed with water, cleaning first the little pucker (that is, the one that women also had but apparently didn’t use for delivering children), and then obsessively washing my legs in case anything had accidentally run down, washing as obsessively as a squirrel washing a nut. I was nothing if not hygienic, and our prison camp of a school wasn’t about to change that. There had to be a modicum of order to my life, even out at this gulag.

So, naturally, I was terrified when our bunk was rattled at 3am on a Wednesday and my leg was yanked through the mosquito netting. The whole house was being woken up. Boys of all ages rose grumpily from interrupted dreams that, I feel sure, all involved either our music teacher or the contraband magazine Ikebe Super, or some unholy combination of the two. The seniors barked out that an emergency house meeting was being called. It had something to do with the toilet.

All the senior boys stood on one side of the central passage of the dorm, and the first and second-formers were made to line up on the other side. The seriousness of the matter made it immediately obvious that connections would not spare anyone from the investigation. The fact, for example, that my school-father, a fourth-former known to everyone as “Paul McCartney” because of his docile manner and girlish voice, was standing right there, was of no use, no matter how imploringly I looked at him. Not that it would have been of any use, since I had wrinkled my nose and complied only reluctantly the previous week when he asked me to clip his toenails. It wasn’t until many years later that it became obvious to me that Paul McCartney’s various ambiguous requests (“rub my back,” “wash my feet,” and so on) were due to his latent homosexuality which even he might have been unaware of at the time.

The House Prefect, ordinarily quite a decent fellow, bellowed at us, calling us filthy worms. If the House Master were present, he said, we would all be getting thrashed within an inch of our pathetic lives. As it was, the crime – some boy had defecated indiscriminately all over one of the toilet stalls – would be investigated. He held up a torch-light threateningly, and switched the beam to the highest power.

The senior boys grinned, as if the whole thing were a grand joke. I avoided Paul McCartney’s eye, but I doubt he was laughing. There was a doleful expression on his face that rarely varied. Meanwhile, we quaked in our singlets and nightclothes, and each of us started loudly protesting his innocence until we were silenced by a blast of profanity from the Prefect.

One by one, we shuffled to the front of the line. Each boy, as he approached the House Prefect, was made to drop his shorts to his ankles, and bend over so that his anus could be examined with the beam of the torch. The seniors tittered delightedly, making comments, craning their necks to get a view. Judgment was swift, and each exonerated boy pulled up his shorts and joined the others with a mixture of relief and acute shame.

My bunkmate Mike was ten spots ahead of me, and even though I knew my turn was soon, I still felt sorry for him as he lowered his underwear and exposed his ass to the torch’s glare. His precocious penis swung into view. I was ashamed to be present at his shame, and I thought I was in a bad dream that would soon end. When the line came to a boy with a barrel-chest and fuzzy hair – of course I’ve forgotten his real name, but everyone called him “Yam Tuber” – who was three places in front of me, I started to unbutton my shorts. I was fearful, because in these situations there’s never any certainty that one is free of incriminating evidence. I concentrated all my energy on not pissing myself.

There was a low whistle from the House Prefect.

“Ah, ah! Oloshi! What is this!”

The seniors crowded in, murmuring their agreement. Apparently, traces of fresh caca remained around Tuber’s sphincter. The Prefect seized him by the neck. “Oloshi! You have been wasting our time!”

The investigation was over. I almost died of relief. It’s even possible I pissed myself just a little bit. We were sent back to our bunks, but it was more than an hour before any of us could get back to sleep. Tuber had been dealt with, and his moans of an injured dog punctuated the darkness at irregular intervals. Though the welts on his neck and back healed quickly enough, he carried an abandoned, betrayed look on his face for a few weeks.

But me? Those things happened a long time ago. I continue to clean with an attentiveness that would impress the most meticulous of domestic cats. And now I buy Quilted Northern or Charmin, whichever of the two is more expensive.

by Teju Cole

An earlier version of this story appeared in the now-defunct blog Abdul-Walid of Acerbia. – Eds.

Categories: Education Tags:

The Receptive

September 19, 2006 7 comments

Throw those pennies, listen for some wisdom coiled
in a hexcode to rattle up my spine, broken lines
piling, piling the answer in the gap like every
other lesson learned between now and now: cupped
hands tossing coins away to beg for maps, for old
patterns’ trail-marks from oracle to writers to me.

Yes these hands have been flung open and open ‘til
I swing on what hinges like an old screen door:
the glyph tossed the one that slams shut only to
bounce and judder wide again yielding six broken
lines, a stuck window jimmied loose, scrapes parsed,
untangled, ghost to texts to my hashed scrawl.

by Lori Witzel of Chatoyance

Categories: Education Tags:

Gripped by Sunlight: The Education of a Secoya Shaman

September 15, 2006 7 comments

Fernando Incuyabeno

By Fernando Payaguaje

English translation by Nathan Horowitz, from the Spanish translation by Alfredo Payaguaje, Jorge Lucitande, and Marcelino Lucitande

Fernando Payaguaje (c.1915-1994) was the last shaman-chief of the Ecuadorian Secoya tribe, a group which today numbers about 400. The Secoyas and several other tribes represent the remnants of a once-vast indigenous nation whose population was reduced by about 98% when, beginning in the 1700s and ending in the early 1900s, outsiders brought waves of diseases into the area. During Payaguaje’s life, the Secoyas’ society went through great changes as they were forced to end their nomadism and settle in villages, where missionaries from the United States taught them to read and write and nearly eradicated their practice of shamanism. Today, educated and organized, they seek to preserve the best of the past while taking advantage of the opportunities of the present.

The real world

My preparation was long because I was a brave drinker. I drank up whole gardens of yage1 before having visions, but in the end, I was able to graduate even though I was young.2

After drinking, the first thing you notice is light. The mind opens like the dawn of a splendid day, everything is gripped by sunlight, and colors shine with great intensity. Next you see butterflies flying in that luminous air. The first time I saw them come near, I thought they were persons. I thought they were the angels I’d heard others speak of, but no. Only later can you contemplate those angels walking through the air. At the beginning, you see only butterflies, beautiful birds… you can also hear sounds resounding, very lovely, or the murmur of celestial beings. The drinker can become proud, saying “I have acquired the visions,” and it’s true, but they’re only the first levels. I didn’t say anything because I wanted to see more.

Afterwards, if you have a good teacher, you can reach, little by little, the truth, and the most complete possible knowledge of reality.3 The guide should bring us first to the celestial spirits, and later teach about the multitude of devils that exist, since the graduate has to know about everything. If the teacher introduces the student first to the world of devils, he’ll never be able to make his way out of there, much less reach the sky; everything’s finished; he’ll never be able to direct the ceremony.

Customs for the yage ceremony

In the old days, the Secoyas would adorn themselves to go to the yage house. They combed their hair, they painted their faces with freshly picked achiote, highlighting those designs with curí, achiote cooked and mixed with other aromatic herbs. They made long stripes in the same way. All these designs had no greater meaning; they were just designs. They dyed their lips black and, with cooked achiote, adorned their feet, calves, arms and hands. They dressed in new tunics and decorated their hammocks, and they wore flowers and fragrant plants on their bodies. At the end they put on feathers, crowns and necklaces.

At around four in the afternoon they would perform these preparations and leave their houses dressed like this, if they lived near the yage house. But if they lived far away, they would set out dressed normally, and then, a short distance away from the yage house, they would adorn themselves. No participant entered the house unadorned. Once inside, they would hang up their hammocks and remain in them from the beginning of the ceremony at dusk until it ended at dawn. In the morning, breakfast was served, and then the guests would return to their homes, where they would bathe to remove their designs.

Families who had someone sick would bring him to the yage house. He’d lie in his hammock in a corner of the house. Then, at a given moment, the shaman would give him prepared water,4 fan him with leaves,5 and, finally, say to his father,

“Your son is going to get well. That sickness will not come back.”

When the son was all better, the father would thank the healer, and would pay him with a hammock, because everyone was aware of the suffering he had to pass through to graduate. That’s the reason to pay him. Sometimes, if someone falls ill suddenly, he can be healed in his own home. The healer smokes tobacco and blows the smoke on the patient. If he’s a good healer, he knows immediately what illness he is faced with. Occasionally, if he has no yage prepared or is in a hurry, he can drink hard liquor, although the drunkenness is not the same. It’s necessary to be careful with the quantity: with a small glass, you can cure, but if you drink more, the drunkenness comes on and you can’t do anything at all, much less have visions. Liquor is very different.

There are diverse yages and various ways of using them. One customary way is to cook yage on one side and on the other side uhahai.6 That is scraped from the plant, wrapped in a leaf, and, when the yage itself is cooking, you put it in the pot and keep it there a long time. Afterwards you keep boiling the yage at least half a day or more until it’s very thick. It should be bitter, concentrated, because that way the visions acquire more potency. You take out the plant matter and let the brew cool and take it home.

Uhahai should not be cooked. You take off bark with a knife and put it in a bowl of water and leave it out in the sun. After a while you can drink it because it inebriates.

Despite being very strong, pehí7 is easy to prepare, although it should stay on the fire a long time. You cook it in a large clay pot. A long time later you take out the plant matter and cook it down until it looks more like a food than a drink. Its smell, appearance and taste are very disagreeable.

People who are accustomed to drinking yage are not gripped by the drunkenness, but drink it as tranquilly as if they were drinking chucula.8 The person who directs the singing never drinks pehí — though he has drunk it previously — to learn to sing, because it softens the body and the voice. After drinking it, you’re not afraid to sing because you’ve acquired all the knowledge. If the graduate is young, he’ll drink standing up, walking with the cup in his hand through the open space of the house, proud, drinking and singing, because the drunkenness cannot defeat him. Because it’s not he who’s drinking anymore, but the angels.

Yage is drunk in darkness, without lighting a lamp; the only light comes from the flames or the coals of the fire.

The temptation of violence

You’re reclining in the hammock, but, at the same time, you’re in another world, seeing the truth of everything that exists; only the body remains behind. The angels come and offer you a flute. You play it; it’s not the healer who teaches you, but the angels themselves that make us sing when we’re inebriated. How beautiful it is to see the totality of the animals, even the ones that live beneath the water! How could it not be lovely to distinguish even the people who live in the interior of the earth? You can see everything! That’s why it’s exciting to drink yage.

But it’s not easy. When I drank thick yage, the strong stuff, I was able to see the sun, the rainbow, everything. That vision ended and I felt my heart as hot as a newly fired clay pot. I felt the heat inside, burning me, and although I wasn’t working, I sweated all day. Visions continuously assaulted me. From time to time I bathed. I felt myself capable of bewitching and killing people, though I never did it, because my father’s advice restrained me.

“If you use that power now,” he said, “you can kill people, but you’ll never get beyond being a witch.”

In those days I was devoting myself to drinking yage. I would go visit Cuyabeno and then return home to listen to my father’s warnings.

“When you feel a little drunk,” he would say, “you should suppress the anger that comes to you. Then you won’t become violent or hurt anyone.”

“No, I’ll be able to restrain myself.”

For days I endured this heat inside. I felt like I was drowning in my own sweat. It’s a dangerous time; you have to prepare for it. You can’t even look directly at people, only listen to them.

“Now I’ll bring a different kind of yage,” my father said. “It’s the moment to try it.”

We brewed it very thick. When we drank it, he extracted those magical darts I had inside.9 I stopped sweating and became like an innocent child. That’s how my father drew the violence out of me so I could heal and not harm. At that point I went up a level.

Pehí reduces you to ashes

After meeting all the spirits of yage, you drink thick pehí to perceive the innermost aspects of reality and fine-tune your voice to sing well in the ceremony.

To drink pehí, you scrape the bark like with yoco, and you wash the roots well and peel them. You toast this material and then put it in a pot to boil. Later you let it cool down, discard the plant matter and cook it down further until it’s so thick you can almost chew it.

Meanwhile, the yage is cooking in another pot a certain distance away. During the ceremony, the director will abstain from drinking pehí, but he will offer it to those who want to see. The fact is, it’s frightening to drink pehí that thick. It smells terrible and tastes worse. It’s so bad that you immediately throw it up. That, you have to do right back in the gourd you drank it from so you can drink it again. If you vomit the pehí on the ground, you don’t get visions, the only thing you can see is an immense land in which you seem to be buried. The pehí is so pasty that you can’t swallow it easily; you have to push it down your throat with your fingers. This makes you disgusted, ashamed, and afraid.

Sometimes they mix tarayage,10 waiyage11 and pehí so that the result is very concentrated. When you drink it, the drunkenness hits you before you finish the gourd. You feel burns all over your body, as if you’re being hit with burning logs. Then the body catches on fire and is reduced to ashes. When the flesh is destroyed, only then does the soul emerge and begin to see. At that moment the most fantastic visions begin.

I drank pehí when I was very young, at an age when some people were afraid of drinking even the weakest brew. On that occasion, three graduates accompanied me. They didn’t drink. They gave me a big gourdful. I drank it and was immediately struck blind. They gave me water to get rid of the bitterness in my throat and helped me lie down in the hammock. I felt a terrible drunkenness and continued not to be able to see. They lit a tobacco for me and I took it, but I was unable to smoke it, and I threw it away, still blind. Despite everything, I withstood the fear without crying out. I held still, waiting for the visions.

My drinking companion had to drink sitting down, and not even that way could he drink more than four swallows. The gourd was still full when he stood up, frightened.

“I can’t take any more, I’m drunk already!”

“You have to finish it.”

But he started to cry and put the gourd down. Then he lay in his hammock and stayed that way for hours. Later on he got up and walked around the yage house as if he had gone insane. At dawn he went outside, saying, “I’m going visiting.” But his whole body shook with spasms and he stayed that way, as if insane, until late in the afternoon.

Young people should drink pehí to culminate their initiation; it’s the only way to reach the celestial visions. Yage is not sufficient.

With yage, it’s like a school. Until you finish studying, you don’t know everything. Only people who drink pehí to the end know the ultimate visions of the world. I was intoxicated for a night and a day, during which time I was able to see all the devils in existence. In the same way I saw all the jaguars.
__________

1 Pronounced “ya-HEY.” A hallucinogenic medicine, also known as ayahuasca, common to tribes in the western Amazon rainforest. (Footnote by Nathan Horowitz — hereafter, NH)

2 The importance of graduating while young should not pass unremarked on. In the first place, we have already spoken about the difficulties experienced in the process; because it’s necessary to make a hearty effort to drink (“You were born male, but you’re acting like a woman, going fishing instead of drinking yage!”), this speaks for the young man’s moral quality. But furthermore, the Secoyas agree that developing the habit of drinking yage early leads to more numerous and superior visions. (Footnote by Miguel Angel Cabodevilla, editor of the Spanish edition — hereafter MAC)

3 All the drinkers insist on this: drinking is not a vice, because it’s disagreeable and risky; what they wish is to see, to control the world of the deadly spirits, to approach the happy kingdom of the celestial beings; in sum, to attain knowledge. To reach the truth, because what our eyes see is only an appearance. “If we don’t drink, we don’t see, we don’t dream; if we don’t see that other world, we’ll die off, there will be a catastrophe.” (Testimony of Cornelio Ocoguaje in Ganteya Bain, El pueblo secoya, Alvaro Wheeler, Bogota 1987, p. 274.) (MAC)

4 I.e., water that had been chanted over. (NH)

5 The leaf fan, mamecoco in the Secoya language, is a common tool of shamanic practice among ayahuasca-drinking tribes. Other names for essentially the same thing include shacapa and wairapanga. (NH)

6 Brunfelsia grandiflorae. (NH)

7 Brugmanisa sp., a stronger hallucinogen related to datura and thornapple. (NH)

8 An everyday beverage for Secoyas, made of ripe plantains boiled and mashed in water. (NH)

9 Witchcraft is seen and experienced as arrows, darts, spines, of different materials, which the sorcerer fires at his victim, conveying sicknesses or death. In the exercise described here, the master teaches the initiate to dominate as much his anger as his pride in feeling himself powerful, since both vices would be dangerous for his community; and so the master brings him to a higher level where the celestial beings purify him of his violence. (MAC)

10 Literally “bone yage,” so-called because of its knobby appearance. (NH) To stimulate visions or healing rituals, the Secoyas drink three basic types of plants. First, yage, the most well-known, used across a wide area of the Amazon, and perhaps more familiar by the Quichua term ayahuasca. … Second, pehi (peji), known in Quichua as guando (or huantuj, etc.), called in Spanish floripondio or borrachera…. Third, uhahai (ujajai), from the Secoya uja, prayers to drive away dangers, and jai, many or great. … In Quichua it is known as chirihuayusa. During his tales, Fernando recalls some of the characteristics of such potions, about which he is recognized as an expert; a more detailed description of their qualities is beyond the reach of these pages. (MAC)

11 Wai: meat. (NH)

Excerpts selected by Nathan Horowitz from his full-length translation, The Yage Drinker, which will be published in December 2006 by CICAME, Pompeya, Ecuador.

Fernando Payaguaje’s autobiography, edited by Miguel Angel Cabodevilla, was originally published in Spanish as El bebedor de yajé (CICAME, 1994).

Interested readers can find photographs closely related to the material in this article in the work of Richard Evans Schultes, the late Harvard professor and explorer who is considered the father of ethnobotany. Schultes was about the same age as Fernando Payaguaje, and was working in nearly the same environment. A recent book of his excellent black-and-white photographs, The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journeys of Richard Evans Schultes contains images of healers, typical plant life and Amazonian landscapes taken on his explorations between 1941 and 1953; excerpts and selected photographs from this book can be viewed at HerbalGram: The Journal of the American Botanical Council; and a more extensive gallery of Schultes’ photos is here.

Up In The Morning & Off To School

September 11, 2006 5 comments

Sandown Lodge School, 1955

Friday. It’s 6.30 in the morning. The racehorses wake you. They walk them from the Roseberry Stables, round Worple Road & up onto the Downs. Your caravan’s parked against the high wall at the edge of the school grounds, & every morning they come along the lane high stepping & snorting, sometimes shuffling nervously, quietened by the grooms’ gentle voices.

You lie in the narrow bed. Another full night’s sleep. During the few weeks since the beginning of term when Rory & Isla moved you from the boys’ room to the old caravan, the insomnia has ebbed away, & with it the fear of the night’s long flood tide. Out here, once the light is off, the darkness is total. And within those first few nights while sleep still eluded you, you could hear the screech owls calling from the big beech tree in the Paddock. Once, in the small hours, one landed on the roof. The spread claws skidding as it landed woke you. It called twice – a haunting whistle on a falling note – & then took off. Your fear then was real. But it was a gut sensation, visceral. Not the spectral terror of being alone in a night that will never end. You fell asleep oddly comforted.

7.00. You scramble out of bed & pull on jeans, a shirt & a jumper & your wellingtons. Your breath clouds the air. You run across the dew-heavy grass to the side of the house, stopping by the kitchen door. An old ship’s bell hangs in the angle between two walls. It’s shaped like an inverted bowl & resting against its upper edge is a hinged clapper. You relish this moment of your appointed office, lifting the clapper slowly. A shiver passes through you & you slam the clapper against the bell, seven slow strokes. The sound, importunate, officious, thrills you even as its volume makes your eyes water.

You take the stairs in twos &, bursting into the boys’ room, you jerk the curtains wide & tug the bottom half of the sash window upwards.
– Wakey, wakey, rise & shine! you yell.
Somebody throws a slipper at you; it hits the upper windowpane. Down the corridor you can hear Rory & Isla’s lavatory flush. Outside on the landing one of the girls – Miranda, probably; she’s an early riser – yawns extravagantly & slams the bathroom door.

7.45. In the kitchen Maria stirs thick Scottish porridge in a huge aluminium saucepan. She steps back to peer through the doorway into the Scullery.
– Who’s here now gets to eat, she announces in her thick Bavarian accent. Who’s late gets it all cold.
Rory comes in, scratching his beard. He wears a shapeless cable-knit jumper & his Hunting Stewart kilt.
– Hulloo, wee-‘uns, he greets the kids. As he walks past Mikey’s tilted chair next to yours, he grabs it &, holding it firmly, tips it swiftly backwards to the floor. Mikey tumbles off it & seizes Rory’s legs.
– Are you on duty, Rory? he asks, pulling himself up.
– For my sins, yes, I am, Rory answers, entering the kitchen. Tea, Maria, black as tar & twice as thick!

9.35. Jimmy watches his English class racing towards the shed for saws, hammers & nails. Under his arm is King Solomon’s Mines, which he would have read them had they not called the lesson off. In fact, there were to be no lessons at all this Friday. Strictly speaking, a day’s lessons could only be cancelled by a majority vote in the School Meeting the week before. But during the holidays several lime trees on the Ashley Road side of the Paddock had had to be cut down & now that the branches had been sawn off & stripped, the plan was to build the biggest camp yet. In company with all other teachers with scheduled lessons, Jimmy accepts force majeur & lets them go to join the others, jostling & yelling. But he tells them in the few impatient seconds between announcement & release that he intends to bring them all up in the Meeting that afternoon because they are breaking a rule that has been declared by the entire community.

12.20. You can’t choose between labouring packhorse or Canadian logger as you seek out a role, hauling two long, ragged branches across the grass towards where the camp is to be sited. As you wrestle them into the loose heap & shake off the ropes you can smell the sweet, juicy fragrance of freshly sawn wood.

Already several shorn branches are seated upright in a long, deep trench & Jules is pounding them into the earth with a rubber-topped mallet while Robbie nails crosspieces in place to bind them together. Supporting the branches gingerly are Mikey & Miranda. Jules is teaching them a song in his almost impenetrable Ayrshire accent. With the precision of a chain gang chorus leader, he bawls the strange lyrics on the downward stroke of the mallet:
Wha’ saw the tatty howkers? Wha’ saw the eenawar? Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw?
You lean against the trunk of the big beech around which the camp is being erected. Jules pauses, downing the mallet & leaning on the upturned handle.
– Now, he says, catching his breath. The next bit’s the best bit so listen, right? Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some o’ them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw.
Everyone laughs, shedding tools & falling upon one another. You grin & make your way back to the woodpile for more branches.

4.10. Lunch is taken in shifts, the keenest builders carrying their plates out to the site. Eventually Maria brings the saucepans full of macaroni cheese out to the Paddock & serves the workers in situ. By 4.00 a few day pupils drift away to collect their bags & go for the bus home. Reluctantly, the remaining work force moves away, wandering back towards the school building. School Meeting starts at 4.15 & Rory has asked that as many attend as possible because he has an important matter to raise.

As you reach the hedge that separates the Paddock from the old tennis court & the frontage of the house, you turn & look back at the day’s work. A ring of stout branches, part woven & part secured by nailed crosspieces & rope, contains the beech tree within a pygmy stockade. A frisson of excitement & pride trips your breathing for a moment. One more full day’s work to be done…

4.20. The Big Room is full. All the boarders are present & the majority of the day pupils & teachers. Most, like you, are perched on the tiny blue kindergarten chairs that line the walls. Only the Chairman & Secretary – Peter & Janine – are seated in comfort on a pair of winged library chairs behind a low table. Rory is seated, leaning against a closed door, cradling Cordi, who is only 4. Isla sits cross-legged beside them.

Peter raps the table with the side of a ruler.

– Order! he calls in his high unbroken voice. I’m opening the meeting at…4.20. Janine’s going to read the minutes of the previous meeting.

Maria had complained that a loaf of bread had gone missing from the larder. The Meeting directed the guilty parties to own up immediately. Jago & Dilly admitted to having removed it & both were fined 1/- each & denied a jam allowance for one week. Rory said that boarders had been seen climbing on the downstairs toilet roof. The tiles were not secure & if anyone slipped & fell the school would be liable for any injuries resulting. He wouldn’t ask the Meeting to support a proposal for any kind of action in this instance; he just hoped that the boarders would be sensible in future. Robbie, Mikey & the Burch twins proposed that there should be a rock-and-roll hop for pupils & friends for the weekend after Half Term. Jimmy asked if teachers & parents would be allowed to attend. By a narrow majority the Meeting voted to include them.

– Any matters arising? asks Peter.
Gilly Burch raises her hand.
– I’m not going to the hop if my parents are going to jive! she declares. And teachers too! And I won’t be the only one! It’s just embarrassing!
The Meeting defeats a motion to ban all dancing grown-ups by a narrow majority & moves on to new business.

Rory raises his hand & is acknowledged by the Chairman. Still cradling the sleeping Cordi, he stands.
– I should like to suggest that we abolish all school rules forthwith, effective as of this Meeting.
He pauses. A ripple of shock passes around the room. A few kids laugh. You are appalled: a thin line between the silent, invisible machinery of ordered freedom & downhill chaos is about to be crossed.
– Do you have a seconder? asks Peter.
Rory leans down & gently passes Cordi to Isla.
– Well, it’s not a proposal at this stage. I simply feel that we have too many rules now & that to try to pick our way through all of them piece by piece, weeding out the unnecessary ones, will be too time consuming. So why don’t we just scrap all of them & start again?
He sits down. For a moment the Meeting is still. Then, one by one, hands go up, some assertively, demanding attention, others more tentative. Peter inspects the display.
– Jimmy?
– I’m not out of sympathy with Rory’s suggestion. But before this gets any closer to going to a vote, am I in order in bringing up my English class from this morning for breaking the cutting lessons rule? I think they should be fined & if we sweep away all the rules in one go right now, an important principle’s going to go with them.
Peter leans towards Janine & they consult for several seconds. Peter straightens up.
– No, Jimmy, you can’t. We have to finish this business before we can go onto new stuff.
You realise with a sort of disembodied surprise that your hand is raised. Peter’s cool scrutiny passes around the room.
– Ricky?
You swallow hard. When you speak your voice sounds alien, as if someone close by is mimicking you.
– But if we’ve got no rules at all then why would anyone…what would stop anyone from, like, breaking a window or, say, smashing down a camp..?
Rory smiles & begins to address you directly.
– Through the Chair, Rory, Peter interjects sharply.
– Sorry, Peter. Now, that’s a fair question & I guess the immediate answer would be nothing at all. But here’s the crucial issue: no one person here at Sandown Lodge has ever put together a list of rules & regulations & said, ‘Right, everyone, here’s what you’ve all got to do & you do it or I’ll tan your bum…’
The little kids all laugh. Rory takes a short step forward & leans an elbow on the fireplace mantelpiece.
– We make the rules. All of us. Together. From the wee kids right up to the grown-ups. And we do things that way because we all know that the rules we have make sense because they’ve come from what happens to us in our daily lives. So – safety, health, convenience, thinking about each other & not just ourselves. Each good rule grows from these sources. I think we’ve got a bit carried away recently & we’ve gone from saying no-one’s allowed to leave school by the main gate because it’s on a bend in the road & it’s dangerous, to things like if you spill sand more than a foot away from the edge of the sandpit you have to pay a 3d fine. And I think that’s a bit crazy. So I propose we dump the lot now & go back to the starting line. No rules, then good rules.
Rory turns & sits, pulling the still sleeping Cordi onto his lap.
– Do we have a seconder? Peter asks the Meeting.
Your actions still apparently governed by remote control, you raise your arm. Janine scribbles your name in her notebook as the debate breaks on a tideline of waving hands.

9.30.
Wha’ saw the tatty howkers…? Jules howls as the boarders climb the stairs for bathtime & bed. Ruth, on bed duty, grimaces from her doorway. You carry your wash bag & towel, granted first ablution privileges so that you can make your way out to the caravan. As you clean your teeth in the basin you can hear five voices at various stages of pubescence following Jules’ lead:
Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some of them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw…

It’s a fine autumn night under a full moon. Silvery light shines around the gaps in the rudimentary curtains. You lie staring up at the curved ceiling of the old caravan, wide awake but free from fear. In the great beech in the Paddock, the screech owl quavers & you smile into the darkness.
__________

The Downs = Epsom Downs, site of the Derby horserace.

Wellingtons = Rubber boots.

‘Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw?’ = ‘Who saw the potato pickers working in the Broomilaw Road?’

‘een at aw’ = None at all.

1/- = One shilling in pre-decimal coinage. Value, 5p.

3d = Three pence (pronounced ‘thruppence’.) Value, about one pence.

by Dick Jones of Patteran Pages

UPDATE: Dick has published a four-part essay at his blog called “The Practice of Freedom,” reflecting on what he has learned from 35 years of teaching in progressive schools. Here are the links: Down on the Killing Floor; A Manual for Revolution; Teaching as a Subversive Activity; and the conclusion.

Categories: Education Tags:

Teachers

September 8, 2006 3 comments

Mrs Howison from the Highlands;
her heaven chimed with Devon,
mine with midden.

Mrs McCanna, no stranger to a fish supper,
skin clammy with salt’n’vinegar,
declared me out-of-order.

Mr Beckham replaced his stroboscope
with a boy, propped on a box,
set to shout ‘flash’ every five seconds.

Mrs Cash balanced breasts and maths
on my shoulder until I keeled over
on first contact with her mouthwash.

These were my teachers
and I have spent my life unlearning
every lesson they taught me.

Today, in a grocery store, a stone’s throw
from Turin’s multi-ethnic
centre,
a child barged into me at the fish-counter.

Scusa, I said, with enough sarcasm
to poison an ocean.
He didn’t even look at me.

Foreigner of shit! he replied
in BBC vowels, and I wondered
who had taught him that one.

by Rob A. Mackenzie of Surroundings

Categories: Education Tags:

A Word from the Editors

September 5, 2006 Comments off

Welcome to qarrtsiluni, at its new home! The summer edition, “Short Shorts,” made up of contributions of 100 words or less, was one of the most exciting so far. We published some forty posts, of which thirteen were by contributors who had never appeared here before, and the quality of the submissions is increasing overall, making the task of editing both more exciting and more challenging – as it should be!

In addition to fiction, non-fiction, poetry, interviews and translations, we’re also interested in publishing more visual art. Images may respond directly to the theme or to analready-published post. We are also looking for artists to whom we can send submitted pieces for their illustrative response. If you’d like your work to be considered, please write us at qarrtsiluni at gmail dot com.

–Beth

September-October Theme: Education

“Strangely circuitous and excessively wasteful of energy the path proved to be,” wrote Henry Adams about his years at Harvard. To critics of institutionalized education, such as the late Ivan Illich, that probably wouldn’t seem strange at all. “The pupil is … ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new,” Illich wrote.

Context is everything, and in The Education of Henry Adams, the author’s life-long pursuit of something called “education” frames every autobiographical recollection. What would our own lives look like through that lens?

But you don’t need to restrict yourself to memoir, much less to formal schooling. Tell us stories about dog training; write poems about learned vs. instinctual behavior among theearwig; send us photos suggesting something about the flow of ideas among the members of a jazz ensemble. But whatever you create, we ask that you sit up straight and pay attention! Homework is due by the middle of October at the absolute latest  as soon as possible, so we can start posting the earliest arrivals and can give subsequent submissions the consideration they deserve. Thanks.

–Dave

Read more…

Categories: Education Tags: