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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART II


 

9:  SCHOOL

We had thought the rumour of school and schoolmasters a joke: but inside the echoing room whose pitch-pine desks had little ink-splattered wells sunken along their top edges we hushed quickly, under an access of infantilism. 'There's only one thing' says Taffy 'that the Air Force can't do: put us in the family way.' We felt and feared, all at once, that if this new service of ours took the whim it might put us back to pupilage, again.

The master was youngish, a lean dark civilian. Hand in pocket (what a liberty and comfort this seemed! We daren't put our hands in) he stood by the dais, against the wall-map of Europe, and looked at us. We gained a little confidence. We are Air Force ('Royal Air Force') and superior to civvy ginks. Gaby thought she might assert the manhood our nickname denied her: so she dropped her books and splashed ink on the master's fingers. He instantly developed sharpness. Gaby was ordered out and came back after a minute, subdued, and hiding from us the swollen palm of his right hand. 'Serve the little shit right' said everyone, quietening down.

Then the master spoke us fairly, in an Oxford manner. His pleasantness seemed earnest for us to do something for ourselves. From the first sentence my analysing mind felt a conflict between his spirit and the other side of the valley. Do things for ourselves over there we were taught to obey orders, and to wait for orders. Zeal was misplaced. The part of our mental anatomy most kicked by the instructors had been not our laziness but our blundering zeal to do over well. In the training camp we were being subdued to the passivity of puppets, with something of their immediacy and automatism, when master jerked our string.

Here was this other master, only just across the Pinne in M. Section, telling us that education made us worth having in the Air Force and that it flowed from the inner man, educed by his will. Wills? Airmen weren't entitled to them, were they, except to second the sergeants' wills? Where was Taff' Jenkins? He had deserted us, left us to the mercy of this new voice which went on to talk bolshevism. We had a chance, it seemed, in spare hours to better ourselves for civvy life. But civil life is half a life away: and for spare hours, we are too stupefied with square to fill them except with sleep. This is such a spare hour and these forms not so hard as they looked. Let's hope he likes his pleasant voice and will drone on over us. As he speaks his fist coils and uncoils in his left pocket, like a snake.

No luck: he is giving out papers. We are each to write an essay on our schooling, what it was, and our aspirations, what they are. 'More blinking essays' muttered a disappointed voice. He came round with the blank paper, and bending low said something to each of us. Doesn't he know we're a flight, not loose fellows? He's talking to us one by one. To me he said, 'What you write will not go beyond myself. I want you to give me your confidence and tell me the exact truth of what I've asked.'

Risk it? There was a suppressed interest in his voice. I took up my pen and wrote how since the age of twelve I'd helped myself with scholarships and benefits through school to a university and past a degree in history to a research fellowship in political theory. Afterwards I had wearied of abstractions and thrown up that life and enlisted: and now wanted no more intellectual knowledge, my brain being already too ingrown for the daily practicalities of Hut 4.

The hour had passed. We filed out into the corridor's silence and rent it with our vile scrapery of hobnails. Pipe in mouth Taffy sat waiting for us on the steps. We pounded wildly, heel and toe, up the hill. Ten minutes late for dinner. Odds and sods to eat. Damn all school.

The mail had come during dinner and lay distributed on our beds. In his letter there was bad news for Garner who tore up the photographs which had stood on his locker and with his face in his blankets began to sob like a child. Real shaking sobs, which echoed across the hut like minute-guns, making it miserable. We kept clear of him till the whistle went for five minutes to parade. He washed his streaked face and fell in, saying nothing.




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