After the graduation ceremony I went down the hallway on my own in my gown. There was the smell of the hall, the brutal white lighting, the doors with their numbers that had come to symbolise the people who taught behind them, my locker’s stickers, the smell of Impulse under my Biology textbook. A lot of people had been crying, but Carlo and I had been unable to stop laughing after three people we’d never seen before stood up to take their scrolls and move their tassels from one side of their hats to the other, apparently classmates of ours we’d never seen.
We decided one of the students looked like he’d been Fritzled - kept hidden in the attic of ‘the villa’ of our school. All these years he’d secretly been generating the school’s electricity supply through centrifugal power by riding a bicycle furiously while our small blonde headmaster whipped him mercilessly complete with latex suit and gimp mask. We frequently thought up scenes with our middle-aged headmaster in latex.
We had plenty of time for this between my moment - Agnew - and his moment - Robilant. According to the end of year’s school tabularium we were Desert Island Companions and respectively The Most Likely To Succeed and The Most Likely To Never Graduate From High School. Our parents never stopped watching us as we teared up laughing at the expense of our classmates.
As I walked back up the hallway to the door leading out of highschool, having committed the vision of that hallway to memory, a voice called me. It was from the principal’s office that stood in front of the doors to the school, and the voice turned out to be the principal himself.
Natt Smith had joined the school only that year. His first address in our student newsletter - The Falcon Dreamer - read: “I encourage you all to take an active role in your child’s development and education. Ask questions. Share. Take delight in their achievements even as they struggle.” He was from Orange County, early 40s, and handsome. He’d had what we surmised was a nose-job and a quick search on the internet revealed an photo of him addressing a Scientology gathering some time when he’d been a mayor in OC. This led the student body to refer to him as our new ‘scientologist principal’ for that year. This wasn’t particularly shocking, since a few months earlier it had emerged that a much loved teacher had been in a 1980s horror porno in which he ate someone’s heart before fucking their brains out. A parent had found out via her son who had a niche interest in 1980s Italian gore-porn clearly, and had asked for the teacher’s dismissal. A petition went round, the entire staff and student body signed it, and Mr GorePorn stayed where he was clearly needed.
Smith was nice to me, realising quickly that the best way to get on my side was to flatter my vanity, which at that moment resided in my conviction of my superiority to everything around me. “Jeez, Roisin, there’s an actual queue of boys trying to talk to you,” he’d say, to which I would reply, “I know. Get in line.” He came into an Italian literature class one day and yelled, “Who remembers the opening line to Camus’ L’Etranger in French?” To which I, quick as a flash, recited, “Aujourd’hui maman est morte, ou peut etre hier, je ne sais pas,” a weird thing to shout, particularly in an Italian class.
“Roisin Agnew!” The thrill of your whole name being spoken.
I walked into his office where he was putting away gifts he’d been given. He congratulated me on my graduation and I thanked him. “And now that you’ve graduated I can tell you something I couldn’t tell you before,” he said, after mentioning that I almost wasn’t allowed graduate because of my frequent absences. “When I saw you in that cafe the first day of school, I didn’t think you were a student,” he went on. “I was like, wow, Italian women are so beautiful and sophisticated drinking their coffees at the counter. And then I came into school and you were there, and I was like, shit, no, that’s one of my students! I hope I didn’t dribble my coffee!”
My distaste for authority started early and through no fault of my own. When I was in kindergarten my father received a call saying that I was refusing to colour in elephants. In a rare moment of impatience for a man who is normally polite, even gregarious, he replied, “Well why the fuck should she colour in elephants, it’s a ridiculous activity!”
Sneering aside, I loved school. As an only child I was expected to do well, but my parents taught me to disregard authority figures if I thought they were fundamentally wrong. American-trained pediatricians had tried to put me on Ritalin and I suppose this was a stand of defiance my parents had chosen for all of us. “We trust your judgment” was a refrain.
I was a nightmare and had a really great time. A parent calling into a math class in middle school opened the door to find me dancing on a table and then delighted my mother by recounting the episode to her in front of a group of mums. I forged my father’s signature on letters sent home that complained about my behaviour, until the teacher asked my parents to come in for a meeting. I was ‘sent to the hallway’ until my senior year, when one teacher decided I was too old to be kicked out of class, so she’d leave instead in protest at my behaviour. It was innocent but consistent bad behaviour.
But I was a good student and I enjoyed school. I became semi autodidactic, racked up absences, and read the teacher’s handbooks, going to another school’s classes occasionally as I was convinced I wasn’t being taught properly. I did well and so my distrust of the school deepened.
An international school in Rome with fees upwards of €15K a year, it was attended by the prime minister’s son and the son of Jeff Koons and porn star Cicciolina, as well as by embassy children from Israel, Nigeria, Canada and normal (if privileged) Italians. Young teachers came from the US for two year jaunts so they could work tax free, older teachers came for a last stop before retirement. The year after I left, one of the jovial, rotund administrators was escorted off campus by the police because of his involvement in some fraudulent activities with student fees. Or so I heard.
School set the standard by which I would come to understand authority figures. They were oily opponents prone to sneaky serves that turned into half-volleys who I’d be forever side-eyeing across the tennis court. My peers were my leaders. School was ‘the establishment’, a microcosm of the half-perceived injustice that existed outside its privileged confines - greed, pettiness, ugliness, from the dirt and neglect everywhere, to the obsolete public transport, from the illegal developments in national parks, down to the bomb-proof golden gates at my classmate’s house.
Feeling unrepresented by those in charge allowed me to feel like an outsider and not care but pay attention, an emo Kylo Ren. It made me hesitant to follow direction until I was sure the person had good judgment. I never took a boss’s word for anything until I trusted them. I never adopted their opinion until I could see good reason for it. I learnt what the Dilbert principle was from the cartoons - incompetent people promoted to middle-management in order to get them away from the frontline where they could do real damage. Where authority lay was a matter of circumstance and context, not of ability or talent.
For a year I’d been fantasising about a scene like this. Me ready with my teasing replies, him saying something drenched in innuendo, some terrible version of Baker Street playing in the background, papers flying across the room, me figuring out how to undo a tie, me looking up that nose to see if I could see the scars from the operation, “there’s only one place where your midriff can be exposed in this school young lady, and that’s right here.”
If he’d touched me I would’ve probably giggled like a baby and drooled, any hint of sex leaving my body like a deflated balloon. I felt awkward and young. His flirting with me was so that he could watch my poorly masked reaction. He knew I’d been fantasising about him that whole year, he knew how conceited I was. And then there was the Federer move, the SABR half-volley. “We almost couldn’t let you graduate because of your absences. I couldn’t have that though.” His magnanimity and thereby his power were great. I wondered did all forty year-old ex mayors with nose-jobs need to toy with 18 year-old girls to get their jollies. And then I remembered that it didn’t matter. I’d graduated. Everything this individual said to me now was just words. The scales had tipped, the context was different. “I remember that day,” I said. “And you did dribble your coffee.”