Elite International Schools, Orwell and Adolescent Rebellion
George Orwell’s autobiographical essay Such, Such Were the Joys (1947) describing his days as a scholarship student at a British public school (Americans, read “an elite private boarding school”) drew an early and ominous parallel between totalitarianism and education. Re-reading Orwell, ten years after being introduced to his work in the comparatively idyllic setting of an elite international high school I realized how much I had internalized a blander, yet perhaps more insidious form of repression.
On the grounds of Crossgates (a pseudonym for St. Cybrian’s in Sussex), Orwell recalls a brutal regime lead by a man nicknamed Sim, and his wife Bingo. Their system had a practical purpose. To survive as a public school, Crossgates had to attract titled students (the sons of Lords), wring money from wealthy but untitled students (sons of merchants and barristers), and extract as many scholarship wins to Eton and other prestigious public schools as possible from promising but poor students like Orwell, who was the son of an aged civil servant.
Sim and Bingo basked in the reflected status of the aristocrats, lived off the merchants’ monies and attracted the business of the latter two by getting the brainy poor to win prestigious slots. To maximize their rate of return from each category of student, Bing and Sim enforced a rigid caste system.
Aristocrats were doled out six pence a week for sweets and encouraged to take splendid extracurricular activities like horse-riding and shooting. Unlike the merchant and scholarship boys, aristocrats never received corporal punishment and their bodies were considered sacrosanct – a miserable lordlet dripping a long trail of mucus onto his plate during school dinner was patted fondly on the back, while eight-year-old Orwell was flayed for bedwetting. Regular students received three pence and Orwell’s lot, only two. Paying students received cake for their birthdays, while Orwell was discouraged by his headmaster from purchasing items – such as cricket bat or model airplane – that were considered above his station. Even their diets were restricted.
Repression came from constant acknowledgement and underlining of this caste system, with the Masters calling out differences between the students, braced, here and there, with equal measures of corporal punishment and arbitrary affection. It was those insidious doses of affection that bound the system together. Orwell assumed, as no doubt all of his classmates did too, that, no matter how harsh the conditions at Crossgates, his professors had his best interests at heart. And they knew this and used it against them.
Scholarship boys were constantly menaced – “very early on it was impressed upon me that I had no chance of decent future unless I won a scholarship at a public school. Either I won my scholarship or I must leave school at fourteen and become, in Sim’s favorite phrase, ‘a little office boy at forty pounds a year.’”
But Orwell unpeels more than just mechanisms of discipline at work in his school. He acknowledges his own complicity. The brutal caste system would not have been possible without the willing participation of the students, including those at the bottom. By doling out occasional favors and rewarding snitches and bestowing “favor” Bingo and Sim kept the students perpetually embroiled in internecine conflict. Mere words were usually enough to manipulate them:
“There was ‘Buck up, old chap!’ which inspired one to paroxysms of energy; there was ‘Don’t be such a fool!’ (or, ‘It’s pathetic, isn’t it’), which made one feel a born idiot; and there was ‘It isn’t very straight of you, is it?’, which always brought one to the brink of tear. And yet all the while, at the middle of one’s heart, there seemed an incorruptible inner self who knew that whatever one did—whether one laughed or sniveled or went into frenzies of gratitude for small favours—one’s only true feeling was hatred.” (25-26)
The schoolboys sniveled and snitched on another, and competed for the affections of Bingo and Sim. Terrified and physically beaten into a frenzy of studying, Orwell excelled at his exams, earning places at Eton and Wellington. Yet once he was there he collapsed, resolving to slack off, and rebelled against the system completely, performing so poorly at Eton that he could not have gone on to Cambridge or Oxford without paying for a full ride. Instead he joined the Indian Imperial Police Force. “There was a time [after graduating Crossgates] for a bit of happiness before the future closed in upon me. But I did know the future was dark. Failure, failure, failure—failure behind me, failure ahead of me—that was by far the deepest conviction that I carried away.” (42)
My high school was built adjacent to the New Delhi American Embassy School’s residential compound, a sanitized version of a middle class United States’ suburb – complete with picket fences and a supermarket – designed to insulate its inhabitants from the teeming hordes outside. The school wasn’t built by the U.S. government and reflected something different. It was an architecturally ambitious, environmentally sound campus (imagine hexagonal rooms partially sunk in the native New Delhi chaparral). Considering how many of my fellow students ended up in academia or ensconced in well-paying, totally consuming positions within “campus-culture” information technology and finance companies, a corporate campus or research park is probably its closest analogue in the Western world.
Which is not to say the campus wasn’t extremely nice.
We strode along shaded cobblestone paths to class, we had chemistry labs, gymnasiums, tennis courts, two swimming pools, weight-rooms and cutaways where the native scrubland sprouted in aesthetically pleasing ways. There were ancient banyan trees to climb and the spiked fourteen-foot tall fence – to protect us from mobs – was carefully concealed behind hedges. Even school dinners in retrospect were not bad. There were veg and non-veg options, and as we became high schoolers, we were allowed to buy better, American things like hotdogs and hamburgers with chits at a special senior longue with billiard tables and music.
And the students, by any measure, were also very nice.
We students considered ourselves tame and mature. We were the sons and daughters of diplomats, of globetrotting industrialists or, more commonly in my grade, of parents worked at either the United Nations or the U.S. government’s official development office – the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Mine were journalists. It was not that we were meek, more that we deemed ourselves too mature for bullying and tomfoolery. Our gym teacher Mr. Ashit was never teased. And when I once tried to nickname a plump, popular theatre student named Miles, “Miles Wide,” it wasn’t so much that I was shunned as simply not understood.
The only real discomfort I ever felt at school was in the sixth grade, a few weeks after I had arrived, when I suddenly began receiving hundreds of roses for Valentine’s Day. At the time I assumed I was being singled out for public humiliation (having transferred from an Anglican school in Madrid where such incidents were isolated but not unheard of). When the Valentine-gram caper was cracked it turned out I wasn’t the intended victim, rather, my classmates were trying to make another student jealous. Or so the guilty parties said. I almost believe it.
We were completely cloistered. There were no subcultures on campus. No outside interference that wasn’t mediated by CNN or, later, Rupert Murdock’s StarTV. There was barely any sex. And then only between a pair of students in a long-term relationship, whose parents gleefully handed them condoms and encouraged them at it. (Or so I heard) Students’ families were all friends; they traveled the country in convoy. Good grades weren’t just encouraged, it was unthinkable not to achieve. We were nothing at all like the grotesque “Heroin Highs,” that some other South Asian international schools were rumored to be. My entire graduating class (of 47) went on to attend universities, although a fair number, myself included, failed spectacularly once we did arrive in the United States. Above all else there was an urgent, professional little hum running through us all, as if we all had somewhere very important to be very soon that we were all working for. Something bigger than us all.
The only trace of horror in our lives lay on a vacant lot beside the school. There was a jugghi across from our tennis court parking lots. This was a khaki-colored slum made of improvised materials, corrugated iron and scavenged bricks and plastic bags. It was extremely dense. From far away it looked like nothing, like a dried-up mud puddle cracking into pieces. But closer up there were maybe a thousand families were crammed into a space no bigger than the three tennis courts put together.
There was no official acknowledgement of the jugghi’s existence, no municipal utilities accessed it, and there was only a single hand-operated pump for water and a grate over an open drain for a sewer. Electricity (and later satellite television) was leached from overhead power lines. Yet the jugghi was the richest in town, having access to the American Embassy’s amble supply of imported garbage (scrap metal was a major source of income), and because of its proximity to concerned Westerners, it was protected from the occasional bulldozings and Flying Squad raids that bedeviled other slums.
Our facilities were well patrolled and there were never any unpleasant incidents to my knowledge from jugghi dwellers. A loose cigarette vendor or two was chased away from the premises. But nothing like a rape or mugging. We were far too protected and under constant surveillance for that to happen. And in a way it seemed inconceivable that one of them could do that. Their lives and ours were so distant it just did not seem possible.
Once a week, every Friday afternoon when school was done, except when there were major intramural tournaments, they let the slum-dwellers onto the school grounds. They trampled through, soaping themselves off with garden houses and playing soccer on our fields, and received medical care and goodies from good-natured students and teachers. Again there was no unpleasantness given the large numbers of guards on campus. An occasional eve teasing or salacious pinch from pubescent slum dweller but no greater transgression than that. (The program – “Reach-Out” – I believe was largely a women and children thing. Teenage boys and men were either at work during the day or kept away).
Why would anyone allow a jugghi to sprout up beside the American Embassy? If nothing else it was valuable land. Looking back at it now I wonder whether the jugghi served as the linchpin in a system as insidious as Bingo and Sim’s caste system. Maybe not intentionally but perhaps it helped give the school and its core community of aid workers and their little ilk authority. Charity is after all a way of demonstrating power and reinscribing hierarchies and the mindset at this international school was so rigid, perhaps it came from letting us teenagers feel like we had control over the lives of the miserable people living beside our school. Having them there implied that rebellion was ethically impossible. Or just completely beside the point. Childish. I certainly, illogically internalized the idea that misbehaving in light of the terrible misery just outside of our school would be unspeakably improper.
The curriculum of our junior year English class was dominated by two dystopias: Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell’s 1984, written after the second World War, imagines a world were three totalitarian governments (Anglo-American Oceania, Russo-European Eurasia and EastAsia) have carved the world into three tranches that they maintain control through constant low-level war. Brave New World, written in the roaring twenties, describes materialism run amok. Every decision is made for comfort, all is vain; all is shallow. Neither rebellious outcast protagonist managed to disrupt either system for long. And neither did I.
After reading Orwell I did try to rebel. But I always held back. I couldn’t bring myself to really lash out against the school as an edifice, as it seemed as though no matter what I thought, the work the school was doing was more important than I was. My rebellions were pushed into the abstract or into the self-destructive. Underground newspapers and using lacunae in the school’s bill of rights to refuse to participate in the United Nations Day march. Eventually I settled upon an affecting rightwing politics to antagonize my ‘prey.’ Annoying, certainly, and definitely distasteful to the authorities around me, but totally ineffective. I was ignored. Or at most, barred from attending events such as the Clinton visit and interviewing with the representatives of the various “Ivy Plus” schools we were supposedly being fast-tracked into.
The vast majority of graduates from my class thrived under this cloying, self-congratulating atmosphere. Most went from one smug system into another. Moving from school to college to life on a corporate campus. My “dissent” allowed me to blow off enough steam to let me graduate and get into a college – a vast state school, I was totally unsuited for, where, once I arrived, like Orwell, I completely shutdown. Like a clown fish adapted to live alongside the poisonous stings of a coral reef, I had built my entire persona around the intricacies of a tightly bound system without developing any tools to question it or overcome it. Once out of the international school and thrown anonymously into my homeland I was completely worthless. I became so nervous I lost the ability to speak without stuttering. I dropped and went limping back to the expatriate life until I could build up enough of a resume to bluff my way through American society. But others weren’t so lucky, at least one, who played the game better than I, and did manage to end up in a target school, where he decided to reinvent himself as drug dealing DJ, flunked out, and slowly stopped breathing one chilly Minneapolis night after an overdose.