The spectator

Something distant called war

I WENT TO a high school filled with smart kids. Kids who had been specially selected because their brains were somehow advanced. But they were only smart in the way they could read books and do tricky things with numbers in their heads. Many of them had no social skills; others were suffering from things that at the time had names like ‘attention deficit disorder’; and lots of them popped small pills to calm them down, or speed them up, depending on the time of day and what their parents demanded of them.

Wet weather seemed to bring out the feral in some of these kids. They became excited as the damp approached on the easterly winds, and something would click in their eyes as the rain began to beat down. Most of their pranks were petty and annoying, things like chucking stationary at the classroom fans, or throwing each other’s bags onto the roofs and spending the rest of the day devising plans to bring them down.

In my first year at the school, as the months built, the weaker kids were sniffed out and targeted by the one’s with feral in them. You could tell that many of the perpetrators had been bullied or outcast at their previous schools. These were the kids who wouldn’t look you directly in the eye, or if they did there was something unfocused in their pupils, as if they knew what it meant to go to the edge. These were the kids who had spent too much time playing Magic: The Gathering; the kids of the fresh-off-the-boats or FOBS, as we called them; the kids who talked funny and spent their weekends taking English-as-a-second-language classes; the kids for who words like ‘assimilation’ and ‘multiculturalism’ were developed. These were kids who felt they had been robbed in some way, but couldn’t say how. And here, at this school intended to nurture their intellect, they grew a strange confidence, which they mistook for power.

Simon became one of the victims. He was Chinese, round with soft fat, played the trombone and had a know-it-all manner. He didn’t stand a chance. One of crazier boys, who had grown up in public housing and was over-medicated on Ritalin, picked him out. This Serb boy had a mullet cut and crooked teeth, and before anyone could call him ‘houso’ or ‘westie’ he brought a rat to school and let it crawl around the girls’ legs, laughing and spitting as they screamed, which earned him the name Rat Boy instead.

Rat Boy would prod Simon’s fat, driving the different angles of his own spindly body into the other boy’s flesh. But, like most things with these smart kids, the violence was predominantly psychological stuff, slow burning – and the rest of us watched on.

The teachers did little to control it. Some were well meaning and had been told these kids were ‘gifted’ or they were the ‘kids of refugees’, and so they tiptoed around their transgressions; others had reached burnout, like so many in the education system, and found it hard to draw on the enthusiasm required for discipline, preferring to wait in the wings and hope they were never called upon. Neither group were people we could relate to.

Occasionally a teacher would cast themselves as an actor in the play. Like this one guy who took the design and technology class. He wore tight black jeans, a white T-shirt and a gold chain, and strutted around the school, his face always on the verge of a wink. While soldering pieces of circuit boards together he would come over to assist the girls. He would talk softly, and gently show us how to grip the soldering iron, just right, just like that. We all found him an absurdity when we were in clusters and would giggle, but as we got older, walking alone down the corridors, his winking face would whisper things like, ‘Did your shirt get smaller or are you just growing?’ And when we heard stories that he touched some of the girls, his smirk didn’t seem so absurd then.

The class had another teacher, who was great. He took English, and was real old-school. He had a shock of white hair, stately posture and a baritone with which he could keep even the most jacked-up kid in his thrall when he spoke Shakespeare.

Now is the winter of our discontent,

Made glorious summer by this sun of York.

But mainly our worlds remained separate. There was no precocious white teacher who came along and saved us as in Dangerous Minds, and there was no witty scholar who inspired the gifted like in Dead Poets Society. We just circled around each other, trying not to cross paths.


BUT THEN ONE day a teacher arrived at the school, and he smelled like a victim.

He would roll in and look jittery and disconcerted as to how he had wound up here, with these wogs and fobs and ethnos, getting expectant looks from the crazed teenagers. He seemed to hate teaching almost as much as he hated kids. He only came on as a substitute, so he had no real, lasting relationships with any of the kids. His lips were fat and buttery. He wore shorts, like a schoolboy, up high around his paunchy stomach. He was Anglo-Saxon, and what we thought of as old – perhaps in his fifties – and he would refer to everyone as ‘whatshisname’ and ‘thingamajig’ because all the Chinese and Arabic and Indian names were too hard to pronounce. He was bald, except for some stray hairs he combed over his scalp. And so the kids called him Combover.

The only thing that seemed to generate any enthusiasm from him was the war. He brought everything back to war.

‘In Nam…’ he would say, and we’d know he was going to begin a rant and we wouldn’t have to learn that day.

We heard from boys in the older years that he had been a war veteran. And he had this thing called post-traumatic stress. We also heard he was an old friend of the principal’s and that the school had only brought him on as a personal favour, telling him it would be easy, that the kids were bookish and didn’t need any real help. I don’t know how the older boys got this information, or if the things they told us were true.

They told us that one time they had yelled ‘air raid’, and Combover dropped to the floor behind his desk, shaking and scraping his knees on the carpet as his hair flipped over and exposed his bald patch. It seemed funny, so I laughed along with the rest of them. They told us they had watched Apocolypse Now in class, and about how he’d fallen asleep but woke up shouting ‘Iroquois, Iroquois’. We laughed again. But none of us really knew what it meant.

There were lots of Vietnamese kids in our school, and Combover would look at them with mild terror. He mumbled things about slanting eyes and Charlies and Agent Orange as he tried to work the AV set.

To set him off, some kids would ask questions they thought were very smart and would snigger as he muttered in response about tunnel diggers.

‘Sir, sir, what is the chemical composition of napalm?’

‘Sir, what is the best structural way to build a tunnel?’

The whole class giggled at the beginning. But after some time it began to bore some of us. He was speaking about a war before our time. It was a war many of our parents had grown up with, or protested against, or had taught us to look down upon. His world seemed made-up to us, and so we learnt to laugh while he ranted in the background, and we screeched words of encouragement as Rat Boy flicked rubber bands against Simon’s red-welted skin, as there was nothing else to do but follow the chaos led by the few.


IT WAS DRIZZLING with rain on the day Combover cracked. Rat Boy, inspired by the tales from the older boys, told everyone to co-ordinate their watches to go off in five-second staggers. Rat Boy had done some research and said these alarms might remind him of the drills in the war. Whether it was the war, or the general disruption, when the watches started pinging Combover jumped up, almost knocking over his chair, and his face turned redder and redder as he yelled, ‘Who is doing this, is it you thingamajig, make it stop, make it stop, just goddam you kids make it stop!’

We stopped for a while. Combover was still red but he went back to marking the roll in a detached manner. ‘Thingamabob’ and ‘whatdoyacallhim’ and ‘Charlie’. Rat Boy chuckled, happy with his work. But within a few minutes he was bored again, so he turned to Simon, armed with a screwdriver he had stolen during woodwork class. Simon whimpered and sobbed quietly, not wanting to draw too much attention, and we continued on with our advanced algebra.

A howl suddenly filled the classroom. Simon’s flesh was pulled apart, like a ruptured fruit, and there was a burst of dark blood where the screwdriver had pierced. The howl soon became a guttural bellow of rage. After being prodded and teased and poked for almost a year, it seemed Simon had finally reached his threshold. He stood up. As he rose up out of his chair, we realised he was actually very big. He pinned Rat Boy up against the wall quite easily, and we wondered why he hadn’t done it earlier. His bellow didn’t stop. It filled the classroom, saturating the chairs, and the chalkboard, and the shocked faces of all the bystanders to his pain who had never said a word or helped him. And then we noticed Rat Boy’s face, which had gone from red to purple.

There was another yell, and we saw Combover provoked into a slow action. He staggered across the room, shouting ‘what in the goddam name is whatshisname doing?’ He tried to pull Simon off the boy. But Simon had developed a vice-like grip and a clear intention. ‘I will kill you,’ he was saying between gritted teeth as Rat Boy started to go limp against the wall, eyes bulging out. We all watched on, suspended and unsure and horrified.

There was a swooshing sound as Combover, still shouting, did karate through the air and chopped Simon in the windpipe. The bigger boy clutched his throat and Rat Boy fell to the floor with a thud. Combover stood there, staring at his hands and trembling all over. He was shaking and shouting, spit flying from his mouth, including all of us in his disgust.

‘We fought. We fought hard. None of you know respect. And you little jackasses with your entitled ways come to our country and eat our food and just sit there laughing and I’m supposed to teach you something, because you are our future, but you’re all little shits and you will never understand anything that matters until you lose something.’


COMBOVER DIDN’T RETURN to school the following day. The class heard from some teachers that all the war stuff had become too much for him and he just needed to rest.

We retold the event to our friends as a dramatic tale. But otherwise we shrugged it off and went back to our separate worlds. We were fourteen, and his world didn’t really mean much to us.

We didn’t know that he would never return, or that later that week, at night when most of us were asleep, the war of our own generation would begin on the other side of the world.

We would be sitting wordlessly in design class that next morning as the design teacher’s face would struggle and contort to find the right words, and then finally ask if any of the girls needed comforting.

We would watch, over and over again, footage of the planes crashing into those twin towers, toppling everything around them.

We would watch over the years as the stories of Nam, with the tunnels and wet forests and Agent Orange, would be pushed aside and replaced with stories of caves and deserts and white phosphorous, and men with beards and liquid eyes.

We would watch as the battleground would shift around us and the phrases ‘home grown’ and ‘radical’ and ‘jihadi’ would alter in their meaning.

We would watch, and hardly notice, as bins would be removed from train stations so bombs could not be hidden, and airport security checks would stop all of us who looked like they might come from one of those lands of the liquid eyes.

We would watch as our phone screens, TV screens and computer screens would stream violent images on a scale never before known, with angry young men cutting off heads and screaming about the unfaithful.

We would watch as the Afghan war would go on to become longer than Vietnam, and drag in everyone – the willing and unwilling – to become a spectator. And we would once again be reduced to watching from the sidelines uselessly, like that awkward day at school, waiting until something or someone finally reached their threshold – and cracked.

But right then, as the TV continued to replay the crashing towers, we still had no idea what it meant, or where the world was heading, or how it would go on to change each one of us. So we shrugged, and instead told each other about that one time the fat Chinese boy finally snapped and about the crazy teacher who had lost everything and ranted at us about something distant called ‘war’.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review