My old school took its civilizing mission very seriously: the slightest infraction of its rules earned the culprit a stinging slap in the face. Every morning at assembly, the teacher on playground duty, a retired sergeant major and former boxer, would stand on a wooden box, roaring over the heads of the neat rows of boys lined up in front of him: “You’ve all got shit in your shoes.” Oddly enough, the harsh regimen did produce a certain pride in wearing the school badge: we might well have shit in our shoes, but, as everybody knew, the paupers at the local municipal school were up to their necks in manure.

From day one, to instill politeness, drills were held requiring us to whip off our caps at the mere sight of a parent or teacher. But soon, blind obedience gave way to subtle class distinctions: Did the teacher with a slight regional accent really merit our respect?...


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