Disappearing Boys

Amílcar Peter Sanatan

Amit disappeared under a desk. 

Up to Form 3, we were flogged regularly with bamboo whips, rulers, and palms of authority. A reputation preceded these instruments of discipline. They carried names like White Silence, Complicity, and Tears. Teachers charged us with lacking discipline. When we were disciplined, it was usually an older woman or man who beat their arguments into our bodies. Discipline was not just violence, it was its justification. We were hit, punched, and received licks for not doing homework, falling asleep during class, spelling one word on the board incorrectly (whether by our own measure of incomprehension or dyslexia), or not giving our undivided attention to a teacher as they spoke. Some older male teachers had the time of their lives flogging us. While they executed their strokes, they lectured us about stupidity and a life that would come to nothing if we did not take our education seriously. They were really telling us about our failure to be men in the nation’s future. They flogged us as little boys that could be wrung by the shirt, flung in all directions, and hit in front of others. 

Getting flogged in front of the class or the assembly hall was common. Boys being summoned to the office of the Dean or the Principal and returning to the classroom rubbing their asses was a joke we could all share. Even though we were targeted by teachers, we measured our manhood by our numbness to strokes, or the appearance of it. Part of being a man was showing that you could take licks like a man, showing it never hurt, or laughing and smiling sinisterly as the teacher raised their hands and struck your back. The boys from denominational primary schools perfected this, especially the Roman Catholic schools for boys. They knew a different level of horse play, and they were the ones who received the most punishment growing up. Some of them were flogged as teachers prayed. Others had to kneel on gravel in the midday sun and say the ‘Our Father’ prayer as punishment. By the time they made First Communion, the god they came to know was one of thunder and lightning. Everything was shattered when his holy men and women enforced his religious teachings and corrupted sayings like “cleanliness is next to Godliness”. That puritan need for cleanliness, which was code for: “no sweaty boys — especially sweaty Black boys”.

Sweaty boys, like stupid boys and sleeping boys, had no place in Mr Holding’s mathematics class. He would beat half the class in the morning with a bamboo whip if they did not complete his homework assignments. We spent half the period getting our asses cut and the other half learning Pythagoras’ Theorem. Mr Holding was tall, brown, and carried his big belly with confidence rooted in the memories of his earlier years as an athlete. He detested short, fat, and Black boys and especially reserved insults for them on these markers when he punished them. At the end of a major assignment, he distributed papers from the lowest to the highest mark. He remarked, “Again, the Indian topped the class. All I have is a class of foolish little Black boys. This is why you go nowhere.” I did not understand then that his point, go nowhere, was to say that we would remain where we were, that Black boys were at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. The Indian boy who topped the class would cringe in his chair, thinking about his escape from the assault of slaps for being a teacher’s pet and how he might possibly hide his own intelligence and Indianness to avoid cutting stares. Then, topping the class stopped being a homework and discipline thing and became increasingly an Indian versus African thing. Yet, for Mr Holding and all his venom, I enjoyed his stories about the first Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, whom he reminisced about perpetually. I never heard him speak of anything with affection other than vectors and the ‘Father of the Nation’. Mr Holding spoke about his days as a boy when he bowed to colonial officers to show respect; this was his way of explaining to us that we lacked it. Then, he would deliver an extended monologue with the quality of a sermon that bestowed praise on Doctor Williams for his “civility.” Always, at the end of his talk, he blamed the defective development of junior secondary schools and the shift-system of education for the high levels of crime and violence that gripped our nation. His stories were a counterclaim to the take of the history teacher who taught us that British colonialism was dead and buried when we gained political independence. I had to learn to pit that idea of a triumphant national history against the way Mr Holding spoke of the colonial era, with reverence, as if speaking of a dead parent. I never grew up in colonial Trinidad and Tobago, never sang “God Save the Queen”, or stood at attention for the high flag of the Union Jack. Dr Williams did not father me. The only way Mr Holding could get us to that past was to flog it into us and to beat us into the love of what he had before.

The policy was strike first, then ask. Flogging was the punishment and the trial. I remember the morning Amit was hurrying through his homework for the class after math. He hid his copy book between the pages of his math textbook, trying to finish the assignment. Clearly, Mr Holding marked him during the class. He walked up and down between the classroom aisles as we tried to do one of the exercises on the blackboard. Then, breaking the silence, he struck Amit. Amit jolted forward, and his glasses fell beneath the chair of the boy in front of him. Holding hit the table and the chair, summoning him to rise, but Amit remained under the table, crying, screaming for mercy. Mr Holding began to unbuckle his belt with one hand. On good days, we were hit with only leather. Mr Holding thought we were old enough at that age to endure some buckle. He grabbed Amit from under the table and delivered seven strokes onto his crumbling body. All the while, we laughed at him. The boys slapped their desks in drum rolls, pointed, and cackled as Amit flinched and wailed and begged again and again for the flogging to stop. We laughed at him in chorus for the whole period, hands on stomach, rocking back and forth like a car pulling brakes. Our laughter was Amit’s second punishment. We laughed because the flogging of boys in public was something to bear witness to. Men did not beg. Men did not give abusers the satisfaction of their violence. 

Ming disappeared. 

He was expelled from our school but he is known as a dropout. Mr Holding flogged, Ahidjo fought. For a French teacher, there was nothing tranquille about Ahidjo’s demeanour and tone. When he hit one of the boys, no one laughed. Once, he hit my younger brother on the charge that he had not done his homework. Having done the assignment, my brother protested, and Ahidjo acknowledged his error by flogging the rest of the class for “making him hit the wrong boy”. He spoke in English and French, but violence was the language in which he was most fluent. Ahidjo was so accustomed to holding us like wild meat in his hand that he ignored that we were really boys who grew in size. Some parents stopped hitting their sons as they entered their teens — as early as 13 or 14 years old — because they came to terms with the new size of their boys’ hands and the harsh outcome if the fight was no longer  the way it had been for many years. Boys themselves came to learn how much the changes in their bodies rearranged the chaos.

Ahidjo did not speak much. If a boy was late to his class, he stood in the doorway, blocking entry. Boys would ask permission to enter his class, and he would say, “You can enter but do not touch me.” He never moved, so boys would have to duck under his arm. At that moment, boys would bend over in embarrassment and try to run into the class quickly. He would swing and kick their behinds on their way in. That was his way of teaching us a lesson, even if it was not in French. 

I think of Ahidjo, the man back then, who sustained his assault on boys with the privilege of being an adult, with the security of being an authority, and with the arrogance of an abuser reminding us that legislation against corporal punishment was not official. It must have come as a surprise the day Ming decided to hit him back and jump-kick him in his chest. Ming was not in my class. I had never seen him; I only heard about him. He was expelled by the time I entered the school. Whether he was a real student who disappeared or one who was brought to life from myth, it felt good to know that there was an equal response to Ahidjo’s violence. Ming would have left an empty chair when he was expelled. To fight back meant that he tore his boyhood uniform and became a man. But classrooms were designed for boys to sit in.

I cannot bring Leslie back.

Before I learnt of boys who disappeared from a class or a school, my friend disappeared from our lives. He was the son of a big boy at The University. He was our version of a big boy in The University’s private primary school. He was the most popular boy because he made everything plain. He excelled in academics, and he was seen studying in the classroom and lifting trophies for academic excellence in the morning assembly. He excelled in sports, and he represented the school in football and swimming because even at that young age, he seemed to have a degree of control over his body. He excelled in the school yard, and all the boys gathered around him, and the girls talked about their crushes on him in the playground tunnels. He played scooch, said “shit” and “ass”, which at that time, for a student in a private school environment, was pushing the envelope. He listened to all the rap songs, brought the album covers of CDs to school, and tore pieces of foil, twisted them, and wore them as earrings or covered a front tooth to show the new-money look of artistes we saw on television. I, too, would sit on a bench when he wasn’t around and show my friends how to make bling with foil and mimic him. He was one year ahead of me, and he led the House I was in. His body moved with the most freedom.

After football practice, while we waited on our parents, he would speak to me. “Which girl you like? It only have two sweet girls in your year,” he said. Even his explicit interest in girls made him appear light years ahead of us. I saw how boys, including myself, were nervous around him. When he called us in, it was as if we were being summoned. All the power he possessed did not come from a fear of him but from a recognition that what he represented seemed unattainable — the brightness, the athleticism, the swagger and energy of independence. One parent mistook me for him once, and I was proud to be taken for Leslie on a quick take. The feeling that I could be mistaken for the big boy in school who appeared to be free of the perils of succeeding in the school system, not peaking at the right time, and not mastering the world, sent me to the moon. 

He would graduate, and when he left, something went missing from the school. As I began to sit on the bench where he sat, the landscape felt smaller than before and, to some extent, less alive. I was an average student and far from athletic. All I had was my mouth and a rhythm of shit talk that allowed me to sit above others in the school yard. Not too long after Leslie left our primary school, he was killed when a vehicle crashed into him in front of The University. At that time, I was not in Trinidad and Tobago, and I learnt about his death when my father received the news from my mother on the phone. I thought of the velocity and weight of a car driving into his body. I lost sleep for many nights. I returned to the site with a kind of obsession, wanting to understand the way a boy disappears. Unlike the press and those who speak a gospel of forgiveness and even forgetting, I could not call the wasting and disappearance of boys an accident. My brother,  gone too soon.

Sean Luke — he disappeared. 

If an Indian boy falls in a cane field with no ears to hear, does he make a sound? Six-year-old boy, second-year class student at Waterloo Hindu Primary School, found dead 300 feet away from his home. He was sexually assaulted with a cane stalk. The perpetrators were also young boys, 13- and 16-year-olds. The young were the victims and the offenders. I remember the newspaper headlines and the long quarrels on radio talk shows. What I remember most were the cars driving on the highway and Eastern Main Road with lights, full beam, in day-time traffic, mourning Sean’s death. During the Form class meeting, the teacher asked us to pray with intention for other boys. The guidance counsellor that week tip-toed her way into a conversation about child sexual abuse with us. A lot of talk with the media and with God, but Sean was dead and could not reply.

There was more talk that “Laventille people”, meaning Black boys, were responsible for his assault and murder. There was talk about Satan’s power over the youth and an end time that neared. There was an entire talk show about homosexuality and a generation of “confused children” that condemned the island to a fate of fire and brimstone. 

After all the prayers and counselling, the boys in my class apprehended the deep lesson of disappearance. Boys are disposable, weak, an easy mark for “bad things” to happen to. Boys went into cane fields and never came back. Boys were targeted, picked on, pulled away from the group and condemned to vanish into the thinnest air. 

It is important that I say their names — Amit, Ming, Leslie, and Sean Luke. 

I say the names of all the boys who are no longer here with me. When I say them, I feel my cheeks swell with pubescent chunks of fat and milk from my childhood. At that moment, they appear, and we laugh. I slap them on the back, kick them on the shin. They talk shit to me for a while, until they disappear again. Saying their names allows me to confront the short-lived innocence of my youth, as well as the lies told to children by adults that the only way to avoid chaos and death is to follow their dictates. It occurred to me that boys, for all their toughness and rigidity, were also involved in an act. An act to remain visible, to remain seen when the violence that entered our lives like natural law took us away from classrooms, streets, and cane fields. Neither were boys safe as boys, nor were they safer trying to be men.

Amílcar Peter Sanatan is a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus. His poetry, written in English and French, has appeared in Caribbean and international literary magazines. Sanatan is an alumnus of The Cropper Foundation’s 10th Caribbean Creative Writers’ Residential Workshop and Obsidian Foundation. He has performed spoken word throughout the Caribbean and coordinated open mics in Trinidad and Tobago.

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