Sunday, May 26, 2013

Key


Two stories from my first year of high school, or middle school as Americans would call it. Maybe. I was eleven years old and it was a new school, whatever that means in your part of the world.

As part of our day one orientation the head of the year, a cantankerous old bastard, explained a few simple rules. I think the school, being a private boys school, felt obliged to have few old men teachers floating around the traps, giving the impression that they missed nothing more than being able to cane students, and generally adding an air of authenticity to the private school experience. Anyway, among the rules meted out that day were "if you lose your locker key, a new one costs five dollars" and "you must put your name on all your stationery including pencil cases".

Some time during the first week I left my pencil case behind in a class. It goes without saying that my name was not on my pencil case, nor was my name the pens, the protractor, calculator, or any of the arcana that makes up an eleven years old's essential stationery. Late in the week we had an assembly. At some point Mr Cantankerous held up a green tartan pencil case and said "This pencil case has no name on it, so I don't know who to return it to." I put up my hand despite the embarrassment that was suggesting I will myself to disappear. He ignored my upraised arm, opened the pencil case and tipped the contents on the ground. "Does anyone recognise this as theirs?" I had to stand up, gather up all my things, put them into the pencil case, and skulk back to my seat in front of everyone. In my memory it was the whole grade of over a hundred, but maybe it was only our class of thirty. A hundred or thirty is a meaningless distinction to a boy in his first week at a new school. That night I named all of my school equipment.

Back to the first day. I received my locker key and, having never had to look after keys before, threw it into one of the myriad pockets provided by a school uniform. Not more than a fortnight later I was no longer able to find my key and trudged, shamefaced, to pay for a new key from Mr Cantankerous. Based on the pencil case incident I was expecting this to be some sort of nightmarish event but aside from enduring a glare of disappointment, it was cordial enough. Assuming it had been a once off, I threw the key into a pocket and went about my schoolyard business. Three weeks later, back to Mr Cantankerous who gave me a small lecture and provided me a new key. This time I took the key and placed it carefully into a pocket. Later the very same week, I was back to get another key. I can't remember exactly what word he used, Mr Cantankerous was not predisposed to using names, it was probably "son" or something like that. "Son," he (probably) said, "what are you using for a keyring? Because it's clearly not working." I replied that I didn't have a keyring and that I just kept my key in a pocket. He sighed, opened the third drawer of his desk and revealed a glittering array of keyrings. They were probably all the lost and found keyrings owned by a man who had taught absent minded boys for thirty years, but I like to think it was a curated collection, a different type of keyring for each type of scatterbrain. He took from the drawer a large steel keyring, the type that can clip onto a belt, heavily scratched and pitted, and handed it to me. "Put the key on this, and I don't want to see you in here again this year."

I used that keyring until I graduated from university almost ten years later, and only changed when the spring mechanism in it gave out. By contrast I still struggle to keep track of a pen for more than a week, and I don't put my name on anything I own.

Next week's word is keepsake.

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