‘Precocious’ – Chapter Nine

In a moment of clarity, Michael uses his adult intellect to befuddle his teachers.

texts
9. Wordplay

‘I would have you now, for Mr Macalister’s benefit and my own, use the word ‘agrarian’ in a sentence.’

So that’s where he was at that time. Gelling the perfect storm of shit was the fact that now he’d used whatever intellectual reserves he had to write a few hundred un-salty words about Ancient Greece for the administrative loose ends of a history teacher, and the fact that he’d used a word like ‘agrarian’ had set off the alarms.

It’s a straightforward enough word, or so Michael thought. Common enough in the parlance of the time – and he’d find himself in other theoretical quagmires if he’d used ‘parlance’ in an essay. Or quagmire.

The whole mess unfolded fairly smoothly – matter-of-factly, suggesting the same kind of efficiency of a well-coordinated federal police sting.

He arrived at Wellings at the usual time, avoided eye contact with most of his cohorts, thought about the day’s news and the fact that he was, for the first time in his life, actually reading and enjoying Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the immediate wake of The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield was a little prick, end of story. As for the Flaubert, it wasn’t because he’d become enamoured of French literature, nothing so haughty or upper crust – he’d wallowed in projected nostalgia for TV he missed, but hadn’t been made yet, and recalled an episode of The Sopranos where Carmella was temporarily separated from Tony and whiled away a quiet evening by banging Meadow’s English teacher, and he put her on to the book. Turns out it was a backhanded compliment.

His present situation in the deputy head’s office was almost staged or choreographed for a music video. Michael was wallowing in a kind of funk that anyone who looked would have just brushed off as teenage ennui. Mr Gibson approached him with large, determined steps with his arm outstretched and a thin, bony finger pointed right at him. Michael saw this spectre, thought it almost comic and raised a smile – Gibson looked back at him with an expression that demanded a full, serious approach to whatever was about to happen, and the smile disappeared from Michael’s face.

‘I need to talk to you,’ Mr Gibson said.

‘OK.’

‘You should follow me.’

‘Now?’

‘Yes, now, Curtin. This is serious.’

It could have been anything. It was in all likelihood the matter with Cooper, how he’d probably done some kind of irreparable damage to the kid’s nards with that stomping action, or at least done some damage to his psyche. Either way, Michael didn’t care, and he even considered it odd that he didn’t care. But despite the fact that he had used whatever advantage he had to brutally assault a child, he had a defence, and what he considered moral right on his side.

Perhaps it was something else. Perhaps something had happened to his parents, but he didn’t recall any ill-fortune befalling them any time before Sylvia’s cancer diagnosis. But as they walked along the cold, dark grey concrete hallway to Mr Gibson’s office, it started to dawn on Michael the very possible consequences of this butterfly effect. If he was actually, physically in 1987 like it was evidently so, he could have undone any number of events through the slightest word or gesture. Some of his words and gestures were well on the odd side of slight, too. The prospect that his actions could have had some kind of negative impact on those closest to him was something that would eat at his very soul. The guilt would be insurmountable.

Mr Gibson came to his office door, opened it and guided Michael in first. He closed the door behind him deliberately, motioned Michael to sit in front of the desk while he sat behind it. Both men, one a boy, sat. Gibson got right to it.

‘I’ve had some disturbing information brought to me, Michael.’

Michael said nothing. He simply looked at his adult counterpart.

‘Is there anything you want to own up to?’

‘I can’t imagine what you mean, sir,’ Michael said, beginning to think he was on the verge of a criminal assault charge from Cooper or his parents.

‘I received word this morning from Mr Gunn that you seem to have submitted work that is not your own.’

As absent his guilt was, the fact that he wasn’t going to have to rationalise his violence was a relief to him. Is that all?

‘I’m sorry, sir. What?’

‘Mr Gunn has come to me and informed me of a very well-founded suspicion that you have plagiarised someone else’s work in an essay test he put to your class earlier this week.’

Stunning.

‘A well-founded suspicion? Meaning, he’s just decided it’s the case.’

‘Mr Curtin, Mr Gunn is adamant that you have somehow cheated on the essay. Do you have anything to say on the matter?’

‘Aside from the fact that what he’s accusing me of didn’t happen?’

Gibson took his glasses off, exasperated.

‘Michael, I will tell you this now: Wellings does not take kindly to plagiarism. It is one of the core principles by which this school operates. It is a fundamental thing here.’

‘I know.’

‘So, if you have something to say to me now, there is a chance that we can lessen the impact such a revelation and event will have.’

It was all getting a bit much. Aside from it being bollocks, they were treating it as though he’d taken a dump on the altar or gotten the assistant art teacher pregnant.

‘A revelation? The clouds really have parted above Mr Gunn’s head, haven’t they?’

‘You should take this seriously.’

Michael rolled his eyes to the ceiling and mockingly scratched his head in a gesture to Laurel & Hardy.

‘Take it seriously? Being accused by an embittered octogenarian with a grudge of cheating on a first year history essay with no proof to back it up? I’ll take that seriously, sure. Let me get a QC on the line. You know Geoffrey Robertson’s number?’

‘I don’t like you attitude, young man.’

Michael was having none of this. If he was looking for a restored spring in his step, he just found it. There was still fight in him. He stood up in front of an obviously dumbstruck Munroe.

‘And I don’t like being accused of something I didn’t do. If Mr Gunn thinks I cheated, the burden of proof is on him, not me. Tell him to bring it on. I’ll need actual evidence, proof that I’ve cheated. Otherwise he’s got nothing, and since you’re all about founding principles here, I’m sure you grab hold of the Rule of Law and back me up with it.’

There was silence; the room was thick with it to the point where it was almost chewable.

‘So you’ll back me up on this point then, Mr Gibson?’

‘I will do what’s right, Michael.’

Michael nodded, clicking his fingers in front of them *got it*.

‘Six of one, then. Have a good day. See you around.’

He strode out of the office, deservedly righteous and closing the door behind him with purpose. He was now itching for a fight. It was midway through his French lesson an hour and a half later when he saw Mr Gibson again.

He knocked on the door, smiling.

‘Excuse me, Mr Birch…’

The diminutive Brit looked at his colleague, all but three feet taller and more imposing than him.

‘Yes, Mr Gibson.’

‘May I see Michael Curtin please?’

‘Of course, Mr Gibson…’

Hushed speculation flooded the room as Michael stood up from his desk and walked out of the classroom, tucking his polyester shirt in at the back; those tails always having the habit of breaking loose from his itchy wool shorts.

The two walked up a series of steps towards the administration, and the office of the deputy headmaster, Mr Macalister. It was en route that Gibson explained to Michael what he was about to face. It was to be him, his accuser, and the deputy head. Mr Gunn would lay out his claim of plagiarism, and Michael would be expected to justify his response. It would be up to Mr Macalister to decide the course of action.

‘Seems a bit cut and dry, and lop-sided now you mention it,’ Michael said, thinking the whole thing was a joke.

‘Well, it’s the way things are done. Personally, I think you are well within the academic strata to have answered the essay in the manner you did. You’ve said some frightfully impressive things of late that suggests you have tremendous potential.’

‘I appreciate that,’ Michael said. He did.

I do.

They arrived at the office door, thick and imposing, as old as the school itself. Gibson put his hand on Michael’s shoulder.

‘I’ll be waiting down the hall.’

The door opened, Michael entered, Gibson exited the scene, and the inquisition began.

*

‘Just like you did in your … essay.’

Michael still was not aware of what precisely was Gunn’s angle was.

‘Use it in a sentence?’

‘Yes,’ Mr Gunn declared as he arrogantly shifted himself in his seat. ‘You used agrarian in your essay, and I think it would be nice for us to hear you use it in a sentence of your own.’

‘The way I used it in my essay was my own, Mr Gunn, so I don’t know why you’re italicising it’ Michael said. He didn’t like the old man’s tone, and it was hard enough to take him seriously in the sky blue safari suit as it was.

‘Well then, it shouldn’t be a problem to use it again.’

Macalister looked to Michael over a finger pyramid. The man who he recalled as being a fierce and daunting presence was little more than a middle management type in a bigger office than his station deserved. All his impetus and authority seemed to have vanished over time.

‘May I sit?’ Michael asked.

Macalister gestured with a nod. Michael sat, feigning nervousness.

‘OK,’ said Michael. ‘You want me to use agrarian in a sentence, but not in a sentence I used in the essay.’

‘Precisely.’

Mr Gunn had the look on his face and a general demeanour of an educator who had been through this rodeo many, many times over the years. It was scepticism of Michael’s writing, and in as much his intellect, borne of decades being in similar circumstances with young boys like him who had just lifted paragraphs at a time from a text book or encyclopaedia. He wasn’t having it here. Michael saw this, fancied it as a total dick move, and thought the same: he wasn’t having it here. This chap could have raised it in private, addressed any concerns with a question or two, but no. By parading Michael up the wide marble stairs to what could only wind up being a carpeting at the hands of a man who brandished justice in the form of what he called ‘a dose of stick’, Gunn was validating his own inadequacies by being a king among children.

Michael called bullshit on that idea.

‘Well… in context of… say, current events?’

Overplaying his moment with an overdose of condescension, Gunn nodded broadly. ‘If you’d like.’

‘Well, then. Um… despite his party’s coalition with the conservative Liberals, National Party leader Ian Sinclair supports protectionist policies for his base constituency, which could quite readily be described as agrarian socialism.’

The oxygen in the air was replaced with righteousness (Michael’s) and shock (everyone else’s).

Both men drew quick breaths. Michael looked at one, then the other. He went in for the coup de grace.

‘Of course, it’s more of a derogatory term within the political Right. ‘Socialism.’ Not so much ‘agrarian’. But by definition it really is. The Left don’t seem to mind it. For now. Things change.’

There was a palpable silence. Gunn’s oft-rehearsed spiel was not going to script, and both men were not adept at improvising in this moment. After what seemed like a full TV minute of silence, painfully empty, Macalister ventured a stammered point.

‘How do you reach that conclusion?’

‘Which one, sir?’

‘Agrarian socialism?’

‘Well, Mr Sinclair seems quite vocal about opening up the ports to competition, and keeping wages in urban and industrialised areas, or, at least manufacturing jobs within major metropolitan areas, grounded. But I’ve found that were it up to him, and I’m assuming this is National Party policy, there would be large concrete walls built around the entire farming sector, metaphorically speaking, although only just. Protectionism. It’s all a bit contradictory to the market-driven mechanisms that the John Howard, Menzies Liberals seem quite gung-ho about. I’m not sure where Sinclair’s Queensland colleague stands on it, but I can’t imagine he’s too far to the left on anything other than the South Pacific Ocean. But beyond that I can’t be sure. You’d need to ask his tailor.’

Macalister looked squarely at Gunn, who was now bereft of words.

‘I think,’ Macalister began, ‘that we’ve got all that we need from this meeting.’

Gunn looked down at his classroom roll.

‘Yes,’ he said, pretending to become preoccupied with its contents. ‘I think that the point has been well made.’

‘Which point would that be, sir?’

‘Never mind that, young man. You can go.’

Michael got up, pushing his chair back with his legs. ‘Thank you, sir. I will. I wouldn’t want to stay any longer than necessary just in case I found myself being falsely accused of cheating on a first year history essay.’

‘That’ll be enough, Curtin. Move along, now,’ said Macalister. Gunn was mortified.

‘You’ll let him speak to me like that?’ he demanded. ‘In your own office?’

‘Leonard… Mr Gunn, please,’ Macalister said. ‘Curtin, thank you. You can go.’

‘Bloody outrageous,’ Gunn spouted.

Turning, Michael took a parting shot.

‘Didn’t you say history was written by the winners, Mr Gunn?’ he asked, shit-eating grin plastered on his face.

‘Do you know why I teach history?’ Gunn replied, his eyes gazing down a crumpled nose.

‘I don’t know, sir. Because you remember most of it?’

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