Rite of Passage

I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but it didn’t feel right in my gut.

‘What’s in a law?’

Our Classics teacher, Mr. Z—, paced down the old mosaic floor. Pressing his heels on it in an almost march-like fashion, as if they sought to make a statement of their own, he passed from desk to desk just like the sunlight slid across the ripple-less surface of the Lake outside. Always with a capital ‘L’, our lake; as if there was no other in the whole world. It was almost like customary law here in the Greek North’s ‘City of Silversmiths’. A bit more than two centuries ago, when the city was still under Ottoman dominion, Ali Pasha had accused the prominent Kyra Frosini of living promiscuously—whether falsely or not has always remained a mystery—and had drowned her in that very lake; following the punishment his tradition demanded in such cases, he had one night commanded his men to shove her alive in a sack, along with at least a dozen of other women seized on the same account, then sew those sacks and cast them into the ice-cold, lightless water … I used to shiver every time I pictured those helpless souls falling down to their freezing grave, every single time since I had first heard that horrific story from my grandmother’s mouth. I shivered, and then I turned pensive; like I did that afternoon …

‘Did you see what I did there? Paraphrasing Shakespeare, to bridge it with Antigone’s choice? Well, I’ll be damned if you did.’ Mr. Z— looked almost victorious; even every single hair in his half-raised left eyebrow spelled ‘smug’. I remember the girl sitting at the desk on my right chuckling, Margaret I think her name was—though she insisted on being called Maggie and seemed to be in a perpetual struggle of plucking stuck bubblegum out of her frizzy auburn locks … The rest of the classmates, however, we took that insult of our intellect once more with solemn façades, internalizing it in favour of ‘a teacher’s authority’ that was never to be compromised.

It all seems so far away now, but back then that day was a typical Lyceum day. Penultimate spring in ‘purgatory’, as we used to call it—and I can honestly still not fathom how much more dreadful the actual one might be. And in our half-worn schoolbooks under our chins Sophocles’s ‘Antigone’ was being forced to make her irreversible choice: heed to man’s law and leave her slain, so-dubbed ‘rebel’ of a brother unburied, prey for the vultures, or follow what the moral duty of blood bid and send him off with the burial rites due to the dead. Along with her plight, we too had our own ultimate Judgement Day, the disproportionately ever-dreaded ‘Panhellenic Exams’ waiting at the not-so-far end of that year. At least that’s how it had been persistently painted to us by our so-called ‘Regime Change Generation’ parents since the first steps we had ventured under the school’s threshold; no, from the very first breath we had drawn.

‘Some of you may dream high I suppose,’ Mr. Z— went on in his own spacetime, ‘dreaming of one day walking through the gates of ‘Themidos Melathron’, the Supreme Court down in Athens. With a barrister’s leather briefcase in one hand, as its handle swims in your nervous, sweat-ridden palm, or even donning the fancy robes of an incorruptible judge. Law will be your panacea. And if you’re lucky, you might get an Antigone at the bar. So, answer me, someone. What’s just? What is right?’

I could feel the fathomless, wise fire burning in Antigone’s eyes, them peering back at me; in my mind’s eye, I really could. Two dark coals on a stern, yet passionately resolute marble face. It nearly felt like she was one of my most revered heroines. The almost musical chime of the clock tower on the city square didn’t fail to nudge my senses then once more, and I realized it must have been striking for quite some time already. When it got past midday, I would always see Margaret—no, Maggie put her bubblegum wrestling on hold and slightly stick her head up in the air like a deer, taking in the fluffy fragrance of the freshly baked bougatsas served by Mrs. F— of ‘Pie’s eye’ down at the square, a fragrance that never failed to slither in ever so temptingly through the classroom’s wide-open windows. Had I not been so engrossed in the Theban noblewoman’s tragic story that afternoon, I might have joined Maggie in her detour. Yet, I recall simply contradicting Mr. Z—’s vivid visualizations silently in my head: Not me. I’m going to be a painter

‘Thomas P—!’ Mr. Z— had just ‘pounced’ at his prey again. In the totalitarian, dead silence that fell like a gallows’ blade on that spring afternoon’s blabbering streak, I felt—I practically even heard—almost every head in the class turn around towards Thomas P— at the back wall of the room. I didn’t join them, already aware of what always came next.

‘You see what happens when you don’t follow the rules? You know my rule—I want the board spotless before I enter the classroom. Whoever of you is each time in charge of this has one task. One task. And yet there’s somebody who fails at it every time.’ Any sense of justice was lost on Mr. Z— self-righteous, gloat-oozing smirk. Any sense of reason, for that matter, was lost whenever he bullied our classmate Thomas, who would always clean the blackboard down to the very last spot, yet he, the professor, always managed to find a speck of chalk lingering somewhere in some unimaginable corner. And if he didn’t, he very well made it up. As he did his very ‘sense of justice’. Mr. Z—, the deputy headteacher and ‘the school’s most prominent professor in decades’ …

In my mind’s eye, Antigone’s stare was seething too much for my own good; at such moments I could almost feel those eyes as being my own. At moments such as those, I was torn between wanting to look Mr. Z— straight in his emotionless eye, calling him out on his unjust behaviour, and keeping my gaze away from him, lowered somewhere on the inner hinge of my book and the fear of my own punishment buried there. As for Thomas, he was no friend of mine. In fact, he had secretly declared me and two other fellow students his utmost enemies, or so our classmates never failed to remind us. And in truth, I could tell from the murderous glances he shot at me more often than not during recess in the lyceum corridors, whenever he thought I wasn’t paying attention. For some reason, he believed it wasn’t fair he hadn’t managed yet to outdo us in performance at classes. Even though far from any grade or acknowledgment was handed freely; more or less all of us bled at least as much for it, through dawnless nights and hours of painstaking, relentless study …

Not that any of that mattered, though. And I too was no stranger to being bullied by classmates, sometimes poked ruthless fun even for the ‘gravest of sins’ of being a diligent student, or the like. Nonetheless, being treated the way Thomas was by a figure of power was something else entirely. Thomas’s deafening silence, whenever he was being victimized by Mr. Z, —, his any potential of standing up for himself caving in, as did his shoulders shrink inwards too every time he stood there with his back to the rest of the class, ‘disciplined’ through ridicule, all this acquitted him in my eyes from his animosity towards any of us. He reverted to simply being a fellow cellmate in the purgatory, submitted to unfair treatment by an authority he was meant to wholly respect and never question.

Framed by the wide-open window across me, the spring blue of the city’s sky was as clear as true justice.

‘To which of all of your questions are we to answer, sir?’ The words had come out of my mouth way before I was even aware of them being born in my mind. I could feel, again, my classmates’ thunderstruck gazes piercing every cell of me, as my own hot blood was rushing, dyeing its path across my neck and cheeks. Thunderstruck was the professor’s look too; he also seemed to have forgotten to close his mouth by at least an inch.

‘What did you say, Iriou?’ By the way he had stressed my surname, I knew calamity was brewing. And I would never expect anything less from a man who seemed to practically despise his guts of almost any living being, really, in a way that it could make one often wonder if his very own self was an exception to this norm. Swallowing rather hard, in an attempt to master my voice and the courage flickering in it, I re-adjusted myself on my seat ever so slightly and prepared to face the consequences of my blurting out.

‘I mean, you asked us first what is right, and then you also asked ‘you see what happens when you don’t follow the rules?’ So, I simply wondered which one we are supposed to answer.’

‘Are you being smart with me, lass?’ Mr. Z— smirk was spiked with wrath.

‘That was never my intention, sir.’

‘Then, what is?’

I lowered my gaze a bit. This is it, I remember thinking. In the vertiginous blur of thoughts and emotions of that moment, only dark and sinister twists were all I could see this story having for me after that day. And after today, chances are things won’t be any better for Thomas or anyone Mr. Z— has his eyes on, for that matter. Yet, that tide that was rising inside me, I could not ignore nor fight it; nor did I want to.

I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but it didn’t feel right in my gut.

After a few last seconds of silence, attempt for composure and resolve, I remember pushing my chair back and standing up. I started making my way towards Thomas; the mosaic floor tiles glued there together since the late sixties felt like soft feathers under my numbed steps. At some point, I must have reached my punished classmate, because I realized there was no further space to walk on. I stood there next to Thomas and turned around to face our professor.

‘This is wrong, sir. And you know it.’

I can still remember the feeling of the haze of all that followed more than the actual haze itself. Sometimes I can barely remember the words I used. But I recall the dragging of chairs, one by one across the floor, emboldened sneakers two by two, then four, then a dozen, all walking across the room and towards the announcements’ back wall, where Thomas and I stood. I remember the milky-white chalk piece flying out of Mr. Z— palm and inches away from a student’s eye next to me. Yells, spit in the dust-clad air, authoritative irises blurred by rage … The man’s face carmine red, then plum, then deathly pale … No, pale was when he had handed in his resignation. Yes, I remember that far more clearly, because the whole class had stormed out, cramming itself along the entrance stairs, and the northern sun shone less across the yard and more on our faces.

Odd things one might recall upon unearthing an age-old school book from one’s library. Running late, I quickly shoved it back in my briefcase, smiling affectionately at its still half-worn cover, at Antigone nodding at me with her ever solemn yet unclouded look, in my mind’s eye.

‘Number Nine!’

My client’s case number was up. Present, I thought before I stated it out loud as well, and refrained from flashing a smile of acknowledgment at presiding judge Thomas P—.

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Rite of Passage is published in the anthology Conversations by Kingston University Press (2018) – All rights reserved.

Rite of Passage cover art copyright © Constantina Maud 2021 via Canva

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