Improvising My Way Through School
The biggest culture shock I’ve ever had to experience in my life was when I had to return to my own country. I was thirteen when I was sent to a strict Catholic school in my new home town. Until then, most of my youth had been spent in international schools abroad. In comparison, my previous schools had been very lax and easy going. To add to the difficulty and after for years of living in an English speaking environment, I had pretty much forgotten how to speak Dutch and had to relearn it for the third time in my life.. I was given a crash course over the summer with a private tutor. But even then, it would take years before I actually mastered it well enough to take part in conversations. It was a frustrating experience. By the time I had found the right words to say, the conversation had long moved on to something else.
And if the communication problem wasn’t enough, I quickly discovered I had little in common with my most of my fellow students. Frankly, I found them to be close minded. Not that it was their fault. They had simply lived very insulating lives. While I had already seen half the world by then, most of them had rarely ever left the villages they had lived in all their lives.
I also had a serious problem with the strictness of the school system. Being in a position to compare, I found that the way they went about things to be very counterproductive. And to make things worse, I was not only subjected to the normal school curriculum, I also had to spend an hour after school every day in study. It was a moment where one was supposed to do their homework and review the subjects they had seen that day. Doing my homework was rarely a problem, but I was never one to actually study. I simply didn’t have the patience to take the time and memorize stuff. If the subject matter was interesting enough, I would automatically remember it. Otherwise I couldn’t really be bothered. That meant that in practice, the subjects I enjoyed, I usually past with flying colors (Do colors actually fly?). And the subjects that couldn’t hold my attention didn’t get my attention either. When faced with tests and exams, I simply improvised my way through it. This is probably also the reason why I always failed in French. You can’t invent new words and grammar in an existing language spoken by two hundred million people around the world. They simply won’t stand for it, and my French teachers shared the same sentiment. My lack of effort in certain domains showed in my grades and is it’s probably also the reason I was forced to follow study in the first place. What goes around, comes around.
Subverting the System
I had to fill an hour every day in which I was not aloud to leave my desk or even make a sound let alone talk to the others around me. The only thing expected from me was to do my homework and study, and that posed a serious a problem. I really had no intention of wasting my precious time on this planet with such silly things. So I tried to make the best of my less the stellar situation and started to improvise my way out of it. On my first day, I decided to write a book.
Coming from schools with a relaxed attitude, the concept of punishment essays was completely alien to me. In my previous schools, you really had to misbehave before a teacher would intervene, and at worst, that meant being sent to the superintendent’s office. Not so in my new school. Any behavior that deviated from what was expected of the ideal student was enough to get you punished. Talking in class? A two page essay on why not to talk in class. Chewing gum? A five page essay on why gum chewing is an abomination of civilization. Not paying attention? Rewrite the school rules three times. Even not knowing the correct answer to a question could at times be punishable by essay.
And each lesson would begin with the students – whom had previously been punished – coming forward handing in their essays. And each lesson would end with a role call of all the students that had received punishment during the lesson as a reminder of how much and when their essays where due.
And there I was, on my first day at study, confidently writing the first pages of my first book. As they saw me write, some of the students around me started to react in excitement pointing their fingers at me, sniggling and giggling. Puzzled by their reactions, I continued writing, but without a clue of what all the fuss was about. Alerted by all the commotion around me, one of the study masters walked up to my table. Once he saw what I was doing gave me a frown. He then asked me if I was writing an essay. Well, actually, I was writing a book. But fearing I had to explain myself in a language I didn’t quite master yet, I went for the obvious answer and replied with a simple ‘yes’. Little did I know right then that ‘essay’ was actually code for ‘punishment’. Unwittingly, I had gained the reputation of a troublemaker on my very first day of school.
I quickly gave up on my idea of writing a book and concluded that if I was going to survive in this environment, I would have to outfox the system and everyone in it. It’s here where I discovered the ninety/ten rule. If you appear to be good ninety percent of the time, people around you will automatically assume you’re also being well behaved in the remaining ten percent of the time. Of course, no one can possibly always be a saint 100% of the time. But in practice, most people never question this assumption unless given good reason to. We generally don’t like unpredictable and complex world views.
And so I was quick to learn how to become a mischievous little bastard without ever getting caught. Especially considering some of the things I pulled off where quite public affairs. I would skip school on occasion, get into fights, commit acts of creative sabotage, sneak my way out of ever writing punishment essays, psychological manipulation, signature forgery, trespass, gamble with money, indulge in chalk graffiti… all while maintaining the image of a boy that would never hurt a fly. As I said before, it was counterproductive system. I was much better behaved in the schools that showed more tolerance.
But back to my problem: how to spend an hour in study without actually studying? I learnt how to pretend. Turns out, it’s really easy to fake. It’s sufficient to just stare at a page to fool a study master that has to keep a watchful eye on a fifty other students. And instead of making notes, I made little drawing instead. And it was during this time that I started dreaming up all kinds of funny situations and translating them into to cartoons.
Predictably, while I was having fun during study, some of my grades suffered. When I passed my second year there, it was deliberated that my scores where ok, but not good enough to continue in this particular school. I was thrilled. I had always wanted to continue studying in an art school, but they had denied me that option on the grounds that I was too intelligent for such a thing (In Belgium, a school education is mandatory until you’re 18 years of age. As a result, art school had a reputation as a place for students who would have otherwise dropped out if it weren’t for this law). But thanks to my laziness and my grades not up to standards, I was finally able to do what I always wanted to do: learn something at school that I actually enjoyed. Add to that, it wasn’t Catholic and it wasn’t strict. It was perfect. It was also a relief. I knew that if I had to remain in a strict school, that eventually, the only thing I would learn was how to be become an accomplished petty criminal.
But things turned around. The predictions that the lack of discipline at my new school would further make my grades suffer, were proven wrong. It was actually quite the opposite. Though I must admit, I was still not able improvise my way through French, but at least I was passing, though just barely.
The Cartoon Collection
But after two years of study at my old school, I had managed to accumulate quite a lot cartoon sketches. And it was during my first year at art school that I brought them all together, redrew them in a formal format and started to ink them in. A year later, I had created about eighty such cartoons. I even managed to get one published in a national newspaper. My biggest dream at the time was to one day win a place at the International Cartoon Festival of Knokke. It had even become a yearly pilgrimage to take a train to the coast and visit the festival exposition.
But those dreams came to an abrupt end once my second year at art school commenced. Play time was over. Faced with being creative against constant and extreme tight deadlines plus a very tough grading process to boot, everybody’s stress levels skyrocketed. Those who couldn’t take it bailed out and probably still have nightmares from that period. I managed to hang on long enough to see the light. But it left me with little time for other things. Especially after I quite by accident started publishing my own weekly class newspaper (which I continued doing until I finally graduated from secondary school). Somehow by then, I had lost interest in drawing cartoons. Instead I had discovered I had new passion: though I couldn’t spell, I loved to write.