By: Kailash Sundaram
The new Student McMurphy stands looking a minute, his hair out long and beard real shaggy. His And 1 Basketball Shorts sag below his boxers, almost like he’s inviting girls to check out his ass. His faded T-shirt’s rockin’ Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols; He’s definitely a Public.
You see, the Institution’s got two types of kids: the Publics and the Privates. The Privates, known as the preppy kids, wear their Nantucket shorts high and in bright colors. Their blue Polos are ironed stiffed and tucked in. Their hair’s coifed and gelled with scented Kiehls, like the weatherman on the 6 o’ Clock Evening News. When the winter drops by, they replace their boat shoes with Tims, their Polos with Patagonias and Vineyard Vines Vests. These Privates remind me of the men in blue suits who came to take Papa’s land; especially the short and round man who wore a white Stetson hat.
The Privates think themselves too good. They tell stories to each other and recount tales of their time on New York’s Upper East Side, their summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, and the time Daddy bought them Coach Bags for their birthday. They boast about the care packages that Mommy and Daddy send them, filled with enough food to feed three starving children in Africa.
They’re also blinded by the Fog. They start out in the very best prep-school, learning how to do addition and subtraction before they can even go without diapers. Then their parents move them to the best Private Schools – St. Bernard’s or St. David’s – then they get sent to the Institution. By now, they act as if they got everything – the money, the wealth, the swagger. They think themselves big and strong, like those white men who cajoled Papa into selling our tribe’s land.
The Teachers here at the Institution, they think the Privates are the “world’s next leaders.” Some bullshit like that. The Privates suck up to the Teachers – like those white men did to Papa – just hoping for a “6” sooner or later. They aimin’ for one of those Ivies, one of those expensive schools that gives you a shiny business card with “asshole” written all over it.
On the other hand, the Publics are the culls of the Institution, specifically the Admission Office. We’re just some of those kids who couldn’t live up to the school’s “high” academic standards, the Teachers concede. The Publics are divided into Aids like me, who receive assistance to come to the school since our parents can’t pay for it, and Druggies and Locals. What the Publics are – or most of us – are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired. We got flaws like being too dumb, too stupid, too poor work ethic, they say.
No, I’d be lying if I told you that. I been silent so long it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters. The real reason we’re not “good” enough for this school is us Publics don’t aim to be lost in the Fog. Sometimes Principal Palfrey turns the Fog up real high. Sometimes it’s College Counseling. Sometimes Parents trick their kids into the Fog.
You see, the Institution’s rigged. It’s always working on you, getting you lost just enough in the Fog so that you think grades are the most important thing in the world. The next thing you know you’re thinking about APs and SATs and getting 5s and 2400s and 800s and whatever the number is.
You jump from one brass ring to the next, always trying to work your way up the “ladder of life.” First Grades, then Extracurriculars, then College, then Job. So that in the end, you can be cut, sanded, and polished into a “successful” machine of the Outside World. But when does the ladder stop? When do you stop climbing the path that others lay out for you?
The Institution gets you lost in the Fog just good enough so that you don’t do what you want no more. You forget about your friends, a lot of your loved ones and just being nice in the pursuit of that “goal” the Fog sets for you.
But us Publics, we don’t get lost in the Fog. We act deaf and dumb; whatever it takes to avoid confinement. Some of us want to live life the way we want it, not by others’ standards or society’s standards. We live the YOLO Lifestyle. We don’t take part in the rat race, getting stuck under the Fog.
The Teachers, now, they’re trying to get us Publics fixed and make us Privates. Each minute, day, second, they’re aiming to lure us into the Fog. Here’s an example: Every Wednesday, Principal Yerflap calls one of those All-School Meetings. For forty-five minutes, from 10:50-11:35, a speaker lectures us on a topic I’ve heard so many times I can repeat it forwards and backwards – how the Institution offers first-class learning; how it’s our job to take advantage of the teaching so we can be the world’s next leaders; how if we don’t take advantage of the Institution’s opportunities and conform to its ideals, we’re destined for a bad life ahead. All that stuff.
Most of the time, the college counselors are also up our asses. They beg us to take harder classes, do more sports, play more instruments. Listen to us, they say, you have a bright future ahead. Just do what we say and we can make you big and strong and “successful.”
It would be easier to hide in the Fog; it makes you feel safe and invincible. The Institution creates this “make-believe” Utopian World, makes you feel like you’re doing something useful with your life. But when you hide or submit yourself to the Fog, you fall prey to another person’s dream or vision. You can’t pursue what you love or live life the way you want.
On the flip side, sometimes the Teachers work so hard on Privates inside the Fog that they make a mistake and change them over to Publics. Reince is a Public that came in a Private and got fouled up bad when they overloaded his class schedule and activities – one instrument in the Band, two Calculus classes, three Varsity sports, four different Clubs. The kid just couldn’t handle it – he quit. He didn’t want to hide or be part of the Fog no more. So they sent him up to Isham, hoping that they could fix his attitude back to a Private in that filthy brain-murdering room that the Teachers call the “Shock Shop.”
When they brought Reince back to the Institution two weeks later, he was a Druggie, the worst kind of Public. His IQ was nowhere near where it had been, and he would just sit in class, not answering the Teachers even when called on. After school, Reince would head off into the Sanctuary, find himself a seat between Sycamores and Spruces, and smoke Pot with the rest of the Druggies.
The way Reince dressed changed too. The Polo shirts were replaced with throwback T-shirts that dropped to the knees, the Nantucket shorts were thrown away in favor of sweatpants and sagging basketball shorts. The Boat shoes? – Gone for Vans sneakers. Oh, and don’t forget the flat-brimmed Yankees hat slipped low to cover his eyes, just enough to catch a nap in class without the Teachers takin’ notice.
The Teachers, now, they consider Reince one of their failures since he’s a Private turned Public. But I think Reince is better off as a Public. At least he’s no longer another “well-oiled,” “big,” “successful” machine of the Institution. At least he’s no longer stuck in the perpetual cycle of bettering the Institution’s brand name. At least he’s exposing the Institution for what it is – cold, heartless, and selfish.
The Institution likes to use failures like Reince to point out to Privates what could happen to them if they escape the Fog. You see, the Publics and Privates don’t usually mingle; the Publics sit in Lower Left, the Privates in Upper Right. At each meal, there are two different lines; the Express Line for the Privates, the Slow Line for the Publics. In classes, the Privates sit in the front row, the Publics in the back row. Each stays on their own side, with their own people, afraid to cross the line even to shake hands with each other. The Teachers say it’s more orderly that way and let everybody know that’s the way they’d like it to stay.
The Privates say they don’t mingle with the Publics because we’re stupid, but I think otherwise; the Privates recognize that if they quit the Institution’s system and attempt to leave the Fog, they could become Publics one day. Principal Yerflap uses this to his advantage, telling the Publics that if they don’t conform to the Institution’s system, they’ll become as useless as us Publics one day.
This new kid, he knows right away that he’s not a Private. After he checks over the Institution’s students for a couple minutes on the pathways from Morse to Sam Phil, he sees he’s meant for the Public side and right for it, grinning and shaking hands with every Public he sees on the path. He shakes the hands of the Aids and the Druggies and the Locals. The funny thing is he doesn’t seem to act one bit inferior to the Privates, or like he’s sad to be a Public. Even if he feels inferior, he doesn’t show it. He hollers and laughs and makes everyone on the Private side seem uneasy, like it’s almost better to be a Public. The Privates are frozen, their eyes offering blank stares at McMurphy, almost questioning whether to escape the Fog themselves.
You can see the Teachers out of the corner of your eyes, their faces conveying a sense of uneasiness with the racket and distraction McMurphy is causing. They seem to be agitated by this new Student, who’s breaking rules and defying their leadership. He seems to have broken the barrier between the Privates and the Publics, almost made it seem more respectable to be a Public than a Private.
Principle Yerflap sits at his desk in GW, watching McMurphy with his wary eyes. He’s trying to gauge this new student, trying to figure out what kind of change he’s trying to enact at this school, what kind of disruption he’s planning to cause. Whatever it is, Yerflap won’t stand to let a new Student defeat him, break the Fog that has made this institution the “great Academy it is.” I can already sense, that the battle between Yerflap and McMurphy has commenced.
Author Note: By imitating Ken Kesey and the Beat Generation and highlighting the divide between the “Privates” and “Publics” in this short story, I hope that one recognizes, in some manner, the underlying commentary on our Society’s “Conformism” and tendency to stifle individuality and creativity.