Hektor and Achilles

Notes from the journal of a school master in 1905

Tuesday, 28 February, 1905

Dear R.,

In the papers there is much indignation about two Maori fellows denied entry to Australia.  The Evening Post runs what I would call a poisoned defence: “We take second place to no man in the earnestness of our desire to see the Commonwealth realise its ideal of a White Australia….  It is not for New Zealand to complain of reasonable barriers against the tide of black or yellow immigration… but there is such a thing as reasonable discrimination in matters of this kind.”  The two Maori wanted to work as shearers but were sent packing by Australian customs officials.  I complained about the hypocrisy of supporting racist immigration policy while taking up the cause of the two Maori gentlemen to Hopper in the staffroom.  Hopper coolly replied, “you picked up some pretty odd ideas in Africa.”

Keep your mouth shut.

There are an endless stream of students to see, and an endless stream of enquiries and meetings to attend.  The students come steadily through each day: before school, between lessons, at lunch, after school, in fact anytime except the middle of the night.  Their concerns range from the trivial to the alarming with most things in between.  The boys seem to hit each other when they get mad, and the girls seem to band together in resentful groups and start hurtful rumours.

One girl shuffled into my office with a friend and told me she didn’t want to be friends with Lizzie anymore “coz Lizzie had been whispering about me to other girls.”  The victim’s friend nodded solemnly and they both looked at me.  “I see,” I said, trying to inject some empathy in my voice, “and what on Earth would you like me to do about that?”  The girls seemed confused.  Apparently I was to tell Lizzie that she was no longer wanted as a friend.  Perhaps they thought I was twelve years old myself and wanted to participate in their little social world.  I told them they would have to solve these problems for themselves.  With a look of disbelief they shuffled back out of my office into the harsh, unforgiving world.

Another girl walking with me between classes suddenly blurted out, “My mother had two strokes”.  I stopped and said I was sorry and asked how was her mother now.  The little girl said, uncertainly, “she’s at home now, getting better.”  I wasn’t sure what else to say.  She went off to her class and I to teach Latin.  That was on Friday last.  On the previous Monday a girl told me about a strange man following her to school.  “He had dizzy eyes” she said.  I suppose he was drunk.  She didn’t want me to talk to her father about it but of course I had to.  Father seemed less alarmed than I had expected when I spoke to him.  “I see,” he said and scratched at his arm.  “Perhaps she better stay at Gran’s for a bit then.”

classroom

Another father came to see about his son.  “How is he in classes?”  Not a boy I taught so I had to say I didn’t know.  “His mother died late last year,” the father explained, “and Will has taken it hard.”  The man in front of me seemed like he had taken it hard too.  His eyes looked tired; exhausted pits.  What are you supposed to say?  Death is a hard thing.

We are doing The Iliad in one of my classes now, and it struck me again how pitiless that ancient Greek world was.  When Hektor confronts Achilles and realises that he is about to be killed, and that the gods have deserted him, it is a terrible, lonely moment without consolation: “now evil death is close to me, and no longer far away, and there is no way out.”  No way out.

It was the second time that week that I thought of Hektor and Achilles.  Earlier I went to a meeting between the Headmaster and a boy in my cohort who had been caught over the fence in the Preparatory terrorising the children there with a toy gun.  The Headmaster is a very thin man who looks like he might play the role of a hanging judge in a cowboy story.  He seems a little like Death in his long black robes, and with his haggard face.  When he talks he strokes his peculiar long fingers and tilts his head. 

It was late in the day, after school and the miscreant boy looked very young and out of place in the Head’s rather dusty, over-sized office, sitting in a too large armchair with cracked leather arms.  I thought of Hektor and Achilles because of Achilles’ anger: “the heart within him loaded with fury.”  I’m not sure how to describe it but for some boys there is a kind of madness in them, that almost cannot be controlled.  I watched the boy as the Head interrogated him.  He squirmed in his seat.  He had been bad, and he had been caught, and he knew all the things he had to say, and he even wanted to say them, but it was hard because he was fighting down the demon in him that was screaming “NO, NO, NO – NOT TO GIVE IN – NOT TO SAY SORRY – NOT TO BREAK.”

He said the things he needed to say in the end, and we were both satisfied, the Head and myself, that the boy had meant it and wanted to mend his ways.

The next day he punched another boy in the head.

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2 thoughts on “Hektor and Achilles

  1. I often feel sorry for Hektor. In the film he seemed like a really nice guy. Was there a book about it too?

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