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Daniel - p3: the BAC by thadeusz
Because of a train ticket - p3: the BAC
This story is "part 3" of a set of 5 stories. It is suggested to read them in order.
After about six months in the reformatory, I was told to go to the Commander’s office. The Director told me:
"Cadet Ferrière, you work well for young Paul and your disciplinary behavior is excellent. You do your share of chores and you study very hard. Nevertheless your teachers have noticed that you have many shortcomings in several domains. Your previous teachers, last year, did their best to compensate that but there was too much to solve the problem in one year. Your teachers here consider that it would be better for you to try to have a vocational BAC as mechanic, which is still a BAC. You might then try the more theoretical BAC if you want. Your teachers have decided not to let you try the BAC exams this year. This means that you will stay here one more year and that your minority is extended until you reach the age of 22 AND have finished your military service. I realize that you don’t like this."
"Commander, I am working as much as possible for school. I don’t want to stay that long in this prison. Please let me try the BAC this year. It could be possible if I was allowed to spend my afternoons studying instead of learning to become a mechanic."
"Cadet, here one does not discuss my decisions. The rule is that you must learn a trade, and yours is mechanic. You must learn to obey orders from your superiors, without discussion. You will stay at least one more year and now, you get one full week of isolation in order to meditate about the respect you owe to your superiors’ orders. You will know what disobedience implies. Chief, take him where he belongs and place him in shackles during two days for showing such disrespect."
I knew that the stay in an isolation room was uncomfortable, but that I did not know what the Commander’s sentence implied. The Chief took me to the barber and told him:
"First strap him well, he is severely punished now and deserves that. Then shave him, completely."
"You mean head and face ?"
"Yes, that’s all he deserves for trying to disobey."
Then I said:
"But Chief, I just asked a question."
"Two weeks in isolation NOW and four days in shackles. If you go further I will tell your girl to suspend her visits."
I kept quiet, had my face shaved and my cobweb-broom head was transformed into a baldy. The barber worked fast and efficiently, but he was more brutal than usually. As soon as this was done, the Chief lead me then to my dorm where I changed silently into duty uniform. The Chief then lead me to the isolation cells. There he told me to take off my shoes, he handcuffed me with my hands in the back and put shackles on my ankles. When that was done he forced me to enter a cell, leaving me with my handcuffs and my shackles. He finally said:
"Cadet Ferrière, you are going to stay like this during four days as punishment for your lack of respect."
He locked the door leaving me alone. I sat on the board meant to serve as bed and mediated. At noon, a guard entered the cell, helped me remaining clean and placed some food on the floor of my cell without saying a word: I had only one possibility, crawl towards this food and eat it like animals do. I meditated further about that and felt very bad. The same scenario occurred in the evening. I tried to sleep but kept thinking how foolish I had been when I tried to defy the wisdom of my teachers and of the Captain. I thought about Brigitte and I cried, lengthily.
The same scenario occurred during the next day, and two more days. Finally, on my fifth day in isolation, the Chief entered my cell while I was still lying on my plank. He shouted immediately:
"Stand up cadet."
I stood up immediately: obeying first was the conclusion I had reached during the night.
"Are you proud of what you did ?"
"NO, CHIEF" I shouted while standing at attention.
"Then, I will take these handcuffs and shackles off in order to let you work during the day. But during the remaining part of your two weeks, you will eat here and sleep here, with handcuffs at night. UNDERSTOOD."
And so began my first working day after I had learned that I was in a way transformed into an 11th grade repeater. There was no rest on Sunday, except for my usual trip to the barber. There the kind barber Meursault asked me:
"Do you want to be strapped again ?"
I replied, to everybody’s astonishment:
"I will strictly follow the Chief’s orders."
And the Chief said:
"Don’t strap him, straps are only meant for violent and disobedient boys."
"But this cadet wants to be strapped", said the barber.
"Precisely", replied the Chief, "he does not deserve any favor. He will be treated as I said he must be treated, and as he himself accepts it. He must learn to obey orders without any mental restriction."
My punishment was soon over and I started again to work as a future mechanic and to learn for me. I also spent time teaching how to read and write to young Paul who kept making astonishing progresses.
When the new month started, on the first Saturday, Brigitte came and visited me: she did it as regularly as a Swiss clock. It was my duty weekend and I was thus in duty uniform. When I was called to the visiting room, I rushed and suddenly realized that I was not in the proper uniform, but it was too late to go back. The Chief told me:
"Cadet, you have chores to do this weekend. I give you 30 minutes maximum with your girlfriend."
I entered the room and Brigitte saw me. My hair had not regained its normal length and I did not yet exhibit my usual cobweb-broom haircut. Brigitte looked at me and started speaking:
"Daniel, my love, I don’t like your new uniform, but your new haircut is good. It really gives you a very manly appearance."
I explained that I was on duty, doing kitchen chores and serving at mess time, but also cleaning the rooms. I added that I was now an 11th grader and that I had been punished because I did not like that. Brigitte reacted well:
"I don’t mind, you know I don’t have my BAC."
"I know, but I will have to remain a minor one more year."
"That’s irrelevant, kiss me now and think that we have the life in front of us."
I looked at the Chief who clearly and purposely turned his head in another direction, and then I gave Brigitte a long and good kiss. After that she briefly told me what she had done during the past month, since we were not allowed to write to one another. The Chief interrupted her and said that it was time for me to go back to my duties and thus to say goodbye to Brigitte, which I obediently did.
After that, life continued in the reformatory : mornings full of study hours and afternoon in the mechanic workshop, regularly physical exercises and "pre-military training", one hour every day with little Paul (who did no longer look so "little" now that he was well fed and well dressed in his reform school uniform) and regularly, chores to be done. In fact chores were more important than study and deprived me often of study hours. The only light in this monotonous life was brought once a month by Brigitte who spend as much time as permitted (often 2 hours) with me. We talked about what we had done and also about our plans for the future.
At the end of June, while I was working with Paul, the Chief announced that:
"I remind you that according to this Institution rule, all cadets who did not get their ‘middle school’ brevet, must take the test at the end of July."
Paul did not have this brevet, so I decided to help him for that also. But suddenly the Chief asked:
"Cadet Ferrière, do you have this brevet ?"
"Chief, I was accepted in 12th grade !"
"But do you have the brevet ?"
"Not formally, Chief: in my previous school, the teachers met, discussed and decided whether to let a boy pass or fail, and I passed."
"In that case, you must take the test."
"But Chief, I had been admitted in 12th grade. It would be ridiculous to make me take this test."
"RIDICULOUS ! You are again disobeying ! You will have your head shaved immediately and you will wear your duty uniform from now on. I don’t send you to isolation because you must study for this test, but I suppress all your visits temporarily."
"But Chief …" I could not speak further, the Chief interrupted me and shouted, because he was furious:
"And you better get that brevet, otherwise you will have to stay here one more year to study 6th grade stuff. And that means again one more year for your BAC and your minority. And if you fail, all visits will be suppressed. And work with Paul. If he fails, he will be sent to isolation and you too. And no visits after that. Go now and get your head shaved and put on your duty uniform."
I was really angry but I obeyed without saying a word. I went to the barber, sat in his chair when he told me he was ready for me, and I told him:
"I am again punished for disobedience. Please shave it all, to the woods."
"Again punished ? You must learn to obey Cadet Ferrière, otherwise you will be a bad and punished soldier."
He caped me and started without any kindness to shave the cobweb-brush haircut I had painfully recreated. He pushed and turned my head in all possible directions, rather brutally. When he considered that he was finished, he told me to look in a small mirror and I could see that all my hair was gone, there was not even a stubble left. The barber had done his job correctly ! Even the thought of Brigitte did not help me. In any case, I knew that I would not see her next Saturday.
After that the routine changed. I was constantly dressed in my duty uniform and I had to go to the barber to be shaved and to have my head shaved as well. I spent the whole day working in classroom on 6th grade stuff I had learned before, but forgotten since I learned it. It is then that I discovered that having to help young Paul, and teaching him something, was also a great help for me. But I had to take all my meals in a cell and at night I was again handcuffed and locked in this cell. Getting used to show 100% respect to superiors was difficult, but the punishment was severe enough to make me decide to weight twice or thrice my words before speaking to a Guard, the Chief or the Commander. Thomas was studying with us, at least that’s what he was supposed to do, but in fact he was not really studying despite the fact that he was still in his normal reform school uniform and sitting with us in a classroom.
We took the exam, with about 30 other borstal boys, in front of our teachers. I got a ‘pass’ which meant that I now had that stupid ‘middle school brevet’ but the Chief told me that I only barely passed: I had very bad results in the geography of France and I did not know perfectly the list of all Kings of France and their achievements. In fact I had been saved by excellent results in 6th grade maths (to my great surprise) and in French. I had also obtained a special credit for helping Paul.
Paul had been brilliant: he got his brevet with the mention "excellent" and the Judge decided to change his situation, Paul would now start to study for his BAC, and only for his Scientific BAC. They gave me credit for teaching him to read and write, without that he would have had to remain a future plumber, which was a good job but also a job which was not well considered.
Thomas failed completely and was sent to the isolation room for a week. He was also warned that after that he would have to stay with younger boys, 5th or 6th graders, and prepare his brevet for the next year. After his week in isolation, Thomas was sent to another section with younger Cadets from which he succeeded to escape ! He was arrested after a few days, sent to the Judge and then brought back to the reformatory where the Commander explained his new situation to all the Cadets: we had gathered silently in the main courtyard and heard the sentence. Thomas was to remain a minor and stay inside the reformatory until he had reached the age of 25. The age of 25 was not new, but staying in the reform school for all these years was new ! Moreover this ‘minority status’ was now extended beyond the age of 25 because he was placed ‘at the disposal of the government as a minor’ until the end of his military service which had been extended for him to 5 years instead of the normal 2 years. The judge had also decided that if Thomas tried once more to escape, he would serve his military service in a disciplinary regiment without any leave.
For the time being, Thomas was going to remain in duty uniform with shackles, which implied in isolation cell each night, as long as the Commander thought it was necessary for him, but he was also going to study with 6th graders in the morning and to work in the carpenter workshop in the afternoon. All communications with Cadets of his age were temporarily forbidden.
Paul was next to me when this was announced and we really felt sorry for Thomas, although we knew that he really deserved it.
As far as I was concerned, the routine was again the same. I worked well in school and started to like it, my Chief for the mechanic workshop considered that I was doing very well there too. So my teachers decided that I would take this year the exams for a BAC with very little 12th grade maths (my eternal problem) plus additional exams to have a vocational BAC as mechanic. I tried to protested saying that I wanted later to be a singer and not a mechanic, but the Commander told me:
"Your teachers consider that you are good enough to get a vocational BAC, maybe another BAC with very little maths, but they also think that you will never be accepted in a teacher training college. Our duty is to prepare you for as good a job as possible, not to help you to dream about an impossible job. If you disagree with me, your Commander, I can always send you to isolation."
I knew better than to disagree with the Commander and I shut up, accepting his decision. In my mind, I thought:
"If a have any BAC, I can still try to be accepted in a good school later."
I was also going to keep helping Paul, but I soon realized that Paul had really started now and that he did no longer need me. The Chief told me one day:
"Cadet Ferrière, from now on you will salute Cadet Roulle" (Paul) "because he is and will be your superior. You will be a good mechanic and Cadet Roulle will be an excellent teacher. From now on, one hour a day, it is Cadet Roulle who will help you and check if you did your homework."
I thought it was a joke, but the Chief was very serious and Paul checked my work at school during our evening study, and he reported my progresses to the Chief. It was really painful to observe that the little boy I had helped in the beginning, was now checking whether I had studied my lessons. When it was not the case, he gave me good advices and that avoided for me more serious punishments !
Meanwhile my hair had regained an acceptable length and every other week the barber, Guard Meursault, used his clippers to give me a perfect round head, I looked once again like a cobweb-broom. The barber also decided to show me how to shave, all by myself, with an old style razor. I had some nasty cuts in the beginning, but it became very rapidly easy: another routine since I now had to do it every morning before anything else.
Going back to normal routine also meant that each month Brigitte came to visit me in my prison. We did not only kiss, but we now started to make serious plans for our future, for as soon as I would have that damned BAC and be released from the reform school.
"Hands in your back, prisoner."
It is in this position that he handcuffed me and made me enter one of the small cells inside the van. I was very perturbed to be treated once again like this and this destroyed partly my strong moral concentration. When we arrived at the exam center, the same police officer, who had probably never even tried to get his BAC, got me out of my small cell, took my little bag and pushed me to the exam room where, in front of all the others boys and girls taking the same exam, he finally took off my handcuffs. He then shouted (apparently he was not able to speak normally):
"Go to one of these benches and sit."
He then started to attach my right foot to the bench. The professor in charge of supervising the exam asked him:
"Why do you attach him ?"
Still shouting, the policeman replied:
"This guy is a prisoner and I am responsible for him. I want to be sure to find him back when I come and fetch him."
"But he has a written exam this morning and another this afternoon" replied the professor.
"That’s none of my business. He is a prisoner and must be treated as such," shouted the policeman.
"In that case, I want to be able to keep an eye on him," said the professor, "so let him sit on this special table in front of me."
The policeman made me sit on the chair in front of the table and used the shackles he had with him to attach my right ankle to … one of the legs of the chair and left.
The professor told me to stand, as soon as the policeman was gone, and while I was standing he removed the chair in order to free my chain from the leg. He then replaced the chair and told me:
"Sit and tell me briefly your story, why are you in prison ?"
I told him the complete story, including the fact that I had failed my BAC once and that my father had asked for me to be sent to a reformatory.
The professor simply said:
"All that misery for a train ticket ! That’s not normal. We will place your chain where that stupid policeman wants it, but only after you have taken your exams."
The professor then explained to all the others that I was there in prison uniform only because my father was angry because I had failed during my previous attempt to get my BAC, he (purposely ?) forgot to say anything about the train ticket.
I felt much better and did well for my first exam. I then took the "free end" of my chain and placed it in my pocket in order to go out of the exam room and into the playground. I had promised not to try to leave the school compound. I was hungry, I had no food with me but I said nothing: I wanted to remain concentrated on my exams. The professor who had helped me with my chain came near me and asked me why I was not eating.
"Because they forgot to give me food in the Disciplinary Institution, Sir."
"Then take my sandwich. You must have eaten something before you start your next exam. There is water for all candidates in the next room."
I ate this sandwich, which appeared excellent compared to the Borstal food. In the next room, I found water and also other candidates who hesitantly started to speak with me. They wanted explanations about my "crime" and about life in the Reformatory. It was good to speak with normal boys and girls, but none of the girls was as radiant as my Brigitte.
After my afternoon exam, the professor told me once again to stand up in order to place the ring at the end of my chain on the leg of my chair. He told me to do as if I had not moved since the morning. He also gave me a closed letter for the Commander of the Borstal.
Everything was in order when the policeman came to fetch me. He even said, shouting as usual:
"You see, prisoner, it was not so terrible to remain chained a whole day."
He told me to place my hands in my back and handcuffed me. He then brought me back to the same van in order to go to the Institution.
There, I was told to go immediately to the Commander’s office since I had a letter for him. He took the professor’s letter, read it, became red in the face and told me to leave his office during a few minutes.
When I came back, led by the Chief, the Commander apologized ! He told me that he just got a court order by phone: I would no longer be chained to my chair. He added that I would have good food for my breakfast and my lunch, in my bag, for the next day. He even said that he could not change the procedure for the transport and that I had to accept to be handcuffed during the transportation, but that the policeman now had orders telling them to free me as soon as I entered the exam compound, and to leave me free until they came back to fetch me and bring me back, in their van, to the institution for the night.
This was now much more comfortable and I could work well. It lasted two weeks and then it was finished. After a few days, I was told to go, once more, to the Commander’s office and the Commander spoke kindly:
"Congratulations, Cadet Ferrière, you got your two BACs. The literary one with a simple ‘pass’, which shows that you are not ready for further studies, but the mechanic one with an ‘excellent’. This confirms the choice we made for you."
"Commander, permission to ask a question ?"
"May I go out freely now ?"
"Certainly not, you must first accomplish your military obligations."
"Can I start immediately, Commander ?"
The Commander started laughing and continued:
"It is the first time that I see that a Cadet is in a hurry for his military service, usually they try to avoid conscription. In any case, the answer is NO. You must wait till they call you. The Army has been warned that you are available, but you must wait."
"How long Commander ?"
"It can take a year, Cadet."
"But Commander, what am I going to do during all this time ?"
"Work in the mechanic workshop and acquire more skills. Now, OFF YOU GO, or it will be isolation."
So I had learned during this conversation that I had my BAC, even two BACs, but that I had to wait a long time, as prisoner, doing something I did not like.