Paul Dufficy

May 4, 2022


Without any discussion my parents decided to send me to boarding school. With seven years of Catholic schooling already behind me, I knew there would be physical punishment, but I wasn’t sure how it would play out. I thought the Marist brothers would likely be similar to the Mercy nuns and the Christian brothers, and that physical punishment would rarely be cruel or arbitrary. In my first week of middle school, however, I realised that discipline at St Joseph’s was seldom predictable and frequently vicious.

An example: Technical Drawing was taught by Brother Casimir. He was a stubbled, overweight brute of a man who eschewed the cane in favour of a more hands-on approach. He would walk up behind a boy and, upon finding an error in scale or view, or something else displeasing, would clap both hands to the ears of the unsuspecting boy while barking the nature of the crime. A case of pedagogical cross purposes I would have thought. The second method probably did less damage but was equally painful. Again, he would glide silently behind someone, his white robe stirring the dust motes on the floor, and then rapidly bring the knuckles of his index and middle fingers down upon the skull of his victim.

Running and swimming gave me some release and balance but they were not enough. I started unconsciously and repetitively using my tongue to make a sweeping movement against the skin under my lower lip until a crescent-shaped rash developed. I also began biting my nails and scratching the skin on my fingertips . Small cuts would appear, heal, and then reappear as I commenced the scratching again. The cycle was prolonged as the cuts would open and bleed when I got the cane. I was asking for an out but it seemed there was no one on my side. One afternoon I found my twelve-year-old self in the principal’s office with my dad. I had no advocate and no counsellor. Brother Elias said it was just a phase and Dad agreed.

But one day in my second year our regular English teacher was not well and Brother Rogatus took his place for the lesson. Instead of reciting from the textbook or setting us some busy work, he decided to read us some fiction. He was thin and pale, very quietly spoken, and appeared almost spectral as he glided about the main college building in his white soutane on early morning walks. He opened a book and began. He had chosen a short story by Arthur Porges called "The Ruum". I was astonished and enthralled. To my ears it had it all: wilderness, an alien, a desperate hunter, and a relentless pursuit. His decision that day to risk reading a story published in the middle of the previous century, as a substitute teacher, to thirty adolescent boys, changed my world. He had opened the door just a little wider, like all good teachers do.

After the lesson I approached him. "I really liked that story," I said. "Are there some more books like that in the library?"

"The library," he said, "is a gold mine. Just ask for science fiction."

It was the first time I had heard that phrase. I visited the library at lunch and with some uncertainty asked if there were any science fiction books. No doubt music to the ears of a librarian at a school for boys where playing sport was compulsory. She smiled warmly and explained that there was an entire science fiction section, and that she knew of a book I might like. She asked me to follow her to a nearby aisle where she reached upwards and ran her fingers ever so slowly along a series of hardback spines until she came to H. From here, her finger moved up the spine of a book. She removed it from the shelf and handed me Wool by Hugh Howey.

By the time my second year was over I had read his whole Silo series. I began inspecting dust jackets very closely. One that caught my eye on the same shelf as Howey was on a book, written many years ago, by Frank Herbert called Dune. I read the blurb again and again and lost orbit.

What just happened? Can a paragraph do that? I fell into the words and their constellations: a night sky of structure and risk and loyalty and morality — I was in. Many times I would stop and reflect upon just where it was I found myself. I would search for the smartest way to approach each predicament I faced. As I lay awake in Brother Celestine’s dormitory (after having looked up "psychic" in the dictionary) I pondered long and hard Herbert’s assertion that tribulation is required to allow the development of psychic muscles.

With focus I developed enough of these muscles to stop my anxious habits and get on with the bigger ideas out in the world. Here, I was also relieved to be a searcher — connected, yes, but my loyalty was not for sale. I decided I was on a quest. My task was to endure, to plan, to scheme, and to stay alert. I still swam and ran but I also got reacquainted with my silent partner, confidence. I had done things. But in this school there were men with stunted perceptions of the world. They would not confine me. Better yet, I used their viciousness, their myopia, their lack of experience and courage as motivation to look beyond where I found myself, to chart a new way, to be aware of alternate worlds beyond my experience. The present would no longer define me. Of course, I also needed love, friendship, music, and my football team to develop some balance for my new-found psychic strength.

Paul Dufficy is currently in Australia and has lived and worked for extensive periods in Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Thailand. He writes about music, travel, and other things that catch his interest. To support his writing he takes people on walking tours with a focus on art and architecture.