The French are good at punishment. They might have invented the guillotine as the humane, rational – downright Cartesian - alternative to strangling for half an hour at the end of a rope or stretching till you snapped on the rack, but then they turned around and made a sadistic, comic fetish of the head, dangling it by its formerly peruke-covered hair in front of a mob of sans-culottes trying to get in their best toothless jeers while those aristo eyes were still blinking and receptive. Reason and humiliation march hand in clammy white hand down the fear-scented corridors of a lycée.
I was called out of my first period class to see Père Rochard, the Vice Principal in charge of Revenge and Grief. Père Sanchez, my math teacher, his face pale blue-green and narrow as an El Greco, looked at me as if I was skulking out of his lessons by choice, and he told me sternly, as I walked to the door, that with my trouble grasping anything beyond the basics of algebra I couldn’t afford to miss one of his classes, let alone two in two weeks. As I opened the door he told the others that his instruction was wasted on Alton anyway. But I’d heard this sort of thing many, many times.