Miłosz Palej, University of Oxford
It was a chilly February morning on the outskirts of Wolverhampton and already the fifth month I had spent sleeping on a narrow bed in a dated, Victorian boarding school, somehow hidden away from the rest of the Black Country by a halo of rolling hills and old, looming oaks.
The period of initial shock and subsequent adjustment had ended by then and I was gradually adapting to the communal showers, hymn singing in the school chapel and the idea that a tie can be tied quickly and in various kinds of knots. Especially the latter was a foreign concept to me. I had owned only one tie before moving to England and not once untied it ever since it was first tied for me at the store, in the fear that I would never be able to master this obscure art and consequently would have to resort to wearing it hanging loose on each side of my neck, as if to announce to the world what a sartorial failure I was.
The mathematics of my mornings was simple – if I wanted to spend more than a brief moment in the shower, I had to become quicker at tying a tie. That morning was no different.
We were woken up at seven and had to leave the boarding house within the following half an hour or else risk being locked in, the threat of which was by no means an empty one. Every day, without fail, the housemaster would stroll down the corridors, with a hockey stick or cricket bat in hand, depending on the season, and loudly bang on each door, shouting “rise and shine lads, rise and shine...”
As the lads concerned, we were not quite ready to rise or shine immediately after being so generously treated to a heart attack, but had long accepted the inevitability of this whole charade, and we would set alarms for just before seven and then cover our ears as we heard the heavy steps in the corridor.
I remember lying in bed that morning, covered head to toe, and thinking that the boarding house was really no different to a prison or a medieval monastery, with the floral-patterned bars in windows on the ground floor simply reinforcing my conviction.
That morning, something was not quite right. My whole body felt dull, as if it had been subjected to some strenuous exercise my brain never recorded. Any slight movement would simply sink it deeper into the bed, immobilising me in a quicksand of pillows and duvets. My mind felt sluggish and dizzy. Whatever it was, it could definitely be placed on the cold-flu spectrum and tended to with a plethora of medications I had been provided with in advance by my perpetually worried, and far-sighted, mother. I shivered at the idea of her catching me as I walked to school each morning with hair still wet and no overcoat in the middle of winter. I could be coughing my lungs out and nicely arranging them on the carpet – carelessness attracted no sympathy in a Polish household.
Among many other things, the virtual illiteracy, when it came to medications among my English peers, was one of the strongest cultural shocks I had endured in the first months in Wolverhampton. Beyond ibuprofen, paracetamol and “that pink thing” (which I later learned was Pepto-Bismol), the limited sample of local teena- gers I had met knew very little about vitamins, supplements and home treatments for the most common illnesses and ailments.
Their knowledge about fire safety was, however, outstanding. It was no surprise, really, given the regularity of fire dril- ls. Winter or summer, day or night, the fire siren mounted to the ceiling in my room would break out at the most unexpected of times and drown out any happy thoughts one could have dared to think of in that moment. Dressed, half-dressed or merely with a towel wrapped around our waists, we would run downstairs and arrange ourselves in neat rows outside of the boarding house, loudly shouting out our room numbers, only to learn that the “fire” was really just another burnt toast.
That morning, no toasts were burnt in the boarding house or at the canteen. After having successfully fought off gravity, I assembled a collection of medicinal pills and powders from my wash bag and set off to school. Already during the first class, however, a loud cough betrayed me, and I was sent to the school nurse. She was a gentle, old woman with a so- othing voice that evoked trust. Before we even sat to discuss my condition, she offered some tea, which I readily accepted. In those few months, I had learnt not to refuse things out of politeness, because, in contrary to Poland where accepting anything when asked only once could come across as rude, refusing anything in England would often be taken for what it was as opposed to an invitation to be persuaded otherwise.
The nurse listened to me patiently, quickly examined my throat and asked whether I had taken any medication. My list of pills and powders was met with a puzzled look, but she eventually shook her head, walked over to a glass cabinet and took out two sad-looking, white pills from generic packaging. Very profoundly, as if announcing some incredibly complicated diagnosis, she explained I probably had a cold and the two pills she carried were paracetamol and should make me feel better. I have to admit – I was disappointed. With her neat grey hair, white coat and heavy glasses, I definitely expected more from the nurse than paracetamol. Nevertheless, I listened to her politely and, eventually, took the pills, thanked her and returned to class.
In my time at the school, I realised that paracetamol was the universal treatment for everything – from pulled muscles to headaches, from common colds to stomach pains. Symptoms of any illness or medical problem were thought to be best quashed with these two sad looking, white pills.
But the problem with a one-size-fits-all solution is that it is often reductive. As with paracetamol, strict discipline seems to have been prescribed all too hastily at the school; and oftentimes without further inquiry or explanation. We were subjected to a standardised, dire regimen, because of a bygone consen- sus that this would develop our work ethic and our sense of responsibility. However, such approach to discipline focuses on eliminating any nonadherence, as opposed to examining the cause of it. And so, although I can tie a tie quite quickly these days - getting out bed in the morning is not one bit easier.