Sub Loooootenant Buzzcut

Sub Loooootenant Buzzcut

‘Good afternoon Sir. Is that Mr Grrrrr Fart?’


‘Mr Grrrrr Fart, Sir, this is Sub-Loooootenant Buzzcut. I’m calling to advise that your son’s interview for a place at the Rickover Military Academy is scheduled for February 26th, nine hundred hours. Sharp. Thank you, Sir.’

And with that, the line went dead. Communication completed, phone call terminated.

Why I wondered, would Ros apply for our son and heir to be educated by the US Army? She can be hot on discipline and prefers his hair short, but sending him to the US military seems a little extreme. I can understand why she kept it from me. I’m a pacifist who hates regimentation and being ordered around. At school, unlike all my friends, I conscientiously objected to the CCF, preferring to pass my afternoons in the company of senile old ladies rather than dressed up as a soldier, marching endlessly around the School Quad with some repressed fascist barking instructions at me.

That kind of attitude doesn’t go down well in these parts. The other weekend someone knocked over a flower pot on our street. Such a petty act of vandalism, although sadly commonplace back home, is rare in America. So rare that it could well have been an accident. Although not according to the neighbour, who placed a large piece of white plyboard at the scene of the crime with the following inscription in big black bold marker pen.

‘This is how somebody honors our troops on Memorial Day!!’

At first, I thought this was something of a non sequitur. I didn’t immediately spot the link between a fallen flowerpot and the armed services. I then noticed the red, white and blue flowers on the pavement and realised it must have been intended as a floral tribute to those lost in the war. There is an argument to say that a felled flowerpot is a more poignant and elegant commemoration, but I wasn’t going to try this line on our rabidly patriotic neighbours.

I don’t get the ‘Honor our troops’ mantra. Politically it translates as ‘Send more and more of them to their deaths in the Middle East’. A primary case for continuing the war appears to that it would dishonour the troops to withdraw. By my book, the best way of honouring them would be to bring the poor bastards back while they’re still in one piece. But here the politicians tie themselves in terrible knots and contrive to continue to make the world a more dangerous place out of a misguided notion of honour.

Why should the troops be honoured anyway? I’m not a religious man, but I’m with Jesus when he said: “Blessed are the Peacemakers” (or was it the cheesemakers?). In my experience, troops tend to be uncouth yobs in uniform. Which is why I wasn’t best pleased to find that my wife wanted Jay to one day become General Grrrrr Fart.

Pacifist principles out the window, I went to war that evening with my wife.

She said she had no idea what I was on about. She asked if I had forgotten to take my medication that day. She told me in no uncertain terms that she hadn’t applied to send Jay to Rickover Military Academy.

When the card confirming the interview arrived by post a couple of days later, we assumed it must be a case of mistaken identity. (For an organisation that has ended up in Iraq when chasing a target in Afganistan, it seemed a credible explanation.) And so we ignored it.

Sometime later, we received notification that, after his successful interview, Jay would be permitted to sit the entrance exam. This got me thinking what kind of entrance exam an organisation that has George Bush as its Commander in Chief could possibly set.

I called Sub-Loooootenant Buzzcut to advise him that our son would not be joining their school. He was disappointed. “Are you sure? He gave such a good interview.” It occurred to me then we might not have the right guys tracking down Osama Bin Laden.

A few days later, Sub-Loooootenant Buzzcut was back on the phone to give us the date of Jay’s Military School examination. I tried to remind him of our conversation, but he was having none of it. “Fourteen hundred hours sharp. Make sure he’s there.”

Dogged persistence in the face of insurmountable odds or sheer incompetence? You decide.

A few weeks later, Jay received a letter informing him that he had scored 71% in an exam he hadn’t attended. This mark is below the high standard required by the Military.

I was impressed that Jay had got that much. I never got 71%. Even in those exams I attended. My highest ‘in absentia’ result was an ‘X’ in Biology O level. (Not many people have an ‘X’ at O level. Perhaps my proudest academic achievement. I have the rare distinction of a full set of O level grades – A, B, C, D, E, U and X).

Jay’s 71% in an exam he never sat has to be viewed in the context of American education, a system where (as our daughter has demonstrated) it’s possible to get 105%. In Mathematics. One hundred and five out of a hundred. Positive reinforcement takes precedence over mathematical integrity.

By comparison, Jay only got 100% in his end of year Maths exam, which although an impressive achievement is not quite what it seems as he got a couple of questions wrong. By my book, this is not 100%, but this being America, the marks were re-adjusted so that the top score counts as 100% and the other marks reassessed relative to that score.

Everyone’s a winner in America.

In England, where high exam scores are assumed to be a sign of lowering standards, everyone’s a loser.

When is 100% not 100%? a) When you win additional bonus points, b) When it’s the top score, c) When you buy doughnuts from your teacher.

Jay’s French class were offered an additional credit for every doughnut that they brought from the French department. At that time the wealthiest kid in class was trailing in the class averages with a low C, much to the concern of his parents who pretty much paid for him to buy a whole shop’s worth of doughnuts and catapult his class average to a high A grade.

High School examinations here, with more of an emphasis on rote learning rather than applied learning, are multiple-choice. Even English. (Was Hamlet a) mad, b) a psychopath, c) a loser, d) a romantic, e) on hallucinatory drugs?) I would have struggled to pull off my ‘U’ in America where even randomly answering the questions is statistically likely to guarantee a 25%. One American child we know who recently moved to the UK with an excellent academic record at a leading New England private school was traumatised to the point of catatonia when he scored 9% in his first exam.

No surprise, perhaps, that the brightest boy in Jay’s school is returning next year to his home in China because his parents feel that he will get a better education over there than here.

To graduate out of Middle School and be accepted into High School, every student here has to pass a test on the Constitution. Not just pass it, but get at least 90%. Being novices, we took this at face value and dedicated two weeks to test our son to destruction on the US constitution. While considering it to be a great way of ensuring that every American citizen has a good grounding in the cornerstone principles of their country, we were nonetheless daunted by the scale of the challenge of knowing every US senator and constitutional amendment. I also couldn’t understand how the less academic students ever managed to get out of Middle School. That is until the test came about.

Jay, fortified by intense cramming and parental pressure, passed. Unlike most of his fellow students. But they weren’t overly concerned, for the next day they were given the very same test. Not only that, but they had been given both the questions and the answers the day before. Those that failed on the second day were again given the answers to the questions they now knew they would be asked the following day. This pattern was repeated every day for a week until the school was able to announce that all its students had passed. Jay’s hard work had at least spared him the mind-numbing tedium of a Groundhog examination.

In America, failure is not only not an option; it’s also bloody difficult to pull off.

All things considered then, a rejection from Rickover Military Academy must surely rank as one of Jay’s finest achievements.

July 2007

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