Everyone in my third year chemistry class wanted to do well. Everyone wanted to do well for the wrong reason. Our teacher, Barney Rubble as he was known, had a curious way about him. We would imagine that he travelled to school, cave man style, using his feet to power his old banger. His hair was unkempt, his shirt half hanging out and his white coat, denoting his mad scientist status, was always carrying some form of mysterious stain. On paper, he could claim to be a scientist. How he behaved, however, was a lot less enlightened. He practised some form of religion that none of us had ever heard of.
We had a class test every few weeks and no one ever wanted to come last. The boy that came last became The Onion. To be anointed The Onion meant going through a process of ritual humiliation. The process itself was an open secret between the boys and the teacher. Nobody's parents ever found out. None of the other teachers seemed to be aware of what was happening.
With the class test marked, Mr Rubble asked the class to guess who The Onion was. The guessing was a form of torture. If my name came up, it meant that at least someone thought I was stupid. If others agreed, my pain was multiplied. If a second name came up, others would debate the demerits of each of us. With common cruelty, it was a raucous affair with much laughter and teasing. Our leader, Mr Rubble, was much encouraged.
He would tease the class further by reading the names of the boys who finished in the top half. The rest of us, who remained unnamed, sat silently hoping that we would not be The Onion. The guessing continued. If I managed to do well enough to finish in the top half of the class, I would feel a sense of relief and become desensitised to the plight of the poor sod who would eventually become the subject of ridicule. The majority would become winners while the runt of the class was destroyed without mercy.
The guessing continued. The class were asked to reassess who they thought The Onion might be. On the occasion I became The Onion, no one guessed my name. I sat silently hoping that I had done enough to escape the clutches of the class mob.
Finally, when it was announced that I had come last, I was summoned to the front of the room. I was asked to kneel in front of the teacher and a white polystyrene box was placed upside down on my head. The box had on the side of it the names of all the previous Onions, with the dates of their enthronement.
I was asked to stand and to slowly make my way around the room. The boys were split into two, sitting at the side of two long benches in the science lab. My course of humiliation took on the figure of an eight. I took off, to the left before twisting around to the bottom of the class, making my way up to the centre of the room towards Barney Rubble. The boys all chanted, 'Onion, Onion, Onion.' They seemed to imply that if they peeled a layer of skin from my head, they would find another layer and then yet another. If they continued to peel, they would never find a brain. As I approached the teacher, I was told to slow down, before I swept off to the right, taking on the other half of the room. The chanting continued. 'Onion, Onion, Onion.'
When I approached Barney Rubble again, I knelt back down onto one knee to repeat The Onion oath. Mr Rubble suggested to everyone that he knew Swahili, and that the oath would be conducted in this most sacred of languages.
'Repeat after me,' he said.
Turning to the boys, Barney Rubble asked what I had just said. They shouted back, 'Oh, what an ass I am!'
The boys broke into a drum roll. They drum rolled on their desks for up to a minute. Before the enthusiasm of the class was exhausted, Mr Rubble signalled for the class to stop. I then stood up and The Onion hat was taken from my head. My name was placed on the box along with the date. I was asked if I would be The Onion next time. I can't remember what I replied. What I do remember is that there was never a boy who became The Onion twice. Having been on the receiving end of such ridicule and mockery, no one desired a repeat of the experience.
At the time, I never thought the ceremony was strange or unusual. It was 1989, a few years after corporal punishment was banned from state schools. No one ever told their parents that they had come last in the class test. No one boasted about becoming The Onion. As a fourteen-year-old, going to an all-boys school, we seemed to live in a sealed bubble. Our sense of normality was strange.