Waste and youth

An audio version of “Waste and youth” is featured in this episode ☝️ of the Without a hitch podcast

Some of us had anticipated a go-carting excursion, or a trip to the local pools (hydroslide!) complete with soft-serve ice-cream; at the very least a bus trip somewhere further than just down the road. But our teacher decreed that we would be going to the sewage treatment plant down the road, and we swallowed this because (a) we didn’t know what a sewage treatment plant was, (b) it would still include a bus trip, and (c) we couldn’t properly articulate our disappointment given that our expectations had been so poorly defined.

It smelt like shit. A guy in a filthy blue hazard suit and thigh-high gumboots ushered us around large, still ponds of shit at various stages of resettlement. This is what I recall from his talk: fluids get transferred from one pool to another.

The highlight of the trip was when our class gathered around a trailer. The shit guide and our teacher had both wandered off — probably off having a durry somewhere — so for a while we were untethered school kids at a shit-filtering farm. It was a normal-size trailer, the kind your parents might use to pick up a secondhand freezer. But it wasn’t secondhand freezers rolling off a gloopy conveyor belt and piling up on the trailer — it was all manner of faecal foulness: Soggy toilet paper snuggled up with (mostly) well-formed pieces of shit. Wet toilet rolls. Dead rats. Toys. Lids. Utensils. TEETH. Bones with grey flesh dangling. Dead rats. Cigarette butts. String. Photos. Dead rats. A brown horde of other stuff we couldn’t identify. Slurry.

We were mesmerised. What would come next? “Whoa, that’s a tropical fish — my uncle has a whole tank of those!” one of us said. “No way — it’s Optimus Prime… riding a turd!” said another. At the time, most of us didn’t really know what the bloody tampons were. Nor were we able to explain the innumerable condoms that stuck to everything like exhausted jellyfish. But the rats, the toys and the shit — we could relate to that. We dug that shit. For a brief moment, some of us might have thought that this was the best field trip ever. But the day was warm, and we quickly had to step away as the smell lurched over us and we had to resist the need to vomit.

In retrospect, I don’t know what the shit we were doing there looking at that trailer. And I don’t know where the trailer actually fit into the overall scheme of sewage-treatment-plant things. By the time our teacher dragged us away from that fly-ridden heap of festering shit trinkets, the trailer had filled to bursting point. Was another trailer going to replace this one? And if so, where would this trailer be taken? Was some poor soul going to actually TIE THIS DOWN WITH A TARP and drive it to the dump, melted excrement leaking from the cracks in the shimmering heat? And if yes, were they ever going to use that tarp again? This unanswerable line of enquiry still makes it hard for me to look at tarps objectively.

What, teacher, was the lesson here? Was the lesson title something as literal as “The Inevitable Cycle of Human Waste”? Or was it intended to be artistically observational? Take a good look at what people flush down the toilet, kids — we’ll be sketching this later.

There’s a chance that our teacher was actually gifted with a deep wisdom; that he wanted us to realise that raw experience was the best teacher — that we are destined to pad through life posing questions, making observations, drawing conclusions and imbibing the lessons experience affords us; it’s possible that he subscribed to the notion that we barely scratch the surface of our intellectual potential, and that in order to jolt ourselves into a state of heightened awareness we must frequently step into the most unlikely scenarios possible; however, I think it’s most likely our teacher knew that even if he made no effort at all — his students were still young, with rapidly developing brains — that by default we’d all be at least a little smarter by the end of the year anyway; and I think it’s almost certain that he was the one who, in a dingy, depraved staffroom somewhere back in time, drew the short, shit-stained field-trip straw, and the other teachers all shat themselves with laughter.

Featured image: Oscar Palmer (flickr)