Tuesday, February 2

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The rules

I have always had a particular fondness for the Lancelot of T.H. White's The Once and Future King. In every other telling of the legend, the man's kind of detestable. He may be the greatest knight in Camelot, but he's also its greatest playboy. He leaves his illegitimate son to be raised by monks, and his affair with the queen ultimately leads to the destruction of all that Arthur struggled for in his life.

White, however, manages to infuse Lancelot with a real degree of flawed, honest humanity to the point that he even becomes sympathetic. White's Ill-Made Knight is as ugly as a bulldog and only really good at one thing, knocking other knights off their horses and killing them. He is no brute, though. Lancelot's skill at dueling is born of his self-loathing. He never draws back to protect himself. His greatest desire is not to have the highest tilting averages but to perform a miracle. The affair, already tragic on an epic scale, becomes real. Yes, Guinevere and Lancelot love one another, but they love Arthur as well. For White, were Lancelot a good man, it never would have been an issue. He would have always recognized and respected the marriage of the king and queen. Had it been necessary, he would have abandoned the court to protect himself from the temptation. If he were an evil man, it never would have led to its unfortunate end. He would have simply stolen Guinevere from the first and left, not drawing the affair out for decades. But Lancelot is more complicated. He is not a good man but desperately wants to be so. He wavers between the two paths offered to him and, in the end, destroys Camelot.

Lancelot wants to be good. I want to be good. I try to speak honestly and act compassionately. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. We all have our struggles. Mine is with my temper.

It flared this weekend. It was over something minor, too. The rule is that all meals must be eaten in the dining hall. We put it in place to control messes and to discourage kids from saving ugali overnight, attracting ants and whatnot. A few girls on Saturday tried to take their rice and beans out and eat in their dorms. Normally, this isn't a big deal. I watch the door and anyone coming out with a plate, I turn back. When the first came out, she had just put a handful into her mouth and was going for another scoop when she saw me and froze. She tried to say she was bringing it for a staff member. I turned her around. The second girl tried the exact same excuse and only avoided being as pathetic by not actively having her hand in the food when she said it. I turned her around too. Not a big deal. Then they flaunted it. They would try and sneak by when I looked down to take a bite and run back when I looked up. Seeing them hurrying down the stairs into the kitchen again, something sparked.

When they heard me yell and saw me coming after them, they ran. They hid in the charcoal closet. I could have slapped them. I wanted to slap them. I wanted them to be terrified of me, to never consider again for a moment that the rules, even something as mundane as where to eat, were to be treated as a game. But I had rules, too. Their half-finished plates were given to the chickens, and they had to clean all the dishes, all the kitchen, all the dining hall.

A lot of people believe that the law is necessary to protect the weak. I don't disagree with that. Laws and rules are codifications of what society and authority believe to be right and wrong, fair and unfair, to be applied to all equally. However, I think the strong need them just as much. When action is demanded in the moment, they offer an option. Established rules give the strong control. They don't want to be vicious and violent, but those may appear the only options in a temper. Arthur recognized this. Tournaments and the Grail Quest were outlets for his knights to use their skills for something greater than dominance over the weak.

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