THERE was nothing particularly remarkable about Paul Fielding. In truth, he’d always suspected as much. From arbitrary details like his height or appearance, to the way he often stumbled over sentences not previously rehearsed in his head – his proficiency in most things was little more than average. This was despite the lofty tags bestowed upon him from an early age by parents and teachers to the contrary.

By the time he’d reached adolescence, any mention of the word ‘potential’ was already enough to make him uneasy.  Aside from the inevitable pressure it placed upon him, there was another problem. Paul had never really understood anything in his life. At least not how he imagined people were supposed to understand things.

He found himself constantly plagued by a sense that life was like an ongoing exam he’d failed to prepare for. Each day greeted him with a bewildering jolt into consciousness and no real comprehension of what was going on around him. And the thing that made it immeasurably worse was that no one ever seemed to notice.

Throughout primary school, whenever a question was posed to the class, he could draw praise from the teacher simply for furrowing his brow and affecting a contemplative frown. Occasionally, for added effect, he might tilt his head to one side and look up as if examining the structural integrity of the ceiling.

This, he had established, was enough to convince teachers that he was deep in thought. Sometimes it would even prompt the awarding of gold stars and other novelty stickers, though this was a gesture indicative of the newer members of staff – distinguishable from longer serving teachers by the way their shoes clip-clopped crisply through the asphalt playground, their strides full of purpose, denoting pride in their work and a resolute belief in the boundlessness of a child’s mind.

They were the ones whose enthusiasm hadn’t yet been worn down by the pervasive stench of stale vomit and all-purpose cleaner that lingered in the school corridors. One such example was Paul’s year three teacher, Miss Wheeler, a woman in her late twenties with kind eyes and bad teeth. She ranged from plain to pretty depending on the day.

‘Good morning, class!’ she’d say, always in the same cheery, unwavering tone. Just as reliable was the droning response that followed.

‘Good-mor-ning-miss-wee-lah’, the class mumbled in vague unison. Miss Wheeler would pause, briefly despondent, before reinstating her smile and saying with trademark vigour, ‘Most of us are still asleep, are we? Let’s try it again. Properly this time.’

But when it came time for the teacher to ask the class a question, eight-year-old Paul Fielding was poised for a show of brilliance.

‘Come on, guys. I want you to really think about this one,’ Miss Wheeler would say. ‘Paul looks like he’s the only one actually trying.’

And that was it. It mattered little that he seldom followed up with an actual answer, let alone the correct one. He’d turned simulated effort into an art form, the regular showing of which was enough to register in a teacher’s memory amid the relative blur of each school term. Most teachers bought into the routine to some degree but the likes of Miss Wheeler were prime targets. And as long as these targets kept presenting themselves, as they invariably did, Paul found he could get by in most pursuits with minimal endeavour.

Of course he couldn’t survive on that alone. He still had to know enough in the meantime to consolidate such a performance. Most of the class work, however, was simple enough for everyone to deal with. He could add and subtract without concern and rarely had a comma out of place. Meanwhile, class tests conspired to perpetuate his plan – designed only to occupy the brighter kids without alienating the stragglers. This allowed Paul to fly mostly under the radar.

As he grew older, and teachers more discerning, he managed to adapt. He quickly learnt the value of raising his hand early in class with a barrage of unspectacular but necessary questions, serving the dual purpose of feigning attentiveness and sparing him the dreaded quick-fire quizzing at the end of class – a fate reserved for those who had misbehaved or not yet contributed.

On the sporting field the story was much the same. During the slow warm-up jogs before rugby training he made a point of arriving back first. Blessed with neither great size nor speed, his match performances were punctuated by brief, eye-catching contributions when the result was beyond doubt and players from both sides had lost interest and intensity. Regardless of the game’s outcome, the perception of Paul trying his hardest right until the end was tangible enough to be singled out in the coach’s post-game address on a number of occasions.

For a long time he let the assumption of competence spread uncontested. He certainly wasn’t going to argue with feedback on his homework that told him he was ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding’. Elsewhere, his reserve was too often mistaken for good manners so that when it came time for class reports to be written, he was made to sound like a model student. This began a trend of overestimation that continued through adolescence. The systematic lowering of expectations around him, he decided, would become his life’s work.

{excerpt}

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