I have a tiny factory manager in my head

and that’s exactly how the school system wants it

Nick Irving
9 min readJun 25, 2024

I’m sick.* Legitimately so: I have a positive RAT result and a certificate from my doctor. I have institutional evidence demonstrating I am unfit to be working, unproductive. I have institutional support for not working: three years of pandemic discourse telling me to stay home and prevent the spread, sick leave to spare, and the full support of a kind and employee-focused manager. Why then do I feel the need to justify my sickness to strangers on the internet in the second sentence of this post? Why did I text a colleague this morning to apologise for catching one of the most infectious diseases in the world? Why do I feel so guilty for convalescing?

When I was a child, I relished sick days. I was bullied pretty badly at my first primary school. I remember throwing tantrums in the morning, asking my parents over and over why I had to go to school, and why couldn’t I just stay home? I was too young to connect the bullying to my experience of school itself as a site of dread, but my parents knew. It didn’t take long for malingering to emerge as a strategy that was broadly acceptable to both of us in securing a day at home for me. Or, more correctly, given both my parents worked, a day on my Nan’s couch, being pampered with Schweppes lemonade and able to read the books I wanted to at my own pace.

I learned very quickly that being a little bit sick — sick enough to claim I was sicker, but not so sick I was actually in distress — was simply better than being well. It meant a more emotionally fulfilling and likely more intellectually stimulating day, free from almost everything that made me miserable.

But even as a child I was aware of the game I was playing. Looking back, I now interpret myself as an anxious child. I was always attentive to others’ moods, especially my parents’. I had a sense on any given day of how hard I could push my incipient illness, but I also knew that if I pushed just a little bit too far, I’d be back in the prison yard. I was too young to know what I was doing, but I intuited that I was always playing the numbers, riding the edge. Lessons learned young and baked into the brain stem like that really stick.

The disciplinary system of the state continued to act on me, as they act on everyone. After sitting a test in year 4, I moved to a second primary school just for years 5 and 6 to be in one of two ‘streamed’ classes for gifted kids. In year 6, I sat another exam and went off to a ‘selective’ all-boys high school. I was being assessed, tagged, categorised and graded in exactly the way Foucault described. The point was always to put me where the system needed me. My needs were never relevant to the equation except where they intersected with the system’s.

The impacts on me were ambivalent at best. Memories of my ‘OC class’ in years 5 and 6 were the most pleasant of my school days, but high school was desolate. My year group at high school was just… off a bit. We didn’t mesh well, there was a lot of mutual suspicion, groups formed and dissolved quickly. I have no friends remaining from those days.

While I was there, my high school instituted a system for managing late students. If you arrived too late for roll call you were expected to pick up a ‘late book’ — a small leaflet that needed to be signed by the teacher in each class following your arrival, and turned in at the end of the day to demonstrate you had in fact attended all of your classes. I understood at the time this was the school acquitting its duty of care, but in hindsight, like so many other disciplinary systems, it’s a tool designed to disempower the subject and limit their activity.

The problem was simple. Any student who hadn’t been marked present in period 1 looked absent to the school’s systems even if they turned up late. So a late student had the potential to be able to pick and choose the classes they attended and still claim they had attended for the whole day. And it was easy to claim to be late for all sorts of legitimate but unverifiable reasons. Buses can be half a hour late, after all.

This was, of course, a massive loophole in a system designed to strongly limit the movement and carefully shape the behaviour of children during daylight hours. We all knew kids that used this loophole to skive off to the park and smoke weed or fool around with like-minded girls from the sister school down the road. But like so many bureaucratic institutions coping with loopholes, my school chose a system that targeted the small number of fraudulent kids with an unwieldy, compliance-based system, and caught the obedient kids in the crossfire.

As an experienced childhood malingerer, it didn’t take me long to figure out how gameable this was. The first time I was late, I anxiously pursued the signatures, the buzzing discomfort in my stomach compelling me better than any teacher could to comply perfectly with an imperfect system. The second time I was late, I forgot I had the book for half the day, and ran around at end of day securing the last few, driven again by those perfidious butterflies.

But the third time, I handed in a book without all the signatures, and nothing happened because of my good reputation with the teachers. It was the worst possible lesson to teach a kid like me. The actual absentees were super clear about what they were doing, and the system didn’t work on them because they didn’t care. But I did care, even if I harboured a secret desire to be an anarchist. I anxiously kept my nose clean only so I could take small advantage wherever possible to get out from under the Orwellian thumb.

My brief career as a truant spiked when I went AWOL on a school trip to Canberra, causing the police to be called and my parents to finally take notice of my acting out. I was suspended and saw the principal for the only time in my school career. Even then he said that this was unexpected given my generally good behaviour. As an emotional strategy, disappointment has always worked so much better on me than anger. As an anxious manipulator, The System didn’t keep me in line, but other people’s feelings could. I didn’t break any more rules for the rest of my time at high school.

Do you ever wonder if rats learn to just look like they are running the maze?

My schooling left me with a few deeply ingrained behaviours. Despite my best efforts to behave badly in a limited fashion, trading goodwill for largess at strategic moments, it taught me to turn up on time, to keep my shirt tucked in, and to avoid negative attention wherever possible. To not stand out. The word ‘egregious’ comes from a Latin phrase meaning ‘to stand out from the flock’. Tellingly, before the post-industrial period, it was a compliment, sharing a word root with ‘gregarious’.

This system taught me obedience, but it also taught me subterfuge. It taught me to identify rapidly what was enforceable and what was not, but also how to tell when an institution would enforce its own rules and when it would let me get away with it. For someone who had strong views about how he wanted to spend his time and intellectual energy, this was invaluable in deciding which books to bother reading, which exams to bother studying for, and occasionally, which assessments to not even bother turning in.

I should say, I have never been a lazy student, just an extremely wilful one. The amount of extra work I put into my history classes significantly outweighed the time saved by not doing my english homework. And there was no way to functionally recover the time spent drawing crude pictures in maths class in preference to doing the work, I just… really didn’t want to be there. I say all of this only to demonstrate that even a child who was broadly if ambivalently amenable to the project of schooling could find many, many ways to resist its disciplinary impulse.

Resistance always has a cost. Necessary disclaimer: as a white man, I pay a fraction of the costs paid by literally any other cohort. But thinking through the costs of resistance to the disciplinary mechanisms of compulsory schooling might reveal something about those mechanisms.

In my case, the cost is anxiety and guilt, resulting in a sort of punitive self-discipline. This is the bit where I make sure I still look ‘well-behaved’, where I don’t push it so hard my parents send me to school instead of Nan’s couch, or where I ensure the store of goodwill I’ve accrued in the staffroom isn’t obliterated by one long midnight walk through the Canberra suburbs. Whenever I am sick I self-monitor, looking for evidence that I might just be ‘faking it’. If I find any, I cover it up, often in a ham-fisted, hokey, performative manner.

The aim is to comport yourself in a way that befits a sick person. Do the best impression of illness that you can do. Don’t leave the couch. Don’t leave the house. Don’t reply to messages quickly. Don’t post on social media. Don’t write long posts on Medium about your deep-seated fear that you’re actually malingering. That sort of thing. Maybe ‘man flu’ is just the petit marronage of the white man.

And this, ultimately, is the victory of the disciplinary institution of compulsory schooling. Inside my head, there are versions of my parents, and my teachers, and my school principal, and I’m still trying to play them off against the systems designed to limit my movement and shape my behaviour in a way that is convenient or useful for them and ultimately doesn’t consider my needs or wants. To this day, whenever I get sick, I am more concerned with convincing those ghosts in my head that I am sick than actually getting better. My own health comes second. As a result, I take very few sick days, and only when I really need them.

I cannot be the only person in the world who feels compelled to abandon their own self-interest and self-actualisation to meet the (often inscrutable) needs of others. I have on this blog considered the legitimate ways we might be obligated to others, and the unavoidable moments of self-sacrifice required to inhabit the world. But of late I have also spent a lot of time considering the role of compulsory schooling in disciplining us to abandon our hopes and dreams more willingly, or at least reduce our resistance to having them limited for us.

And for what? I like the profession I have found myself in. I see its value. It’s also nowhere near as fulfilling as lecturing was, nor will it ever be for me. Given my druthers, I’d only do it three days a week, but the pay isn’t good enough to barter back that slice of my own life without serious repercussions. Our economy, our world, is built on jobs like this, on contracts like this. Jobs that are just good enough to prevent you quitting but not good enough to excite you on a daily basis, pay that is just good enough to get you through the door but not enough to let you drop to three days a week.

School is a huge part of why we think the bargain is in fact ‘good enough’ and not ‘awful’, and that is precisely what it is designed to do. The school system takes us in at an age where we know nothing else apart from the domestic sphere. It inserts itself roughly between ourselves and our parents at a time of life in which we have few yardsticks against which to measure what it does to us and limited tools to resist the shaping of our minds into compliant worker-citizens.

My guilt and anxiety at taking a sick day is not a bug of my schooling, it’s a feature. The clue is in the various institutional systems and relationships I need to access and navigate to do it — the medical certificate from an accredited, state-funded doctor, the sick leave from a negotiated agreement between my union and my employer, the relationship between me and my manager. All of these systems and relationships were decided for me by others. Without realising it, all of those decision-makers relied on the compulsory school system to blunt my questions and deaden my expectations to the point I would accept the decisions they made on my behalf.

The ghosts of my parents, school principal and manager in my head are products of my anxiety and cause my guilt, but they are also a deliberate product of the school system. The aim of schooling is to shape those ghosts into a tiny factory manager who lives in our heads, ‘rent free’ as the kids would say. The more we self-dicipline, the less effort our employers need to put into disciplining us, and the better they can use us to work towards their own goals without needing to consider ours. The fact that the school system is working for them gives your boss a massive head start on you. Never forget this.

*This means I don’t have the brainpower for my usual brand of referencing, so I’m indulging in a kind of writing I don’t usually indulge in: free of referencing or quotation. If you want more evidence beyond my own experience for any of the connections I’m drawing, feel free to ask in the comments.



Nick Irving

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.