Tuesday, 11 August 2015

This week's offering comes in the form of a short story...

Combat 

7.00am.  My stomach crushes the first half of my breakfast into crumbs, the second half lies uneaten on the plate.  I apply red lipstick, knowing that it will be gone by breaktime due to the nervous habit I have of licking and biting my lips.  Trousers.  Medium-high heels, enough to make a confident-sounding thud on the floor. My hair is slick and neat, for once.  I pick up my handbag and the three bags of stuff I need for the day and head out the door.

It’s early still when I arrive, but busy.  This isn’t the kind of place where you can get away with late starts.  It takes me nearly an hour to read and deal with my emails, time which I don’t have.  Whilst I’m reading and typing I’m printing, cutting, and preparing as well.  One of the emails refers to my recent absences as ‘starting a trend amongst your staff’, creating a further pit of black viscosity in my already-churning gut.  My mouth is arid and my breath scrapes and cracks up and down my trachea.

 During that hour I have three visits from my employees, all of whom want help with problems I don’t know how to solve.  I smile warmly and offer plausible and confident advice to them, knowing I’ll pay for it later.

As the place swarms into life, the noise levels begin to affect me more and more.  I can feel the eyes peering through the window in my office, scrutinising and mocking me.  I can hear insults and curses being thrown around outside my office, growing in intensity and volume until it sounds like violence is brewing, like the atmosphere around a football stadium after a particularly bloody battle.  Once or twice my door rocks in its hinges.

The time rattles crazily around the circular plate on my wall, until it’s too late to hesitate any longer.  I gather up my laptop and a pile of paperwork and make the journey of several miles to the room next door.  I think about the word inevitable and it tastes sour in my mouth.

Making eye contact is the hardest part. I want to scuttle through the crowd, but that would be letting them have it on their own terms, and there can be none of that.  I stride through, eyeballing every one of them, raising a quizzical pair of brows or mouthing a firm ‘No’ when needed.  I command one of them to open the door for me, raising a groan and a spiteful laugh from his peers.  They remain in the corridor whilst I set up my laptop and breathe deeply for the last time in a while. 

8.45 am.The bell cuts sharply through the breath I was taking and raises an involuntary tremor in my left eye.
Nothing happens.

This is entirely expected.  I brace and open my door.  My presence is enough to persuade the first few inside, whilst naming others seems to elicit a canine-like response.  A few more are dragged inside, wailing like toddlers.  I close the door on the ones I have already broken and begin the hunt for the rest.  They never go far.  That would be against the spirit of the game.  As it is, they loll against banisters, or huddle in corners, faces tinged with blue light, ignoring me just enough to suggest they have seen me.
Some require herding, the distaste of touching me enough get them shuffling away, bucking and roaring with the ignominy of defeat.  At last, I have only two left. 

8.53 am.
“You have two options, gentlemen.  Come in to my lesson right away, or be collected by Mrs. Hawkins and brought in.  Your choice.”  I am succinct and direct.
“Na, Miss.” One of them chuckles, eyes lit up like a prowling tiger.
“If you get Mrs Hawkins, she’ll know what a shit teacher you are and you’ll get the sack or something.  You must be shit if you can’t even get us to get in the classroom.  And you’ve left your class, bet they’re going mental in there.”
“Shit,” confirms the other, taller boy.
First blood.
“On the contrary, I’m sure Mrs. Hawkins knows full well that getting you inside a classroom is most certainly not a measure of good teaching, “ I begin. 
“Miss, why do you have to use such long words?  It makes you sound posh, and I don’t like posh people,” begins the taller boy, with a tiny but noticeable step towards me.
“Well, I suggest it’s because I’ve had a good education, something which I’m really trying to pass on to you.  And believe, me, it ain’t gonna happen if you don’t even get inside the room, fellas.”  I try for colloquial and menacing.  It comes out somewhat differently.
“If you cared about education, you’d be in there teaching all the kids that actually want to learn,” he grins.  “So that’s bollocks.”  His face enlarges towards mine, all brown teeth and hair gel.
“Ok, enough,” I assert.  “I’m calling Mrs. Hawkins”.
During the time it takes me to call Reception (approximately seven minutes, as they don’t pick up for a while) they both disappear.

9.03 am. I swallow hard and march back into the classroom.
 A sea of angles, all the heads turned slightly or completely away as if to show I’m not even worth focusing on.  Enormous make-up brushes, scarlet nail lacquer, bronzer so dark it changes their skin tone by an entire paint chart.  Feet on desks, chairs casually scraped across the room to better facilitate the deceptively studied formation.  No sign of writing implements, but no shortage of mobile phones.  The scene is set.  Now I’m on their time, in their space, messing with their plans, instead of the other way around.  I’m the bitch.
Fair enough.
“Meghan, please could I ask you to put that away and remain the beautiful shade of ivory you were born with?  Alesha, I would hate for you to breathe in those fumes and not be able to focus on the amazing journey we are about to share.  Gentlemen – I’m making assumptions here - your seats, NOW.  Anyone out of their seating plan allocation in the next two minutes gets a nice little date with me at breaktime,” I growl, moving furniture and clicking in the air two centimetres above their heads.
Somehow, without anything noticeable happening, they seems to elect a leader.  Meghan remains motionless while the rest stretch their faces tellingly and begin to move vaguely towards their seats.  I call her name.  Twice.  No response.  They all begin to giggle, the sound far from childish.
“WHAT?” she finally roars, for comic effect.  This is so successful she even begins to laugh at herself, then corrects with a swoop of her waist-length highlighted hair and, in the process, knocks some of my paperwork on the floor.  “SORRY MISS!”
Suffice to say, she is not. 
“Meghan, you need to move to your seat please, otherwise you will be in detention with me at breaktime” I say calmly.
“No thanks.”  She beckons to a friend and begins to plait her hair, placidly.  They select a tune from her phone and listen, one headphone each.  Throughout this process I have distributed worksheets to the rest of the class, reasoning that they may accidentally make a mark on the paper whilst I’m dealing with Meghan, or in the very least that any observers on a brief walk-past might see enough not to inquire further.  No-one is fooled.  They are watching the breathtaking finale of the first act.
9.11am. I kneel down in front of Meghan and sidekick, trying to establish eye contact.  They jump theatrically. 
“Girls, you are well aware that you are not allowed to listen to music in class.  Turn it off now please, and get back to your seat.  Let’s not make this any more difficult than it has to be,” I reason.  I feel as if a note of appeasement has crept into my voice and kick myself inwardly.
“You’re the only one making it difficult, Miss.  If you’d just leave us alone, we’d be well behaved and that.  Just allow it, Miss, we ain’t gonna listen to you anyway.  I don’t wanna be rude Miss, but you’re well boring.” Meghan is equally reasonable, but much louder.  She treads the line between menacing and diplomatic in a way that suggests that she is the teacher and I am the extremely slow pupil.
“Last chance girls, or I am calling Mrs. Hawkins to remove you.  You’ve wasted far too much of this class’ time already today.”
They shrug and continue.  I write them detention slips and pop next door to make the call. 
9.20am. When I have returned, one of the detention slips has been doctored and lies on my desk, reading ‘REASON FOR DETENTION: Meghan thinks YOLO!”  There is also a mini-whiteboard on my chair with a badly drawn but certainly pornographic sketch on it.  I wonder if the female figure is supposed to be me, and if that makes any difference. 
9.26am. Mrs Hawkins arrives, smiling in a manner that suggests she imagines her job to be providing a simple spoonful of sugar for my dreary subject.  Her smile fades a little as she scrutinises me, attempting to explain square numbers in a slightly different way for the ninth time whilst approximately one pupil listens at any one time.  I sound like I have a special kind of Tourettes, as I rapidly call each pupil’s name in an attempt to get them to look my way and just take something in.
“So looking at this list of numbers – GEMMA! – just the counting numbers – BILLY! JOSH! – we can make all of them into a square – ALESHA, THIS WAY PLEASE! –which is why they are called SQUARE NUMBERS, HARRY!- afterwards, and – HANNAH B! – can be made by multiplying – that’s TIMESING MEGHAN, LEAVE YOUR EYEBROWS ALONE! – by themselves.”

“Did you call for help, Mrs. Sullivan?” she asks acidly, noting the make-up spilled around like a salon, the two boys with a pack of cards between them.
“Yes please.  Meghan and Brianna have refused to do any work since the beginning of the lesson, nor sit in the correct seats.” I look her in the eye.
She swallows.  “Right girls, let’s go outside please and talk about this.”  They sigh and strop outside.  I breathe deeply and begin again, using the impetus of their departure to try a new tack.
“I’ve made you these jigsaw pieces, just like we’ve done before – just match the questions and answers “ I explain.  Action.  I dart around, handing out brightly-coloured laminated triangles in elastic bands. My brain confidently pronounces the term ‘kinaesthetic learners’.  So what if it took me more than two hours to make them?  It’s worth it, it gives them something to do, and they don’t even have to listen or write, just move the bits around on the table, and I can sleep tonight when I get in from work.  After my department meeting.  For half an hour or so, because I have to mark their papers tonight and it absolutely must be tonight because I promised them and I couldn’t bear it if they saw me as just another adult who breaks their promises, another transient figure in their awful, abusive lives. I briefly halt in my progress around the room.  Elastic bands!
It is too late.  Four pupils have begun the war, and one is swearing at top volume after breaking his.
9.34am.  My classroom is covered in coloured triangles and broken elastic bands, like demented bunting.  Mrs Hawkins enters with Meghan and Brianna.
“They are extremely sorry for their behaviour and have promised to listen for the last part of the lesson.  I’ve spoken to both girls about their target grades being a B and the need for them to actively participate in lessons if they are going to achieve.  Ok?” she asks briskly.  Meghan and Brianna look at the clock ecstatically.
9.41. My ‘what have we learnt today?’ powerpoint slide glows bleakly on the interactive whiteboard.
“Miss, I’ve learnt that Alesha is a cunt.”
Gemma is in hysterics.  Alesha and Meghan round on Billy and suddenly chairs are being knocked aside, the animal sound of violence escapes someone’s throat, and gasps and cheers are being thrown from the sidelines.
I intervene, firmly.  In the process, I catch an elbow to the ribs and I end up pressed against the closed door, flushed and furious, politely exhorting “no-one leaves until the bell.  Calm down.”
9.44am.  I am unsure as to whether I will be physically knocked down, as comments seem to suggest.
9.45am.  The bell rings and I allow the stampede to finally happen.  Closing the door behind them, I rub my face hurriedly, straighten my skirt, and begin to pick up the debris. 
9.47 am.  The boys from the corridor.
“Guess what, Miss?  We’ve been with Mr Hayfield all lesson, and he said we could stay with him because you can’t teach this class and he actually taught us something. I know how to multiply brackets and everything now. It’s a grade B.”
“Yeah no-one even listens to you Miss. You’re a fucking shit teacher.  You should probably just give up.”
The door slams behind them.  I mentally count how many times I’ve been sworn at this lesson, and count out the requisite number of triplicate forms from my desk drawer.   The pornographic sketch is gone.  That saves another one.
A polite knock on my door, and Mrs Hawkins enters.
“I’m aware it wasn’t a formal lesson observation today, but I was trying to complete a learning walk whilst on duty and you did call me...I have to make to you aware that your lesson as it stands would have been a failing grade, as I’m sure you know, especially as a manager.  I just felt the students weren’t really engaged, perhaps you could have another look at your planning, and certainly the delivery wasn’t helpful, you aren’t managing behaviour very well in there.  I saw several students without correct uniform, which as you know is extremely unhelpful to all the members of staff who do adhere to school rules consistently.  I’ve had a look at the data, and some of them are at least three grades away from their targets still at this late stage, which is not at all acceptable.  As you know it is completely vital that we get those grades, and this is the key class that we have trusted you with.  So I’ve looked at strategies to support you, and come up with three extra hours a week where they’ve dropped subjects so you can have them for three more timetabled lessons, should be able to really cover all the bases with all that extra time, and really push for those target grades.”
Faintly, the stairs start to thud and creak and the corridor rumbles. Second lesson.


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