Friday, February 19, 2016
SHE buries her face in her books in class. Students around her giggle about boys in their old primary school. They take photos of themselves when the teacher is distracted. She continues with her work. She feels a strange sort of bond with her teacher. She can sense that her teacher cares about her, even if it is in some fairly insignificant way. In class, the students are seated at round tables. It must be a new kind of learning. There are six girls at most of the tables. One table has eight students. Her table has two. She has something in common with this other student. This one, also, comes to the school without a familiar peer from her primary school. The rub, though, is that they are both shy. Too shy to talk. Suddenly there are two more students coming over to balance things up. They are from the noisy table of eight. See, the teacher is thinking of her. She knows it is an opportunity to shed some loneliness, to discover an unlikely kindred spirit. To have somebody to communicate with, even to conspire with or giggle about boys from the old primary school with, and secretly take photos. However, all her flimsy dreams are dashed when she sees the downcast look of the girls approaching. They hate this. They are scornful of having to move. The look on their face says it. Anger and utter contempt for having to move, and embarrassment and disdain for having to sit with her, the girl who buries her face in her books.
HE waits for the bell so he can trudge off to class. The office he has been allocated is dull and suffocating. Almost everyone is female. He has nothing in common with the other men. The women gossip and talk about their night out and their dinners. Sometimes there is nauseating, artificial laughter. The classroom is his sanctuary. The students smile at him. It is the first smile he has received since leaving his children at home at the beginning of the day. He feels there may be some genuine interest. They ask him about mobile phones. His ignorance of this subject amuses them. He seems of another world entirely. They tease him about Instagram and they queue up to show him the new applications they have discovered, ones that are buzzing around the schoolyard.
SHE waits for the bell so she can trudge off to lunch. All the girls from the entire school sit around in small groups, talk, laugh insanely, cross their legs and play with their mobile phones. At primary school she was attached, like an afterthought, to a large group that tolerated her weirdness. It was somewhere safe to go each day, and it mattered to her less and less that it was manufactured by a kind teacher. At this school, the high school, there are new rules and new cliques, and she hasn’t worked them out yet. A pale, undernourished girl has smiled at her a couple of times on the first few days, and each morning she thought she might seek her out more and more. But then, a week and a half into her new environment, the pale girl has found a place, and now their eyes never met. What to do each day. There is the beautiful library. Keeping busy by filling her water bottle. Speaking to the teacher on yard duty. She soon becomes worried that her solitariness will be noticed, and an uncomfortable primary school pattern will emerge. She thinks she might have Asperger’s.
HE sits in the staffroom alone at lunch, eating simple sandwiches, and trying not to feel odd and look odd, amidst the swarming buzz of teachers interacting with each all around him. He picks up threads of conversations, and sometimes the earnest discussions sound important and meaningful. ‘Don’t forget we need to arrange a time for the guest speaker’, or ‘Have you had time to go over the curriculum that we discussed at the meeting?’ Then there are other snippets of a more personal nature that make him feel downcast and solitary, and alien, like he might have Asperger’s. ‘How is your daughter getting on in her new job?’ ‘When does Marcie get out of hospital?’ ‘Are the kittens you bought at Christmas showing any signs of improvement?’ He feels floored by all of this. It makes him feel sick to the stomach. He cannot find any appetite for his food. He wants to let out a scream. He knows nothing about any of these people, and yet, they know so much about each other. He waits for the bell so he can trudge off to class.
EVERYBODY files in. The high pitched chatter of people who have just met. She finds her seat at the round table nearest the window. Everyone sits at the same seat each day. She likes this. It is one of the only things she likes about school. She knows this teacher better than all the others. She loves his bearded, serene face. She loves the vulnerability. She knows she is the only one who can sense it. Yes, his voice booms out sometimes, especially when he is reading. And yes, he strides around the room purposefully, checking hand writing and checking books. But she catches his face at other times, and she sees it is sometimes pained. The mouth pursed, the eyes glazed, the brow furrowed. She yearns to touch his hand.
THE bell goes. He dismisses them quickly, with a strong sense of relief. His mind’s not right, like the insane man in that Robert Lowell poem about skunks. He feels the class didn’t go particularly well. He felt more vulnerable than usual. And now he has to face the challenge of going back to his office. Suddenly he is filled with dread. He had a panic attack at the dentist recently, and now he feels something similar coming on. It’s these walls. He feels like they are closing in. He longs to rush outside and breathe in the air through to his lungs. He is glad the students have left. But then he sees her. The quiet girl who has had trouble making friends. She has, for some reason, decided to linger behind. He glances up at her, looking at her behind a valley of tears. It is excruciating but he cannot help it. Then her face puckers up, and she is crying too. Her hand is on his shoulder, and together their cries reverberate around the otherwise empty classroom.