This story is by Anne Naylor and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
There comes a point in one’s life, often when under extreme pressure or stress, where a quiet but undeniable voice in your head – it could be thought of as the voice of reason, though it could also be considered the voice of insanity – says “enough”. For Sarah Thomas, that point came on a Wednesday during Period 1.
The bell clanged, signalling the start of the school day. Sarah winced. Her stomach was already starting to coil with tension. She took a deep, steadying breath and surveyed her carefully written notes on the whiteboard, as if they would save her. As if the students would read them.
Three terms. Three long, painful terms trying to teach these little brats. If any class was going to break her, it was this one. Already she could hear a rising babble of chatter and shouts from outside the classroom door. She risked a look. Grinning faces were pressed against the glass, watching her. She couldn’t help smiling wryly when she saw them. Sarah was never sure why her students were so excited to come inside. Once they did, all they wanted to do was leave. She rolled her shoulders and moved toward the door.
“Good morning, Year 8s!” Sarah called as she opened the door, willing energy into her voice.
A few of the sweeter students greeted her back, and she smiled, properly this time. That smile quickly faded when her gaze swept over the rest of her class.
“Sam, we do not put people in headlocks – Kayla, put your phone away please – Emily, you shouldn’t be eating right now – no, Jenny, we aren’t going to the library – yes, Pat, you did have homework – EVERYONE, LISTEN UP!”
That got the attention of half of them, and the Sarah picked off the others, one by one, until the class resembled something near calm. Exhaling slowly through her nose, Sarah allowed the students to step inside the battlefield.
Twenty minutes into the lesson, she was wishing for a quick death. Half of the teens still didn’t have their materials out. Coercing even one into getting their pen and paper took precious minutes, particularly when none of them seemed to have one. At this point in the year Sarah was prepared for that, but this class had a habit of “forgetting” to get the spare materials from the front of the room. Weirdly, even though half of them didn’t have notebooks, they still managed to get scraps of paper scattered all over the worn carpet. She had given up putting posters or work samples on the walls long ago, as they inevitably got damaged. Now, in the brief moments Sarah took her eyes off her students, she got to stare at bare walls with flaking paint. It all contributed to the feeling she was in a prison.
Finally, mercifully, everyone had their work, had finished the starting activity and was ready to begin the actual lesson. Was she ready to begin the actual teaching? Would she ever be?
Did it even matter, Sarah wondered, while she raised her hand and called for whole class attention. She contemplated life as a circus performer. It probably wouldn’t be that different.
“Okay, Year 8s,” she called out in what she hoped was a calm, firm tone. “Listening in five, four, three, two- ” She stopped, giving a fierce glare to Bradley, who had a miniature skateboard and was rolling it back and forth across his desk, watching her with a malevolent grin.
Fucking Bradley. She had some spirited students in this class – there was Sam, who was suspended for fighting at least once a fortnight, there was Peter, who seemed incapable of doing anything except shout at her when he was given a reasonable instruction, and graffiti the desks and walls, there was Tamara, who had started off a sweet girl but had slowly been transformed by puberty into a wild savage – but Bradley got under her skin like no one else. Perhaps it was because of the sheer delight he took in being disruptive, the utter lack of remorse, the way he tried to make her look bad when she was being observed. As much as she found teaching the other students in the class impossible, she could more or less accept them as young people who were going through an unpleasant transition period. It wasn’t personal – they didn’t hate her, they just hated English. Bradley, she was pretty sure, hated her. And the feeling was mutual.
Sarah tried to arrange her expression into that of someone who was in control.
“Hand it over, thanks Bradley,” she said, crossing to his desk and holding out her hand. He shook his head, still grinning, and clenched the skateboard tighter in his fist.
She considered. Stand her ground and waste 10 minutes in what was sure to be a painful encounter, while the rest of the class did god-knows-what – or delay?
“Now, or at recess,” she shrugged, “Up to you.”
“Recess,” Bradley smirked, putting the toy in his pencil case.
Bradley seemed to take the skirmish as a win, and at this point, Sarah was happy to let him believe that was the case. She would deal with it later.
“Okay, everyone.” She called the class to attention once more, trying not to think about how much time had been wasted. Sometimes, she felt like she was drowning very, very slowly, in a sea of ignored instructions. “I want you to turn to a new page, and draw up a table like this. We’ll be using this table to study the short story we read last week, and-”
A tiny skateboard flew into the air, landing on the carpet in front of her.
For a moment, Sarah experienced the world in slow motion. She saw the surprise on Bradley’s face, guessing he had not flung it out of his hand on purpose. She noticed the way her students’ eyes all followed the skateboard as it landed on the carpet – there was no pretending it hadn’t happened. She saw Bradley look at the skateboard, then at her, calculation in his face. He was going to try to snatch it back.
At that moment, the quiet, assured voice in her head rang clear.
She had the advantage – there was only carpeted floor in front of her, while Bradley had to vault over a desk. But he was slightly closer to the toy than she. Sarah broke eye contact with the rebellious child and dove forward, to the surprise of everyone in the room. Never had anything in her life been as important as getting this skateboard toy. There was no coming back if she missed this chance – she would never be able to control these wild creatures if they witnessed a loss as crushing as this. She’d made the choice to engage in battle, and now she had to face the consequences.
Even though the distance was only six feet, it felt like a mile between her and this little trinket that had suddenly come to symbolise so much. Who would seize control? The adult or the child? The teacher or the student? It felt like her pace was so incredibly slow that Sarah could have sworn she was moving through glue and not air.
But the teaching deities were on her side that day. She was going to make it.
She snatched the toy skateboard up off the floor and grasped it in her hand, victorious, while Bradley scrambled across the carpet, scraping his knee. He curled up, defeated, thwarted, conquered – and whimpering over the friction-burn on his leg.
The classroom-turned-colosseum went wild. Students exclaimed their surprise and admiration in the usual teenage vernacular.
“That was so savage, Miss!”
“You got owned Brad!”
Sarah straightened, slipped the skateboard into her pocket, and smiled.
“Anyone else care to interrupt?” she inquired, while Bradley moaned.
No one did.