This story is by Michelle Shinn and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Susie Froomes is proving to be a problem. Usually the first to raise her hand to answer the teacher’s questions, always in the library after school, has never shown any interest in dating – a boffin to the core. But since the summer holiday, something has changed.
The boys were the first to pick up on it; I’ve seen their admiring glances as she bends over to tie her shoelace or combs back her mane of blonde hair from her face (when did it get so long?) But then I noticed that she’s started sitting with Olivia Bartlett and her cronies at lunch. She gazes at their perfection in awe as she pushes leaves around her plate, mimicking their disinterest in food, as she herself grows thinner by the day.
It isn’t right. She can’t make the transition this easily, she can’t be both popular and clever; it’s too much. She needs to be reminded about who she really is, and where her place is in the school pyramid.
English class is my opportunity; she always sits in the same seat. Stealing the essay will be easy. Everyone is gossiping, as they do until the lesson starts, the volume of chatter like animals at the zoo, all clamouring to be heard. Susie is turned away; leaning close to Olivia to hear whatever inane babble she might share.
I’m handing out notepads, passing her desk. No one is looking in my direction as I feign dropping my pen, giving me licence to kneel next to her desk. I take the essay from her open handbag quickly, slipping it at the bottom of the pile of pads and then transferring it to my desk when reach my seat.
As the lesson starts, I can sense her panic rising as she checks and double checks her bag, then her desk, looking for the essay. I try to repel my smile without success.
Each student has handed in their essay by now; she is the only one who hasn’t.
“Susie? Do you have your essay”?
Her face drains of colour; the pallor of her skin making her already pronounced cheekbones seem almost skeletal like.
“I’m so sorry, it was just here, I promise,” she gestures at her bag, confusion etched on her face.
“You understand that this piece forms 50% of your final mark?”
“Yes, I’ve been working on it for weeks, I don’t understand where it is,” her voice is a meek whisper now, as the class falls silent, watching the exchange unfold.
“I’m afraid if you’re unable to hand it in today, I’ll have no choice but to fail you for this.”
“Please, miss, I know I have it somewhere here,” her tone is high as she upturns her entire bag frantically rummaging through her possessions.
I gaze in disgust at the amount of makeup splayed across her desk.
As she continues her search, a sniggering starts from the boys at the back of the class.
“Please miss, please miss, pleeeeease,” they imitate, making it particularly whiny. Some of the girls start to giggle, including the confidante she has just been speaking to.
“I-I-I” her pale skin betrays her, as a crimson hue creeps up the side of her neck, and the jeering gets louder from the back of the class.
“That’s enough, stop that now.”
Internally I beam.
Her face is scarlet, her shoulders slumped in defeat as she realises her essay is lost.
“Do you have it?”
She shakes her head; lips pursed tightly together, eyes downcast.
“Loser!” the shout goes up from the back, so it’s impossible to tell who is the culprit, but it prompts a new bout of snickering as the class circles it’s prey.
The laughter engulfs her as she pushes back her chair, gathering her possessions in her arms and running from the room.
That’ll teach her.
* * *
The grey thunderclouds that threatened earlier have exploded into angry rain that bounces on the pavement as I leave school, thinking about the mountain of homework that’s waiting for me. I’m surprised to see Susie sat alone on a bench. Most kids get the bus home, including Susie usually. I wonder if my efforts earlier have led to this change in routine.
A teacher is passing, her head down, the hood of her coat pulled tightly around her face like an eskimo as she rushes to get to her car. I shout to catch her attention.
She regards me strangely for a second, her tone sharp as she answers; she clearly hadn’t wanted to be disturbed.
“Why is Susie waiting there instead of getting the bus?”
Her face visibly softens, “Ah, I thought you would’ve known. Susie’s mother died over the summer, she’s waiting for her lift to the foster home where she’s been staying.”
“Oh,” I’m momentarily stunned.
“See you tomorrow?” she’s already rushing off to her car, pulling her hood down tighter and waving goodbye.
As I look at her small, white face as she sits alone on the bench, the magnitude of what I’ve done starts to sink in. It starts to make sense, the weight loss, the extra attention from the other students. I feel like the lowest of the low.
I’m unable to concentrate on the homework, all I can think about how I can fix this. It’s too late to “find” the essay; her mark has already been submitted. I realise there’s only one way I can make it up to her – but it could cost me everything.
* * *
The headmaster is a patient man and he listens intently as I tell him the sorry tale from start to end. I sit there, my hands folded in my lap as I wait to hear his judgement, biting my lip to stop it from trembling.
“What I don’t understand Ruth, is what compelled you to do this in the first place?”
I gather my thoughts carefully, wondering how to explain it.
I don’t allow myself to dwell on the past, but she is always there, on the edge of my subconscious. Forever fourteen, the same age as Susie is now. Whereas Susie has already emerged from her cocoon as a beautiful butterfly, she spent her teenage years enduring their taunts, too scared to speak up with her pronounced lisp, made worse by the train track braces she wore until she was sixteen. She kept her head down as she completed her work, finding solace in study. Her inner torment was written all over her face though, her skin peppered with angry red boils aggravated by stress, an unfair vicious circle that she was unable to control. She could control her destiny though, and she did, excelling at university, then teacher training. Despite her success, every single name she was called had left a scar, every ounce of laughter behind her back chipped away at her self-esteem. It had taken her years to rebuild but deep down, even after she had emerged an adult with perfectly straight teeth and beautiful skin, she was still the anxious teenager underneath. She was me.
“I think it was jealousy, Bob,” I say, looking my boss square in the eye.
“Jealousy? Of a student?”
I try and help him to understand.
“I identified with her. When I was at school, I was just like her, but I never managed to do what she did, to become…popular.”
He regards me with contempt.
“Ruth, this kind of behaviour. If it was coming from a student I could understand it somewhat. But from a teacher-“
“I know. I can’t even begin to tell you how sorry I am.”
“Frankly, I don’t know if that’s good enough. Do you realise what that girl has gone through these last few months?” He throws his hands in the air in disgust.
“I know,” I bow my head, “I’m going to apologise to Susie. Give her extra support in my lessons. And -I marked her essay.” I push the essay across the desk, the A* circled in green with her name clearly printed across the top.
After what seems like an eternity, he gives me his decision.
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you, Ruth. Not a step out of line. Not one step.”
He’s risen from his chair, my indication to leave.
“You won’t regret it, Mr. Jones, I promise” I’m bumbling now, grateful for the second chance.
“Bob,” he reminds me as I back out of his office.
“Absolutely, thank you so much.”
Susie is sat outside, waiting patiently.
“Mrs. Davies?” She is surprised to see me, and as she looks up at me with her clear blue eyes, full of trust, I know that I will do everything I can to make things up to this girl.
“Susie. If you could come with me, I’d like to explain a few things to you.”