The girl stood up and muttered. “I don’t know, sir.” She remained standing, stooped over her desk, her legs bent and trembling.
The stick thumped onto my desk.
I stood up. “Fifty five BC.”
He marched on.
I sat down again, my heart thudding, my legs quivering like the girl’s in front even though I’d got it right.
“And who was in charge of the invasion?”
It wasn’t over. The stick was back on my desk.
I stood up. “Julius Caesar.”
* * * * *
He marched around the classroom, slamming homework jotters onto our desks. One glance at his face was enough to know some of us had not done well. One glance at his face was more than I wanted. I kept my head down, and opened my jotter.
75%. An A. I was okay.
Except I wasn’t, not really. None of us were.
His pacing stopped and he stood by a wall chart, on which he recorded the results of our homework exercises.
Nobody spoke. We all knew what was coming. We just didn’t know who was getting it, or how many of us. Knowing I wouldn’t be among them made me feel no better.
The day he’d pinned to the chart to the wall, he had told us that to get below fifty per cent in three home exercises would mean we’d get the strap. The chart showed that several of the boys already had been below 50% twice.
He wrote up the new homework scores. He went over to his desk and took out his strap. He called a boy’s name. The boy got up from his desk and stood before him.
The boy held out his hand.
In all the years I had been at school, in all the years I had dreaded the strap, I had never seen it used before.
And I had never felt so angry. The boy who stood silently, while the leather whacked across his hand, did not deserve it. He lived next door to us: his mother had died about three years before, his father was alcoholic, his grandfather crippled, his grandmother ill. The boy was always near the bottom of the class and was simply not able to do better than he did. He was not going to become more capable because of a strap walloping over his hand.
All except one of the boys got the strap that day.
* * * * *
He leaned back in his chair, arms behind his head. “It’s about time we redid the seating arrangement. I’m going to take the ugly ones down to the front.”
He bellowed names.
It did not surprise me that my name was amongst them. I knew I would be an ugly one, knew he hated me.
* * * * *
Not long into the afternoon lesson, a pupil was sick.
He told one person to clean up the pupil’s desk, and he told me to clean up the pupil’s jotter. I took it to the girls’ toilets, and retched as I tried to clean it with toilet paper. As I grew more and more panicked because I couldn’t do it, but couldn’t go back unless I did it, the door opened. It was one of my friends, sent to find out what was taking so long. Relief and gratitude flooded through me as she cleaned the book in moments.
* * * * *
When I, one of the ugly ones, came to the front, my desk faced onto his. He had a toy cannon that fired matches. Day after day, he fired them at me. One day, for reasons I cannot remember, he took a firework from his desk drawer, lit it, and placed it underneath my seat. The firework was a Banger. The Firework Glossary says of these: “in effect an airbomb that stayed on the ground. Cheap and misused, it was a major cause of injuries until banned from sale to the public.”
As he placed that banger beneath my seat, I knew it was dangerous, and had no idea what sort of injury I might sustain. But I was more afraid of him than of the banger, so I stayed where I was. Miraculously, it didn’t harm me at all.
* * * * *
We had that teacher for three years, from age eleven to fourteen. Some days his classroom was fun and jokes. (Though the jokes could often be cruel taunts, name-calling. Did we laugh because they were funny, or because we were afraid not to? Now, I have no idea.) Other days, nobody dared to lift their heads from their desks. As we waited to go into his classroom before a lesson, we murmured to the kids coming out, “Is he in a good mood or a bad mood?” Some days we didn’t need to ask; their faces told us.
Once, he came out behind a class as we were whispering, and he said, “You’re all right. I’m in a good mood today.”
I was good at the subjects he taught, and, in the first year, he liked me. After summer, illness meant I returned to school a week later than everyone else did. As well as his regular subjects, he was covering art classes. Our project was a design, a repeating pattern. I worked hard to catch up with the class and was pleased with the design I’d created, in turquoise, pink and orange. I took it to show him.
He yelled that I was a silly besom, and should know better. “You should be setting an example to the young ones,” he bellowed.
I felt confused. It was true that several new class members had joined us from other schools, but they were the same age as we were. I also had no idea what was wrong with my design, and he never told me.
Earlier that year, I had noticed how unkindly he treated one girl after she’d been in hospital, so I assumed my illness was the reason for the change in his attitude towards me. Whether it was or not, from then on I was a besom and an ugly one.
* * * * *
One of the posts for 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion’s Building From Bullying, was When The Bully is the Teacher, by Melissa Firman. Reading this reminded me of what I experienced as a child. It all happened a long time ago. That teacher is an old man now. A couple of times, on visits my mother, I’ve driven to a nearby village and have seen him out walking. He walked with a stoop and didn’t look up as we drove past. Thinking about it now, his stoop reminds me of our bent heads all those years ago, and I wonder, does he dare not look people in the eye just as we were afraid to look in his?
And have I forgiven him? Have I released myself from resentment? I thought I had, until I read Melissa’s post and the memory stirred anger. Writing this post released that anger, and it also helped me understand another aspect of myself at that time. Another of our teachers was milder, though eccentric in some ways. In his classroom, as in most, I was usually obedient – but not always. One day, as a punishment this teacher called me (and another girl) back to class at lunchtime. I went, but I argued with him – because on that occasion I hadn’t actually done what he thought I had. On my report card that year, this teacher wrote that I could sometimes be noisy or disruptive, or some similar word. I remember my parents’ surprise since no teacher had ever written such a thing before (and none did afterwards.) I explained it away by blaming the teacher for that particular misunderstanding.
I felt confused by my behaviour. It was true that I was sometimes noisy and disruptive. It wasn’t like me, or so I thought. All these years later, I realise that it was like me – just a part I’d squashed so thoroughly I no longer recognised it as me. I was afraid to stand up for myself in one classroom, so I did it in another. I guess in some way, deep within the recesses of my mind, I knew I was picking a fight with the wrong teacher.
Forgiveness perhaps comes in reclaiming all aspects of ourselves. That bolshiness was part of me, just as much as the silent fear was. It’s a joy to acknowledge that, and to finally let go of something I didn’t even realise I was holding onto.