Saturday, October 9, 2010

Reading the signs

I chalk the sums for the lesson across the black-board. I am momentarily interrupted by a flash of reflection in the long bank of windows to my left. It is not until the next occurrence that my brain unscrambles the reversed, silent, slow-motion image. A sandshoed boy leaps up the rear wall of the class-room. My back stands frozen. I know not what to do. Turning around is not an option. An intelligent response is required, not barked discipline.

A new vibe had filled the air. Although 34 backs were bent, and nearly the same number of black-leads were working the sums, a hum of expectation infused the room. To buy time, I continue to add the next long-division to the morning's list. Mesmerised, my eye registers the shower of powder as it cascades from the moving stick of chalk. Flash. And again, flash. The boy silently leaps. This is an initiation. There is an aim, I realise. As I scratch the final digit for the tenth long-division, I voice my intention to turn.

'Okay, Year 4, you now have twenty minutes to complete this exercise. Show all working.'

The vibe turns to barely audible groan, their arched backs slump. My perambulate of the room, takes me past a pair of newly whitened sandshoes, tucked around the leg of a chair. I guessed who was calling the shots here, and it wasn't Robbie. I turned, leaning against the rough brick courses of the rear wall. My eyes were trained on young Mr Englund, second from the front, left. When he cast a furtive glance, as I knew he could not resist, I eased the white chalk through the mortar groove about ten courses high. His sight tracked from my eye, to the thin line of white, then back to my eye. Exposed, he retreated to the set task. Checkmate? I should be so lucky. No point setting him double the work-load, as even one was beyond his ken.

'Doris, what is the drum with Robbie Jones at the moment?'

Even I thought Mrs Shirley to be a bit of a tartar, and did not enjoy her tug on my sleeve as I entered the staff-room for elevenses. She regaled me with a litany of infractions, some downright humourous, others of a more substantial gravity. I had learnt, as term eased into term, to listen and to nod, hearing her out, acknowledging her experience, if not her wisdom. I realised Robbie was becoming a handful, getting a reputation. I figured this to be his aim. Why else be at Glen Englund's beck and call? Why else do his bidding? Englund was loading the gun and, like desperate outsiders before him, Robbie was pulling the trigger.

'Get his parents in for a chat, sooner rather than later, please' and with that she vacated the small room, leaving her staff to their boorish whinges and eternal regrets. As she glided out to the verandah, however, talk moved from Gestetner ink and psychological testing, to football ladders and last night's tellie. I'd never had to do this before - confront a parent. With Robbie being newer to the school than me, I had never set eyes on his family. Something told me that neither had Mrs Shirley. A sense of dread lodged in the pit of my stomach.

'Robbie, would you get your Mum or Dad to pop in for a chat on Thursday afternoon, please?'

A deathly hush enveloped the room. I was caught by surprise. I had not expected this reaction. To be frank, I had not expected any reaction. Thirty three pairs of eyes were trained on me. I shifted my buttock where it perched on the front of the wobbly table. Just one tousle of knotted hair was bent over an exercise book, pencil frozen. Cutting through the silence from stage left, Glen's ten year-old nasal rasp took control.

'They're spazoids, Miss. Never leave the 'ouse.'

A suppressed giggle of culpability dominoed around the room. The harsh clatter of a lunch bell reverberated against a corrugated iron hoarding. Saved. They were off. Brown paper bags clutched in grubby hands. Tupper-ware containers tucked under smelly armpits. A waft of Vegemite and squashed banana trailed in their wake. A lone red-faced boy remained exposed at his desk. He uttered no sound. He cried no tears. Urine dripped down the chair leg, and puddled on the cracked linoleum.

Dryly clad in faded King-Gees from the storeroom, Robbie pushed the gate. Flakes of rusted iron fluttered down. We stood in front of an unkempt fibro house. The grass had gone to seed. A lank Easter Daisy splayed across the path. As Robbie led the way, I caught the flutter of net curtain. Splattered on the door, caked egg yolk was encrusted with shards of shell. Robbie turned the iron key. His shape filled the door frame.

My eyes took time to adjust to the gloom. A television screen spluttered in a far corner, a cascade of static. Two shapes stood beside a laminated kitchen table. Their eyes welded to Robbie's hands.The hands told who I was. The hands told why I was there. Patient. Eloquent. Robbie's hands responded to each guttural utterance; to each body jerk. They crafted the silence with tenderness, with respect. The hands conveyed understanding. The hands, in turn, were understood.

'Me Mum wants to know if you'd like a cuppa, Miss.'

Blood pounded through my inner ear, deafening the language for which I was desperate. In comparison with the hands, I was reduced to monosyllables.

Written in response to a prompt ('Softy-spoken bullets; Hardly-spoken lips') from the Tenth Daughter of Memory, a writers' collective

10 comments:

Baino said...

Nice interpretation of the theme Julie. A little 'wordy' for my taste but then I admit to being last cab off the rank here and rushing a little to catch up so apologies. Time's running out and I haven't posted yet. Definitely the better entry from you. Cheers :)

Julie said...

By 'wordy' do you mean too long? Last time I received the feedback that my writing was too dense and inaccessible. So I have tried to alter my sentence style to pare the language back and back and back.

JeffScape said...

Fear of sign language? Or a growing respect for Robbie?

Like the unique interpretation, but I think I'm missing something. Will reread.

Joan Elizabeth said...

Are you back? This story is more accessible, strong and I like it. Where readers may be having difficulty -- at the beginning is it is not clear you are the teacher rather than a student. Also the highjinks the boy is up to is not altogether clear.

However is some way in being more accessible you lose some of the rich tapestry your writing usually has. Perhaps too far the other way.

Julie said...

Yes, I am back - well my poor body is ...

I found that I could not write at length in my usual style - well, I could, but readers would be hard-pressed to tolerate it. It borders on the poetic. Here, I try to simulate the slice taken by a lens. Click. Click. Click.

I loaded up an image per day to write about whilst away, and managed not a one.

I knew the problem with what the boy was doing as I had rewritten following the advice of my travel companion. Was not aware that the narrator was confusing, too.

Tricky stuff this writing. What is so very obvious to me, is not obvious to others.

Julie said...

Jeff: a growing respect ... not fear of SL just absolute ignorance ...

Brian Miller said...

nice. i was a bit confused at first myself as to what the student was doing...i do like the unveil at the end and perhaps the dawning of understanding for the teacher...and hopefully the begining of a relationship between teacher and student.

you use interesting words. i imagine some of it is geographical/cultural difference. i find it intriguing.

x

Tom said...

i totally get your style--it's a lot like mine, but you're a much better writer. Your poetic/prose...meandering. But you get to the point and then it all makes sense. Well, most of it. Check out Erin, at The Tiny Leaf sometime. She makes it look easy.

PattiKen said...

Good ending, Julie. You don't specifically say, but I got the impression that the teacher is relatively new. What I took from was the new teacher's initial tendency to judge and even fear her students, and the moment when the teacher realizes that you can't make snap judgments based only on appearance.

krysandlucky said...

This is definitely one of your more accessible pieces. I love the look into the classroom too. It really makes you think about the differences between classroom experiences as you travel from place to place. Great writing!