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An episode from Beloved's childhood.

If It Can Be Changed, Mock It

part 15 of Common People


At Beloved's school there was a child whose mother had short arms. The lady in question also worked as a teacher, always on the grounds and with a certain authority, so the children accepted the limitation if not without question ('how come you have short arms, Miss?'), but rather without prejudgement ('because I was born that way, dear'). Even Catholic school children were a few years and hormones yet away from the dangers of critical pre-assessment.

The lady drove a car, taught the English as a Second Language students, and wrote on the blackboard with chalk. She dressed in long, pleated skirts with high waists, silk blouses, and wore a neat dark bob, all of which emphasised the elegance of a slender figure. In her own classroom, maintenance had installed a higher ledge for the chalk to rest upon within easy reach, yet the occasional session in other classrooms did not impede her: she swept into a deep, graceful curtsey to collect chalk from the ledge, pleats parting against the curve of a well turned calf.

A situation occurred with a boy in her class, an ex-refugee, who at thirteen was older than he should have been for a primary school, but whose level of language kept him with the children. Climbing in through the classroom window during recess, he put all the chalk he found on the top edge of the blackboard, standing stretched and unsteady on a chair to do so, climbing out again in silence. The lady came into the classroom after the break, searching for her chalk while the children smothered their giggles. When she realised, she sighed, eying the chalk beyond her reach even should she stand on a chair. She sat at her desk instead, leaned until a key on a long chain at her neck slipped free of her silk blouse, and unlocked the drawer. She took fresh chalk from the interior and resumed the lesson.

The children understood her competence in adversity even without language, for how often must she have been mocked to have learned her fluid, unemotional pre-emptive strategy? They stilled in shame, except for those who preferred to displace their responsibility: the discomfort of shame must be another's fault, for forcing them to the emotion. Those children acted out instead, unable to sit without twitching, as though planted on the hot guilty coals requiring their defiance to ignore, and the teacher had a difficult lesson despite all her preparation.

The story spread rapidly through the school, initially by the boy, who expressed his pride at causing an adult and an authority some discomfort. Yet, ashamed to have premeditated his patient teacher's pain, he escalated the tale to dilute his shame, each telling his actions increasingly horrible, the teacher's pain worse, until the real act and its consequences shrank compared to his imagining. In his words the teacher fell from the stool she teetered atop, hopping for the chalk she could not reach, sobbing and cursing God, fate, the children, shrieking and helpless. The boy cast himself as devil as well as saviour, assisting her down from the chair, calming her, and climbing to rescue the chalk he had put out of her reach; she expressed her gratitude and debt to him, never knowing he had been the one to play the prank, and what a great trick it was, he told. Shortly his shoeprint on the chair betrayed him to the principal's office for reprimand, but by then the story since grew its own legs.

The high school located immediately adjacent to the primary school also learned of the story and embraced the moral. A spate of similar events took place, each designed with the peculiar ability of children to target the fatal flaw of those adults their captors (and captives) through the seasonably hot March days. To the history teacher who worked himself up into red-faced diatribes, punctuating his stories with violent chalk tapping on the board: in his haste and fervour he grabbed a stripe of perfect white toothpaste on his ledge, smearing into his fingers. To the prudish young literature teacher, unmarried and afflicted with a stutter when confronted by gaggles of his eldest girls: he lifted an unwrapped tampon with string removed, wrote for some time while reading from a paper held in his other hand, and stared in full-flushed confoundedness on realising his deception.

Beloved at last had a story to impress her brother and sister at the dinner table. They were both older and thus worthy of being impressed, attending the adjacent high school in their final two years and refusing to ride home in the car with Beloved, who, at five years, had only just entered the primary school ('a lovely, well-mannered and intelligent child who loves to learn, but she is introspective, it seems, and prone to fabrication; she tells me she is an only child, her father is a miner who died and that her mother is six months pregnant').

Her story fell without approval. Though Beloved could not know it, her siblings were less inclined to listen, the brother being broody after his apprentice beautician girlfriend revealed herself ominously 'late', and the sister longing to tantrum after the insistence of the careers councillor of a less than bright future, should society dominate her preference in the upcoming year.

Enduring the discomfort of a jumper in the scorching early autumn, Beloved tucked her arms against her body and poked out her hands from the sleeves, demonstrating the tale to her mother, who would otherwise have not known the school's English as a Second Language teacher. Except Beloved's mother worked in Staffing, placing all Other Languages teachers in the state including English in its context as a Second Language. She knew the teacher in question by name if not face, and was less than impressed.

'That's mean, don't you think? How would you like it if someone teased you for something you couldn't change in front of thirty other people? You've never liked it when your dad's sister goes on about the colour of your skin, do you? That's how the poor lady would have felt.'

'I didn't do it!'

'Every time you tell the story, you're embarrassing her again. It's just the same.'

Beloved felt the twist of shame, confronted it, disliked it, and distracted herself with a game: she followed through her evening with her arms restricted. How odd to even do a simple thing, like brushing her hair. The teacher's neatly kept bob gained a level of meaning, but her clothes surely required excessive ironing? Although nothing was impossible, Beloved found many things difficult to complete with tools catered for those with greater reach. She cheated herself to craft solutions for her necessary function; a ruler taped to her hairbrush, and her toothbrush, a chair next to the sink.

Eventually Beloved confronted her mother again, just before bedtime, and flung her limited arms around her mother's waist in futile hope. 'I can't even reach to hug you properly my arms are like this!'

Beloved's mother smiled.

Beloved slid her arms through her sleeves, to their full length, and embraced her mother's waist again. 'Now I still can't reach! But that's on account of you being so fat, because now my arms are perfect. Isn't it?'

Beloved's mother smiled again, but with a different twist, which Beloved recognised from the time the teacher had stopped her mother in the car park to congratulate her on her pregnancy.

Having experienced shame, which had hurt, Beloved's childish mouth curved with the converse expression of delight and power, to have hurt another, senior and beloved, with nothing more than the truth: this was war, and children had all the weapons.

September 2011


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