Education · Teaching

Confidence

It’s kind of a cosy day. Outside, the sky’s pouring cold rain, but inside – my room is at 23 degrees, and we’re painting, and everyone is just kidding around and on that gentle, happy buzz.

I’m standing back a bit from the canvas, next to Zion. Slade’s taken control (of course) and Zion, who’s every bit as good, is patiently waiting for the moment when he can jump in. I say to him, sotto voce, “Come on Zion, better get painting…”

He just gives that little laugh of his; humble to a fault is Zion.

“Don’t let Slade do it all,” I insist. “He’s so bossy,” and Zion cracks up. He grins at me and takes a couple of steps towards the canvas.

Slade turns round, sees Zion: “Hey, wanna jam… come on Quest, jump in ge,” he says, just ‘casually’ and touching my heart a bit. For I know Slade likes to be in charge, and yet he willingly moves off to the right, giving Zion the C, M, P section, and leaving himself the smaller T, N, C.

Zion laughs again, which is his way of accepting the offer. He picks up a can and starts cutting away the top of the C. They bomb companionably, side by side for a while.

 

Just before the bell, Slade goes for a fast ciggie down the back of the block, because it’s too wet to get all the way to the car park. Zion stays and paints a Q on his bag. He tells me he doesn’t smoke, and I say, tenderly, “Good boy.”

Slade returns with Carlos in tow, and Carlos helpfully holds Zion’s bag up, so he can finish off the Q. Meanwhile Slade casts an appraising eye over the canvas. He mutters, “Not straight…” and quickly re-does Zion’s P.

I can’t help but feel amused by this, and Slade sees my expression and shoots me a conspiratorial grin. “Better now aye,” he whispers. “Zion’s tutu’d with it…”

I burst out laughing, and he looks pleased, both at his own sneakiness, and at the fact that somehow it delights me. He grins again, and I put out my toe and give his foot a little nudge, to tell him that Zion’s all good and so’s he.

 

The following morning it’s just Slade at school; we have a chat about the absent Zion.

“Don’t be critical of Zion,” I rebuke Slade, but only mildly – he has just pointed out some more slight ‘flaws’ in Zion’s piecing.

“It’s good to be critical,” Slade says, waving his can around with glee. “I’ve got can control – I can be critical, when I know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, well Zion knows what he’s doing too.”

“Mm, he’s all good, I know. But… I’m just saying, he cut away that M a bit too much.”

“According to you.”

“Yeah, according to me,” and Slade begins an assiduous display of cleaning up the M. “I wouldn’t mind if someone was critical of me,” he continues. “If I caked it… but I haven’t caked it.”

“No, you haven’t caked it,” I agree. “But neither has Zion. You’ve just got different styles… and that’s only a small canvas.”

“True,” says Slade. “We’ve got different styles.” He eyes his work. “But I’ve got lots of different styles,” he can’t help adding, somewhat extravagantly.

“Well so has Zion – I mean you haven’t even seen him paint much, yet. Not on big surfaces I mean.”

“I’m all good on walls too…” begins Slade.

“Yes, I know you are,” I say patiently, then I sigh a little bit. “Slade,” I tell him. “You’re really good. You are. I know that. But so’s Zion… and I just, well, I guess I’m…”

Slade looks at me with interest.

“I’m kind of protective of Zion,” I tell him. “Probably ever since Mrs Kirk tried to kick him out of school a couple of times, last year. I had his back, and I’ve still got his back.”

Slade nods, in understanding.

“I think you’re really good, Slade,” I say again. “Honest, I saw that straight away. I’m just saying you should wait and see what Zion can do, too. He’s got a really good eye for those big pieces… and I think you two would be all good doing a wall together.”

Slade looks at me quite graciously, which makes me splutter with laughter. He can actually take criticism on the chin – which I think is one of the hallmarks of a real artist: Inia and Zion are like that too.

 

A couple of the boys come in to watch: Carlos, and a guy called Tyler (he just started at MC this week). We chat a bit, and, “I heard this school has a good principal,” he informs me.

“Oh,” is all I can reply, when put on the spot like that.

But something in my tone makes Tyler look at me again. “What?” he says.

I shrug, thinking something along the lines of, ‘If you can’t say something nice, better to say nothing at all.’

“Don’t you like Mrs Kirk?”

“I don’t,” puts in Slade. “She’s a bitch.”

“Nah, she’s alright,” I say, but can’t help adding, “In her own way.”

“You don’t like her,” Tyler says, with an ‘aha’ tone.

“She’s alright, in her own way,” I repeat, then for some reason finding myself in ‘I cannot tell a lie’ mode, “It’s just… not the same as my way, that’s all.”

And I think to myself, well, no point in pissing around pretending to be alright with everyone.

 

Slade makes a kind of a pitch for one of the leftover cans, the pink one. It’s the only full (ish) one left. He asks so nicely and unassumingly that I tell him, “Ok.”

“Can I really have it, Miss?” he checks.

“Yes, you can. But come get it after school, ok? I don’t like you walking round with a can in your bag.”

“I will, I’ll come straight after class!” he tells me, in jubilation at his good luck.

After school, Slade and Zion both arrive. I unlock the desk, take out the can, and give it to Slade. The boys know there aren’t any other fulls left, and they seem quite happy with just the one. I assume (because Zion’s there too) that they’re going to share it, anyway.

So off they go, but later I get a text: ur sad mis givn rook his own can haha, awguds den

Huh? I thought you were sharing it. You should have said.

nah yeah awguds miss haha, coz i feel stink asking for paint unless ur offering it an yeah rook wont share his can anywys haha,

I’m actually surprised by Zion’s text, and the way he’s thought about this. How he feels a little slighted, and can actually find a way to express it. So I respond at once:

hey sorry zion, I feel bad now. ok then, im offering that atmosphere can as a replacement il bring it tomorow

awguds mis u dnt hav 2, I dnt wanr be lyk hustling for it but yo mis only if u want to giv it,

No worries il bring it tomorow

It’s my only full can, and Atmosphere is my favourite colour. I’ve kept it back for some reason, and I’m happy to give it to humble Zion. I’m glad he could tell me how he felt. I remember when I first got to know him: little boy with big eyes; the way he used to slip about on the fringes, running for cover if anyone looked twice at him.

 

Zion and I share a little exchange next day which no-one else is aware of. He looks at me, I give a slight nod and point towards my desk, and he laughs.

After school he arrives on his own.

“I’m sorry about yesterday, Zion,” I tell him. “I really thought you guys were going to share that can. I didn’t know old bossy boots was intending to keep it for himself.”

“Awguds Miss,” says Zion, grinning. “Nah, he wasn’t going to share. And thanks, Miss.”

We’re interrupted by Slade knocking at the door, and Zion slips the can into his bag before opening up.

 

‘Old bossy boots’ I’m also extremely, extremely fond of. There’s just something about Slade that appeals to me. When he begins waving his arm around and holding forth on one of his pet topics (tagging, toys and biters) the self-confidence of this skinny, unselfconscious, unrepentant boy just intrigues and delights me. And as usual, I see beauty in all the little things, the things you start to notice once you know and care about someone.

Today, Slade tells us he had a job down the line as a bobby calf lifter. Then, after a minute, “Miss, do you know what a bobby calf lifter is?” he asks.

“Not… exactly,” I tell him.

“We had to put the calves onto the truck. There’s three levels. After you fill up the bottom, you have to lift them, and then kind of throw them up onto the next level…” and he demonstrates the manoeuvre.

“Do you?” I exclaim. “I thought they had a ramp thing, to walk up.”

Slade looks at me in disbelief.

“And do they go ‘mooooooo’?” asks Carlos, in a fair rendition of the probable sound.

“Yeah, just like that,” says Slade, and moos and flails around, showing us how the calves try to escape their fate. “Sometimes I just grab them and push them in, and they go down, like this…” He splays his legs out, making the boys laugh.

“Aw, what do you do that for?” I say, tsking.

“Cos, who cares – they’re going to be mince meat and hamburgers soon anyway.”

“Are they just going to the meat works?” I ask, half aghast. “Is that where they’re going?” I guess I just don’t have those country sensibilities.

“Yeah, from all over… the truck goes round everywhere, all the farms.”

“Ohh, that’s kind of sad.”

He shrugs. “Oh well.” (this is a favourite expression of Slade’s)

We all just sit round the front table and yak. No-one even picks up a pen. I feel so content, so content, so content.

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Education · Teaching

Diversion

In some attempt to provide diversion, I offer to take Tau along when I go buy stuff for Urban Art, after school. He comes down the steps and the long driveway, a 750ml bottle of Mai Tai Splash RTD (five bucks; 15 percent proof) in his right hand.

When he gets in the car, I see that the bottle hasn’t been opened yet and I tap it, saying, “Did you go to course today Tau?”

“Ye-es…”

“For how long?” I ask, trying not to sound too interrogative.

“Not that long,” he admits, and then, “But, it was because I was too shy to do the assessment. We had to read our research (he pronounces this word with care and some alarm) in front of everyone – the whole class. I knew I’d make mistakes, and I thought all the boys would laugh at me. So I gapped.”

I nod in understanding, while Tau sits unashamed beside me. “Shall I ring your tutor again?” I say. “And suggest that you could read it in front of just a couple of people. Him- and maybe one of the boys. Like the way we did it at school sometimes.

“Yes,” says Tau at once. “That’d be good, Miss.”

“Ok, I’ll do that tomorrow – promise.”

Tau relaxes back in his seat. He looks so patient and pliant – and then he opens the cap of his bottle and has a sip. I can see he wants to talk; I saw it the minute he trudged down the drive and got in. He wears an expression of relief, like an exhausted traveller who’s just boarded the plane.

Tau’s so dear to me, Reason upon reason. All this; everything I’ve said before. But it takes my heart and squeezes it, to see him this way. Within a few minutes, he’s spilling the beans and I just listen… drinking, parties, fights, more drinking, selling. And in between – a couple of days at the Trades Institute. And Shae – she’s been over; he’s seen her. But she wants him to pay for the stuff he smashed.

“And will you?” I ask.

“I don’t want to. Fuck that,” growls Tau.

“But you will?”

And he nods, uncertainly.

 

Noa’s class is working with Tau’s class at the TI this week.

“Oh, well that’s good,” I say, emphasizing the positive.

“Nah, I don’t really kick it with Noa at course, he’s being a good boy,” Tau says, half-grumbling and half-impressed. “Gets there early, stays all day…”

“But that’s good, Tau,” I shift the emphasis this time. “You should try it.”

“Naah,” he sighs, in a weary way. He shakes his head a little bit, at Noa being so ‘good’.

“You should,” I persist. “If Noa can – you can too.” I try my best to make this sound quite easy, even though of course I’m not really kidding myself.

Tau just chuckles, knowing this too.

And I say, in complete honesty, “I know… it’s not easy to do, right now. But you’re a good boy too, Tau. You are.”

I mean it, as much as I mean anything in this world. And Tau just relaxes a tiny bit more. I feel his warm, tired elbow slip and rest against mine. And he keeps talking.

 

Then there’s the drinking: Tau’s been on a bender for three weeks straight. “But I’m trying to cut back now,” he tells me.

“What do you mean, ‘trying to’?” I ask, suspiciously. “Do you mean like… one day a week when you’re not drinking?”

“Um, one or two… and then some drinking days if someone comes over.”

“Well that’s not cutting back,” I say, just matter of factly.

“I’m trying, though,” Tau reiterates.

“Well,” I say. “That is good, that you’re trying. But I’m still worried… all this alcohol. I’d rather you were stoned.”

“I am stoned,” Tau says.

“Well – that goes without saying!” I snort. “I don’t mean now, I mean… in general. At least when you’re stoned you don’t go looking for trouble.”

“Yeah,” Tau readily agrees. “I’ve had fights with heaps of boys lately.

“Ah… fuck,” I sigh.

 

And though Tau says he’s been ‘trying’ to cut back – he also admits that lately he needs to be drunk just to go to sleep at night. My heart kind of skips a beat, but I say lightly, “Yeah, but Tau, that’s not a good habit to get into either.”

“I know, but it’s… it’s hard…” His voice tails off. “You know, with Shae and everything.” He sighs deeply, and says, “That’s the reason it all got like this.”

“I know, Tau – I know it’s been hard, and I know you’ve been trying to cope as best you can.”

He nods, listening.

“But drinking every day like this – it’s not going to work.” I take a deep breath, and utter the word I fear: “Tau – I’m worried you might become an alcoholic, if you keep this up.”

“Me too, Miss,” Tau says. “It’s in the blood.” He says this very simply, and with a slight fatalism that I note.

‘In the blood…” I murmur. “Yes it is – but that doesn’t mean you have to let it happen.”

“I’m trying, Miss,” he says again.

“I know, and I’m not judging you Tau – you know I won’t. I just really, really care about you.”

He nods, and I look at him, settled in the seat there, bottle resting against his leg, his belly rising and falling quietly. I look at his dear and very open face, which is a few days unshaven; little hairs have sprung up on his chin. I regard all of this with tenderness and pain, because I get it, and I still don’t know if I can help, and none of it makes any difference to how I feel.

 

“Shae wants me to cut back on my drinking too,” he tells me. “That’s what she said – same as you.”

“And you’ll try, aye.”

“Hard,” he says.

But I don’t know what’s going to happen if he tries, and still can’t do it. Oh, and he’s not exactly ready to give up subordinating Shae, either. He tells me he spent all her savings on 11 ounces when she left. All the untouchable money at the safe house – all of it gone. And, “I don’t give a fuck,” he tells me. “All her money, she only got it because of me anyway.”

Scott’s letting him sell from Fitzroy St again, too. “Be careful,” I say. “I bet your dad’s still being watched.”

“Yup,” he replies. “The cops always look down the drive when they’re in our street.

 

We finish the shopping and head back to Fitzroy St via the liquor store, where they willingly sell another bottle of Mai Tai Splash to Tau. “I think I’m the only person who buys this,” he cheerfully announces.

“Geez…” I mutter, taking a sniff. “How can you handle it?”

“Just used to it,” Tau says.

And if I didn’t take him there, I know Sheree would, or he’d roll there under his own steam. It’s the last thing I actually want to do, but when he asks me, there’s no point in taking an empty stance, to say I won’t. And I’d rather Tau was got safely there and safely back. Not prancing around, stepping to gangstas.

I drop him off with paint and a canvas, and the second bottle of Mai Tai Splash.

 

[Excerpt from draft: Five Years]
Education · Teaching

Detachment

Monday morning I get to school at 8:15; Leroi texts me at 8:25. There’s a staff meeting at 8:30, but I decide my presence there is not required (oh, if Karys only knew), and instead go off to see what’s up at Fitzroy St.

At Fitzroy, there again is Detective Sandra Martens, plus one sidekick. They’ve come to get Tau – he’s nowhere to be found. Sandra asks if he stayed at mine last night, and I tell her truthfully that I haven’t seen him since Friday. I explain (stretching the truth somewhat) that I’m only there to pick up Leroi, and at that very moment, Leroi comes bounding down the steps and hops into the car, thus ‘proving’ me correct. This seems to satisfy Detective Martens, although she is obviously hoping to extract more information about Tau’s whereabouts. I say I’m late for a meeting (definitely true, by now) and off we go.

As we drive, “Was Tau in there?” I ask Leroi.

“Yup,” he tells me. “He was lucky though – he was in the room when they came, I heard him go out the window and over the back fence. I was in the lounge, so I just stalled a bit. I was sure they were going to want to talk to me, so I pretended I had a WINZ appointment, then I texted you so I could get out faster.” He continues, “Cos I was all on my own, by then. Sheree got pissed off with the cops. She told them, I’m sick of you, always sniffing around. Last time you said you wouldn’t keep the boys long, then you had them at the cop station all day. What the fuck’s up with that? I don’t need this shit, I’m out of here! And then she just walked off.”

“Did she?” I say, admiringly.

“Yes.”

We start to laugh. “Thanks for coming, Miss – life saver!” adds Leroi, and this just makes us laugh even more.

“Oh Leroi,” I tell him. “But I am missing my meeting – I wasn’t lying. And I don’t need any extra hassle from Mrs Kirk.

“Sorry, Miss,” he says.

“All good Leroi,” I sigh. We look at each other and snort.

 

I drop Leroi off in Municipal, then head straight to school – where I’ve just missed Karys’s Principal’s Address to the year 13s. She’s coming out of the theatre as I arrive, so I just say a casual, “Hi Karys,” hoping to think of some plausible reason for being late, if she asks. But she doesn’t, so all is well – at least for the time being.

Along with the year 13s, I suffer through a few inspirational clips before the students are divided into house groups for the first session – on the theme of ‘leadership’. I see I’m paired up with Mandy, which improves my chances of making it through to interval without incident. And in fact, a feeling of nonchalance has kicked in, after having to deal with the police at Fitzroy St, missing the staff briefing, and then getting past Karys without being snapped (though mentally I’m still crossing my fingers about that).

Over in the library with the seniors, Mandy leads the first activity, while I rack my brains for some way to put spin on the next. And as it turns out, her air of authority and mine of autonomy are a fortuitous combination, and the year 13s do as they’re told without protest. And like that we get along until lunch time.

 

Or almost. Just before lunch, I receive a text (of all things) from Sandra Martens: Hi, its Sandra from the police. When u r free could u txt this phone & i will give u a call.

I take her call. She says she needs to see Tau as soon as possible; she wants to show him something – some ‘items’. She’s already been over to my place, to check whether he might have gone to ground in the sleepout – though her tone implies that she does believe I haven’t seen him in days.

Now she’s hoping I can help, by talking to Sheree. She mentions (and I’m sure she envisages I already know) that Sheree was not best pleased about today’s visit to Fitzroy St. She asks if I can impress upon her that Tau won’t be kept long at the station – less than an hour – and that he’ll be dropped back home afterwards.

I broach the subject of the search warrant – thinking that this what might be what Sheree (and Tau) are really afraid of. “Can I tell Sheree that he’s not going to be kept in to talk about anything else?” I ask. I know Sandra isn’t in charge of the other investigation, but I need to be sure Tau isn’t going to be whisked off to see someone else.

“You have my guarantee on that,” she tells me – and actually, I believe her (for what it’s worth).

So I agree to talk to Sheree. By now it’s lunchtime – I decide that rather than ringing, I’ll go back to Fitzroy.

 

A group of boys are in the shed when I pull into the driveway – I see Tau’s among them, but I just deliver a general greeting as I go past. “Hi Miss,” I hear several voices chorus in reply.

Indoors, I repeat everything Sandra has said, but, “I don’t know if I can make him go in,” Sheree says, helplessly.

“Is he drinking?”

She nods.

“I’ll go talk to him – see if he can just get it over and done with.”

Sheree follows me down to the shed, where Tau is tipping Cody’s (or maybe it’s Woody’s) down his throat. He looks up at me, morosely, then waits to hear what I have to say. But, “Nah Miss – the cops are all shit,” is his only response.

“They are,” agree the others (who include Raphael and little Michael).

“Anyway, we just want to drink – it’s our last day before school starts,” Michael says, plaintively.

“School started last week, egg…” I mutter at him. “You’re supposed to be there now.”

“Well, it’s kind of our last day, then,” he tries

“But the cops are only going to keep Tau for an hour, and then you can all carry on with your day,” I say, thinking that I’m probably fighting a losing battle, to be honest.

Tau gives a short, tired laugh, putting his head up, then down again. “Nah Miss – I just want to get drunk now. I don’t feel like going in.”

“I know you don’t,” I say patiently. “But it’s better to go now, before you’ve had too much to drink. Then it’ll be all over for the time being, and you can relax.”

“They’ll keep me there, I’m sure they will.”

“They won’t, Tau,” I reassure him. “She promised me they wouldn’t.”

Tau wavers for a second, and I see him thinking about it. But Michael blurts out, “Fuck the police, they’re all shit. They say that – but then they’ll keep him there all day, they won’t let him out for ages once he gets there. They’ll ask him about the drugs, and…”

“Oh shut up, you’re just making it worse,” I tell him bluntly, and he looks at me in surprise. I go on: “They won’t – she promised me – and if they tried to now, she knows I’d complain.”

Michael tries to make his point again, but this time Raphael shushes him and says, “Shut up Michael, you don’t know.”

“Yeah, I think Miss is right,” puts in Sheree, who has been standing and watching, quietly.

But Tau shakes his head. He doesn’t look at me again. He just opens another can, and I know there’s no point in continuing with the attempt to persuade him. “Oh well,” I say, my mind almost immediately defaulting to a kind of detachment. Sheree looks at me curiously, and I put my arm round her; then we lean back against a car which is parked in the driveway.

“I bet you haven’t even had anything to eat,” Sheree says to me.

“I’ll eat when I get back to school – don’t worry,” I tell her. And we just talk a little, in quiet voices. She looks so stressed out, more than me. She tells me she’s scared of the cops linking things up, she’s not even supposed to be staying at Fitzroy. Something about a protection order – Tau told me ages ago. It was served after some incident; threatening one of the neighbours, I think. But I don’t know. And maybe it’s expired, I think to myself, hopefully. Although I’m not sure that these things ever expire. My heart really aches, for Sheree.

I go back to school, text Sandra Martens, stop off in the Faculty office to eat my sandwich, and arrive at the library only a couple of minutes late for the last session of the day. I feel weirdly calm, and in control of my timing. And like that, the afternoon passes uneventfully.

[Excerpt from draft: Five Years]

 

Education · Teaching

Fragments of resistance

When I first started teaching, I tried to convince myself it wasn’t so bad. Frustrating, of course – but I still didn’t realize the half of it. Now I think of school as actually brutal, much of the time. And I resent it for making me so tired. For giving me no choice but to take sides. For its relentless ordering, accounting for, and examining of each individual, attempting to leave no stone unturned – oh poor Argos; poor me.

 

How little are the things which I call success, and how at variance with school I am.

Noa comes in after lunch, bearing a note from Kuli, who wants to borrow pencils. I get the pencils out while Noa makes his way over to my cupboards and selects a nice little pile of A4 paper.

I say, “Is that for Mr as well, or for you?”

“For me,” says Noa, matter-of-factly, and I say, “Ok.”

He could have said it was for Kuli, and yet Noa didn’t try to play me. And when that happens, well, there’s something like access – on both sides.

And all that is a matter of opinion, a matter of picking up signals, of sending the faintest semaphores from behind enemy lines.

 

Then Nio sits in on 11 Social for the entire time, and what’s more he does all the work – he does more than Dimario, more than Alexander.

Jack says to him, “You can take that home and glue it in your book.”

“I don’t have a book,” Nio says.

But he’s happy. I don’t care today if he ‘should’ be at Math, when I see him just sitting there next to Alexander at the back, as quiet and perfectly behaved as you could imagine, or with Nio – couldn’t imagine.

And of all the kids I know and love, I’m easiest with Nio, there’s no undercurrent of anything except simple affection. No dramas or tests to run, no power struggles or signals – just a feeling of being comfortable and easy with one another.

 

Alexander asks me to check his credits. He has 27, which makes him surprisingly happy. “These four are new,” he tells me with pride, pointing a gentle finger at the screen.

“Oh, great,” I say. “English… are they from the exam?”

“I’m not sure,” he says, in his usual peaceable manner. “That exam was all fucked up.”

“How come?” I ask.

“I didn’t know there were two booklets,” he explains. “I started the first one, and I finished nearly all of it, and then I opened the second one – and it had the stories in it. I was supposed to read the stories first…”

“Oh… you did the answer booklet without reading the resource booklet!” I exclaim, suddenly getting it.

He nods, laughing at himself.

I ask, mystified, “Then how did you know what to write about?”

“I don’t know,” he says, mildly.

“So you just made all the answers up out of your head?”

“Yes.” And we laugh and laugh.

 

Next morning, there’s a hint of spring in the air. I feel as trivial as I’ve ever felt, in the face of these spring moments. Nio on a skateboard, rattling in and out of the block, calling to me, “Look, Miss! Miss – watch!” Dimario’s new growth of facial hair, springing up impeccably on his well-groomed upper lip. Alexander, who has a kind of thaw in his eyes – like condensation on a frosty window, or a lamb born when the ground’s still covered in snow.

Everything just kills me. Nio’s beautiful, snappish face, his clucking voice as he tells me, “My Social teacher told me to get out. He said, today we’re looking at Rosa Parks, and I raised my hand to say I know a lot about Rosa Parks – and he told me to get outside.”

His expression indicates only momentary dismay; after all he now has the rest of the period to roam around the school, with the inner happiness of a puppy off its leash in a delightful and interesting park – and it’s a nice, ironic use of space, anyway.

Yes, there’s still a warmth and liveliness to our resistance, as miniscule a difference as it makes to anything. And I feel oddly resilient, even when things seem hopeless. All I have to do to make myself smile, right now, is think of Alexander telling me about his English exam and the two booklets. Or Nio, arriving to 11 Social before the boys get there… Dimario comes in and sees him already up the back and remarks tenderly, “Miss, how come you keep letting this fool in?”, with an affectionate glance at Nio’s untroubled face.

Or Tau saying conversationally, as we catch sight of Karys, “Miss Kirk thinks she’s hot shit, aye,”

I say, “She is hot shit.” and we struggle to stop laughing at one another.

Little tiny fragments of resistance, which expand in my heart like bubbles carrying their pockets of secret sweetness, secret energy, secret air supply… just when you think you’re going to gulp the last bit.

 

[Excerpt from draft: Five Years]

 

Education · Teaching

Those Boys

When the bell rings and I get down near the gym, I see Simeon, Tau, Inia and another boy huddled together and talking urgently – and my antenna goes up. I just know something’s happening.

“Come on you guys – house sports,” I say, and then, as we walk, “What’s going on?”

“Nothing…” they evade, but Tau holds back to walk with me, and says in a quiet voice, “You know those boys, yesterday?”

“The year 12s?”

He nods. “They’re looking for me. I think there’s going to be a fight.”

“Oh, no…” I say, “No, Tau.”

“I think there will be, Miss,” he says, calmly.

“Tau – that’s such a bad idea, such a dumb idea,” I groan

“It wasn’t my idea, Miss. But it’s set up now, and everyone says I should – all the boys want me to.”

“So why can’t you just say you don’t want to?”

Tau smiles gently, because he knows I know it’s not like that, and I nod, still worried as hell.

“I get it,” I say, slowly. “But what’s this all about? Why has everyone got this idea that you should fight?”

“Because Brent thinks I want to carry it on, and he wants to fight and the boys want me to, now, and so…”

“So you just have to? Even though you’re on your last chance at school?” I say.

“It’s going to happen,” Tau says, resigned to his fate. “I’ll probably get a hiding,” he adds. “They’re bringing all these older boys.”

“But, when’s all this happening?”

“I don’t know – but I’ll find out soon.”

“During school?”

“Looks like it,” he says. “Maybe lunchtime.”

We catch up to Inia, and I say, “Man, this is such a dumb idea, Inia,” and he looks at me, unsurprised that Tau’s told me. I continue, as we line up on the astroturf for some kind of game (I don’t know what it is – we’re just following along), “Can’t you see? Tau’s on his last warning – do you want him to get kicked out?”

“No,” Inia says. “But…”

“But what?” I say. “Because that’s what’s going to happen, if you don’t leave it.”

“But we can’t leave it, because they won’t leave it.”

“Oh for God’s sake!” I say. “Why are these seniors even at school – what are they still doing here? Exams have finished. Can’t someone make them go home?”

“They’re here helping the Deans with something, I think.”

“Well all I can see them doing is causing trouble,” I say. “Where’s this fight supposed to be?”

“Here at school,” they say.

“Or just across the street.”

We’re supposed to be sitting in house groups now, on the astroturf. But Tau prowls at the back, and I go and stand by him.

“Come on Tau – it’s ok,”

“I hate these stupid games.”

“I know, it’s ok – just stand here with me.”

Gratefully, he allows me to manoeuvre us into the approximately correct position, at the side of one group.

“Tau, please don’t fight. Do you really want to risk getting kicked out of school?”

“No, but I’ve got to, Miss – I haven’t got a choice. The boys are all going to be there.”

 

The student leaders, under the surveillant eye of the Deans, have instructed their house groups to each form a circle and see how many times they can hit a volleyball back and forth across without letting it drop. My small huddle are visibly the only ones who aren’t joining in the activity. It feels as though I’m in a bad dream – it’s like trying to navigate an obstacle course with a blindfold on.

“Come on you guys, just stand here and look like you’re playing…”

They loosely attach themselves to one collective, forming a kind of crooked appendage  to it, and Tau sees the ball coming towards him and pounds it back casually.

Levi drifts towards our general location, and, “Just stand here with us then,” I say, hoping fervently that we might blend in with the crowd.

“Thanks Miss,” he replies quietly. Because he’s involved in all this business too – of course.

The whole time, they’re murmuring to one another:

“So what time do you think it’s going to be happening?”

“I don’t know, maybe at lunchtime.”

“The boys are going to collect me when it happens.”

“I might gap, get my gat.”

“I want to get my dad…”

“Jesus! That’s not a good idea –” I break in.

They look at me with tenderness. “It’s ok, Miss,” they say.

Tau looks up and reports, “Those boys just walked past and eyed me up, did you see them?”

“No!” I say in alarm. And as the house games finish up, I tell him, “Come on, I’ll take you to class.” He walks beside me, not really protesting .

 

Five minutes later, Tau and Simeon make their way to the room of requirement, which by now is almost ready to resume normal service.

“Our teacher doesn’t want us in there, she said we can just come and help you…”

“With your room,” they say.

“Alright, then come help me move the furniture back in.”

“Ok Miss,” says Tau placidly. They go to work at once, remembering the way the desks should be arranged.

Mandy stops at my door, so I go out to her for a moment. But she actually wants to talk: she’s noticed the way I’ve been lately; she’s never seen me like this before…

I feel half touched by her concern, and half irritated. I begin, “Well, what’s so bad about that?”

She says, “I’m not saying it’s bad… just that I’ve been worried about you.”

I think – oh, she means well. But immediately after, I think how weary I am of gossip and faculty talk. I can just imagine the conversations that have been going on up there; nothing better to do than speculate about the ins and outs of someone else’s behavior. Though actually, it’s not the speculation I care about so much as the jargon. As if this is no more than a question of ‘work-life balance’, or managing stress’ – all just words and air.

These thoughts exasperate me further and I say, more abruptly than I intend to, “I’m sick of hearing how other people think I should be.”

Mandy’s eyes fill with tears, and she stammers, “I’m not criticizing. It’s just that I have been worried.”

I reach out, and touch her arm briefly, and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, Mandy,” and my attention shifts for a moment. I feel more gentle, no longer as irritated… but I’m also aware that Tau is floating around in my peripheral vision, wanting to talk to me, and it’s probably important. So I extricate myself from the conversation with Mandy, and tell her we’ll speak later.

 

Back to business – and my mind clicks into a different mode. “Right. You guys come with me. Let’s go and bring down some boxes from upstairs.”

We make three trips up and back. Tau is very strong and carries the heaviest loads. He doesn’t even seem to feel it, saying cheerfully, “Give me more, Miss,” and bearing his burdens with ease. Simeon drops things and lets papers flutter and fly from boxes. “Idiot,” groans Tau.

And yes, Tau wants to talk about the fight. His voice is calm and slightly tranced out. “They might bring knives,” he murmurs. He’s completely serious, and then, “Miss, I think I need a note to go home – I’d better bring my dad back,” he says.

“No, that’s just going to make it bigger and bigger. Tau… I need to get those boys off the school grounds.”

I see him look at me curiously. “How would you do that, Miss?”

“I’d have to go and talk to Mrs Tunbridge.”

Tau, to my surprise, reacts very calmly to this news: “What would you say?”

“I’d say… I’ve heard there’s going to be a fight, and I think those year 12s are the ones causing trouble.”

“Would you tell Miss who told you?”

“Well…” I consider this. “I’d be a bit vague, and say I’ve heard about it from lots of people.”

“And you have,” Tau says. He nods. Then he adds, “But, Miss Tunbridge will think I’m involved.”

“She probably will too,” I concede.

Tau says gently, “Why don’t you just leave it?” He’s not really suggesting  I should leave it; he just wants to hear me say it, I think.

I say, “Cos – I don’t want you to get hurt, Tau.”

There’s a little silence, and the two of us look at one another steadily.

“What do you think will happen – if I tell Miss?” I say.

“I think she’ll send them home,” Tau replies.

“And then what?”

“There’ll still be a fight… but it won’t be at school.”

“Do you really think so?”

‘It’ll happen,” he says. “They won’t leave it.”

“But I still have to tell Miss Tunbridge, Tau.”

He nods.

“Is that ok?” I say.

“Yup, it’s ok.” Tau replies.

I feel like crying, because I know how much Tau trusts me to say the right thing – not to snitch, not to just make it worse. He’s going to let me go and not try to stop me; he knows why I have to do it. And I think he knew all along – that I would.

 

I say, “Well, I’d better go now. You guys just stay here, ok?”

“Ok Miss.”

They stand by the window, and I say “Back soon – got to go sing my song.”

“What song?” asks Tau. “What song are you going to sing?” He grins softly.

“The one about ‘Those Boys’,” I say, laughing just a little bit.

“You should do a rap,” he says. “Put a beat to it.”

And then I go.

 

[Excerpt from draft: Five Years]
Education · Teaching

Clues

Nio’s truanting, and hovers at the door of my room: “Miss, let me in, come on Miss… oh, you suck then, nah you don’t suck Miss,” says Nio.

Nio with his fake insolence; he can’t even be rude to me without taking it back in the next breath. He stands up close like a little kid; I feel like giving him a hug. But I just say, “Nio, you can’t come in, my class are doing some serious learning.”

“Ok, Miss, I’ll go. Can I come and apologize to your class first?” he says hopefully. All he wants to do is to sit with his friends: Dimario, Jack and Alexander, and I can’t let him, because then no-one will take things seriously. Jack’s been working so hard today – and he missed three or four classes last week – I need to keep things tight.

He reappears at the end of the period. By then, the boys have finished their work and all is well. Nio calls irrepressibly, “Miss, I’m back…” through the window.

 

I see him again when I take the year 10s over to the library, after lunch. He comes up straight away, gives me a little touch on the shoulder; something between a prod and a stroke. “Sup, Miss,” he says.

“Hey Nio – what are you doing here?”

“Wagging PE,” he tells me, and then, “My sister’s class is at the library, Miss.” He puts his arm around the shoulders of a young girl, and brings her forward. She smiles at me very sweetly.

I say, “Are you Nio’s sister?”

“Yes, Miss,” she replies.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I tell her. “I’m a… a fan of Nio’s.”

Nio dances at my side, happily. “Yeeh Miss, my biggest fan, aye Miss,” and his sister laughs.

“Yes that’s right, I’m your biggest fan,” I reply, with mirth but not irony, and Nio grins at me.

We have some kind of understanding, Nio and I. And everyone thinks he’s a diabolical child – so maybe this counts for a little bit.

Nio really doesn’t want what school’s got. He wants it less than Dimario; less than Alexander. I admire him, but it’s difficult to see what might be of use to him. I just try to be faithful to his ways, and not get alarmed about things that he refuses completely intelligently. I’m as consistent with this as I know how to be, given all the constraints of my role. Still, it’s kind of heart-breaking to see what lengths Nio will go to, to stand on his principles. Because I think he’s going to get into so much trouble, all the way down the line.

 

The year 10s – I feel like I kind of get them, and I don’t want to treat them unkind, even though they lose their books – and forget their pens, and squabble, and bring their phones out. Today, I give out a few new books as presents, which goes down like giving them a hundred bucks. “Oh yay!” they cry.

Levi’s dictating his paragraph to Riley, who’s writing it down in Levi’s book, having already finished her own work.

I say, “Why is Riley doing your paragraph?”

“She’s just writing what I say, Miss,” he explains, and she nods, saying, “He’s doing it himself, but I’ve got nice writing.”

“Alright,” I say, thinking this makes sense.

Riley then exclaims, “Oh Miss, I wish you were the principal instead of Mrs Kirk. You’d be gangsta…” she adds, in a wistful voice, pushing her non-regulation black hat onto her head. “I’d come to school every day.”

“I wouldn’t want to be principal,” I tell her

“How come, Miss?”

“Because then I wouldn’t have any classes,” I say.

It’s true. All this other stuff – outcomes and ownership and engagement – it means nothing to me. What about the ones who slip through, like water through a grate, the ones who can’t see why or for what, the ones who just can’t be doing it – even if it would make their lives easier? I break my own heart over it, every day a hundred times. I already feel like some kind of thief in the temple, or spy in the camp. Yet every day I come back to submit. Inside, it’s as if I’m trying to find a way to not crack under the pressure but to hold on long enough – suffer it long enough – to be of use somehow.

 

At Staff Professional Development this week, a speaker talks to us for a long time about ‘SDL’: Self-directed learning, which is apparently a process of freedom and choice. I think to myself that it involves no choice at all – just the partitioning of the school day into smaller and smaller sections. Students who refuse to self-direct must attend something called a success centre. Kuli says in an aside to me, “Nio would be at the success centre all year,” and we snort with laughter.

Listening to the presenter, I have that feeling of slight detachment that I can’t overcome, and maybe don’t even want to anymore. I’m like someone at an exhibition, looking at the objects curiously. I have this urge to pick things up and examine them for clues: so this is how it is? I don’t quite get it, and I try and I try – and I’m kind of caught, between a world I thought I knew and a world which sings to me like cicadas; like surround sound; like the sea.

 

[Excerpt from draft: Five Years]
Education · Teaching

Admittance

Inia’s already evading house assembly when Jack appears, running. “I don’t want to go to assembly!” he says in disgust. “How come us seniors have to sit on the floor, like little kids.”

Inia looks at him, blinking mildly.

“All good Jack, just stay here with us, we’re doing Inia’s course selection,” I say, and he settles down, pulling a chair over to where we are.

So we sit there, and plan Inia’s subjects for next year.

“What ones do I take this year?” he enquires, in all innocence. “Do I take PE?”

“No, I don’t think so -” I tell him, looking at his current timetable and not finding any evidence of it.

“Oh – why don’t I take PE?” says Inia, bewildered.

“I don’t know – because you didn’t pick it, I guess.”

“So can I pick it, please Miss?”

“Do you mean like choose it for next year?”

“No, for now,” says Inia, hopefully.

“Well, it’s too late for that – but you could put PE down for next year, anyway,” and we write it onto his form.

 

“What else do you want to take?” I continue.

“I don’t know, what can you take – what is there?” Inia asks.

“Well, maybe you should keep Math… you kind of like Math, right?”

He considers this, then nods.

“And English – because you still need those literacy credits.”

“Yup, ok then,” says Inia.

“Do you like Science?”

“No,” he replies at once.

“Then how about Te Reo, you could keep that,” I suggest, working my way through his timetable.

“Yes, Te Reo’s ok,” Inia says, looking more and more relieved as his course takes shape.

“So… Math, English, PE, Te Reo Maori… and um, I know!” I say, with sudden inspiration. “What about History – 12 History’s my class – do you want to do that?”

“Yes,” says Inia, with alacrity.

“Ok, and I’ll write a note on the form, so the DP’s can see that you don’t need the prerequisites – I’ll just sign you in there.”

“And is that it, Miss? Have I picked enough subjects now?”

“Nah, one more, let’s see…” I say, thinking. “What about Tech? There’s Hard Materials, Workshop, Automotive…”

“Nope,” says Inia, matter of factly.

“Alright then…” I think some more. “What about Hospitality?” I suggest. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Yup, ok,” says Inia. “Hospitality would be alright.”

 

Inia then begins to tell me (he starts pretty much mid-sentence), “Um, yeah… and Kost’s coming with us, Miss, he’s been working on his piece and -”

“Aye? What’s this for?” I ask, not quite sure yet where he’s heading.

“Um, you know, Kost… um, he’s been working on that piece, and he said we can bring a couple of boxes when we -”

“What piece?” I ask. “And who’s all coming where, with what boxes?” I start to laugh, because Inia’s so completely untroubled.

“Um, you know – our wall for project,” he pronounces, with no guile. “And Miss, we could buff these boards over and do them again, we thought.” The slight effort of remembering all this gives way to a pleased look that he’s explained it quite well. He smiles, then scrunches up his nose as he realizes he’s left something out: “Oh, Kost… yeah, he’s Zion’s brother.”

I raise my eyebrows slightly at Jack, and then we both look at Inia with wry expressions, as he sits there blinking very faithfully. I say, in tender amusement, “Well, I’m glad you’ve got it all planned out – thanks for that!” and we start to laugh.

“Nah, all good Inia,” I hasten to add. “But I’m not sure about the extra boxes. Mrs Kirk might not be all that happy about having a lot of cans on site – she’s going to want to make sure everything’s checked in and out. Because, you know, there’s been so much tagging on the school lately…” I finish, rather dubiously at myself.

Jack looks at me, and hoots with laughter. “Yeah,” he says, “From your boy!” He shakes his head at me, fondly tsking. “You know your boy Cluzo started all that up!”

As assembly finishes, Inia and Jack look out at my arriving year 13 class with unblinking, flat stares. I see them close off, quite automatically, to the intruders; Jack’s expression borders on the hostile. Inia’s eyes are wary, then go masked and blank. It makes me interested, this kind of curtain that comes down in their eyes. Because how do they know? I mean how did they know – so that they never looked at me that way, not even the very first day I met them. And before that, how did Tau know? And Nio. I mean – how? I don’t quite get how it works, and yet that feeling of admittance makes me leap with energy. All I know is that we pick up on signals that I don’t even understand myself. And I rely on it – even though sometimes when my energy’s low, and things throw me, I think I must be all wrong to rely on it.

I don’t know how to carry things, sometimes. The things I love… sometimes they bring pain. But today, standing there between Inia and Jack, I want to reach out and hold on to these things so hard, because I know, without a single word being said, that I’m not alone.

 

[Excerpt from draft: Five Years]