Empty Cages

Sq paper 02 02 soft

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Jim doodles in his schoolbook. With a pencil he’s chasing an eyelash around the page. An abstract line, looking a bit like an angel, whips and loops over squared paper. He wonders if it is possible to develop a formula linking the line to sounds of a digger outside the school and a bee that’s flown in one window, crossed the nearly empty room and out a window on the other side.

The teacher, busy with a laptop and drawing tablet, cables and the frustration of modern convenience, hums to herself.

Jim looks up as the door bangs open. Charlotte, leather skirt, calf boots – even in summer – walks in, scans the room, and asks, “Am I in the right place?”

The teacher nods. “Yes. Take a seat anywhere.”

But … Morag’s got my bag … my phone is still switched on. Can I … do you know where everyone else is? I need to get it before there’s trouble, and not everyone is here yet.”

We have enough pupils and little time. Do sit down.” The teacher seems to have her equipment sorted as the whiteboard comes to life, her pen drawing a line across it resembles the one Jim’s just sketched. He frowns and glances from one to the other. Lifting his jotter he looks in vain for his tablet. No, it’s still in the bag. Mystified by coincidence he frowns more.

No worries, take a seat. Everything will be fine.” The teacher smiles, huge eyes through thick lenses, happy face. “I’m Ceilidh and here for just one short period. Make yourselves comfortable.” She waves at empty seats. “And get your tablet fired up. You’ll be adding notes to my diagram. If you haven’t a tablet here you can come up and use a pen on the board. It’s what pupils did before we were given all these gadgets to make life easy and told we weren’t exercising enough.”

Charlotte scrapes a chair back. “I … this is about careers advice?”

Sort of… Look, I’m drawing a factory or police station or prison and a bunch of offices, maybe an insurance company or bank – and here, a school. These involve careers sometimes.”

Jim watches the bee fly back through the room and open windows. He’s never seen a bumble bee that seems to know exactly where it’s going and has windows so completely sussed.

The teacher goes on and more words appear on the board. Jim briefly imagines the electronics to be fake and that it’s all done with trained ghosts and invisible pens.

Ceilidh, an elderly lady, short and thin, exudes the energy typical of supply teachers who only work odd days and have time to rest and scream in between. Jim loves them; sharp, not blunt, enthusiastic, not exhausted. She says, “Here, ‘Art’, ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Spirit’. I’d put them into a Venn diagram but since they overlap 100% it’s not worth the effort.” She looks round, lips momentarily pressed together in annoyance. “Jim, can you close that window the digger is … no … that would worry the bee. We’ll have to live with both.”

Jim sits up straight, startled. How does she know his name? She continues, “Spirit. This is about people who care. You’ve all heard of Gandhi, Mandela and so on but what about the old woman who struggles to look after her demented husband? never wanting to abandon her partner in life and family to a care home. What about you, Charlotte, and the way you stick up for smaller girls being bullied?”

A strangled squeak comes from Charlotte. “How…?”

The teacher waves her to silence. “Art, a little more tricky. The old idea that a painter would let his children go hungry while he spent the last of his money on a tube of viridian, the girl who neglects her maths homework to practise ballet, the buskers in their tattered and smelly clothes who play for less money than they can possibly live on. We’re thinking van Gogh and the like.” She glances round the stunned pupils. “Good, you are all attending. Philosophy. She cares about the way you are told to think, believe, behave. He fights institutional stupidity. They may both be out on the street waving flags and even being arrested. What have they all in common?” She runs fingers through her hair. “I always do this. Get carried away. I plan to have you coming up to the board with examples and discussing but I explode instead. Sorry.” She smiles at a girl. “Yes, Amanda, dancing and maths homework. I was talking about you. Don’t worry. I know things but I’m spirit and philosophy so I’m not going to tell anyone about how you overstretched your hamstrings and not your grasp of calculus last night. Greg, you spent all evening drawing superheroes. You could have been out with your mates but you made excuses – you had an idea that needed exploring then and there. Sheila, you spent hours of Sunday fighting with Amnesty for the release of a young woman illegally detained.”

She looks at all the pupils in turn. “Jim, you don’t know yet where you’re going because you are still learning your tools, maths and philosophy, and how to use them. When you know what they can do you’ll be armed. You are going into the heart of things: you cool meta-cognitive thinker, you.”

She turns and points at the board. “What all of these people have in common is access to the means of fulfilment.” She slaps the desk so hard her laptop jumps. “Some people don’t! They cannot fill the void inside them. They are tormented by emptiness and scratch around for relief helplessly. All they can see are surfaces. Clothes, big cars, pictures of themselves in magazines and newspapers … money. Why don’t they have access to their void? I don’t know about some but far too many have it beaten out of them.”

Ceilidh tries to draw on her tablet but she’s killed a connection. “Bollocks! I’ll just have to write on the board. Arrest me.” She pulls a marker pen from her handbag, and turns, using a walking stick to steady herself. The pen squeaks as it leaves permanent marks. “All the philosophers, artists and spirit people are busy. All the others have are illusions and glamour to work with. I’m defining glamour as not filling a void but distracting attention from it: painting over it. These people pursue wealth and status – things that stick to their surface, their image but never fill them inside.” She turns back to the class. “It’s tragic for them and for us. They race each other to show how well they’ve filled their void. They can only pretend to themselves and each other. Money, status, power! It’s the power bit that mucks up everything. They grasp it and because they don’t understand what we are up to – they screw us. Artists, poets, carers and the rest earn the least and possess a mere illusion of political power. As if that’s not bad enough, the elite – as they like to think of themselves – try to program us into thinking the way they do because it helps them make money and keeps them in power. So we are bombarded by their media, adverts, political spin, anything to keep us in line, working hard in their factories, in their police forces, serving their tables. They set the school curriculum.” She jabs a finger at the board. “They have us mocking and sidelining each other, even parts of ourselves. The most useless people to them, who won’t do as they’re told or even steal the paint they need, end up in prison or homeless. That’s the ultimate punishment the elite can hand out. No status, no money, no power: the things that terrify them the most.”

She winces as a pneumatic drill sends its violence through the air. “Bastard noise. Where was I? Ah!” She claps her hands. “Getting worked up. Any questions?”

She hardly waits. “That is why you need to listen to yourselves, not them. Find out why you exist, the whole point of your being alive.” She slaps the desk again. Pens and pencils erupt from containers and clatter to the floor. “Because if you let them, these poor people will swamp your heads with their beliefs and you’ll never find life satisfying. We let them build the cages they put us in because we’re busy with real life. The truths that most irritate them are that they cannot lock the cage door and we are able to live outside.”

She gathers her things, says, “Lovely to meet you all,” and heads for the door, her stick clicking on the floor. The door bursts open and she disappears in a tangle of pupils as they surge through.

Sheila screams, “Careful!” and leaps up, racing forward to help, thinking Ceilidh must have fallen: but there’s no one on the floor.

One girl calls out as she enters, “Charlotte, how did you get here so fast? We had to go all round the school because of the building work. You left me to carry your sodding bag.”

Jim shouts over everyone, “Did you see a teacher just go out … an old woman?”

What? No.” A boy turns back and looks up and down the corridor. “No, why?”

Nothing.”

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©Gary Bonn 2018

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