Over there, under the trees. Two sixth-formers. The two at the edge of the lawn dappled in shade as summer gusts sway high branches. Branches that tap the upper windows of the science block.
One of the sixth-formers is male; he’s laughing, shielding his face and dodging. The other, she’s throwing scrunched up paper. She’s not looking happy. Face red, eyes fierce, lips pale.
He grows more serious, waving a sheet of paper at her. He thumps his school bag on a bench, loosens his tie, opens his collar. He sits, lifting the ball of paper she threw, beckons her to sit with him as he flattens the sheet on a thigh. “It’s OK,” he calls, “we can do this. I know it’s all shit but we can do this.”
The girl leans forward. “No way. I will not write about that!”
They both stiffen as a teacher turns a corner and walks right beside them. The boy pulls his tie up. The girl turns away as if she’s leaving.
The teacher stops, strokes his goatee and waves to her. “Hang on, wait, halt! What’s all the fun about?”
She looks down, sets her bag firmly over a shoulder.
The teacher goes on, “No, don’t go. Please, you sounded so full of fire…”
She tosses her head and relaxes a little. “Nothing. Just English homework, sir.”
The teacher chuckles. “Sounds like it must be really infuriating. Do tell.”
The boy holds the paper out. “It’s about ticking boxes.”
The teacher’s eyebrows rise. “Ah, you have problems ticking boxes? Join the worldwide club.”
“They’re about ethnic origin, religions, gender and social class.”
The teacher frowns, takes the paper and holds it in both hands as it trembles in a breeze. After a moment he looks at the girl, then the boy. “You don’t have to tick anything. That’s just the subject matter. But you know that already: it’s quite explicit. The instruction is to write 500 words on it.” He looks back to the girl. “Emily, take this, sit down beside Geoff and get a pen out. I believe we can fix this in less than a minute.”
Emily cocks her head. “What?”
“Take, sit, pen, one minute.”
Emily sits. “500 words in one minute?”
The teacher smiles. “No, we work with your passion. Pens – both of you.”
Emily shrugs. Geoff finds a pen and clicks it. “Sir, with respect…”
The teacher waves him quiet. “English. Love it! Especially here in Britain. When someone says ‘with respect’ they are about to demolish you. Go ahead, Geoff, demolish…”
“You teach physics…?”
The teacher claps. “Yes – in English. I read books written in English, I set tests in English, I read philosophy and poetry in … you’ve probably guessed the rest but I’ll bet you didn’t get as far as I think and dream in English now.” He grows more serious. “Now, write what you said, Emily. Actually, both of you write it.”
“I…” Emily falters, pen poised.
“In case you’ve forgotten it was ‘I will not write about that’. Use capitals, exclamation marks, underlining – feel free. Expletives accepted.”
“Both of us?”
“Yes. Now. Write.” The teacher waits, tugging at his beard. “Alright. Good. Now why won’t you write about it?”
Emily fires up again. “Mr Reedman, these boxes, they’re all false: divisive. I…” She runs out of words.
The teacher nods. “Good. Now, Geoff. Why is it all shit?”
“Something about what happens. It all becomes…” Geoff turns to Emily. “What was it you said?”
“The more you see boxes like this and talk about them, the more real they seem to people…” She waves a fist and hisses through clenched teeth. Her face is blanched, apart from red spots of fury over her cheekbones.
“Got it!” Geoff exclaims. “It’s like a line. It starts on the page, this page right here…” he stabs it with his pen, “…and ends up … in a…” His eyes widen. “Gas chamber.”
Emily nods. “Mass grave.”
Mr Reedman bows. “Write that down. Your homework is complete.”
“It’s not 500 words, sir.”
Emily shakes her head. “We can’t both hand in exactly the same thing!”
The teacher looks from one to the other. “Never use 500 words when a dozen will do – especially when you’ve utterly nailed the truth. And, Emily, you both collaborated, wonderful! – and I was partly involved. Your English teacher, if handing out detentions to anyone, will have to give me one too.” He laughs. “Good. Everything sorted. Our work here is done.”
©Gary Bonn, 2017