The steps and path leading to the hall are lined with parents and kids getting in early. Lots of undisguised staring as we descend the steps. I am on a stage, it seems. Or am I running the gauntlet? Take a photo. It’ll last longer.
We have a different, somewhat ironic seating arrangement this year. Young Rick and I are sitting back to back. Trust we have each other’s. I’m flanked by two other colleagues. One I know. The other looks about seventeen. I don’t know his name. He seems to be coping. Perhaps his open laptop affords some protection, creating a bit of a screen. Must have a good battery, given that the interviews go for seven hours. Other teachers range around the walls of this glary echoing sports’ centre. Their backs are against the wall. Seventy or so teachers are here. It’s like a market. The place is quickly crammed with milling families, shouting above the racket, catching up with friends, children running around. Seated, I feel vulnerable.
I’ve been teaching all morning and have sacrificed my two free periods to this afternoon’s proceedings.
Our tables are organized alphabetically. I don’t know where I’m sitting, but needn’t have worried because, despite me being five minutes early, I already have customers who wave and beckon me over to my seat.
I place my mark book on the table before me and we’re off.
It’s speed dating without the bells or the promise of romance.
I teach about a hundred students. I’ve been working with them for eight weeks and in that time I’ve learned something, some little, of each. There’s this quick dip into my head as each family sits, smiles, frowns, occasionally weeps, and waits for some news. In that process, my brain quickly scrambles. My head feels tight after about eight families. Swig some water and press on.
It’s mostly positive.
During a brief hiatus, I twist around in my chair to see how Rick’s going.
He leans back, stretches his legs, cups the back of his head in his hands and chuckles. He’s in his second year of teaching and has found his stride.
“I can’t get over how some of them play out their domestics in front of me.” He’s laughing, incredulous. He’s about to say something else but he has another customer and so do I. Ahead of me a couple of families compete for the seats. I check the list to see who’s first but Ms Billet is already determinedly seated.
“Ms Donald is actually next,” I say as Basil Fawlty obsequiously as I can to Ms Billet, but Ms Donald is happy to concede her place.
“You go ahead,” she says. She waves at Ms Billet, who’s terribly grateful, as am I, to have avoided an unpleasant queue dispute. In about three minutes, Ms B has been dispatched, given her daughter is the model student, and Ms Donald and son, Dwayne, assume the position.
Ms Donald is beige looking, with short, grey-brown hair, nondescript except for a few blonde highlights. With a medium build, jeans and top, she’s an ordinary middle aged woman.
I had been grateful for her earlier forbearance. Little did I know. Seems she is the bad fairy, waiting her turn to curse me. And I did not see it coming.
Next to her, Dwayne is wearing dark sunglasses. He’s in year 12, and is extremely weak in English. Nine out of 30 for his SAC. In class, he’s told me he has no idea how to complete an essay. One to one, I’ve directed him to the relevant sections of the textbook, told him to read through, to look at the annotated model answers and to just have a go. I’ve even given him the starting sentences.
“But no one’s ever shown me how,” he’s whined. “Can’t you just show me what to do?”
“Well, yes, but first I need to see your attempt. It’s early days. We’ll get there.”
“But I don’t know what to do. My teacher last year did nothing.”
“Look, I’ve told you what to do. It’s your first piece of work. The marks aren’t going anywhere. But you need to try or I can’t help you.”
But he doesn’t want to do the work. This was at the beginning of the year and it was the same for lots of students, complaining about the inadequacies of their year 11 teachers who didn’t show them how. No doubt these teachers were also faced with the same passive aggression. These kids just don’t want to try. It’s a familiar litany
Dwayne’s mother and I have introduced ourselves. I eagerly lean forward better to hear mum amidst the background din in the hall. Ms Donald also leans in. She’s sitting at the corner of the desk, stevedore-like, with her legs spread around the leg of the table. Dwayne folds his arms and leans on the table, a slight smirk on his face. I cannot see his eyes.
“What’s with the sunglasses?” I ask.
“They’re prescription,” he says. “Left my other glasses in the car.”
It’s disconcerting. I avoid looking at his blank dark stare. He seems focused on me but for all I know he could be napping behind his shades.
“I wanna know why you haven’t been teaching my son.” And there it is, the ball that comes out of left field to strike me in the head.
“Sorry?” I’m not sure I’ve heard correctly. It takes me a while to process. This is, after all, perhaps my fifteenth interview.
“My son’s told me that on at least two occasions, he’s asked for your help and you’ve refused.”
“What?” Deep breaths. Calm. “That’s not true.”
I can imagine the scenario at home. This is how Dwayne keeps mum busy; keeps her attention. Act helpless and make out it’s the teacher’s fault. And she responds. I’ve seen it many times over the years. The kid’s learned that if you blame someone else, you’re off the hook. Way to get ahead in life. And who knows what feeds the anger and self-righteous ignorant indignation of the mother? Probably goes back generations. Have these people never thought that their kids might be spinning them a line?
“What did I get for my SAC?” Dwayne’s awake. He’s demanding; aggressive now, something I haven’t seen the vaguest hint of in class. He’s been reluctant to try, but otherwise innocuous and polite, even friendly. “Remember? I was away when you gave everyone their marks and I asked you the other day what mark I got but you never told me.” So there, he seems to be saying. Here’s your proof.
“You have to remind me.” I say, “I’ve got other things going on in class.”
With that, I found the mark. “Nine,” I said.
“Out of what?” spat Ms Donald, perhaps trying to expel the bad taste I’d left in her craw.
“Yet you refuse to teach my son. What sort of a teacher does that?” She was menacing, getting closer; in my face.
I leaned away from the table at this stage, wrapping my arms around the back of my chair, same din continuing around me but her invective poking me hard in the chest nonetheless. Happily the adrenaline kicked in. I chose fight.
“That’s it. Interview over!” I shouted to be clear. “I’ve got about forty more parents to see. Don’t speak to me. The pair of you are extremely aggressive and I’ve had enough!” I reached fever pitch. “And as for you, sitting there in your dark glasses so I can’t see your eyes… Make an appointment with the coordinator. Next!” Was that the Soup Nazi? No. It was me.
“How dare you?” she spluttered, standing. “Well! I’m seeing the principal! Right!”
“Feel free. She’s not in ‘til five, but go for it.”
I may have sounded in control, but as soon as she’d stamped off, Dwayne trailing behind her like a blind man, tears of frustration and rage sprouted from my eyes. I turned to my nearest colleague, who’d heard nothing, so engrossed was he in his own line of parents – he saw sixty-two families that day.
There was no one to tell. No one to care. A few members of Prin Class were swanning around beatifically in their Sunday best, but none handy. Besides, I had a queue, the first parent of which had kindly waited. “Thought you might need a minute,” she said, smiling, slowly sitting.
Later, at meal break, another colleague confided a similar story. Another weak student; another parent blaming the teacher who was in her second year of teaching this girl. Clearly, it was all the teacher’s fault, according to the parent. Nothing to do with any other environmental, genetic or socio-economic factors. This gentle teacher is heart-sloughed. Because she does care and goes to extraordinary lengths for this girl and all her students to ensure the best possible learning outcomes.
My dilemma remains. How to continue to do my best for Dwayne tomorrow, first period, knowing my words will inevitably be twisted. No doubt there’ll be a summons to the principal to explain.
Wonder if Dwayne will be wearing his sunnies. Perhaps I’ll wear mine.