Child and Youth
The principal walked Rachael into the 7th grade classroom, Room 7E. Today was her first day at our school. Everyone turned to look at her standing quietly beside Mr. Graham.
"Good morning, Mrs. Elm," said the headmaster, nodding to the class teacher.
She nodded back. "Good morning Mr. Graham. Is this Rachael?"
"Yes. Yes, indeed. It is." He did sputter a little.
"Class," Mrs Elm, now going on to her mid-fifties one could estimate, addressed the group, "This is Rachael Demoines. She is new here. Rachael, these are your new classmates."
Rachael nodded shyly. Various members of the class nodded and smiled. A few raised their hands. None spoke out.
"Well, I'll leave you then," said Mr. Graham slipping out the door and closing if firmly behind him.
Rachael continued to stand by the door for a moment. Mrs. Elm invited her to take a seat. She nodded and looked around the room again.
"Okay. Now that he's gone ... who's really in charge here? Because from now on its me," she stated.
No one spoke.
The temporary light relief of another adult being in the oppressive room quickly drained away and the tight anxiety resumed its grip. Now, you said nothing and did nothing which might offend Mrs Elm – who seemed, by her straight-lipped glare at the class, to be daring anyone to break this understanding.
New as she was here, Rachael felt it in the air as if it had been spelled out across the blackboard.
* * *
I never did learn by what route in life Mrs Elm arrived at her hostile manner of running a class. It was not simply good discipline. The class was well used to the no-nonsense approach of a number of their teachers, and they comfortably accommodated this along with the casual and friendly demeanour of others.
Mrs Elm was different. For one thing, she demonstrated this attitude only when there were no other adults present. It seemed that she hid it from her colleagues. When she was in control, there was a kind of conspiracy in play – between her and the class. One knew that when they were once again alone with her, iron rule descended and there was no breach of her implacable authority.
She seemed to produce academic “results”, though never with any shared sense of achievement, let alone celebration. It was a case of succeeding only to avoid her attention, her wrath. This joyless domination never expressed itself physically, but when Mrs Elm was crossed – or perceived herself crossed – the guilty party paid a great price in intimidation and menace which might continue for some days before Mrs Elm felt vindicated.
For her first week in the class, Rachael kept a wide-eyed vigilance and said not a word. But she thought quite a lot.
* * *
There was much more to Rachael than met the eye – and much more than I can tell you now. She had lost both of her parents in an accident in which she was herself seriously injured, and as a small girl she had been placed, rather by default, with an aunt who was very much like Mrs Elm. The aunt seemed to resent Rachael’s survival while the mother (the aunt’s sister) and father had died. There was no other family, and the history of Rachael’s mother, her sister and her husband was shrouded in murky obscurity, full of unspoken innuendo and blame. Rachael had lived from the age of four with her surly and abusive aunt with no respite, no other adult presence or influence, no affection or interest.
Then, when Rachael was seven, something terrible happened in the house. One morning the aunt was found brutally murdered. The police investigated a number of possibilities but in the end it remained unclear what had happened. The girl, clearly in a state of shock, remained tight-lipped, and as she was led away to a place of care, she showed no signs of emotion at all – except for (as only the most observant would have seen) the whiteness of her tightly clenched knuckles.
* * *
Rachel spent five years away from the wider world. She was sent to a small specialised school in the country which was lucky to have a team which combined the highest clinical skills with deep commitment to the children. It was known as a place which admitted children who had experienced uncommon trauma, and which answered the rare dilemma of a children’s judge who had to decide between the extremes of possible outcomes: either the child would have to be “put away” from society as incorrigible, for many years if not for life; or the child could be restored and able to take his or her place in the world soon enough to resume a reasonably normative development.
It was a place of quiet peace and terrifying violence, a place of dark despair and growing hope; of long nights and lonely vigils, and of bright mornings and joyous discoveries. The staff worked tirelessly and meticulously, and with the most respectful eclecticism – gratefully using whatever way of understanding children or approach to working with children which seemed promising – on a case by case basis. They knew that ultimately each individual child must be able to “make it” in the real world.
For Rachael this experience included thousands of hours of being with people, talking, listening, working, trying and failing – trying again, moving on to new regimens, environments, challenges. She maintained her school standards, met with more and more people her own age, and spent the last six months in the program getting to know her carefully chosen foster parents-to-be. The finishing line of the program is that the child who leaves will need no more than an ordinary, rational world in which to live. The leaders of the program knew that, in the end, they must convince a judge that no further support beyond this is necessary.
* * *
The foster parents, the neighbourhood, the school, all fell very comfortably into the “normal, rational” bracket. Nobody had taken into account Mrs Elm.
* * *
Rachael thought quite a lot. She was troubled by the way in which other pupils in the class were cowed into submission, humiliated, disallowed, by Mrs Elm. She saw the hurt and the fear in their eyes, and their bleak and joyless performance in the class. She thought about this.
If you had looked through the glass window in the door to Classroom 7E at 7.30 am the following Monday morning, half an hour before class was scheduled to begin, you would have witnessed an unnerving scene. Mrs Elm was seated at her desk, going through final preparations for her lessons. She was writing notes, marking books, reading … Silently Rachael entered the class. She said nothing and made her way from behind Mrs Elm from behind her desk and stood behind the teacher … not irresolute and frightened, but bold and confident. She put her arm around the teacher’s neck. Mrs Elm immediately stiffened and stared ahead of her. Rachael was talking to her, it seemed gently, soothingly. Mrs Elm made no move. The child went on, and then rubbed the teacher’s shoulders and back as she continued talking. Mrs Elm sat rooted to the spot. Finally, Rachael stooped and kissed Mrs Elm on the side of her face and walked from the room.
Minutes later the first arrivals in her class entered Mrs Elm’s room. They found her, not fussing and striding impatiently around the room, but slumped over her desk, her head in her hands, sobbing. Soon Mr Graham arrived with one of the other teachers, and Mrs Elm was led, stooped and shaking from the class. For the rest of the day the class had the pleasant experience of a replacement teacher.
The following morning, promptly at eight, the pupils sitting silently, Mrs Elm walked into the classroom. She said, in a voice the children were not used to: "Good morning to you all." They replied cautiously and politely: "Good Morning, Mrs Elm." The lady glanced briefly at Rachael, and gave everyone a tentative, experimental smile.