by Peter C. Conrad
As Maggie sits in her seat in the special needs classroom and stares out the window, she thinks about how much she hates school, really, really hates this place. It is going to be another one of those years, she thinks as she notices the yellowing leaves of the straight line of trees that angles away from the building at about forty-five degree, estimates Maggie. It feels like junior high will never end, but if I just keep my head down, my mouth closed and watch, the year will be over quickly, Maggie thinks. I wish I could just wander off to the trees in the park near my house and read another book, or just watch what everyone else is doing. Maggie likes to read and watch what was happening: I like to be invisible, free to do whatever I want, think whatever I like. Maggie’s mind wonders off to places in her books, or places that she imagines that are much, much better than this place. Maggie could forget that she didn’t look all that great: I’m too thin, I have no shape, I’m too pale, and too tired looking, she thinks. Maggie remembers this morning in the bathroom looking in the mirror: even my eyes look too well defined, kind of sunken in.
It’s my older sister, Tanya who has the right shape for a girl, thinks Maggie. She carries herself the right way, and she always knows the right thing to say. It’s Tanya who has a lighter shade of brunette hair that looks just about blond in summer. Tanya is a little over two years older than Maggie and knew everything, including that Maggie was supposed to be smarter: it’s embarrassing to Tanya, thought Maggie, that I’m still here in the special class. But, I don’t have to worry about Mom and Dad; they always look pained when they hear Tanya talking—they always politely remind her that some people, like me, might have to work a little harder in school, remembers Maggie.
Maggie leans back in her chair and watches as Stephen, “just Steve,” according to everyone else, walks into class with a stiff gait, and touches Eunice’s desk. “Steve!” she yells. Steven steps wide, trying to avoid “another problem,” which is what he calls Eunice when she isn’t around. Maggie smiles as she watches Eunice open her compact and look into the mirror to check, who knows what. Maggie can’t remember the last time Eunice didn’t use an opportunity to start one of her tirades.
As Samantha, or Sammie Bilson walks in, Maggie feels a mixture of comfort at her old friend and uneasiness, not sure what kind of help she’ll ask for next. Sammie looks like a Sammie, thinks Maggie: short cut straight blond hair, a cute outfit with the vest and some kind of floppy artsy cap she gets away with wearing in school, when everyone else is told to take their hats off. All her different caps were coordinates that are perfect for her outfit. Oh man, thought Maggie, she’s got that tired, eyes cast downward, I’m just trying so hard, look.
“Do you have any idea about this math?” says Sammie. Typical Sammie, Maggie thinks; …and a good morning to you. Gosh how are you doing? Maggie muses.
“Adding fractions?” asks Maggie with a sinking feeling.
“Yeah,” says Sammie, tiredly.
“You just have to get the part about making the denominator the same for the fractions you are adding.”
“We can do it later,” says Maggie quickly as Mr. Edwards, the regular substitute teacher, steps into the room. There were some days that Mr. Edwards was just irritating: he would tell stories, and make up these lame comments trying to make us laugh, thinks Maggie. She really hated it when he would use sarcasm to make them stop yapping, or whatever it was they were doing. Everyone knows you could take things along a bit before you’re sent to the office so some push it. Maybe he will have a new story from teaching at other schools that’s all right. Everything is so boring, a good story will help, she thinks.
“You’re not going to bug us with a story,” says Eunice as she looks up from her mirror.
“Put that away,” says Mr. Edwards. He’s a bit over weight and looks way too friendly, Maggie thinks. How can that guy survive as a sub-teacher when he’s always so nice? You would think they would eat him alive in most schools, but here he is. He’s very fast when things happen by going through his quick steps of giving trouble makers second chances, a fast sarcastic comment with a warning, and out the door. But it’s the expectation that he will tell a story that keeps everything under control.
“Mr. Edwards, can you tell the one about the boy with a stick?” asks Mufasta, grinning and quickly looking around to see if anyone else wants to hear the same story.
“We have to get the attendance done and then get some work done first.”
“It’s the one about the boy who had a stick in class and whacked that stick and broke it?”
Eunice looks at the roof, with her annoying over exaggerated gesture. I don’t want to hear that old story again, thinks Maggie, but it sure will annoy Eunice.
“Stephen,” says Mr. Edwards as he starts taking the attendance.
“It’s Steve,” says Eunice.
“I want to be called Stephen,” he replies.
“You’re so full of …”
“Enough,” interjects Mr. Edwards.
“I’m just so sick of this,” continues Eunice as she twists around in her seat to look at Stephen. “Steve thinks he is going to get into the regular class, because he’s too smart to stay here.”
“That’s great,” says Mr. Edwards. Eunice stares in disbelief at Mr. Edward; she hits the top of her desk and shakes her head. She stares at the ceiling wrenching her head back far enough to look at the space above her. She’s got a lot of energy, Maggie thinks. I wonder if she’s still in that drama class? Mr. Edwards calls her name. Maggie looks at Mr. Edwards with a slight smile. He looks at her and nods. Maggie turns and watches as a latecomer hurries across the field outside to the school. It is getting cold and she hasn’t closed her coat, but now the figure pulls her coat together as best she can. Maybe the zipper is broken and she is late because she has another coat with buttons that she was looking for, imagines Maggie.
“He always let Eunice take the attendance sheet to the office,” complained Sammie quietly. Maggie looks up in time to see Eunice step out of the room with a swagger that made Maggie want to laugh: how special.
“Can you tell the story about the boy with a stick?” asks Mufasta again. “Eunice is gone, so she doesn’t need to know.”
“That’s an old one,” Mr. Edwards says, as he quickly writes the Focus Question on the white board. Why should we care about Holden Caulfield’s phonies?
Maggie quietly starts writing the Focus Question in her notebook when Sammie leans close and asks, “What’s a ‘phoney’?” Maggie doesn’t say anything, shrugs, but wonders if Sammie is being one, pretending to be so clueless.
“Make some notes that will help you answer the question,” says Mr. Edwards as he reads the lesson plan. “You know the routine, copy the Focus Question, read, make notes and write a short paragraph to share in class tomorrow.”
“Boring,” says Eunice as she sits down in her desk.
“Maybe to you,” says Stephen.
“Would you just shut up,” says Eunice. “Did you get your little story when I was at the office?”
“There wasn’t enough time,” says Mufasta. “But, that is a good idea. What about the one where the kid jumped on the table and started to dance?”
“Those are all old stories,” says Mr. Edwards.
“You’re going to just leave us to waist time pretending to read our books?” asks Mufasta.
“Is that what you’re doing?”
Here it comes, thinks Maggie. The next step will be a warning and then …
“There is something that happened right here at this school,” starts Mr. Edwards.
“Who was it?” asks Stephen.
“I’m not going to name anyone,” says Mr. Edwards.
“When did it happen?” Sammie asks.
“It’s one of those things that happened over a couple days.”
Maggie feels better as everyone stops talking and listens. She likes the way Mr. Edwards’ stories settled things down; it is a lot better listening to Mr. Edwards than Eunice and Steve going at it all class, especially when Mufasta joins in. They can take things over the top, yelling at each other until one or the others has to go to the office—it is always the other’s fault. Who ever stays in class will take something from whoever was in the office and dump it in a trashcan on the other side of the school after class. Just as often, your pencil case disappears if you go to the bathroom. It is predictable and truly boring, Maggie thinks. All she wants is to stay out of anything that happens. That was why Eunice hates her so much. It is amazing how angry Eunice and Stephen get if she doesn’t react to anything they say or do. By now, she has learned to have at least three pencil cases so when it goes missing she has a replacement waiting in her locker.
“Okay, so what happened?” asks Mufasta.
“It happened in one of those classes when I had to show a DVD, it was Planet Earth, I think.”
“That’s some story,” says Eunice.
“That’s exactly the kind of attitude some of the kids had; not just sitting here watching some video about the earth.”
“What classes was this in?” asks Stephen.
“It was Outdoor Ed.”
“I know whom you’re talking about,” says Eddie, who was watching from his desk in the back of the class.
“Maybe,” says Mr. Edward. “But, I didn’t mention what year this happened.”
“Wasn’t it this year?” asks Eunice.
“No,” Mr. Edwards says. “As I was saying, there was a certain group who would rather be outside on a hike, than sitting in a class watching a DVD. There was a small group that couldn’t settle down, so I went over and stood by them.”
“It didn’t do much, did it,” says Eunice.
“No, it didn’t. I talked to them and gave them the usual warnings, but they continued to talk, but stopped throwing things. Finally, the leader, a girl, asked me why I always came to their group, like the other teachers. I said it was a straight forward process that when I hear and see a problem I come over to the place where there are issues and try to fix it. Its called proximity control, roving, intervention.”
“Yeah, that kind of thing really bugs me,” says Eunice. “If you were looking away in this class, you wouldn’t notice hardly anything I do.”
“I guess that’s true,” said Mr. Edwards.
“This is turning into a really lame story,” says Mufasta.
“I was interrupted a lot, so I haven’t even got into the interesting part of the story yet.”
“Go ahead,” says Eunice. “We’re all listening.”
“So the leader pointed over to a group of students that I knew were honours students and asked why I never used proximity control with them. I looked and asked, ‘do you really think they need that kind of attention?’ She looked at the other group and said I should just try it out; it might be really good for me to find out what’s going on.”
“You know Mr. Edwards, this story really isn’t going anywhere,” says Stephen.
“It’s about to,” continues Mr. Edwards. “So, I decided that was a good idea, I’ll just spend some time watching, and roving around the other group. The first thing I noticed in that class and those that followed was that they were so bored, and uninterested that they didn’t even know where I was in the classroom. More than once, one of them actually appeared to nod off.”
“That’s because they know everything,” says Stephen. I feeling of disgust swept over Maggie. Stephen wanted to be in the regular classes as he’s certain he knew everything. Maggie had a feeling that Stephen wasn’t going to like where this story is going.
“No, I was really watching them, and I must say that when I started this I watched the same kind of students at other schools and found that they were doing the same thing. Most of them were very talented in appearing to be engaged with their eyes on me while I talked, or the screen for the videos, the whiteboard, or just whatever demonstrations were being presented.”
“So,” says Mufasta.
“I said they appeared to be engaged, but you all know what happens when you appear to be interested or confident, you will rarely be asked to repeat something back, explain what is going on, or provide an answer.”
“Yeah, like me,” says Eunice. “I’m always asked to answer questions.”
“And you never know anything,” says Stephen.
“Hey!” shouts Eunice as she turns around to glare at him.
“Let’s not start anything,” says Mr. Edwards. “I always do that too, if someone is loud, causing trouble, they get the questions because they have my attention.”
“That happens all the time,” says Sammie.
“So what’s the point?” asks Eunice, annoyed.
“I turned things around,” says Mr. Edwards. “I watched those who were presented the right behaviours and noticed that when I asked them the same questions I would ask the loud trouble makers, they wouldn’t have any idea. They were much more polite when they answered, saying excuse me, or could you repeat that? Many would quiz, me about what I asked, which sometimes worked to get the very answer from me that I was looking for.”
“So, what’s the point?” asks Mufasta again.
Smiling, Mr. Edwards says, “Many of the best students have learned to fake it very, very well.”
“Do you mean they’re coming in to school just like me? They don’t have anything done, and couldn’t care less?” asks Eunice.
“It is the opposite of that; they’re bored out of their minds, but they do have their work done. Most of them, at one time or another worked on their homework and realized that if you just sit down and do it, everything is done sooner and much easier than they first thought.”
“That just sounds crazy to me,” says Eunice.
“What do you mean, they’re faking?” asks Sammie.
“It’s amazing that the best students have a way of looking interested and attentive even when they’re nearly dozing off. I wouldn’t have ever known that unless I was watching.”
“So if we want to do better, we should fake it?” asks Mufasta.
“I have no idea if it will work for you, but think about it, who will the teacher like better, give a break to, and maybe help more: the loud rude ones or those who are apparently paying attention?”
“I guess I get it,” says Mufasta.
“That simply won’t work for me,” declares Eunice.
“It won’t work for anyone who doesn’t believe in it. I think you would have to go all out: fake that you’re really interested all the time in class, fake the homework: doing it no matter how good you think you are, maybe even fake interest in some school activities, like student council, or the newspaper and show up at all the meetings.”
“That sounds like too much work,” says Mufasta.
“Well, I think it would cut the boredom for some of you. You have to come to school anyway, so why not try faking interest to see what happens.”
“This is just really stupid,” says Stephen. “Either you’re good enough to get better marks or you’re not. Ms. Ulrich has told us to get down to the real thing and stop making things up. It sounds like you’re telling us the opposite of our real teacher.”
“You’re right Stephen, you should do what you have been—keep getting at your homework, and trying. This was just a story that I thought it was interesting.”
“I know I sure am not going to do any of that,” says Eunice.
The whole idea sounds better, and better, to Maggie as she listens to it. It might be just what she’s been wanting. She can have a lot of fun pretending that she was like Alicia, her old friend from elementary school who changed when they got to Junior High. She suddenly started to say she wasn’t like Maggie anymore and they just stopped talking to each other when Maggie went into the special class. Maybe that is what Alicia figured out: how to fake it. It was Maggie who would tell Alicia what they were doing and sometimes how to do it when they sat beside each other in elementary school. Alicia is on the honours role, she is on the student council, and she is always in the cafeteria with those girls that knew how to dress, and are on the school teams.
Maggie watches Alicia with confused feelings, because their mothers were friends during elementary school, they lived only two houses apart, and they agreed that their girls were the kind that always need a little more help in school. It is as if Alicia just forgot that in grade six. Maggie couldn’t forget that her Mom and Dad always knew how Maggie was going to always be behind her sister Tanya.
* * *
Maggie watches Tanya as she picks up the desert bowels from the supper table before she is finished. It is their job to clean up after dinner.
“Why do you always have to be so slow?” asks Tanya.
Maggie is suddenly irritated; she is enjoying the last of her fruit salad. She is surprised by the intensity of her feeling of irritation: it hadn’t ever bothered her before—nothing really bothered her. Something must have been switched off a long time ago, thinks Maggie. Tanya has been saying things like that for a long time, and it just didn’t matter. It’s probably a fake comment, like everything else, Maggie thinks. She has that familiar feeling of confusion; it is just that story Mr. Edwards told today, Maggie thinks.
“Didn’t you hear me?” says Tanya.
Maggie feels a flash of anger as she stands up with her bowl and stands there staring at Tanya.
“What’s with you?”
Maggie feels an intense anger toward Tanya who stops and stares at her. She hasn’t seen Maggie with the look before; she has always been indifferent.
“It is already embarrassing having you in that special needs program because you’re slow, but if you start acting like them I’ll really hate you.”
Maggie walks to the sink and places her bowl in it and walks out of the kitchen without a word. How could Tanya get away with saying that? What else has she been getting away with? She may be a fake too, but one thing is for sure, Maggie is going to be as fake as any one of those honour students. She will act exactly like them, she is going to do all her homework, be interested in class, and show up at all of the student council meetings. One thing she knows is that the students that put their hands up and ask questions or make a comment about the schoolwork are fakes, and completely weird. It’s going to be so easy to take a few minutes every time she finishes her homework and make a list of weird things to say on topic in class for the next day. That’s one thing she can do right now to see how fast a fake can rise in class.
* * *
Maggie opens her books in her bedroom and starts to work when she hears a faint knock at the door: Tanya must have forgotten another one of her put-downs, which she would share now, thinks Maggie. Her mother opens the door and looks concerned.
“Is everything all right?” she asks.
“I just have some homework to finish.”
“Is it too hard again?”
Maggie feels a sharp cut of anger. “I just want to try this by myself.”
“That’s great honey, but if you need help, I’m here and you can always ask Tanya.”
“I know,” says Maggie, as calmly as she can.
“Don’t hesitate to ask for help.”
Maggie watches as her mother pats her shoulder. She feels relieved as her mother leaves the room and closes the door quietly.