by Matthew Harrison
Maeve found it hard teaching the young children to speak correctly, their minds were so freewheeling. And when it came to arithmetic…
“Let’s say it again,” she directed the class, “positively, now. Two plus two is four.”
“Two plus two is four,” the class intoned.
“And four is two more than two,” she said.
The class duly repeated it, some children stumbling over the words.
Then came what Maeve had been dreading. Johnny Styles raised his hand, wicked eyes beneath a mop of hair. “Miss, I can’t–”
“Positively, Johnny!” Maeve broke in, her heart racing. “Remember how we say it – ‘I would rather…’”
“Sorry, Miss, I forgot!”
The class giggled at his daring; looks darted from him to the teacher.
Maeve tried desperately to restore order. “Johnny, it’s good that you should say that. But it’s better that you say it another way. You say, ‘I remembered something else’.”
For a moment, defiance flared in the boy’s eyes. But then he looked away, seemingly distracted.
Maeve seized her chance. “Let’s take out our story books, children,” she said briskly. As the children bustled with their desks, she got out her own copy – ‘Peter Pan in Everland’ – and opened it at the bookmark. As she began to read, she saw, with relief, that Johnny was quietly carving his initials into the desk with a ruler. That was one source of negativity the less, at least for a few minutes!
At the break, Maeve found her best friend Liz. Together, they had tea in the corner of the common room, watching rain stream down the windows.
“Yesterday’s weather was better,” Liz remarked.
“Today’s is better than tomorrow’s will be – according to the forecast,” Maeve replied. She giggled, and continued under her breath, “Oh God! It’s such a strain talking like this!”
“I know, I know,” Liz murmured sympathetically. “I do sometimes wonder…”
“They can’t expect us–” Maeve began, then stopped at Liz’s warning glance. Just yards from them in the common room’s sole leather armchair was the formidable back of Mrs Bristow, who in her ten years at the school had not been heard to utter a single negative.
Maeve swallowed. “I mean, some children pick it up more easily than others,” she said loudly. “We have to put in more effort for those with more need.”
Liz nodded. “Children have to learn how to speak appropriately – and that means it has to be taught. Which is sometimes easy, and sometimes… sometimes…” She ran out of positive terms.
Mrs Bristow turned to face them. “It is sometimes a duty,” she said gravely. “And we welcome our duty.”
“We welcome our duty,” Liz repeated, with less enthusiasm.
“It’s just that sometimes we welcome it more than at other times,” Maeve added, surprised at her own bravery. Mrs Bristow harrumphed.
Just then the bell rang for classes to resume. As Liz led the way out, she remarked to Maeve that soon comparatives of any kind would be banned. It was one thing after another.
After lunch, Maeve sat in the common room, thinking of what Liz had said. What was the Jesuit maxim? ‘Give me the child, and I will give you the man.’ She had supported the campaign at the start. The school had Muslim and Indian children, and it was good to stop the teasing and the downright nastiness they had been subject to. She had even supported the ban on sexism and ageism – although they were less of an issue with pre-teens. But then the authorities had banned such a slew of terms covering class, socio-economic background, talent, that there were hardly words left to draw personal distinctions. What it would do to the children? Would they end up brainwashed automatons?
Maeve walked out into the playground. And seeing the children tearing around and shouting, she drew some comfort. They were not automatons just yet.
“Hallo, Miss!” A familiar voice broke Maeve’s reverie. Her heartbeat surging, she turned to see a small grinning figure.
“Hallo, Johnny,” she said, hoping that her nerves would not show. Why could she not stay cool like Liz? “What are you up to?”
To her dismay, other children, curious, came sidling up to see the fun. Little vultures! she thought bitterly.
“Don’t know, Miss!” crowed the boy, prompting giggles in the gathering crowd.
Maeve could have killed him. But she forced a smile. “You know how to say that,” Johnny.”
“Yeah, ha-ha!” came his strident voice. He was absolutely fearless, she saw, with reluctant admiration – as irrepressible as his mop of hair.
Then, amazingly, Johnny spoke loudly and clearly. “I meant to say, Miss, ‘My mind was blank’.” He bowed, like a circus performer, and then dashed off.
As Maeve’ heartbeat eased, she saw Johnny run off to the edge of the playground. Faintly, she heard his shouted, “Not! Not! Not!” and a machine gun-like burst of ‘No!’s before his voice merged with the general tumult. She saw the children wrangling with each other, girls yelling at boys, boys pinching girls, Indian children snatching a Muslim girl’s headscarf.
Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.