“The Science agenda for the month states,” Mrs Hassan frowned at the circular. “That you have to teach Plants, Magnets and Electricity. You barely finished Plants.”
“Well, you see, they were interested in photosynthesis, so –”
“The English agenda,” continued Mrs Hassan. “Required you to complete Chapters Five, Six and Seven. You failed to do this. Moreover, the subject coordinator tells me you have not been following her lesson plans.”
“Because they are impossible! Look at today’s plan –” Zoya held it up. “Reading and understanding a page-long comprehension, copying down ten questions from the whiteboard and answering them – within sixty minutes. The children can’t do it, Ma’am. They’re only seven years old.”
“The children in the other sections are also seven years old, and their teachers don’t appear to find it impossible. No –” The uplifted finger cut her off. “You must realise that we have standards to maintain at this school. Parent Complaints have started coming in, and if your work is not up to the mark …”
-Your work is not up to the mark- … The lipstick-rounded mouth moved on in slow motion, the sound emerging from it fading into a hazy background for the demon that had fallen silent for the first time in her life when she had walked into Class III Rust two months ago.
— Hah! Loser! So you thought you were good at this, did you? — … The spell was broken, not at the chimes of midnight but in this sunlit office with spaceship-cloud shadows on the wall and the taste of a familiar bitterness on her dry tongue.
— You suck at teaching, as you suck everything else, you loser —
She stumbled back to the staffroom, where her new friend Maya was sitting on the sofa eating samosas. “Zoya! How did the meeting – hey, are you okay?”
— Look at her, she’s knows you’re pathetic —
Zoya picked up a samosa and bit into it so fiercely her teeth clanged shut right through the potatoes. “I won’t fail.” She hissed. “This is my dream. I am going to be GOOD at it!”
“What –” The bell rang and Maya fled, cramming in the last of her samosa. “’alk ‘oo – home-time!”
Zoya walked her way grimly down the corridor to her class. The students jumped up to greet her. “Gooood Morning, Miss!”
“Good morning. Sit down, take out your copies and write down the day and date. Then open your books to page 84. Quickly! We’ve wasted five minutes of the class already.” The marker screeched as she printed ‘ENGLISH’ on the board. “Ahmad, start reading the first paragraph.”
Ahmad’s head emerged briefly from his bag “Miss, I can’t find my book.”
“Hurry up and take it out! Ali, you read.”
“Yes Miss. What’s the page number?”
— Nine minutes gone. You’ll fail again, like you always do —
“Eighty-Four!” The snarl shocked the class into silence. “Listen to me! If you don’t want to spend next year in Class III as well, we have to work much harder than this. Do you understand?”
Silence. Then – Bilal said – it could only be him – “Miss, may I go to drink water?”
Zoya quelled the spurt of giggles with a glare. “You just got in from recess, Bilal. Start reading, Ali!”
Too baffled to protest, they fidgeted, but they worked. In the fifteen minutes spent reading the passage – she had chosen only the best readers – Zoya had written out the questions. And for the first time she wrote down the answers as well, without first asking the class to attempt them.
“Miss, what is demonstate?” asked Asad.
“Demonstrate. Copy it all down, then I will explain.”
“But Miss you always say we should understand what we are –”
“Copy it down first!”
By the fifty-sixth minute all the copies were piled on her desk, filling her with a savage triumph. She had done it! She glanced down at the first copy open, and felt irritation sweeping across her again.
“Whose copy is this? Raise your hand –” Bilal again, the goggle-eyed little – “Just look at this! The day and date are on the wrong sides, and the handwriting – ugh! And you’ve spelt dog b-o-g again!” She drew a large red circle around it. “I’m really very disappointed.”
“HAHA!” Ahmad leapt out of his chair. “Told you! You know, Miss, he was so sure he was going to get a star today he made me put his copy on top! What a loser!”
Reflexively she had started up to intervene – Bilal generally responded to all taunts with a punch – but he was sitting quietly in his seat and did not even look up when Ahmad snapped his fingers in his face.
“Idiot, duffer! Loser!”
“Ahmad, sit down!”
— Loser —
Afterwards she always claimed it was the word that had made her realise … it would be all of thirty years before she told another young teacher how the echo of her own desolation in the eyes of a child she had always seen laughing had truly begun a new life for her, had begun her own exorcism in the very act of perpetuating the age-old circle of wretchedness that was gnawing its way into her soul.
“Everyone, please listen,” Their palpable relief at seeing her smile made tears start to her eyes. “Please clap for yourselves – you all worked really hard today. And please clap especially loudly for Bilal – for trying the hardest and showing the most improvement!”
“Well, we have three minutes left. Let’s play a round of Hangman with our new words before the bell rings. We need to work harder,” She went on, trying not to laugh at their expressions. “That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. Okay?”
“Okay!” They chorused.
“I’ll go first,” Said Bilal. “And tomorrow, I AM going to get a star. A GOLDEN star!”
Outside, the spaceship clouds had faded to a crooked wisp rather like the lopsided grin once again flashing on his face.
Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, a teacher of French as a foreign language and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has previously appeared in The Mojave Heart Review, Third Wednesday, Brine and a number of other literary magazines. Studying life, languages and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her. Twitter: @hibahshabkhez