Victorusmonous State School had a reputation. It did not spark joy in the souls of the relief teachers who were appointed there for the day. Those who were asked to take a short contract had to fill in between the burned out and traumatised regular educators on stress leave. I had been sipping a cup of watered down, overly milky coffee when the number for the temp agency flashed on my phone. My first day ever relief teaching, I felt like I was playing the Russian roulette of schools. I answered with all fingers and toes crossed for St Marks or St Mary’s Girls College. Victorusmonous State School. The woman’s voice tainted with a touch of sympathy. Not a day either. A full week contract whilst they sourced another teacher for the class. I felt a little dizzy as the stories from other teachers flashed before my frontal cortex and adrenalin plucked at the nerves zinging in my extremities. Coffee tipped down the sink, I exchanged my pencil skirt for a pair of comfortable black pants, fed that cat and swallowed down the panic attack that was threatening to block out my peripheral vision and send me down a hyperventilating rabbit hole. I didn’t have to take the contract. But if you pass up the hard days, your name travels to the bottom of the list with the agency. Picky teachers don’t get work.
My clapped-out Mazda backfired, bumping over the speed hump into the teacher’s car park. A string of black and yellow clad preteens sat on the chain-link fence like crows, cuckawwing and pointing at my four attempts to nose into the carpark.
“Been driving long, Miss?” a girl with ratchety dreadlocks and a holey uniform called out.
“What’s ya name, Miss?”
“You got our class today?”
I smiled and nodded in their direction, raised a hand in a half-wave and made my way to the administration building to sign in. Deputy Principal, Mr Lockhart met me at the front desk.
“Miss Ellings?” he asked with his eyebrows drawn together and rotund belly hanging like a tumour over his belt. Nodding in acquiescence to my fate, I felt an anxiety-driven lose stool threatening an imminent arrival. “A one-week contract in year five,” he murmured, flicking through the plan that had been left for me. Right then, come along,” he said and strode out the back of the administration building with surprising speed for a large man.
With no opportunity for a quick toilet stop, I bounded along behind him like a bunny for the boiler. We stopped abruptly outside a classroom while Mr Lockhart popped his head in to flirt with a practicum teacher and then marched to one of the outermost buildings on the school grounds.
“Here you go,” he said, flinging the plan at me and grimacing. “Any dramas, call this number and someone might come down to assist. Otherwise, Gary is next door but he is under the pump at the mo, so call us first.” With that, the door was firmly shut, and Mr Lockhart was gone, no doubt returning to chit-chat with the pretty practicum teacher.
Before I could even glance at the plan, the bell sounded. Students reefed open the door, poured in and began their ritualistic morning routine. The banging and howling, shouting and raucous laughter was close to deafening. There was pashing by the art rack, two boys continued their fight from outside, soaking each other with their water bottles. Three boys who had evidently come from football practice peeled off their mud-spattered, stinking socks and placed their feet up on their desks, causing the group of girls next to them to shriek and hold their noses in disgust. I stared about me, feeling the lack of control rise with the panic. Flicking through the plan, my resolve weakening, I saw a bunch of boring worksheets that was never going to engage this rowdy discord of fractious hormones.
“Good morning,” I called out, my hands raised and a steely expression on my face. My name is Miss Ellings. I would appreciate if we could all tone it down and get ready for learning today.”
“What are we learning Miss?”
“What was your name again?”
“I don’t do schoolwork.”
“I’m dumb Miss. You can’t teach me nothing.”
“When is Miss Evans coming back? Or did we get rid of her for good?”
The questions and statements flew thick and fast across the room.
My brain fog did not lift. My tongue wrapped itself in knots. Gary from next door popped his head in and looked about at the chaos in the classroom. He flicked his eyes over me with a poor-sucker-you expression and returned to his own animalistic sounding noises in the room next door without so much as a hello. Again, I asked for quiet, again the noise ascended. Again, I told the restless to sit down and again they leapt from their seats. They seemed to sense my next instruction and do whatever they could to oppose it before it had even left my mouth. I turned to find a girl behind me writing “Fuck you Miss Elingz!” across the blackboard. A punch up began in the back row, three girls throwing their fists into each other’s faces. Not the old scratch and pony tail pull of the bygone era. I made my way to the phone to call the office. I dialled 966, the internal number for reception. Feeling the rise of the chaos behind me, I choked back tears and the lump in my throat. I had lasted a whole eighteen minutes before making the call. The phone rang. No one answered. It was easy to picture the receptionist staring at the caller ID and rolling her eyes at the Deputy Principal.
I turned around to face them. Observing like a social scientist, I picked out the leverage points in the crowd. One of the football boys, Sam, was the ringleader, that much I knew. Every child in the room looked to him for approval, but he didn’t strike me as nasty or a bully. There was a girl, the leader of the earlier fight who was still spitting insults across the room at the girl nursing her cheek with her head down on the desk. There was a group looking desperately lost and in dire need of a teacher who would step up and do something for their education. And there were about five on the outer desks about the room who had their heads laid down, no doubt having played video games until the early hours of the morning and now spent their days in the classroom napping. My brain finally began to fire in logical fashion. So really there were the footballers and the nasty girls I had to wrangle and theoretically, everyone else might fall into line.
Rubbing out the messages from the girl in the second row, I drew a large figure eight on the chalkboard. Turning to face them, I waited with my arms crossed and looked pointedly at Sam. He nudged the boys next to him and told them to shut-up and listen. The disgruntled want-to-learners sat up straight and ready. The nasty girls looked over from their conversation rolled their eyes. Sam yelled “Oi, shut up Scarlet. We might get to do something.”
Scarlet looked curiously over at Sam and swung around in her chair to face me, mouth smacking as she chewed her gum with her mouth hanging open, looking remarkably less graceful than a cow chewing its cud.
Finally, thanks to Sam, the room was quiet. I pointed to the left side of the figure eight.
“This side of the figure will have a list of the activities that you need to do in order to learn today,” I said. Before they could cut in with their moaning and complaining, I held up a finger. “This side is your list of preferred activities that I will organise for you, should everyone in the class do their very best on these activities,” I said, pointing to the left again. “We move left to right, one learning activity for each preferred activity. This way, we will move through the day and everyone gets a bit of learning done and everyone gets to do something fun. I have the list of the learning activities. Let’s create a list of the fun activities that you would like to do.”
Gary poked his head in through the door five minutes before the lunch bell was due to ring. He was holding his cup of coffee in trembling hands. His eyes widened as he took in the students, working quietly in small groups on the series of simple maths problems on the board. His goggled at Scarlet who had discarded her cud and now raised her hand to let me know she had finished her work.
“Then Scarlet, you may select an activity from the fun side of the figure,” I smiled at her. I wanted to say how proud of her I was, but that might push the envelope too far.
Gary retreated to his own chaos.
After lunch, the class filed in, less rowdy than earlier in the day. Hands were raised and I instructed them to carry on as they had in the morning session. I worked with small groups and created extra activities for those students who wanted a challenge. The day went on, with the occasional smatter of backchat but with a quick glance at Sam an order was issued that quickly terminated the misdemeanour.
With twenty minutes to go until the end of the day, Mr Lockhart waltzed into my room, this time eyebrows raised so high, they competed for forehead space with his hair plugs. “Here for the week aren’t we?” he asked.
Twenty-eight years later, my new Mazda bumped into the car park at Victorusmonous State School. The black and yellow crows called out “Good morning Mrs Croftly,” as I crossed the yard to my classroom in the outermost section of the school.