Figures differ depending on where you live, but here I’m one of the 1,300 born with a cleft lip. A genetic fault caused part of my upper lip to split on the right side reaching to my nose in the early stage of my mother’s pregnancy.
It could have been the perfect lesson. If it weren’t for one thing! Or one person, to be precise.
If I’m going to talk about this, I should at least be honest. It was more than one person, but she was the kingpin; the skittles would not have fallen had she played it straight.
There’s a high-pitched hum in my head. My heart thumps, a pulsing fuelled by dread.
Fight or flight? If I had the option, I’d fly. Be anywhere but here. I want to fly across the ocean and land on that peerless sun-kissed beach of my imagination. To breathe in the tang of the sea, run along the shore, select conical shells lined in pink, and spread them in a ring on the soft-grained sand.
Or, I can stay and fight:
The option of slapping that dolly face into submission, stopping that mouth, is appealing. I’ve heard people say words can’t break you, but it’s not true. Words are worse than sticks and stones. The damage lasts so much longer.
But I sit and wait.
My mouth is as dry as an old dog’s bone. Anxiety levels notch up to breaking point. For what feels like the hundredth time, I check the octagonal clock on the classroom wall. Two minutes past two. My angel of light is running late. Please let her come soon.
The excruciating Countdown in my head continues. One, two, three, four, five. Feels like the seconds of grace before for an execution.
Any moment, it will start. The air crackles with tension.
In my head, the humming is high-pitched, intolerable. Decibels rising to match my isolation.
My request is simple. I JUST WANT TO ENJOY MY ENGLISH LESSON.
If it were only that simple!
The question is not going to be about whether we will read Shakespeare, which we will, but about the quality of the next hour. If all goes well, it will set me up for the next day; longer if the kingpin stays away.
All my hopes are dashed when Stell Hartless wanders in like something out of a fashion spread. All chiselled bones, and makeup so perfect it looks like it’s been sprayed on. A 10 out of 10 for her outfit as she sashays her way to the middle row.
Meanwhile inside me, something shatters. I was hoping she would stay off sick for longer. Without her bugging, the last two weeks have passed like a delicious dream.
I can try closing my eyes and pretend she’s not here, but her scent gives her away. It fails to mask the venom of a natural-born predator.
I wait for this goddess of spite to make her way to the front of the classroom. Hand on hip, she’ll walk the aisle in her trademark style. Her way of making a statement before the lesson begins. Marking her pitch, she chalks up a cartoon pinpointing my obvious ‘deficiency.’ Titling it ‘Harelip’ she draws a pink bubble round my lip, the remnant of a cleft palate, making it project grotesquely. She should enter it under a competition marked “Vascular.”
Her talent is wasted here.
The chair scrapes as my enemy rises. The hum in my head hits a high-pitched whine.
Suddenly all eyes are on the opening door. Stell sits back down.
WHAT A RELIEF!
There’s to be a reprieve. A stay of execution.
Stell and her supporters now have other fish to fry. A diminutive woman wearing a headscarf, of all things, enters the snake pit. Miss Weeble, a teacher of mature years, surely close to retirement, rumoured to have many qualifications, is hopeless when it comes to classroom management. She taps her way across the linoleum floor like a tiny bird in a cage, no longer able to fly. The stilettoes add a few inches, maybe her one concession to vanity.
A footnote to happier times, perhaps?
My relief at no longer being a target, is layered with disappointment.
I was hoping Mrs Grange would be teaching today. That would have been the best case scenario. The icing on the cake. A lesson with the right teacher can set you up for the day. It’s fascinating to note the effect her presence has on everyone. When she enters the room, the students are instantly engaged. She enthrals them. Quick-witted and vivacious, the love of her subject is infectious . EVERYONE LISTENS. WHEN SHE SPEAKS! Stell practically drools!
Mrs Grange’s replacement is a paper-thin woman with mottled-grey hair and a tired grainy voice.
But for me, even Miss Weeble proves a welcome distraction,
Anything to take the focus off me.
“Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.”
They must mean her breasts which are small and delicate. Like her.
“Now, now, girls, sit down.” Her voice, a broken weed, is a whisper of another life. Traces of Miss Havisham? Once loved and lost?
I’m already sitting down. I have no intention of getting up. Showing some respect is the least I can do in that class on the ground floor of the school’s main building.
“WEEBLES WOBBLE BUT THEY DON’T FALL DOWN!” I lose count of how many times this is chanted.
“Shush, please.” Weeble shakily hands round well-thumbed volumes of Romeo and Juliet. Over the din, her instructions are inaudible. “Will you please sit down? WE are studying Act two, scene two. Notice the beauty in the language Romeo uses when he talks of his love for Juliet.”
“Ooh, beauty in the language, is it?” Loud sniggering.
Beauty? Not something you’d know much about in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
“Have you got a boyfriend Miss?” Hysterical laughter from the middle section.
“Will you please sit down?”
“But have you?”
“I’m not here to discuss my private life.”
“Ooh, get you! I can’t imagine you having a boyfriend, Miss.”
That cuts deep. Who said it? Must be one of Stell’s supporters.
Miss Weeble’s eyes mist up. WHO SAID THAT? But I don’t want to draw attention to myself by turning round to find out.
Just for the record, Weeble is not ugly. Just sad and tired and unloved. Repressed in some way. Her clothes hang off her, like a refugee fleeing a war. Her cardigan is bland and faded, her skin pale and taut. Her eyes however, are alert, like those of a hunted deer.
Growing bored, Stell advances towards the sash window, pulling it up.
“You mustn’t do that. You might hurt yourself.”
The mayhem turns into a jungle roar. Stell jumps out of the window and disappears into the playground. Weeble looks resigned. A temporary truce. A trace of a smile as she holds her book to the light. At last, a chance to do what she’s paid to do.
But seriously, how does she bear it week in, week out? Why doesn’t she pack it in and leave? Anything would be better than this hell. I can’t help wondering sort of teacher she’d have made without the timidity?
Stell re-emerges from her escapade and once again the class grows feverish. Stell’s supporters stamp their feet declaring they are bored.
Weeble has failed yet again.
The door opens to a disgruntled Mrs Grange, in full Head of the English Department mode.
“What the hell is going on here?” Her tones are clipped. “Read the passage you’ve been asked to read in silence, girls.” Weeble stands hangdog in the corner. “May I have a word with you outside the classroom please, Miss Weeble?”
“Of course.” The colour drains from the older woman’s face.
The rest of the lesson passes without incident. I linger when everyone is leaving, not wanting to have to deal with Stell waiting to pounce in the corridor.
A drained Miss Weeble hovers while I slowly collect my work.
“How is your essay coming on, Nicky?”
“It’s getting there. Slowly.”
“I must say Mrs Grange was impressed with your last one. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve spoken to her. I said I thought you were ready to go up a set. To be honest, I’m not sure why you were put into this class in the first place.”
“I didn’t do well in the assessment tasks when I joined the school. It was a bad time for me. Thanks for putting in a word for me. That was kind of you.”
“It’s no problem. I don’t like to see a good pupil go to waste. Indeed not.”
Her eyes are sad. Like an orphan’s eyes.
“How do you put up with it?” The words are out before I can stop them. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I just don’t like the way, you know….”
“You are referring to Stell, of course.”
“She is pretty awful.”
“An unhappy, rather lonely girl beneath all that bravado, I would think. Problems at home are often the cause.”
I left the room, stunned by her magnanimity. In spite of the humiliation, she was able to forgive.
Even now, I can recall the second to last conversation I had with my tormentor. One of those rare moments when she decided to be half-human and throw a snippet my way. For a change, she spoke to me after the lesson.
“I hear you’re leaving us for better things.”
I simply nodded.
“You aren’t looking too bad today, by the way. A six out of ten.”
CRUSHED BY THE SIX!
“I’m glad you approve.”
“Keep it up and you might get a seven.”
The following week. I could hardly believe I was part of a class where the pupils ACTUALLY wanted to learn. No hollering, jumping out of windows or bullying. An ideal environment. The perfect lesson. True bliss.
Professional as ever, Mrs Grange inspired us with her usual flair. We now had the meatier ‘King Lear’ to contend with.
Enjoying my studies, the weeks passed, blending into one. Happily occupied, I gave little thought to poor Miss Weeble.
That all changed when Mrs Grange turned up one day lacking her usual spark, to make the following announcement.
“I know some of you have been taught by Miss Weeble in the past. What you probably didn’t know is that she’s been unwell for some time.” Cancer wasn’t a word readily spoken by people then. Or, if it was, it was in hushed tones behind closed doors. As if saying it aloud made it catching. Weeble must have endured her treatments in silence, with no one to turn to. Mrs Grange lowered her voice. “I’m sorry to say she died last week.”
Hearing about Miss Weeble’s death shocked me to the core. I could only imagine what she must have suffered, putting on a brave face, all the while having to endure the barrage of abuse in her classes. For weeks, I was haunted by an image of her face. A beautiful compassion-filled face.
In spite of everything life threw at her, she truly cared about others.
At last, we were nearing the end of the school year. There was a lightness about the place, with the summer holidays round the corner. The English lesson had been moved to the first floor. A glimpse from the window revealed the outline of trees beyond the school railings. The teacher’s cars shone in the driveway, transformed by the sun.
It had been a relief not having to endure another lesson with Stell. If I saw her in the corridor, I deliberately walked the other way.
However, a week before the end of term, I heard someone crying in the toilet. The distinctive perfume gave things away. I was about to make a sharp exit when she emerged from the cubicle, all puffy-eyed and blotchy.
“Oh, it’s you. What do you want?”
“Nothing. You seem upset.”
“What do you care? I’ve never done you any favours.”
I didn’t know what to say to this.
“I look a sight!” She examined herself in the mirror, dabbing cold water over her face. Then, “Have you heard about old Weeble dying?”
“It’s hard to take in.”
“No great loss. She was a funny one.”
“She had nothing bad to say about you, though. And she wasn’t funny. She was just lonely and ill. She was a good person. You should have treated her better.” Some of my pent-up anger was released. “And while we’re about it, I’m not ugly. I can’t help it if I was born with a cleft lip.”
My words hung in the air, huge and amorphous. After a while, Stell squeaked her heels across the floor, reminding me of the chalk she scraped across the board when drawing her cartoons.
“I didn’t mean any harm. It was just a laugh,” she said. “Anyway, you’ll be glad to hear my parents are splitting up and I’m moving away with mum. I’ll be starting a new school. My dad’s going to pay for me to go private. Catch up on my education. This isn’t a great school.”
“Have you any idea how much my mum worried when I was growing up? How upset she’d have been if I’d told her you made fun of me because of my lip. It’s rude to call it a hare- lip, by the way. My mum was with me every time I had an operation as a baby and she supported me through all the speech therapy and painful dental work. You are so lucky to have a flawless face. It’s just a shame about your personality.”
“I didn’t realise you felt like that,” she muttered.
“Do you think you can at least try and be a bit nicer in your new school? Not everything is about how a person looks, you know.”
“Yeah, ok. My mum says it’s a dog eats dog world. The top dog wins, or you get crushed. I suppose I can try being nicer. But I wouldn’t bank on it. Where did being nice get Weeble? What difference did she make to any one?”
Stell may have been right about dog eat dog. I’m not a therapist and I don’t know why Weeble was unable to assert herself in the classroom. It was sad because all she really wanted to do in life was teach.
What I can say with certainty is she did make a difference.
She made a difference to me.