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Coming of Age Creative Nonfiction LGBTQ+

What could I have put on the report?

“Use dirty praise,” the school executive instructs.

Dirty praise” limits possibilities. But I can understand why we’ve been told this. After all, these final reports will be seen by potential employers. No point in making things difficult for the boys, or the school, with comments about unfinished homework, or their tendencies to talk back, or an obsession with I-Pads, games, or mobile phones. Attendance statistics will tell that employer about punctuality. It’s not my job to make that comment. Not something that has to be stated twice.

Anyway, when these boys are getting paid, I’m sure their arrival-on-time attitudes will change. They will quickly realize that sauntering in ten minutes after the bell will mean less cash in their pocket, might even cost their jobs. Welcome to the real world, boys. Some might even regard being on time as much more important than they would have for an English class.

But I am being distracted by my charge’s flippancy; I must get back to these report comments? I do try to be as honest as possible. Our computer system will always allow me to say things like:

Robert is able to make contributions to classroom discussions. He prepares well for assessment tasks and would benefit from a structured revision program leading into his final exams.

While this comment technically says nothing, with it I have met the management’s implied expectations.

My first exchange with Robert, from his back row central position was to respond to a comment about working hard to achieve something worthwhile from his final school year. Otherwise, a non-university alternative future could be, ‘fronting up at the Social Security Office on a regular basis.’

‘I don’t care, I’d be happy with that,’ Robert’s grinning faced response.

But he did care. When the marks gained exceeded his openly talked about, low expectations, or when he attached himself to something which brought positive results, Robert simply couldn’t hide his joy.

I suppose some of this could go into a report comment, but how would I word that?

When interested, Robert is motivated…Despite a façade, he really does want to do well…

Later I was confronted by his year adviser, ‘I want you to listen to Robert’s comments.’

I must have looked particularly dumbfounded as she continued, ‘particularly directed toward Peter.’

These names are not really that uncommon, but mine is the only senior English standard group, so I know exactly which two students she is talking about.

Other teachers have more than one advanced class, but I am left with the bottom scrapings from the barrel that the school thinks will bring down the advanced English average mark, so these boys have been aggressively shovelled towards my class. I seem to be the noted expert for boys of this calibre, except Peter is far from typical of my usual charge. He is an office bearer in the student council; he plays the trumpet with the band and is a cross country runner of some repute. There won’t be any problem finding affirmatives to pad out his final report. Peter came to my class after making the decision to maximise his grades and rank with Standard English. He even sort advice to make those decisions during the subject selection process in lower school years.

I can still recall parts of those exchanges, ‘I want to enjoy lots of different things without having to stress about my potential grades, rankings and scores, Miss.’

So, I was still confused about what the year adviser is getting at, I ask, ‘Listen to them, why?’

Those two boys sit in very different locations; I can picture Robert, centre equi-distance from both walls. Whereas Peter often secrets himself in the left-hand corner, hidden form the view of anyone walking past the rooms by a storage cupboard and my out-of-control Anthenium. Thus, if these two were talking to each other would indicate boys in my room were in total disarray, making all sorts of cross-the-room exchanges in loud volume. Never happens! I would even be so confident to say such dialogue did not even occur in my absence. Not that leaving my class unsupervised something I’d even contemplate doing.

‘I heard that Robert was needling Peter in another class, some homophobic slurs, trying to get a response.’ The year adviser continued.

Peter! She must have this wrong; he doesn’t even act gay. Not that there is anything wrong with that orientation, but I would not have pegged Peter within a ten-foot barge pole of homosexuality. Not all boys in a single sex school are like that; we don’t even have statistically more gays than the general population. Actually, sometimes I think those poor gay boys, are kept struggling inside their closets, constrained by any likely taunts from what I would call Alpha males. Surely Robert would never stoop so low as to be taunting Peter about his sexuality.

No, Peter draws more attention because of his loud honking laugh. You have seriously crossed the line into hilarity to get that amusing creature to surface. Such a pity that this quality couldn’t have been remarked upon as part of a report comment - I love it, on those rare occasions his laugh has tumbled forth. Often, his response to any humour will only be in revealing those braces with an endearing grin. Peter’s laugh is much more ridicule-worthy than any likelihood of his being gay. Still the boys can keep a heap of thing hidden from their grey-haired English teacher.

‘Reeks of being bullied and we want to make sure it gets nibbed in the bud,’ the year adviser confides.

Again Peter, with all his seeming confidence does not strike me as a potential target. Neither does that full of his own newly emerging attractiveness - Robert strike me as likely to get kicks from picking on another boy, but like I said these boys do keep all sorts of things tucked away from me.

‘Don’t say anything to either of them, but if you notice those types of comments, let me know.’

Now it is graduation day, well after reports are written, when a science teacher and I are struggling with our allocated task of marking a roll when everyone arrived at the hall en-masse.

‘Robert, over there, conducted a very interesting science project.’ He begins to confide. ‘You know they have to do an independent study of some sort, and record evidence of testing hypotheses?’

These comments make me feel that there isn’t enough cross-pollination of assessment requirements across key learning areas, other than making sure senior boys don’t have multiple tasks due within too short a time span. Which isn’t always possible. I still wonder how students manage to combine work demands of their various assignments.

‘Yeah, he decided he wanted to test the effect of air-conditioning on his dog,’ continues my scientific peer. ‘Trouble was he used the ceiling vent, and the animal was a tiny Maltese-cross thing. So, to be able to record effects of chilled air, Robert got the outlet and dog closer. All his photographic evidence shows a terrified animal – Robert is holding him – up a step ladder.’

Right about then a whole lot of pennies are dropping into place. Minor details like the way Robert used to grumble when anyone sat in ‘his’ chair. Eventually other boys avoided that seat like the plague. As if something about such seating resisted any other grey shorts or trousers being placed bottom down in such a location.

If we knew more about what these boys were doing, in other subjects, or in the playground…if there had been a chance to put together random bits of information… But then I think, just exactly what could teachers do with this sort of data once it could be collated to make some real sweeping statements about their potential post-school pathways.

I saw Peter again, weeks later; he came to the staff room door. I noticed how fresh faced he looked without his braces, keen as mustard, smiling widely as he asked about a reference.

‘Thought I’d try my hand at a few casual jobs in a café before university, Miss.’

I wished him well and felt a warm rush of eagerness about his forthcoming life that mirrored an aura of positive energy.

It was on the way to the train station; in my persona of an old lady trying to negotiate several controlled crossings and avoid being hit by cars impatient with school zone speed restrictions. When a flashy, late model Ute, which emanated that intense doof-doof they loosely call music, didn’t stop, I jumped back from the road edge, to protect myself from imminent collision. Couldn’t be 100% sure but from the scouring face and yelled comment, I felt as confident as possible, the driver was Robert.

This was the point when I could not help considering that quote from King Lear – as flies are to wanton boys; we are to the gods… Right about now I think that line needs reversal, surely the boys are crueller than the gods. When we were in the old buildings, I had a cactus on a lovely sunny windowsill. From time to time the boys used to impale the sunlight-drunk blowflies on its spikes. This was an interesting variation on a more typical wing or leg amputations. But some individuals are even more sadistic.

Would there be a situation where I could be more honest and used less dirty praise on those report comments:

I am concerned that Robert will target people who he considers to be weak or marginalised. I have already noted that he attempts to dominate others. Robert makes demands and keeps up a façade that perpetuates his innocence regarding any negative outcomes. I can envisage a future for this young man where he will be beating a partner, or embedded in a violent exchange, maybe he will even become a mercenary, although I doubt Robert ever being motivated by a cause, other than his own gains. Perhaps he will not be the protagonist of violence, but he will be grinning evilly from the side-lines.

But with these words I would have exceeded the allowable word count.

January 05, 2022 04:21

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1 comment

Erin Olig
14:16 Jan 10, 2022

Very engaging read. Left me thinking on the idea of “dirty praise”. Thanks for sharing!


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