Sheila tapped the right heel of her brown pump on the cold floor of the corridor outside 6B. Her hands were freezing. It was five minutes past the bell. The cacophony inside the classroom with the young art teacher shouting, “Okay, that’s enough. Wind up! Those who have not finished, please complete it at home!” refused to subside. The 11-year-old marauders continued to work with a frenzy on their masterpieces by snatching the supplies from each other.
Sheila glanced at the second hand on her watch ticking away for another minute and took a deep breath. Steadying the box containing a battery, plotting compass, copper wire, and a switch with both her hands she pushed open the half-closed classroom door with her right shoulder and announced, “Good afternoon, girls!”. A gush of cold air from outside stifled the noise.
The marauders stopped in their tracks. The art teacher bundled up a pile of ghastly artwork with a sheepish grin and whispered on her way out, “You know how they are! at this time of the year.”
“Well, I know they are the same in your class at any time of the year!” Sheila pummelled in a low voice. The art teacher scurried out of the door with a crumpled face even as the girls at the front desk giggled. Sheila set down the box on the table and looked at her class with a smile that meant shut up and get down to business.
“Now, girls! We are already ten minutes into the period and your classroom is looking like a dustbin at the fish market. Do you want to conduct the electricity experiment today or not?”
There were a handful of girls with atrociously drawn Santas who gave a cheerful, “Yes, ma’am!”. The rest of the class stuffed their bags with incomplete decorations, wet paint boxes, and broken crayons. A couple of girls at the back continued to snip folded white sheets with scissors under their desks.
Sheila scribbled on the green board- Electric Current ↔ Magnetic Field. Then turned to her class and boomed, “Okay, you at the back. Rani! can you please share with the class what is the relationship between these two entities?”. A second later she waved her right arm at the board, fiercely, tracing an imaginary infinity symbol, her eyes glued to Rani all the while.
Rani stood up. The scissors clanged on the floor. A folded white sheet fell with a rustle.
The colosseum of 6B waited with bated breath. It was always fun to watch when someone’s head was bitten off.
“Can you please pick up the things you dropped and show them to the class?” Sheila’s gravelly voice poured fuel into the fire of silent excitement.
The oil pastel fireplace that was pasted on the class library cupboard blazed. It was a regular in Nita’s class every year in December. The twine lines that crisscrossed the ceiling of the classroom had cut-outs of stockings, hollies, stars, reindeer, and other ornaments stapled onto them. It looked magical, and all set to win the title of the best-decorated class. Again.
Rani picked up the scissors. She unfolded the white sheet, carefully separating the fragile dendrites and holding up a perfectly formed snowflake. The class gasped.
Beautiful! Wasting the precious pulp on fleeting things of fancy!
“Do you realize how much paper has been wasted in this class? The paper that has been produced by felling the trees?” Sheila swung her arms wildly at the ceiling.
“But Nita ma’am has told us to complete decorating the classroom by today. Sister will come to judge tomorrow morning, first thing,” said a muffled voice that hoped to go anonymous, in vain.
“Of course, Sasha! Decorate all you want, but not during my period. And you, Rani, if you are not going to answer my question, the least you can do is help me set up this experiment.” Sheila glowered at the snowflake girl.
As Rani approached the table with hands behind her back, Sheila looked at the clock and tsked. Taking out the components from her box she announced to the class dramatically, “I thought I would give each one of you a chance to conduct this experiment. But looking at the time, you are lucky if every group gets to look at it once!”
The class murmured.
“That too only if you stay disciplined!”
The class fell silent.
Sheila crossed the desolate middle school play area. The extreme cold had forced the P.E. teachers to conduct their classes indoors, often showing the reruns of football/basketball/cricket matches in the multimedia hall. As she struggled to hold up the box with her gloved hands to climb up the stairs, Sister Prema walked up from behind.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Sheila. Going to the lab?”
“Good afternoon, Sister! Er...”
The petite sister nodded and sped past Sheila.
Something inside Sheila stirred and made her move with a burst of energy. She caught up with Sister Prema, hyperventilating. Sister looked at her quizzically.
“Sister, may I have a word?”
“Not now, Ms. Sheila. Maybe after I finish my rounds.”
The young, lithe form moved away swiftly; Attentive to the voices pouring out of the classrooms and the forms moving inside them.
Sheila sighed. The box felt heavier.
What’s the point? The world belonged to the show-offs and the sycophants. The Nitas who made their students paint a hundred earthen lamps with shiny colours oozing lead on Diwali and pinned a thousand ornaments on every possible surface on Christmas. And walked away with the best-decorated class award! Whereas she…
She had reached the Senior Physics Lab. A couple of senior teachers sat at the computer table eating their afternoon trail mix and chatting. The lab assistant smirked as she placed the box on the workbench. Wordlessly, he flipped open the ledger at her. She signed at the returned column and wondered if it was her fate to forever feel like a beggar asking for the alms of lab equipment.
Of all the ignoble tasks a middle school teacher did, returning equipment to the senior lab was the most humbling.
At the staff party, the carols were sung, the games were played, the winners were awarded their prizes, and the losers were given their gifts; most likely a set of three casseroles, again, wrapped in golden paper and given away with a flourish.
At least the food was delicious!
Sheila picked up a bowl of gulab jamun with ice cream after enjoying butter chicken with naan and pulao.
She looked at her colleagues, a few of them dressed in their festive best and a few gleefully broadcasting their vacation plans. The members of the school management were sitting at a little distance, with little food on their plates and with wide, watchful eyes. She caught Sister Prema’s eyes but quickly looked away. To her surprise, Sister got up and walked towards her. The other outcasts in Sheila’s company quickly scattered away as if they were filings of iron repelled by the electricity. After all, the new Principal had a formidable reputation. She was young, bright, and had a commanding presence despite her petite frame.
Of what use was it to anyone? A bright young science post-graduate of a principal, who didn’t value the magic of science experiments?
“How is the food, Ms. Sheila?”
“It’s excellent, as always, Sister. In all of the ten years I have been with the school, the management has always served good food on occasions like this.” Sheila answered drily and scooped up the vanilla ice cream that was turning mushy.
Sister smiled. “Glad to hear it. It is with the Lord’s blessings we can do so. Enjoy!” She took a step towards the other group. And stopped.
“Ah! One more thing. I discussed the suggestions you made about setting up an exclusive science lab for the middle school with the management. They have given a go-ahead. So, when you come back after the break, you and I have a lot of work to do. Have a blessed holiday!”
Before Sheila could react, Sister was enveloped by the winners group.
Sheila looked at the pine tree outside the window. A fine mist of snow crystals danced around it. She closed her eyes and inhaled, deeply.
There was magic in the air. Maybe aided by the magnetism in snowflakes. But it was evidently there.
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My first reaction to Sheila was that she really should not be teaching. A good teacher would find a way to bridge her subject with others, in this case art and be grateful that the previous teacher had put the class in a good mood. By the end, I was happy that she would have a chance to teach the subject she loved on her terms and hoped that she would have some of the anger dissapate. The Desi references, the food and the staff party really set the scene. I was intrigued by the line that the "losers were given their gifts" and not sure wha...
Good observation of a less than perfect teacher's conduct there. Though the system being what it is, I wouldn't be surprised to see many a enthusiastic teachers turn cynical over a period of time. And such people most likely keep scores of winners and losers ( at a party or in their profession). Thanks a lot for your read and comment, Wally. Appreciate it😊
Love the influx of Middle School stories I've been seeing on here lately. One of the site's most underrated genre tag, I think. So before anything else, thanks for giving us a Desi-inspired version of it, Suma! So, what I like about this story is that my expectations were subverted, not once but multiples times. I thought Sheila was a certain type of way, only for the ending to come around and soften her character and make us understand her motivations. I thought this story was going to mostly revolve around Sheila's relationship to Rani, b...
Hey Zack! Great to hear from you, as always 😌 Thank you so much for picking out things that you liked in this piece. This year has been an excellent learning experience and I'm ever so grateful to have found supportive people here. Hope to explore new genres and get better at writing next year. Have a fabulous new year, Zack. Take care. P.S.- Hoping you would sneak in a story this week at the last moment.
This is pretty pleasant on the surface, like one of the decorated classrooms, but underneath it actually gets pretty frustrating. Naturally I wondered why Sheila was so irritated. Was it personal problems? Issues with the staff? Dealing with loss? Well, turns out it's just supreme frustration. Perhaps burnout. Here's a person who cares deeply about her job, about adequately serving her students, and she doesn't get the resources she needs to do it. Worse, behaviour that directly interferes with her work is rewarded by the administration. Sh...
Thanks for your analysis that is spot on, as usual, Michal. You are right. She is a bit stuck in her own head, like a good cynic😂 Thank God for that.