‘Teaching is only demonstrating that it is possible. Learning is making it possible for yourself.’ –Paulo Coelho
It’s almost three o’clock and classroom 2C is humming with the not-so-quiet anticipation of fourteen six and seven-year-olds. The weekly spelling tests rustle back to their owners amidst hushed mutters and scraping chairs. Sally tries to ignore the heavy feeling in her tummy as she passes Adam’s test back to him. She thinks she got one right - the first one ‘sugar’ - but the others—
“Everyone ready?” Miss Brown asks. Sally likes her best; she smiles more than the other teachers and never shouts. She’s quite like the China doll Granny gave her for Christmas with her black shoulder-length hair and shiny cheeks. Brandishing her little teacher’s notebook, Miss Brown asks, “James?”
The seconds tick onwards, but not fast enough. Six out of ten. Seven. Nine. Sally slides down in her chair. The lowest score so far is six and that’s from Bobby (who picks his nose with the pointy end of pencils and licks his desk). Then, it’s Charlotte’s turn. Sally winces as the girl at the front bounces in her seat and shrieks “Ten out of ten!” And then asks in the same breath, "Can I have a House-point, Miss?"
Miss Brown shoots Charlotte a look that Sally recognsies; it’s the one her mum uses if Sally asks for a cookie when she knows she isn’t allowed one.
“First of all,” Miss Brown says, “you should raise your hand if you wish to ask something. Second of all, you know full well that you have to get ten out of ten three weeks in a row to get a House-point.” Miss Brown spreads her hands. “Did you get ten out of ten last week?"
"No buts Charlotte. That's the rule. End of. Now then, where was I… uh, Sally?"
Silence seeps into the classroom as the children stop their fidgeting and turn their heads towards Sally. Her long brown hair falls over her tiny sloping nose and dark eyes like a veil.
She keeps her head down and her hands thrust under her bum so they don’t see them shaking. It's as though ants are crawling over her bare skin. She mumbles into the desk.
“Sally?” Miss Brown says, smiling encouragement. “Speak up, please.”
A ripple of sniggers and shuffled feet sweeps around her. Sally’s face burns. Zero. Last week it was One. She bites her bottom lip. I’m not stupid, she thinks, but then her own mind points out that smart kids don’t get zeros. The thick red circle around the 0/10 on her paper blurs – no one else got a zero – and she shoves the tears away with the back of her hand, hoping that none of her classmates notice, which of course they do.
The snorts come at her from every direction. She squeezes her eyes shut, but that only makes it worse. Her imagination conjures a litter of nightmarish pigs with glowing red eyes, hungry, their dirty, smelly snouts closing in.
Miss Brown’s voice jolts her back into the classroom and the images recede into the shadows of her mind. She isn’t entirely sure that she’s grateful. Despite Miss Brown’s stern expression, the laughter is still there in stifled chortles and badly restrained cackling from the front of the class in particular.
Still, it does subside and Miss Brown continues to take down everyone’s marks. Her pencil scratches the 7s and 8s and 6s underneath Sally’s enormous gaping 0. Miss Brown tells Bobby (who got a four) to try harder next week and Sally wonders why she didn’t say that to her. She gulps down a hard swelling in her throat and eyes the clock, willing the hands to move faster.
Hopefully, by Monday everyone will have forgotten how dumb she is and not laugh at her. If they do, she could say she’s sick and be sent home and stay under her Bluey duvet forever and—
Miss Brown claps her hands together and gives out the list of ten new words to learn for next Friday. The bell rings and the mad dash for the playground - and the weekend - ensues.
“Sally!” Miss Brown’s voice rises over the hubbub. “Please come and see me before you go.” Oh no.
She’s never been summoned to the teacher’s desk before. She slings her schoolbag over one shoulder and approaches; her mouth dry, her stomach tight. Miss Brown must be very angry with her. She passes Charlotte and Jim on her way who elbow each other and whisper “Simple Sally” just loud enough for her to hear, but not the teacher.
Once at the desk, her gaze falls on Miss Brown’s shoes. They’re pretty, shiny black ones with perfectly tied laces. She remembers learning to tie her own laces; she learnt quick. She’d been proud and thought herself clever (much cleverer than Bobby the desk-licker who never managed it and now wears Velcro shoes), but that was then.
"Sally.” Miss Brown is sitting down; she leans forward resting her forearms on her knees. “Why aren't you learning your words?"
“I-I’m sorry, Miss.”
“Don’t be sorry.” Sally looks up to see Miss Brown frowning at her, but she doesn’t look mad, she looks— “Does your mother help you?"
Sally shifts her feet and winds one finger in her hair. "She's very busy,” she says. However, she senses that this is bad so she rushes to add. "She works really hard, Miss. I don’t want to worry her and um Dad's not at home anymore and—"
“Okay, okay.” Miss Brown's voice softens. "How do you try to learn them? Do you just look at them?"
Sally thinks about it for a moment. "Yes."
With a flourish, Miss Brown produces a sheet of paper and ushers Sally close. She smells of flowers and chalk.
"Watch this." She writes "receive" on the paper. Her handwriting is swirly like the covers of Sally's fairy tale books at home.
"Look." Miss Brown holds one finger on the word and then folds the paper in half. "Cover." She then writes "receive" on the other side. "Write. This way you can teach yourself and practice as many times as you want without … bothering your mum. Will you practice spelling the words like this?"
Sally nods solemnly, takes the folded paper and places it in her bag. A pleasant sensation warms her tightly scrunched up little tummy as she exits the classroom and walks out into the sunny playground to wait for her mum – ignoring the quiet chants of “Simple Sally” as she goes. She keeps her eyes forward and fingers the paper in her bag. It makes her feel better, just knowing it’s there.
SAT-UR-DAY and SUN-DAY
When Dad picks her up after breakfast, Sally kisses her mum goodbye and darts off to wait by the car. She doesn’t know what Mum and Dad are thinking, but the unspoken words hover nonetheless, sucking at the air around them like a storm cloud that grows dark when they are too close together.
So, she waits, spying on them in the car door window. She crosses her fingers. Maybe if they don’t know she’s looking, they’ll smile and hug and kiss and then they can all go back inside and have pancakes and everything will be normal again…
But that doesn’t happen.
Dad takes her to the village’s community centre and lets her have a Coca-Cola while they play dominos. She likes it there; the seats are comfy and she feels a bit like a grown-up. Mum never brings her here. There are a few bearded men sitting at the bar grumbling away and three older kids are playing pool at the back.
“How’s school?” Dad asks, sliding a domino into place.
Sally’s good at dominos, but so is Dad. They keep score with a pile of matchsticks and it’s a close game.
“Learning your times tables?” She nods, carefully placing her double-four domino.
“Alright, what’s six times three?”
She smiles. “Eighteen.”
Another kid – a little boy with red hair and freckles – is building a house out of cards on a table behind her dad. It’s really good. Too good. It distracts Sally from their game until her dad turns to see what she’s looking at. He lowers his voice. “He’s cheating.”
“What?” Sally heard, she just doesn’t understand.
“Look.” He points to a small white tube on the table next to the boy’s left hand. “He’s using glue to stick the cards together.”
She decides she’s going to find some glue and build her own house that can’t be knocked down. Then, she wonders if she could use it to stick Mum and Dad back together. But… would they be happy about it or angry? It bothers her immensely that she isn’t sure.
The weekend goes by in a blur of games and questions (she's relieved when Dad doesn’t ask about Mum because she isn’t sure what she’s allowed to say), but she doesn’t look at her list of words. The importance of it shrivels in her schoolbag when all she can think about is how Dad should be back at home where he belongs.
Not in this strange flat with its lumpy sofa and bare walls. It smells funny too, but she doesn’t say. Mostly because the only nice thing about it is ‘her room’, which has been painted bright pink with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling (just like at home). “Do you like it?” he’d asked that first weekend. It was said in the same flat voice he uses when he’s upset but trying to hide it (Dad’s not very good at that… neither is Mum). He really wanted her to like it. “Yes, Daddy,” she’d said. “I like it.”
Sally knows her daddy loves her and she also knows that Mummy loves her. They just don’t love each other anymore.
But knowing and understanding are two very different things.
The house is so much quieter without Dad. She never noticed before how much noise he made. Stomping around upstairs, calling down to Mum, asking where this or that was.
Even the night is softer as Sally lies awake for what feels like hours, straining to hear Dad’s deep snores which aren’t there. And instead hearing Mum’s muffled sobs which she wishes she can’t.
She wants to go to her mum. Every sob hooks into her and tug, tug, tugs, making her ache on the inside. But she isn’t supposed to have heard. So, she stays in bed and waits for the noises to stop.
Mum is always happiest in the morning and saddest at night. Sally thinks that maybe she starts off with a certain amount of happiness every day and uses it all up too quickly.
She also wonders if she’s doing the same thing.
When Sally is doing the hop-scotch in the playground, Elliot appears, his curly mop of black hair jiggling along with him. He doesn’t laugh at her in class, but that might be because they’re both in Tiger House. Either way, she likes him.
“My mum and dad got divorced last year,” he says.
Sally blinks and opens her mouth but no sound comes out. She closes it again. How does he know? She hasn’t told anyone. Does everyone know? She’s only ever heard Mum, Dad and Granny say that word before. Oblivious to her shock, he continues. “They yell a lot at the start, but it gets better.” He nods wisely, then abruptly walks off to play ball with Bobby and Tyler. Sally stares after him.
“Thanks.” She knows this is the right thing to say, but she doesn’t feel thankful, just confused.
There’s been no yelling. None at all. Why not? Should they be yelling?
And then it clicks. All the sudden silences. The times they immediately stopped talking when she walked in the room or the times they went into the kitchen, closed the door and whispered for ages (which was very weird). The slammed cupboards, the smashed dandelion teacup she found her mum sweeping up one morning and the look on Dad’s face when he said he’d see her at the weekend.
This is what she is contemplating when she re-enters the classroom after lunch, not noticing the concern on her teacher’s face.
Miss Brown gets them to do the four times tables, fractions and telling the time. Sally likes fractions, they make sense to her. All the different pieces making a whole. Beautiful, she thinks. It’s one of the words on her list, which she still hasn’t worked on, but Friday is really far away.
At home, she watches Bluey while she eats her cheesy pasta and Mum does something in the kitchen. It’s one of her favourite episodes; there’s an evil spell cast on the family, but at the end Bingo saves Bluey with a big hug. She smiles and fetches the list of words. She starts writing ‘parents’ but shoves it back in her schoolbag when Mum comes back in. I’ll do it tomorrow, she thinks. If Mum sees, it’ll make her sad.
Much later, a thin slash of moonlight illuminates her bedroom as she awakes to the familiar sound of Mum crying. Slowly, she slides out of bed and pads across the hallway.
“Sally?” Her mum pushes herself up on one elbow. “What is it, sweetie?”
Sally wants to ask what’s wrong, but knows somehow that this is a silly question. Mum doesn’t want her to know she’s been crying, just like she doesn’t want Sally to know her and Dad sometimes yell at each other.
So instead, Sally says, “I had a nightmare. Can I sleep with you?”
“Of course. Come in.”
Sally wiggles into her mother’s warmth and waits, looking through the gap in the curtains at the stars and the moon which never change. She waits until her mum’s breathing shifts deeper and the arm around Sally’s waist goes heavy.
Then, she sleeps.
2C is a bomb of glitter, paper and glue. Bobby makes a purple flower which is pretty good considering he isn’t allowed the glue after what happened last time. Sally, Elliot and Jill have fun making a big display of blue and red flowers on a silvery gold background.
The glue reminds her of the boy building the house of cards. She could take some home and build her own house, one that can’t fall down. Then again, if it’s not meant to stay up, why force it? Dad did say it was cheating.
That evening, she goes up to her room straight after dinner and practices her words.
Over and over and over again.
Look, cover, write… look, cover, write…
In the center of classroom 2C, Sally is quiet. Still. Her hands rest in her lap. It is all a lie. Inside, she is sparkling and fizzing like the lit end of a fuse.
Miss Brown is collecting their scores with her brown pencil and her little teacher’s pad. Eight out of ten. Five. Seven. Bobby got 7, which earns him a nod of approval. Charlotte squeals her second ten out of ten in a row, flicking her ponytail in delight. Sally doesn’t mind.
When her name is called, there is absolutely no hesitation before she cries, “NINE out of ten!”
Miss Brown freezes, but only for a second before she claps her hands and even gives a little hop of excitement. She looks exactly like Sally feels.
"Well done, Sally! That's brilliant!" Miss Brown grabs an orange marker and marches over to the House-points board. "One House-point for the Tigers!"
A cheer roars up from the other Tiger House members, but not everyone is pleased. Charlotte is furious.
"That's NOT FAIR!" she wails. "You have to get ten out of ten THREE times in a row! She only got NINE!"
Sally’s smile falters. She’s right. Those are the rules, but it doesn’t feel unfair.
"No, Charlotte,” Miss Brown says. “I’m making an exception for exceptional hard work. To go from zero to nine in one week is an enormous improvement… and she deserves a House-point for that." Miss Brown punctuates this sentence with a thick House-point on the Tiger's wallchart and turns to face Sally with a radiant smile. "I’ll expect a ten out of ten from you next week, Sally."
She nods so enthusiastically her teeth clatter together.
Back at home, Sally’s watching Postman Pat when she hears Mum on the phone in the kitchen. It sounds like she’s talking to Granny and that means she might be talking about Dad, so she sidles up to the door and listens. I’ll only listen for a little bit, she tells herself. Then it’s not naughty.
“Maybe… I could study in the evenings once Sally’s asleep… Oh, I don’t know… Hey, that’s not fair. It’s not his fault, you know. It was both—”
“Mummy?” Sally pushes open the kitchen door, feeling guilty.
“Hi, sweetie,” her mum says. “I’m just talking to Granny.”
Sally cocks her head. “What about?”
“I, uh, well… there’s something I’d like to do and I’m not sure if I can do it or not," she says. "That’s all.”
One day, Sally’s mother will remind her what happened next (she will have forgotten; the spelling test taking precedence in her memory and shunting aside everything else). Sally will learn the words inspiration and pride, but for now, she uses happiness for the expression on her mum’s face. And that is good enough for her.
After a long moment, Sally shrugs and says, “You’ll never know unless you try.”