There was a knock on Mrs Winters’ office door and she sighed. She looked at the stack of paperwork in her ‘In’ tray on her desk, before putting the cap back on her fountain pen and sitting upright.
“Enter,” she called. There was a chance, after all, that this was a quick query. It was a slim chance, and one look at the face of the teacher who leant round the door dashed that chance entirely. “What is it?”
“Sorry to disturb you, Ma’am.” The teacher bit their lip as they met the stern glare.
“What is it?”
“We’ve got a student that’s playing up. She’s been given detention by pretty much all of her teachers, but she’s still answering back.”
Mrs Winters sighed again and pulled the keyboard out from under her computer. “Very well. Which one is it?” She had a feeling she knew, but it would be unprofessional to call the file up without confirmation.
“That’s the other thing. It’s Elizabeth Evers.”
“Evers? She’s not a regular. Evers, Evers… why do I know that name?”
“She was at the last prize giving. She was nominated for the prize in, well, basically every subject. She’s one of our star pupils, in the top ten of the year sevens last year.”
The scowl on Mrs Winters' face was replaced with a curious frown. “And now she’s answering back to her teachers?”
“Yes, Ma’am. We’ve tried to make enquiries about her home life, make sure everything’s okay there. There doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary though.”
“Very well. I’ll see her now.” As much as Mrs Winters hated being interrupted when she was sorting paperwork, she couldn’t leave a puzzle like this. And she couldn’t let a good student ruin herself after a single year.
The door opened wider and Elizabeth Evers walked in. She glared as she came. They all glared as they were showed into the deputy headteacher’s office. During her ten years in the role, Mrs Winters had seen it all. The glares that said the students hated everything about the world, the glares that said they were hurting and lashing out was all they knew. Twice – just twice – she had seen the glares that spoke of a twisted soul. In the darkest nights, those were the looks that haunted her, and she hated opening newspapers the next days, fearing seeing those same eyes staring out as an ex-pupil was arrested for something heinous.
The glare from Elizabeth Evers was a new one on Mrs Winters however. She was angry, as they usually were, but there was nothing guarded about her look. She looked more fed up, or disappointed, as though she was the teacher about to lecture a naughty pupil.
The only acknowledgement Mrs Winters gave this peculiar thought was a raised eyebrow.
“Sit, Miss Evers,” Mrs Winters barked as Elizabeth walked up to the desk. The deputy head kept staring until the girl was sat, although it didn’t seem to be intimidating her at all. “Now, would you care to explain just what you think you’re doing?”
“Talking to you,” Elizabeth replied. She was picking at her sleeve and kicking her feet, but it didn’t feel like nerves. More boredom.
“There’s no need to be cheeky, young girl. What’s with this attitude, hmm? You were a good student last year, so why are you playing up?”
“Yes it does, young lady. You’re not leaving this office until you’ve explained yourself, and you’re going to keep getting detentions until you buck your act up. Should we call your parents in as well, see if they can explain why you’ve become so rude?”
With the good students, the threat of calling the parents was usually enough to get them to break. It worked on a few of the bad students as well, although Mrs Winters gut told her it was for a very different reason. The good students feared letting down their parents; the bad students just feared their parents.
But Elizabeth Evers just shrugged. “You can call them. They already know I’ve gotten detentions though.”
“And what did they say?”
Mrs Winters chewed the inside of her lip. She had a vague memory of the Evers couple from the prize giving. Smily, bubbly, engaged… assuming she was thinking of the right parents. Over the years, they all blended into one horrific, grinning blob. Either way, Mrs Winters was sure that Elizabeth’s parents had been at the prize giving. If the parents had lost interest in their child, for whatever reason, that could explain her sudden personality change.
“Very well.” Mrs Winters leant over to the computer and started digging through the student files to get a phone number for either of the Evers. It was still the middle of the day, so they might still be at work. Probably. The chances of having working parents was about fifty-fifty for the students at the school.
As she waited for the computer to crawl its way through the catalogue of names, Mrs Winters watched Elizabeth Evers. The girl was grinding her teeth and still picking at the edge of her sleeve. That could be the way in.
“Elizabeth,” Mrs Winters said in her best impression of a sympathetic voice, “if you’re angry at your parents for ignoring you, then we can talk to them.”
Elizabeth looked up at last. “My parents aren’t ignoring me. You are.”
Another raised eyebrow. “I was trying to talk to you. You were the one shutting down the conversation and being rude.”
“I don’t mean you you. I mean the school.”
Mrs Winters sighed and sat back in her chair. This was more familiar territory, although it usually came from the parents. ‘Our child is smart, but they’re just being left to colour in pictures while the teacher sees to everyone else.’ In the early days Mrs Winters had sympathised with them, but when it was a complaint every year she soon became bored of it. This was a mixed ability school, with very mixed abilities. Of course the teachers focused on the struggling students. Schools were marked off the average of their results. They needed to get as many people passing exams as they could. Sadly the parents never took it well when she pointed out that their dear little angel’s education was being sacrificed for the school rankings.
In ten years though, this was the first time she’d heard it from a student’s mouth.
“How is the school ignoring you, Elizabeth? What can we do to fix this?” Within reason, otherwise the phone number is right there.
Elizabeth chewed her lip for a moment. Term had only been back three weeks, and somehow the staff had isolated this young lady so much already. Mrs Winters was worried, although her perfectly still stature didn’t show that.
“Do you really want to know?” Elizabeth asked.
“I do. We can’t help if we don’t know.”
“Hmph. No one’s helped yet anyway.”
“Then talk to me. I don’t have a class–” Of annoying interrupting little brats. “– to disturb me.”
Elizabeth watched Mrs Winters’ face for a moment, trying to work out how sincere she was being. Then the little girl started crying. Mrs Winters sat back and clutched the arms of the chair, before collecting herself and leaning forward again.
“Go on, Elizabeth.”
“No one ever answers me! They explain something, then I ask why its like that and they just go ‘because it is’. What kind of answer is that? Learning about the Black Death, and Miss Cooper wouldn’t tell me anything more about the disease. It’s just ‘the Black Death’ and causes lumps and all that. Nothing about how contagious it actually was, or how it was transmitted, or if there are any modern cures for it. She just said ‘you don’t need to know that’, and then carried on.
“Or in science, all that stuff about the atomic model? How do we know that atoms are just circles? If its really that simple then why do people spend years at university learning about it? And what are all those diagrams on the lab walls, showing everything but circles?
“And in English. Mr Matthews always says that the authors use a colour to imply something, but how do we know that? What if the author just liked that colour? And how can he say for certain what the author was thinking when they died hundreds of years ago?
“And then there’s geography, when they talk about the tectonic plates. They say the plates destroy and create themselves at the fault lines, but what happens when there’s a huge stack of things on top of the plate? Does it get shoved off or does it go underneath?
Dear Lord, she won’t stop. “Okay, Elizabeth,” Mrs Winters said quickly. She cleared her throat and sat up, having been crushed under the weight of the girl’s curiosity. She couldn’t blame her colleagues for handing out detentions in the face of that. “All right. I think I can see the problem now.”
“The problem is that no one wants to teach me. They’re all just giving me baby stuff, but everyone said that when I got to high school it would be different. I’d be allowed to learn. I sat through all of year seven listening to the silly things the teachers said, but I can’t go through that for the rest of the year. I want to know more. I want to know how things work, and why. I want to make sense of everything. I need to know.”
Silence, blessed silence, fell over the office. Mrs Winters watched Elizabeth Evers. The tears had stopped, but the traces of them down her face screamed her anger. When the parents got angry about their child being left behind, it was because they thought that what they did or didn’t learn at age twelve would make a difference to how well they do at Oxford or Cambridge. But with Elizabeth, it wasn’t about the academic side. She asked the questions because she genuinely wanted the answers.
Old memories stirred in Mrs Winters head, memories punctuated by the slap of a cane.
“In short, Mrs Winters,” Elizabeth said, because clearly the deputy head had taken too long to reply. “I don’t believe this school is any good. It’s all lies and kiddie-versions of the truth. I want to be treated as an adult.”
“Elizabeth.” Mrs Winters steepled her fingers and looked over them. “Elizabeth, Elizabeth. I understand what you’re saying. I really do.” The slap of a cane echoed across the years. “I’m sorry you feel let down by us. But I hope you can understand the position we’re in. We have thirty students in each class. There’s no way we can spare a teacher with enough time to give you all the information you want.”
“But the special needs kids get personal help.”
This was an area Mrs Winters felt safer on. “High school grades can dictate a person’s life. It would be wrong of us to abandon those who struggle, and risk them being shut out of society all together.”
“I suppose.” About the same reaction the adults had when Mrs Winters used that argument on them. “So I just have to keep learning lies? Until when? When does the actual education start?”
When you learn some manners? For all that she sympathised, Mrs Winters still didn’t like Elizabeth Evers’ attitude. “Every year, each subject will go into more and more detail.” That made the girl’s shoulders sag, and Mrs Winters didn’t think they’d get off that easily. Her eyes caught the phone number on the screen next to her. Then she looked at the screen itself, and an idea struck her. “But I’ll tell you what.”
“What?” Elizabeth finally perked up, and Mrs Winters recognised the over-achiever from the prize giving. Oh yes, those had been the right parents she’d imagined earlier.
“I will make an arrangement with the other teachers. When you’ve finished all the work that they’ve set, you may borrow one of the school laptops for doing some additional reading. I’ll see if I can find you some coursework from older years as well.” Or perhaps the Open University. Trying degree level work might be enough to get her to shut up for five minutes. “Does that sound acceptable? That way you can go and find your own answers.”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “Seriously? Oh, wow, thank you, Mrs Winters!”
“It’ll take a few days to get everything set up, and get everyone briefed on it. And this is all on the understanding that you go back to being an A-grade student. Perfect attendance, your best effort, and no back-chat.”
“Yes, Mrs Winters. Of course, I’ll be as good as gold.”
The battle was won, and Mrs Winters sank back in her chair. “Very well. Go back to class for now, and behave. If I get any reports of you getting more detention by the end of the week than the deal’s off.”
“No, Mrs Winters. No more detentions, I promise.” Elizabeth bounced to her feet, and almost bowed. “Thank you.” And, like a cheery hurricane, the girl was gone.
Mrs Winters ran a hand through her hair. “I’m not paid enough for this,” she muttered as she reached over and started typing the agreement they’d just made on Elizabeth Evers’ personal file.
She was halfway through when a chilling thought struck her. She squinted at the door, going over everything in her head again. This was a very generous, and completely out of the ordinary arrangement. She’d never allowed anything like this before, even when the students had burst into tears. Yet, for some reason, this time she had done it without a second thought.
Mrs Winters wasn’t sure if she’d been played or not. The worst part, though, was that Mrs Winters wasn’t sure if she cared.
After all, Mrs Winters had to admire the girl’s performance, and she knew the girl was smart. Maybe, as Elizabeth herself had said, it was all lies.