by Sandra Arnold
THE DOUBLE DECKER bus was rattling over the Tyne Bridge when I looked down from the top deck and saw a miniature world on the quayside. Tiny people, tiny buildings, tiny cars. My excited squeal drowned out my father’s commentary about the history and construction of the bridge, but when he saw what I was pointing at he interrupted himself to explain the meaning of perspective. I wasn’t convinced. I’d just finished reading Gulliver’s Travels so a miniature world on the quayside seemed entirely plausible. At the next bus stop we got off and walked down to the quay. My father asked me if I could see how the people and cars appeared bigger as we approached. Disappointed tears dripped down my face. My father patted my back and suggested I write a story about the miniature world. Writing helped put things in perspective, he said.
Back home I headed to my bedroom and took out my notebook and pencil. I gave the miniature characters names, jobs and lives. For the whole weekend I wrote and rewrote, tearing up sheet after sheet of paper in the process. My wastepaper basket overflowed with screwed-up balls of discarded words.
On Monday morning I handed my completed story to the teacher, a woman with a down-turned mouth, eyes like marbles and a voice full of gravel. A week later she picked up a pile of marked projects from her desk and told us which ones she thought were good and which ones were rubbish. She tossed mine onto my desk with the words, ‘You copied this from a book. You couldn’t possibly have written it yourself.’ My protests that I had written it myself earned me a rap across the knuckles with a ruler and a furious ‘You’ll sit there and write a hundred times I must not cheat. And I’ll pin those lines on the wall as a warning to the rest of the class.’
Eleven years later, as a newly graduated teacher, I attended a drama workshop. As I entered the hall I heard the rattle of gravel in a room full of voices. I scanned faces. There was no mistaking the owner of that voice. Greyer and more stooped, but with the same down-turned mouth and glassy eyes that had haunted my nightmares for years. She glanced in my direction. My mouth went dry. My hands shook. I was ten years old again and about to be humiliated. To my indescribable relief she didn’t recognise me. I steered clear of her and got through the day-long session. I didn’t return the following week. When I told my father why I wasn’t going back he said my aunt had told him eleven years ago that the teacher had told her I had an inferiority complex. ‘I didn’t believe your aunt,’ he said. ‘I thought she was just jealous.’
Over the next decade I travelled, changed jobs, changed countries, changed partners. I returned to my hometown for a reunion at the school with the idea of trying to lay some ghosts. With a group of former classmates I wandered around the school buildings, stood in our old classroom, and peered into the shadows of the past. After several glasses of wine, people started exchanging stories about that class and that teacher. One of our former classmates was now a famous footballer. He couldn’t attend the reunion, but he’d written a tribute to the teacher’s generosity and encouragement. His friend, a well-known cricketer, read out the tribute and added his own praise of the teacher’s commitment, compassion and humour. He reeled off the names of her most successful pupils, including a politician, a musician, a missionary, a television comedian, a psychiatrist. He beamed at us. No one beamed back.
Then a woman I recognised as the timid girl I’d sat beside all those years ago talked about her brother who’d taken an overdose a decade after he’d left that class and emigrated to another country. ‘Even emigrating didn’t help him get over what happened to him here,’ she said. People glanced at each other and stared at the floor. Then someone coughed and in a low voice spoke about how long it had taken him to recover his self-esteem. Three women said they’d gone through years of psychotherapy. A trickle of similar stories followed. The cricketer listened with raised eyebrows. He opened his mouth then closed it with a snap and looked at his feet. The rest, including myself, remained silent. How could I admit the gory end I’d once wished upon that teacher?
Several sleepless nights followed the reunion as I tried to fathom what made that teacher spew venom on some children and honey on others. I thought of the miniature quayside and the reality that turned out to be bigger than I’d imagined. Then I got up and wrote through the night. I wrote a variety of fictional ends for the teacher and invited readers to choose the one they thought she deserved. When the story was published my father asked me if I’d gained some perspective.
Sandra Arnold lives in Canterbury, New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia and is the author of five books including three novels, a non-fiction work and a collection of flash fiction. Her work has been widely published internationally, placed and short-listed in various competitions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfictions and The Best Small Fictions. www.sandraarnold.co.nz.