THE KIDS IN Eleanor Hardy’s class are all still talking about the fight. They shouldn’t be – she heard the new deputy impose a strongly worded ban on the topic at assembly yesterday afternoon – but they are six and seven, so probably think a fight is exciting.
Eleanor had been writing the lowercase alphabet up on the whiteboard for the kids to copy when Dillon’s mum burst into the room and said See baby, Mum’s okay. That bitch couldn’t get one on me. Your mum’s the toughest mumma, Dill. Look at me, Dill, look, see? Everyone looked as she gestured at her face and body, exhibiting a lack of injuries.
Eleanor, unsure how best to respond, had reached slowly for the telephone mounted to the wall beside the whiteboard – but before she could pick up the receiver, the principal arrived at the door with a police officer. Eleanor noticed as the pair escorted Dillon’s mother out of the classroom that his name was spelled out on a silver charm bracelet on her wrist. It made Eleanor want to cry, this slightly tacky testament to maternal love.
But then, a lot of things lately have been making Eleanor want to cry.
That was the first she knew of the fight. From what she had been able to piece together in the staffroom later, it had transpired before school, at 8.30 or thereabouts, on the lower quadrangle where the annual Mother’s Day stall was winding up. The instigator, a woman with twins in Year 4, had apparently been unaware when she called Dillon a little fuckwit – the exact context around which remained unclear – that his mum did Muay Thai.
Dillon, along with dozens of other kids and parents, would have witnessed the whole thing as it unfolded by the trestle tables of decorated picture frames, chocolate fudge and homemade bath bombs. But when the first bell rang at 8.40, he walked himself to the classroom and sat at his desk and started copying down the alphabet as if it were any other school day.
Eleanor felt almost hurt that he had said nothing, had sought no comfort from her. He seemed entirely unfazed all day and still seems unfazed this morning. The other kids have given up asking him for details and are instead exchanging sensationalised third- and fourth-hand accounts as they dawdle around the bag racks.
Alright, Eleanor says, standing at the classroom door. Come on inside. Quick, quick. She claps her hands sharply to little avail.
They are always slow in the morning. They wander in and out, to the toilet and the bubbler and back to their bags to get permission slips and home readers.
When they are finally somewhat settled, Eleanor marks the roll and then puts on a five-minute video clip from Behind the News about kids at school in Tanzania. This buys her time for another look at the day’s timetable. She has to remember her meeting with the pedagogy coach at second break, and to photocopy that spelling stuff. And she needs to leave plans for the relief teacher tomorrow.
The video clip ends. Eleanor says, Good morning again class 2EH. She says this to them every day and every day they find it inexplicably funny. Good morning again Miss Hardy, they reply in unison. Mornings are the easiest.
She starts writing up the lowercase alphabet. Let’s get this day underway.
AT 10.45 AM ELEANOR looks at her watch. Morning session has passed without major incident. The bell rings – or rather the chorus of ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams blasts – to ratify this achievement. The school has recently jumped on the bandwagon of replacing its bells with popular music. The song used at second break is particularly irritating. It is constantly stuck in her head, torturing her at night when she can’t sleep. She has been told it comes from one of the Madagascar movies. They use Beethoven’s Fifth for lockdowns.
Eleanor lets the kids out and hurries to the staff toilets near the Resource Centre. She tries each day to get there first, to pee before the rush. In other jobs, people email one another jokes about Mondayitis; here, they share memes about bladder control.
In the cubicle she sighs. She had hoped still to see blood even though she knew she wouldn’t. But no time to dwell.
After the toilet Eleanor ducks into the staffroom to check her pigeonhole. She would normally eat something now, too, but she gets stuck talking to Lorraine Rizzoli, the librarian, about age-appropriate pedagogy. Everyone is always talking lately about age-appropriate pedagogy.
Then she has playground duty, on the Year 5–6 oval, where the big kids play soccer like their lives depend on it. This particular duty means pacing the perimeter of the shrunken soccer field in a hi-vis vest, whistle at the ready, pre-empting every push and shove and swearword. Playground duty requires vigilance – there are horror stories.
Eleanor misses the small freedoms of a lunch break in the CBD. She misses the Vietnamese salads near her old building. Misses walking over the bridge with her earphones in and sitting on the lawn near the art gallery, face to the sun. She misses watching people and guessing at things about them that seem trivial now: where they work, what their homes look like. The things she guesses about the kids are more primal. Are they hungry? Are they hugged?
Originally the plan had been to get a law degree because a law degree seemed to seventeen-year-old Eleanor a prerequisite for changing the world, for making the kind of large-scale difference that would one day guarantee her a Wikipedia entry.
Admission to the sandstone law school was particularly competitive her year, but still she got the grades for it. They were told in their welcome lecture that they were the state’s most promising young people and that, should they make it through the next four years, each and every one of them was guaranteed greatness.
On her way to class on her second day of university, a bird shat on Eleanor’s shoulder. She washed it off in the bathroom as best she could and arrived late to class, where she sat mortified in her stained top, doubting for the first time everything she had ever believed about herself. She was overwhelmed by the nice clothes and new MacBooks and private school camaraderie in the room around her, by the symbols of power and privilege and probable professional dynasties. Eleanor did not feel like she was enough of anything.
The feeling didn’t leave her. She struggled through two semesters before dropping out. Which is how Eleanor – once destined, perhaps, for greatness – found herself working for several years in a succession of precarious data-entry and call-centre jobs. She still holds accountable the bird that shat on her, is still waiting for the good luck to be paid.
Teaching had seemed easy. Not the job itself of course – though she had been convinced she would find it easier than most – but as a field in which to get a job. She thought she would be able to move up and out of the classroom relatively quickly, to work as a curriculum head, maybe, or to write educational policy. But this is her second temporary contract in ten months and there are still people in the staffroom who do not know her name.
The bell goes – Pharrell again – and Eleanor heads off to collect her class.
MATHS TODAY IS analogue time, specifically quarter past and quarter to. Eleanor has been struggling with this topic, with how to explain the use of quarter hours in a way that does not intimidate. She cannot recall how the concept was taught to her or how long it took to click. It was harder to appreciate as a child the need to account for such small chunks of time. Now in the classroom Eleanor is cognisant of every minute. She checks her watch – not analogue – constantly.
Her parents gave her the watch when she graduated. They were proud of her, they said, even if she wasn’t particularly proud of herself. She has it set to vibrate against her wrist at various times throughout the day, has programmed it with a complicated series of reminders and alerts. It counts her steps too, though not the number of times she squats down between cramped rows of desks to offer one-on-one encouragement and assistance, nor the number of times she bends over to retrieve dropped pencils and tie sticky – or worse, wet – shoelaces. It does keep reminding her to call the physio – something she might finally have a chance to do today in her non-contact time – and that she is booked in on Saturday morning for a haircut.
At her last hair appointment, the hairdresser – new to the salon – asked a series of rapid-fire questions as he worked. Is this about where you normally part it? What do you do for work? Are you single? Shall we take off about that much? Think you’ll get married? Planning on having kids? He lowered the stool and winked at Eleanor in the mirror. Actually, working with kids all day is probably a pretty good contraceptive, right? She’d been able to laugh along at the time, politeness automatic.
That was eight weeks ago. That was before she’d had to call the clinic near her parents’ house – the ominous dark-brick building she’d always wondered about as a teenager – to book tomorrow’s procedure. An appointment that has not been programmed into the watch. She has not yet decided whether she will keep it.
The maths lesson on quarter hours runs overtime by nearly a quarter hour. The kids are restless, agitated. Eleanor decides to skip today’s humanities assessment and let them make Mother’s Day cards instead. The templates were a free download from a teacher on Instagram, and have prompts inside to help guide the writing of an acrostic poem.
She moves around the room, checking in with Dillon, who asks if he can please use the thesaurus she keeps on her desk to find better syllables. Eleanor ruffles his hair. Synonyms, she said. You’re very clever though kiddo, you know that right? He is the only one who knows already about synonyms.
When it is time for them to colour in the front of their cards, she puts on Paul Kelly’s ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’, the song appointed – in what was not an entirely democratic process – their class anthem. Some of the kids sing along while they work, softly and without inhibition. It makes Eleanor want to cry, watching them.
She worries she is not cut out for this job. Worries mostly about fitting the rest of her life in around it. But worries too sometimes that nothing is more important.
MIDDLE SESSION PASSES without major incident. After lunch, Eleanor does a quick head count. She knows immediately which one of them is missing, even before she pokes her head out the door and spots him in the garden brandishing a big stick.
Come inside, she calls. And then, unconvincingly: Now. He gives her the finger. She would love to give it back to him. Most days, though maybe not today, Jaxon is her favourite.
Jaxon lives with his great-grandmother. His mum is incarcerated somewhere in New South Wales, for little more as Eleanor understands it than low-level possession and unpaid traffic fines. He lived for a while with an uncle, but child protection services removed him because there were too many other kids in the house. Then he lived for a while with his nan, but after she moved to Arizona for an internet boyfriend at the end of last term, Nanna Shirley took him in. I’m too bloody old for this shit, she’d said on the phone when Eleanor called home to introduce herself. Good thing that kid’s got a smile bright as he does.
When Eleanor was first told about Jaxon’s living arrangements, half-formed thoughts of a Miss Honey and Matilda adoption scenario flickered across a particularly tender corner of her mind. She felt her eyes well up as the deputy relayed the details, but then he said Hey – that kid’s lucky to have a roof over his head and someone to send him to school with lunch every day.
Lucky. It seemed to Eleanor a fairly preposterous characterisation. She wanted to disagree with him. She wanted to say Lucky is the word they use to keep you down. That is what she has been realising lately. In classrooms, in dead-end call centre jobs, in society. They make you feel guilty for not feeling grateful and that is how they guarantee that nothing ever changes. Instead she had smiled and nodded – politeness again automatic – and thanked him for letting her know.
She leaves the classroom door open for Jaxon to come in when he’s ready – he always does eventually.
ELEANOR HAS TWENTY-FIVE minutes of non-contact time while the kids are at music. Non-contact time is supposed to be for planning – is supposed to be enough for planning – but lately Eleanor has been using it as a respite. She had not been prepared when she started teaching for how completely it would occupy her mind, for how little space it would leave her to do her own thinking. Besides, she does her planning at night and over the weekends and during the holidays she had fantasised so much about. She does so much planning that there is nothing left of her at the end of each eleven- and twelve-hour day.
She locks the door and sits down on the carpet beneath the windows so no one passing by the classroom will see her. She puts her earphones in and checks the news on her phone, to make sure that the outside world – the one beyond these insular school gates – has not started burning, or at least no more so than usual.
When she checks her watch reflexively there are ten minutes left. She replies to some messages, transfers money to her rent account and is about to call the physio when the phone on the wall rings.
It’s the music teacher. There has been a major incident. Dillon and Jaxon. A heated argument, a sizeable rock produced from a shorts pocket and thrown. Both boys are now up at the office, one receiving first aid, the other a very stern talking to from the deputy and a three-day – minimum – suspension. Before she hangs up, Eleanor asks what the fight was about.
Who has the toughest mum, if you can believe it.
OUTSIDE THE MUSIC block, the kids are waiting in two uncharacteristically straight and quiet lines. She tells them it’s okay, that both boys are okay, they just acted out because their wild, emotional brains got the better of them for a moment, and that’s why we’re all learning in health how to keep a lid on our wild brains, isn’t it?
She leads them back past the upper school blocks and the tuckshop and the Resource Centre and the remains of the community garden, choosing an especially long route to take up time before the bell and to avoid as many parents as possible.
The parents start to gather in the afternoons from as early as 2.30. Their presence makes Eleanor uneasy. Starting the job, it had shocked her to learn that their respect was not automatic. The default alliance was not parents and teacher united against child, as had been the case in her own school years and with her own family, but parents and child against teacher. They regard her as an intermediary of an institution they do not trust, some having had a rough time at school themselves, some just that way inclined. She wishes they could know her instead as a person.
Back in the classroom, she puts on some rainforest music and improvises a quick relaxation exercise for the kids, as she always does post-incident. Then she says, I need to have an important chat with you about what happened in music, 2EH, so I need eyes up here and mouths closed, okay?
You need to know that all people who look after children are tough. Because it is not an easy thing to do. Becoming a mother is not an easy decision to make. So that means all mothers are tough. And you know what else it means? It means that teachers are tough, too.
They look at her contritely, if a little blankly, sorry for the actions of their classmates up at the office if that’s what Eleanor wants from them. It’s not, of course. She doesn’t know what she wants or really what she was saying, but she feels better for having said it, for having let herself hear it.
She puts on another video from Behind the News. This one longer, about climbers queuing on Mount Everest.
At 2.55 her watch vibrates. She gets the kids ready for the bell, has them pack up and stand behind their desks.
Thanks for a great day, 2EH. Now, before I say good afternoon, I need to let you know that I won’t be here tomorrow.
On this much, Eleanor Hardy is set.