Memoir

The heaviness of keys

‘YOU N ME Miss, 2 gether, 4 eva.' Dylan is just finishing the chalk heart around this message when I walk into the classroom, books under my arm, keys jangling. He shouldn't be here at all – I'm supposed to unlock the door. One of the guards must have let him in. My face burns as he stares over his shoulder at me, not even smirking. It isn't the first time I've found love messages on the board or in the cardboard suggestion box, torn off bits of maths book, with ‘I love U miss' or ‘U R pretty miss' or ‘marry me miss?' scrawled on them, all in the same cramped handwriting.

At first I thought Dylan was joking, paying out on the new teacher, teasing me in the cruel way of boys. But he's kept it up for months now and there's never any laughing – only long, serious stares. Some days I can't help looking back at him and I get caught, trapped in his gaze. I stop talking in the middle of a sentence, forget about the classroom and the shouting of the boys, standing open-mouthed and sweating, blind to everything but his eyes.

It's 1992 and I've been working for a few months in the School for Special Purposes within a maximum security and remand Juvenile Justice Centre in Sydney's western suburbs. They call it a JJC but it's a prison, no matter what fancy words they like to put on it. There are cells and bars and uniforms, high walls with rolls of barbed wire on the top and no way out. I've become used to having guards in the classroom, having students frisked before they come in and when they leave too. A properly chiselled ruler makes an effective weapon.

I don't have to worry when Dylan is around, though – he makes sure of that. His class (the older group of boys) is always the best behaved, even without the guard who is supposed to be present at all times for my protection. Dylan must've said something, or paid something, to keep the enormous Tongan away. I always brace myself for the worst, surrounded by young bank robbers, rapists and murderers, but when Dylan's there the others are pussycats, willing to try any of my maths problems without a murmur of complaint.

‘If I had $20,000 to share between four boys, how much would each get?'

‘Depends, Miss.'

‘Not really, you see.' I scribble some figures on the board. ‘How much is twenty divided by four?'

‘No Miss, I get ya' like that, but it depends.'

‘Depends on what?'

‘Depends on who done what. Who planned the job, who just sat in the car. Who's got the gun.'

‘I see.'

Dylan stares at me and lifts the corner of his mouth, the closest he ever comes to a smile. It's no surprise he's picked me to love: I'm the only woman here within a ten-year age range. There are only five years between my twenty-three and his eighteen.

 

THE JUVENILE JUSTICE centre is my first permanent teaching position. I'd only just put the last of my books away in a new flat in Brisbane when the principal rang with the offer. I lay on my bed chatting and laughing about men and sex and good things with her for so long I forgot the job was behind bars. So I repacked my books and boxes of belongings, put everything in storage and flew to Sydney.

The other teachers and staff are a great gang of women. The only females in the prison, except for the twenty-five stone nurse, we bolster each other to feel as tough as we need to be to face the boys every day. At retreats in the countryside we learn massage techniques and deep relaxation exercises alongside behaviour management and self-defence. We have morning teas of strawberries and mascarpone and every Friday afternoon we debrief with wine and blue cheese and lots of giggling and rude jokes about the guards and prison management.

But I never tell them about Dylan and the messages I find on the board and in the suggestion box, the way his eyes never leave me. I suppose I should. It just seems too silly, that maybe in my loneliness I've been making too much of a harmless crush. What could I say that wouldn't sound stupid when everyone else is complaining about being sworn at and having chairs thrown at their heads in classrooms wild with yelling and flying fists as the guard chuckles in the corner. Dylan's notes aren't important. It will pass.

 

I AM LONELY though, alone in a new city with no one to talk to but the women at work, and the reality of teaching in a prison is harder and uglier than I thought. It takes all my courage to square my shoulders and march across the quadrangle to the classroom every morning. The guards leaning against the wall smoking don't make me feel any safer. I've become used to the boys never seeming to make any progress with their lessons. Most of them have either missed too much school or suffer some form of intellectual impairment so we never get past the basics. I've also become used to the hopelessness trapped within the prison's concrete walls, but I'll never get used to the keys.

I hate being a key turner.

To get to my classroom, I have to leave the staff room with a set of keys hooked to my belt, unlock one door, lock it behind me, go down the hallway, unlock another door (this one with bars) and make sure to lock it behind me as I go, access the main quadrangle, open another door, lock it behind me, and finally walk across to the classroom and unlock it. I hate the sound of the keys jangling. Their heaviness. I never thought I'd end up being responsible for locking all those doors. It doesn't seem right, somehow. I suppose prison management thinks teachers can be trusted. Sometimes I don't know if I can trust myself.

I hate having those keys because they make me a part of the system. I hate them because they make me a target – with my keys, the boys could escape. I hate the power it gives me over them, power to keep them trapped, power to set them all free if I want to. Power I'm too afraid to use, although I'm often tempted to give them that one small chance to start afresh. Some of them, I know, are too mean and hard and violent to be out on the streets, but others – they just seem young and confused, sad and lost. Like they could do with a second chance.

I don't know what the answer is.

Most of all, I hate the keys because when I get home at night I worry for hours that I haven't locked each door behind me. That there'll be a breakout and I'll be blamed. In the middle of the night I start awake from nightmares about keys and guards and rules and sirens, and lie staring into the darkness thinking about the awfulness of the place that I escape from at three o'clock but that the boys have to endure every minute of every day and each dark night.

As soon as I get home in the afternoons, I scrub off the dead feeling with blistering hot showers and a nail brush, scouring from my skin the grey walls, the moth-eaten grass, the small cement cells, the brutality of the boys and the guards. It's a hard place and I can't help but feel sorry for the boys, long to rescue them. For some, the prison is the closest thing they have to a home. At least with school they get a little relief from the monotony and the chance to feel the soft smiles of women – and maybe, just maybe, they learn something.

School also gives them material rewards. The principal is a no-nonsense woman who's never laughed as much again as she did that first day on the phone. She wears psychedelic patterned shirts and suit pants and calls everyone ‘mate'. She believes in rewarding good behaviour and has instituted a points system. Attend classes and behave reasonably (no throwing furniture, fighting or exposing yourself to the teacher) and you collect points. Save a certain number of points and at the weekly assembly you get to spend them on a variety of treats, from chocolate bars and soap to deodorant, powder, shampoo and even CDs.

If you can wait that long.

The system works. Everyone goes to classes and, though they aren't exactly model students, they behave well enough to earn themselves plenty of points. One week during assembly, all the boys crack up when Dylan collects his reward bottle of shampoo. I don't understand why everyone's laughing so hard, sneaking looks at me, and why Dylan has gone so red. Later in the staff room, my car pool friend Maureen explains what shampoo is used for in prison. Wanking. And wank they do. Even under the desk during class.

‘Hands on the table,' Maureen teaches me to say. The classrooms are full of oversexed adolescent boys with no release but their own hands, and the weakness of the younger ones – the twelve-year-olds who'll do anything the older ones want for some attention.

 

WE DON'T HAVE access to the boys' files, but you usually find out what they're in for anyway. You can tell a lot of things by the way they carry themselves. Bank robbers are cocky and always top of maths class. They still have some manners and know how to play the game for points, but they do whatever they want anyway. Big-bodied, small-brained stand-over men try intimidation tactics in the classroom, using their size to threaten the teachers and get out of doing fractions. Sex offenders stink of cum and make excuses for constantly having their hands down their pants. The violent give themselves away with tight lips and reddened knuckles.

Murderers are a mixed bag. Some are easy, especially those who've graduated from assaults – like the top dog Derek, nineteen and still in the boys' prison. He was under-age when he beat a man to a bloody pulp with numchuckas on the last train to Liverpool. He pushed the still-breathing body out the sliding doors and laughed as it thumped on to the tracks and the train rattled on. Derek likes to talk about it over and over again, getting excited, nostrils flaring, pupils dilating.

Then there are the boys like Ray (Pussy Ray, they call him) who fell into it all by accident. When he was tripping on acid, he stabbed some poor old lady thirty-two times. He has recurring nightmares about it and cries for his mum. He's thirteen.

And then there's Dylan. Dylan who loves me. He came home from work early one afternoon and found his best friend in bed with his girlfriend. They say he tore them both to pieces, broke their bones, snapped his girlfriend's neck like a chicken's. His hands are so big they could cover my face. His upper arms are as thick as my thigh.

As part of a fun day, I read the boys' palms using a book I picked up in a second-hand store. I'm careful to only tell them the good things, to give them positive readings, some little taste of hope. They make a line and wait patiently for their turns, all eager for a brighter future.

Derek's calloused fingers and nails chewed right down to the quick can't hide the way his lifeline starts way up on his ambition mound, the mark of a cold-hearted killer, I read to myself. ‘You're very ambitious,' I tell him. Pussy Ray has no such marking, just a criss-crossed headline and a too-short lifeline.

Dylan's hand is warm, and as he sits beside me he presses his thigh along mine. I don't move away. His short thumb and matching stunted fingers reveal someone who bottles up emotions till they explode in acts of violence; crimes of passion. This is the Dylan who says he loves me. The Dylan whose eyes I feel on me as I set my jaw and stride across the quadrangle every school day. Dylan, whose warm hand I still feel in mine long after I've locked the last door and gone home.

I usually tell Maureen everything on our long drives home back to the eastern suburbs. But I don't tell her about Dylan. The boys never play up for her. She has the advantage of height and age and super-padded bra-lifted pointed breasts that she uses like weapons. With one drum of her bright red fingernails on the desk she silences the class. She'd fix Dylan. If I told her.

I can't tell Maureen because I keep finding myself gazing back at him – caught in the intensity of his stare, mesmerised by his aqua eyes and the strength of his shoulders. He's part Koori (one of the many Kooris inside), from a small town in the north. His skin is perfect honey-coloured satin and his long creamed-honey hair begs to be stroked. And those eyes. Those eyes will me to love him back, tell me everything I need to know without him ever saying a word. I feed on his eyes and the passion behind them, gorging my loneliness on his dreams of me.

It doesn't help that he has a grown man's body. Like most of the boys, he pumps iron every afternoon and has developed into a teenage Samson. Sometimes I'm rostered on for gym supervision, so I watch him lifting weights in all his sweat-gleaming beauty, perfectly sculpted, his eyes daring me to look. My tongue swelling with longing.

He only ever touches me with his eyes. But I can't stop myself touching him. I tell myself it's a natural part of my teaching style, and that if I exclude him from the touches I give so freely to everyone else it would be unfair. The boys need touching – gentle hands, just to show them such a thing exists. My fingertips linger on his shoulder. Perhaps I brush against him once too often, or is it that he arranges himself so that I have no choice but to squeeze past, touch flesh to flesh? I try not to catch his eye and get trapped there, but by not looking am I playing coy? At night in my room, in a Surry Hills terrace house that reeks of cat piss and whisky, I lie awake listening to the orgasmic screams of my ballerina flatmate, and relive each touch, allow myself to sink into the peculiar pale green of his eyes, put dream hands on his body and slide them down, lower and lower.

 

EVERYTHING GETS STIRRED up when the Vietnamese boys come in. Asian boys are different. Refugees, they don't have proper papers and look so young they lie about their ages and do easy time with the boys, instead of hard yards in Long Bay.

We know the order of things has changed when, one morning as we cross the quadrangle ready for our weekly assembly, all hell breaks loose. Two Vietnamese boys dive on to Derek and Dylan, pull their shirts over their heads and punch neat and hard into their exposed torsos till the guards amble over and break it up. I wince with each blow to Dylan's body. The attackers are taken to the isolation cell but in one fast effective manoeuvre they've established themselves as the new law.

After that, Derek is more sullen and takes his anger out on the young ones. Dylan withdraws further into himself and is even quieter. But it's good for teachers when the Vietnamese are in charge. Asian students still have respect for teachers so they make sure all the boys are polite and do the work. They call me Miss and get the others to do the same. No one throws chairs anymore, no one even screams. Teaching is almost easy. Minh and Tran may be violent, gun-toting gang members on the outside, but inside they are excellent students.

There are rumours that the previous principal was once sprung fucking a Vietnamese tough guy with tattoos marking murders on his arms. That scares me. If she did it and got away with it, what's stopping me from losing a bit of loneliness with Dylan? My hand lingers on his back for minutes at a time. I lean so close over his maths book I feel the heat of his cheek.

 

ON THE DAY before holidays start, we hold a special assembly. It must be the only school in the world where students are unhappy when holiday time comes around. The teachers are grinning, ready for Bali, the mountains, long weeks on the beach – anywhere to recover from the darkness of this place and soak themselves in sunshine. But the boys are grim; without school, their days will be empty and dangerously boring. Prison management will have them paint and repaint the quadrangle benches a different colour every week. They'll make them dig holes and fill them back up again. Anything to keep them busy.

After the speeches and awards, I circulate, handing out cream biscuits from a big plastic bag. When I come to Dylan he doesn't take any biscuits, and instead puts an orange he's already peeled into my bag. This makes me cross. His orange has crushed some of the biscuits and its juice is making the rest soggy. I take it out and search for a bin. Then I feel his eyes on me, telling me that I've got it wrong. The orange is his gift. He's peeled it for me, the only thing he has to give. I stop what I'm doing and sit down, eating the orange slowly, segment by segment, letting each tiny juice sac burst against my palate. Knowing he's watching me.

When I return from my holiday, Dylan is gone; transferred to another centre somewhere closer to his family. It happens all the time. Students just disappear from the classroom without notice: transferred, sentenced, freed. Most of the time we don't know why. You finally get a kid to understand multiplication or that a hundred centimetres equals a metre, get them trusting you, loving you, maybe you even loving them back – and then they're gone.

No warning. No goodbyes.

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