Reckoning by Ken Cohen

Meena cowered in a corner by the overturned table, her arms shielding her face. Visibly terrified, mentally and emotionally scarred and exhausted by the brutality of the attack, each missile caught her by surprise as it crashed to the ground around her. She ached for this new bombardment to end. From where she huddled, she could see only the advancing boots, the myriad of feet, the craters that scarred the lower edges of the walls and the dark red puddles already drying on the ground. A place that should have felt comfortable and safe; a place of sanctuary and inspiration; a place in which she should have felt fully in control. How could it have become so quickly a theatre of war.

She had only herself to blame. Meena had walked into this of her own volition. It had been her dream. Her destiny. Her own decision. Now, she was trapped. Cornered. There seemed precious little left for which to fight. Her will was broken; she felt so drained, she now allowed herself to do the one thing she’d sworn she’d never do; Meena closed her eyes.

In that instant, in the midst of this raging battle in which the ragtag army she faced held all the advantages, in number, size, resourcefulness and weapons, a glorious stillness suddenly descended. She hadn’t noticed, but the door had opened, and a slight figure stood motionless, silent in the doorway.

Marching feet stopped dead in their tracks. Missiles quickly disappeared. The battlefield fell to quiet and calm. Tables and chairs, toppled in the earlier assault, were now returned to their usual places. She glanced up at the figure in the doorway, still silent, still motionless save for the steely eyes which slowly surveyed the room. Mobile phones were quickly returned to jackets and bags. The debris of war was quickly swept away. A lad came forward, turned Meena’s table upright and placed her chair behind it. Another silently went to a cupboard, retrieved a mop and bucket and cleaned the red paint from the floor. All but the slight woman in the doorway now sat in silent expectation.

The woman moved slowly, deliberately, silently to the middle of the room. Meena could feel the tension grow. Then the silence was broken as the woman asked in the softest of tones, “What do you hear?” Hands politely shot up in front of her. She picked one.

“Nothing, miss,” replied the owner of the hand, formerly one of the most savage of Meena’s tormentors.

“Precisely. And that’s exactly what I want to hear from this room for the remaining ten minutes of this lesson,” the woman said, as slowly and deliberately as she had walked into the room.

She turned to Meena. “A word!” she whispered, beckoning her to follow. That walk; so slow; so deliberate; so mysterious. It was almost hypnotic.

Still trembling from fear and embarrassment, Meena followed the Head to her office. How could her career be over before it had started? Her second week teaching and she’d been brought down by a crowd of unruly fifteen-year-olds. She knew what was coming. The Head would wait until they were behind closed doors and say, ‘Collect your things. Go home. No, really. It’s kind of you but there’s no need. We can cover your lessons from here. Do not pass ‘Go.’ Do not collect your salary.’

And if the Head said these things, how could she be wrong? Meena had failed. Four years of study, wasted. Even her worst moments of teaching practice hadn’t prepared her for battle with this Year 10 Art Class.

But the Head didn’t ask her to collect her things or go home without passing ‘Go.’

“What happened?” Sally asked, gently, as she took her seat behind her desk and motioned Meena to sit.

Meena tried to assess what went wrong. Should she just pre-empt the pain of it and offer her immediate resignation?

“It broke down even before they came into the room,” she replied, choking back the tears.

Sally leaned forward. “In what way?”

“They seemed to be on a high outside in the corridor when I arrived. They were laughing and shouting and hurling each other’s bags around.”

“What did you do?”

“I told them to come in and take their seats.”

“And they did?”

“Yes.”

“And they were quiet?”

“No.”

“So, what did you do?”

Meena thought for a moment. It sounded so ridiculous now. “I asked them to be quiet,” she replied.

“And were they?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Meena thought again. Now, in the calm of the Head’s office, it was so obvious. “They couldn’t hear me!”

Sally nodded. “They couldn’t hear you,” she repeated. “So, what did you do next?”

“I shouted louder,” Meena said, knowing, as she said it, shouting for silence was a classic mistake; one that had been drummed into her to avoid by all her tutors.

Sally leaned back in her chair. “When did it become silent?” she asked.

“When you arrived.”

“And how did I get silence?”

“You just stood there. You didn’t say a word. You just stood, with your eyes sweeping the room.”

Meena looked at the Head from across the desk. “You mean I should have said nothing and just stared at them?” she asked.

“Maybe,” Sally replied. “You’ll find for yourself what works best for you. But remember,” she said. “It’s never in the words. It’s always in the look; in the unspoken authority you project; in the confidence you portray. Even in the way you walk into the room. Lack of confidence?

They’ll spot it at a hundred paces. Certainty. Confidence. Self-assurance. It’s what we all have to deploy all of the time. They tune in to it as naturally as they tune into fear.”

Meena sighed. She knew Sally was right. But how should she put it into practice?

Sally continued. “Now go to the staffroom, collect yourself until the bell goes, and go to your next lesson being a better teacher for the experience.”

Meena nodded. Sally hadn’t asked her to resign so perhaps she owed it to them both to give the next class a try. ‘Actions not words,’ she consoled herself.

As she rose from the chair and turned to leave, she was deafened by the shrillness of the scream from just four feet behind her. She turned to see Sally standing barefoot on the desk pointing to the corner of the white skirting board.

“It’s a spider,” Meena said calmly, following Sally’s shocked stare. “Perfectly harmless!” she said as Sally, visibly embarrassed, stood trembling on the desk. “Just stay where you are, Sally. I have this.”

Meena tip-toed to the corner of the room, bent down, stretched out her hand and casually picked up the spider holding it between her bare forefinger and thumb.

Sally quivered.

“It won’t hurt you, honestly,” Meena said, as she walked to the open window and dropped the spider outside.

As she walked down the corridor towards the staffroom, Meena allowed herself a wry smile.

Maybe there was a place for her here after all!


Published in Issue #20

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