“Mrs Richards is having a problem with class 5C, the principal wants you to have a look into it,” says Miss Bordon, from the doorway of my office.
“5C’s problem is probably Mrs Richards,” I say, standing up from behind my desk and picking up the notepad I’ve been doodling on for the past two hours. “If the woman would learn to teach, instead of yelling, then the kids might learn something.” I wish it was a joke, but Mrs Richards knows nothing about children.
“Mike,” says Miss Bordon.
“Yes?” I answer.
“Be nice,” she says, disappearing from view. I know she loves me. One day she’ll admit it.
“I’m always nice!” I shout after her. That’s not true, but I’ve got to keep up appearances.
I make my way towards the fifth grade wondering what kind of demoralized, broken children I’m going to find there. I’m not likely to find much else in a Mrs Richards class. The woman seems to think the only way to keep students in line is to run her class like it’s a concentration camp. I’m surprised she hasn’t put barbed wire up on the windows to stop the kids escaping.
I’m just getting to the classroom and wondering if I can make it back to the office in time for lunch, when I realise that I may owe Mrs Richards an apology. There are no students in the classroom at the moment, they must have P.E or something, but I can feel it from the doorway. There’s something very wrong here, something way beyond Mrs Richards’ terrible teaching. As I look into the classroom I can see wave like shadows swirling beneath the desks.
Now this is probably the point where you say, “Eh what?” But ask any real teacher and they’ll tell you a class has its own atmosphere. Yes it’s made up of individual students who are all people and what not, but there’s more to it than that. The class, that is all the students together, has its own life as well. It’s like a dish being made of different ingredients and coming up with its own flavour. The difference between me and most teachers is that I can see it, most others can only feel it. That’s why I do the job I do. That’s why I’m the teacher without portfolio.
I enter the room, walking slowly so as not to get caught up in the dark emotions of the place. There’s anger in the dark and confusion. The whole room is infected with it. How long has this been going on, why didn’t they tell me sooner? I could have stopped it before it spread, or at least found out who it was coming from. Now it’d be like trying to spot the one kid peeing in the swimming pool. I know who’s to blame for delay at least: Mrs Richards. God, I’m going to have to talk to her to find out what’s going on.
It’s nearing home time when Mrs Richards comes to my office and I’m surprised to see the principal with her. They look like a bad double act. Her with her fat floppy jowls and him with coffin thin face.
“She asked me to come along,” says the principal, noting my questioning look.
“Yes, I did,” she says, planting herself in the one chair in front of my desk. “I shan’t be treated like a criminal for doing my job.”
“It’s your job to teach the kids, not drain life out of them,” I say – first point to me.
“Mike,” warns the principal.
“You?” says Mrs Richards. “You’re talking to me about not doing my job? What is that you actually do here anyway Mr McKinnon?’ She refuses to call me Mike for some reason. “’Teacher without portfolio,’ you’re little more than a glorified sub.”
“I’m closer to a counsellor actually,” I say, with a smug grin that’s sure to get on her nerves. “And we have tried to explain what it is I do here before, but you weren't able to understand because you are a grown-up.”
“I’m not sure if you’ve looked in the mirror lately,” she says, “But you’re going on thirty Mr McKinnon.” If she could spit my name she would.
“That’s true, I am. Although I still have half a year until my thirtieth. But, unlike you, I never grew up,” I say.
“Oh here we go again with this nonsense,” she says. “I’m not sure how you got the school to pay you to…”
“It’s not just this school Mrs Richards,” I say. “There’s someone like me in every school in the country. And there are plenty of people to choose from.” She looks over at the principal who simply nods. “The best teachers,” I continue, “are the ones that never really grew up. They’re the ones you’re jealous of. The ones the kids are not scared of.” This is technically not true. The fact is there are different degrees of growing up. I’m on one side of the scale and Mrs Richards is on the other. The best teachers usually fall in the middle somewhere: the ones that can feel the room but not see. Teachers like Mrs Richards are tyrannical. Teachers like me just end up playing games all the time.
“I don’t have to be here for this,” she says getting up from her chair.
“Mrs Richards,” I say and she stops. “There is a problem one of your classes and I might be able to help.” She sits back down. I guess she’s not all bad. “Let’s pretend for now that we are on the same team,” I say and she nods. “Now whether you believe in what I can do or not, that doesn’t matter. I do want to fix this problem with your class, but to do that I have to ask you some questions.”
“Okay, I don’t think it will help, but go ahead.”
“So what’s been happening with them?” I ask. Although I think I already know, I’ve felt it.
“They were a nice class, my best class. I hardly had to shout at them ever.” I want to tell her that she should never have to shout at them at all, but stop myself. “Then over the past few weeks they’ve just gone crazy. At first they were just chatting a bit too much. Then they started arguing with each other all the time and they started arguing with me as well. Then yesterday I had to call in the principal to pull three of the students of one boy. They just went for him like a pack of dogs, but they’d all been fine students until a few weeks before.”
“That’s when I decided to call you in,” says the principal. He’s a good man. He’s a full grown-up, I’ve never met a principal that wasn’t, but he’s wise enough to know that there are things that he can’t understand. Some teachers without portfolio are given an office and are never called to see a single class.
“Tell me about the three boys that attacked the other kid,” I say. If they’re the most taken by darkness then maybe one of them is the most affected.”
“Like I said, they were all good boys at the start of the year. Then the grades started slipping.” she said.
“Can you remember whose grades fell first?” I ask.
“Martin Young,” she said. “But he was off sick for a couple of weeks. So I had assumed it was something to do with that.”
It’s not much but it’s something to start with. If not, maybe one of the other two boys, or maybe the kid that was attacked. I need to go back to the classroom. I need to see the kids.
“I have to enter the Childhood,” I say.
Remember how I told you I could see the atmosphere of the class? We’ll that’s just a trick really. It’s a sort of side show to my real talent. You see I can go into the Childhood when I want to. Kids don’t see the world in the way we do. If you are ever in doubt have a look at children playing – your own are best, parents can get a bit twitchy if you start hanging about the playgrounds. When children play, they can see things adults can’t. It’s not just imagination. It’s real. They exist in a slightly different dimension from the one we are in. Once you grow up you start to forget that. But as a kid you wouldn’t doubt it for a second. That other dimension, that’s the place I can go. It’s not easy and it’s not always safe, but I can do it.
I reach into my bag a take out a scruffy old toy. His name is Packman. I used to take him with me everywhere as kid, this little egg shaped monster, with dangling arms has been patched up so many times that I doubt there is much of the original left. Still, holding him close, the whole world comes alive: Dragons fly through the clouds; Ninja sprint across the rooftops; toys and pictures comes to life. I notice the pen in my hand. I can’t remember where it came from, but I guess a student must have left it behind in a class. On the top is a little robot that starts to twist and bend, challenging anyone who dares to a fight. I wonder what would happen if he fought a team of ninjas – stop!
This is one of the dangers of the Childhood. It’s easy to lose the little amount of grown-up I have already. I need to focus on the task. I need to go to the classroom.
Class 5C has become a scary place, especially now the students are back. There are no friendly toys to play with. They’ve all ran away. There are plenty of strange scuttling things lurking in the darkness though. I can’t see them, but I can hear them. The worst thing though is the students. All but a few are radiating the fog that I seen before. See that’s the problem with the darkness. Once it gets into a class it spreads. It infects. It takes happy kids and turns them in to dark little monsters. If you’re not careful it can infect the whole school. But where did it come from?
I walk up and down the rows pointing at the uninfected. The principal takes them out of the classroom. They’ll study somewhere else for now. It’s safer that way. But where is the source? Some of them are too far gone to tell. They even seem to growl at me as I walk past. Others though are only on the way to turning. Girls, I realise. Most of the uninfected and semi-infected are girls. That means we are probably looking for a boy. I find the kid that was attacked sitting off to one side. He’s not fully gone, so it’s not him. But where is the student Mrs Richards told me about? Where is Martin Young?
I spot the empty desk. It’s as thick with the darkness as any of the chairs with an infected student. I think we’ve found our carrier.
I drive to the Young house, which is not easy when you have all manner of creatures from another dimension jumping around the place. I almost hit a unicorn near the police station. To be honest, I’m not sure what would have happened if I did hit it. I’d probably pass right through, but I’m not really certain and I’d hate to have unicorn’s death on my conscience.
I knock on the door and wait. I’m starting to wonder if I have taken a wrong turn. Either it’s the wrong address or it’s not the kid I’m looking for. The place doesn’t have that feel of darkness to it. In fact there is almost something alluring about it and I would bet that if a group of kids live on this street, then this is the house they would choose to hang out in.
The door opens and I’m greeted by a keen smile.
“Hello there how can I help you?” asks the man. He’s in his forties and has a bald head with some shaven hair along the temples.
“Mr Young?” I ask. This can’t be the right place. It feels a bit strange, but not bad. It’s certainly not connected to the darkness at the school
“I’m a teacher from the school. Is Martin home? We just wanted to check up on him,” I say, trying to peek into the house without being too obvious. There something about the place that I just can’t put my finger on. It almost has a double atmosphere, but I can’t separate it.
“Well you can come in, but he’s not home at the moment,” says Mr Young, standing back to let me though. “He went to pick up some medicine. He was feeling a bit better and we thought the walk would do him good.” More like you gave him a day off cause you wanted to do something together. I don’t hold it against him. At least he takes and interest in his child. That’s more than most.
“I see, what’s wrong with him?” I ask, going along with the pretence.
“Oh just a cold, but he was sick a while back and I don’t want to take the risk.”
I’ve just sat down on the couch, when something dark scuttles out from a door under the stairs. Mr Young turns to look at it. Did he just turn to see what I was looking at? No, he looked first.
Neurons in my head fire up and I realise, he’s in the Childhood as well. We sit at each end of the room looking at each other like a pair of gun slingers waiting on the moment to draw. I use the seconds to try and work out what’s going on. Then a memory of something long and forgotten comes back. This place it’s just like my uncle’s home. It’s just like the place where he… It’s a trap, it’s a lure for children where he can abuse them. He’s somehow twisted the Childhood to make this place. He’s hidden the darkness, but it’s here and strong like an underground river.
I get up and make my way to the door. I don’t say a word for the fear of letting loose and killing the guy.
“Going somewhere?” he asks, standing up calmly. The shadows seem to rise behind him.
“I’m getting out of here you sick bastard,” I say and I’m almost running.
“You seem to forget where you are,” he says, and I’m afraid, because I know exactly what he means. I’m in the Childhood and the trap will work on me just as it would for any child. Why was I not more careful?
The charm of the place breaks down as the darkness seeps through attracted to my fear. It rises up behind Mr Young and then falls on me like a wave. Then I’m lost.
I wake up in the dark and I know exactly where I am. I’ve been here before. My uncle brought me here when I was a child. Even now, that day still haunts me. My parents had left me with him for the weekend and it had been fun. We’d played games all day and he let me eat what I wanted. I can see him here now.
“Mike,” he asks me. “Have you ever kissed anyone?”
“Of course,” I say, “I kiss mum and dad every day.”
“No I mean a real kiss, with tongues,” he says. “You’ll have to learn how to do that for when you meet girls.”
“I’m not interested in girls,” I say.
“You will be soon. Come into the bedroom and I’ll teach you.”
I’m sure you can work out how things went from there.
But you see, I’ve been here before and I learned how to escape. It was simple when I had some help. I just had to find the child in me. That’s why I never grew up like everyone else, because once I found him I never let him go.
“Martin,” I shout, “Martin Young.” A boy appears in front of me. He’s unremarkable. He could be any kid in grade five, just like I was.
“Martin,” I say kneeling down in front of him. “I know you’re scared, but we’ve got to get out of here.”
“I can’t,” he whispers. “Dad told me not to.”
“He’s not your Dad,” I say. “Dad’s don’t do the kind of thing he did to you.” He looks away, “Now look I’m going to help you, but this place we’re in. It comes from you being angry and afraid.”
“I’m not angry,” he yells, “I’m not afraid.”
“It’s okay,” I say, “It’ll take time but we’ll get you help. You’ll be safe with me.”
“You’re not a grown-up,” he says. “How can I be safe with you?” And he’s right. I’m not a grown-up. Inside I’m still a child and what he needs now is something else. But can I be what he needs? Can I be like the grown-up that once saved me?
“Don’t leave me,” says the voice of my inner child from somewhere in the darkness. You can’t leave me here. You know what will happen if you do?”
“He can’t get you any more. He died a long time ago,” I tell my younger self, but he can’t seem to understand.
“I don’t want to go away. I don’t want to be lost like before.”
“It won’t be like that,” I say. “Look at him? Look at this boy, here and now. That was us once. Remember? Remember how it felt?”
“You’re afraid. I know, but there’s nothing for us to fear any more. It’s our turn to grow-up and to look after people, just like someone once looked after us.”
There is silence. Grow up to save one kid? I think I can do that. I think someone did that for me once.
And with that I say good bye to the child inside me. He understands that he’s had his time. You can’t be a child forever.
“Are you ready to go?” I ask Martin.
He looks at me in the way no child ever has before and nods, pulling himself against my leg and with that we are back in the house. It’s still dark, but for me at least there is no more scuttling. We’re in a small room. A closet. I find the door and kick it open easily enough. It was the closet under the stairs. I take Martin’s hand and lead him out. He’s too big to carry.
“What are you doing with my son?” yells Mr Young, charging in from the living room. “He’s my son and you can’t take him anywhere.” I kick him in the nuts – that’s the adult way to do things right? I’m still getting the hang of it.
“I’m taking him somewhere safe,” I say and resisting the urge to do any more damage. I lead him out of the house and drive towards the nearest police station.
I couldn’t stay on as Teacher without portfolio. You need to be able to see the Childhood to do it and I can’t. Even now it’s starting to feel less real. I wonder how long it’ll be until I forget it all together. For even one child it was worth it though. Martin’s now in foster care and I’m told he’s doing well. I still check in from time to time. The principal says I can stay on as a normal teacher. Funny thing is I’m looking forward to it. My first job as a grown-up. It might actually be quite interesting.