I’m waiting to be told off. Or maybe I’m waiting for help with physics. I’m not quite sure which. It’s breaktime, and everyone else has poured out of the classroom and down the stairs. Noisy teen soup. Without them, the silence is eerie.
The New Science block isn’t really new at all. It dates from the nineteen fifties. Like everywhere else in school, the oak desks are worn down, carved with names and obscenities, then sanded again and again. The Bunsen burners are functional, but slightly rusty.
I’m used to this classroom noisy. It smells of wet woollen coats in the rain. Towards the end of term it stinks of sweat, when the seventeenth century uniforms haven’t been washed for a while. Now waiting, empty, the classroom has an air of studious boredom. It smells of nothing except the breeze from the open window. Outside it is spring. Pink blossoms on the lime trees. Are they limes? Or beech?
Mr L. would know. As biology teacher, he took us outside for long walks in our first year. He showed us all the different types of trees. He has a PhD in fungi. The school magazine says he found a new species of mushroom on the school grounds. We tried to wind him up by eating all the plants we could find.
He was strong, muscular. A rugby player. Small head, big body. Like a monkey. We used to giggle that he could use himself to prove evolution. At the end of the first year, he taught us about sex. “I will answer any of your questions except about my own experience,” he said weightily, standing in front of the class and daring us to try. None of us did. He kept control effortlessly. Presence. Authority. Something like that. Like the animals we studied. Leader of the pack.
But I’m not in the first year any more. I’m fifteen, nearly sixteen, and this is physics. We are different shapes and sizes now. Sex is not just an idea in the textbooks. We’re harder to manage than we were, especially in a difficult subject like physics. Poor Mr V. nearly gave up on us. We were awful to him. I think that’s why we’ve been given Mr T. this year.
South African, this teacher. They do discipline properly there. He’s known for having a hot temper. He looks like a monkey too, but it’s his face, not the body like Mr L. Something about the grin. A little too wide to be human. I’m a little scared of him. Everyone knows how he picked up a boy and threw him out of the classroom last year. Feet didn’t touch the floor. Like a doll.
He’s a good teacher, I think, but I’m just not getting it. Physics has suddenly got equations in it, and I don’t do well with equations. I couldn’t even do half the prep. It being boarding school, there’s no parents around to help. There’s no conception of individual tuition, either, you get it in class or you don’t. Problem is, I don’t get it, but my reputation is that I’m bright. So he probably thinks I am just messing around. That’s why I’ve got to stay behind. I’ll probably get a drill. That’s where you have to run multiple times around a field, early on Sunday morning. I don’t really mind them, but they’re not going to solve my problem with equations.
Here he is. He’d left me alone for a few minutes, probably to soften me up. Nothing like making someone wait before you punish them. He holds my exercise book. It’s dull red. Like his face, all of a sudden. Like he’s been working himself up.
I am standing waiting by my desk. He stands at the front, calls me up.
He tosses the exercise book in my direction. “This is unacceptable.”
It lands on the desk in front of me.
He is standing close. Too close. I am conscious that he is a fairly young man, a good looking one, and I am nearly a woman. He stands so close I can feel his breath. I don’t know whether to be excited or scared.
Scared, I decide, because he still looks red and angry.
He shouts at me a little more. He is close, so it is frightening. I am confused. I have been alone with teachers before and it has been nothing like this.
Then he takes my left hand. Forcefully, not gently. Not romance, then. He puts it on the desk in front of us. Palm up.
My hand curls slightly. Instinct to protect. I resist the impulse to jerk my hand back, because I can see it will make things worse. I straighten my fingers and palm. They lie flat like a plate. But I am terrified, because the school doesn’t use corporal punishment. Not to girls, at least. I know boys are sometimes slippered by the masters in the junior dormitories. But the girls are usually left alone.
He is panting. This is odd, because he has just taught a physics class, and mainly he was standing still.
Then it happens. The thing I was not expecting. He takes the long thin whiteboard pointer. It’s wooden. Like a switch. He lifts it up. I think wildly of gravity, and the equations I am missing up. For a hopeful moment I think this is a practical demonstration, that he is about to ask me a question about forces. Because you’re not supposed to beat girls, everyone knows that. That’s the school rule.
Then the pointer slams downwards, and I know this is for real.
He doesn’t hit me. He hits the desk beside my hand, missing by an inch or so. He does it again and again. Each time the pointer swishes in the air and I know it is going to land on my hand.
But it doesn’t.
I flinch, each time.
I can’t help it.
I try to keep still but I am so afraid.
He watches me, approvingly.
I am responding as he wants.
He is sweating.
Then he stops. He frowns at me. The classroom probably smells of fear, now, my own. The atmosphere is electric, in a weird way I don’t understand. I can smell his swear and his heavy breathing. He is still so close. He meets my eye, challengingly. As if he owns me.
I cannot speak. Terror is written on my face.
He smiles with satisfaction, and dismisses me with a curt nod.
I take my book and go.
And for twenty-eight years I never tell anyone what happened. Like Mr L., I keep my experiences to myself. I sand them out of my mind, like the obscenities on the school desks.
I don’t think about it much, either.
I just develop a weird tic, that when I am stressed I will want to slap myself, hard, with the left hand.
Ann Rosenthal is an award winning playwright and writer who has published in multiple genres and outlets including the London Times.