The kid hid behind the door. His uncle was back. He knew what to expect every time Uncle Micky had been released. He didn’t know why he hid. He was behaving like a girl and that would only get him more trouble. So he stepped out from his dark bedroom and he tried to look confident, letting the stairs creak under his bare feet. Outside, across the road, a car ran up the rollercoaster, its riders screaming with anticipation and controller fear. Over the bannister, the boy could see Uncle Micky, sat in the crumpled armchair, drinking from a can. Uncle Micky had a new blue tattoo inked onto his left hand. Uncle Micky turned as he heard the noise on the stairs.
‘Kevin! Come down here, son!’
He wasn’t Micky’s son or nephew or related to the man who simply crashed here during his first month of liberty, but Kevin quickened his steps to the living room. His mother was watching television.
Uncle Micky reached out and pulled Kevin to him by the front of Kevin’s pyjama top. ‘Bit old for Transformers, aren’t you?’ Uncle Micky kept the can of beer in his hand, pulled Kevin over his lap and held him in a headlock. ‘What’ve you been doing while I’ve been away?’
‘School,’ Kevin managed to say.
‘And what’ve they been teaching you?’ Uncle Micky asked. ‘I bet I can teach you more than what you learn in that school. What do you think?’
Kevin’s legs kicked until Micky released his grip and Kevin fell onto the floor and rolled in front of his mother’s feet.
‘Yes Uncle Micky, you can teach me more.’
The following day, Kevin took his place on the back row of the tables where all the other “deadlegs” sat. He answered his name on the register and he got his writing exercise book out of his tray when the teacher told the class to get ready for dictation.
Kevin’s pen was poised, ready to write down whatever he thought Mr Anderson said. He knew to not expect much of his abilities here. He had other abilities – things he was taught elsewhere, outside the classroom, and these were the things that were important.
But Mr Anderson was a problem. He was not like modern teachers. He was old and he acted like old teachers, walking around the room, between the tables, bringing down a cane on the desk of any pupil at any time. Mr Anderson and Uncle Micky were not dissimilar.
Mr Anderson began the dictation; summertime at the seaside. He spoke of hotels with “no vacancy” signs, candy floss and the amusements and fairground. Mr Anderson spoke of a world that every adult wanted to believe in, and some children in the classroom still did. Mr Anderson strolled around the room, slapping his left palm with the infamous cane.
Mr Anderson stopped in front of Kevin. He peered down at the scrawl on the smudged page. ‘What the devil is that, boy?’ Mr Anderson’s voice boomed and everyone turned around. Mr Anderson always had his chorus line – children who watched him with big eyes, who giggled at all his jokes. Mr Anderson grabbed Kevin’s exercise book and held it up for everyone to see.
‘Read it and weep, everyone,’ Mr Anderson said. ‘Read it and weep.’ He swept a finger at the front row of the classroom. ‘I suggest you all get your parents to move you to another school so that you’re not dragged down by the deadlegs like Kevin here.’
It was then that Mr Anderson looked down at Kevin and asked, ‘What happened to you?’
Kevin looked up at Mr Anderson, knowing that everyone else in the class was looking at him. ‘Sir?’
‘You’ve got a black eye, grazed knuckles and broken glasses. What did you do?’
Kevin answered honestly. ‘My uncle’s preparing me for secondary school.’
Mr Anderson laughed and asked again, ‘What happened to you? Stand up boy! Tell the class.’
Kevin’s chair legs scraped across the tiles floor, accompanied by giggles from around the room. Kevin looked straight ahead and repeated, ‘My uncle’s getting me ready for secondary school.’
Mr Anderson pushed his face closely to Kevin’s. ‘Are you telling the truth, boy?’
Mr Anderson took himself away from Kevin and said, ‘Go and wait outside Mr Donavan’s office. I will be with you in five minutes.’
Kevin sloped off to the head master’s office. All the class watched him go.
Kevin’s morning suddenly became full of talking – talking to people he had never met before, with Mr Donavan and Mr Anderson attesting to his learning being behind, his cognitive problems, his eating problems and the lack of any parent or guardian on parents’ evening or someone who would sign a permission slip for him to go on school trips. Kevin’s afternoon was eventful, talking to women in long, brown skirts with big, round glasses who wrote copious notes. One woman drove Kevin home, where two police officers were waiting. No one switched off the television set.
The next Monday, Kevin went to a different school full of deadlegs, with no canes and no dictation. Kevin wished he hadn’t been so honest. He learnt from his mistake.
I had a prompt about a boy hiding and a man saying he would make the boy into a real man. I remembered a boy in my class who came to school with bruises and broken glasses. I remembered what he said. And I remembered how the teacher ran the class – fear, ridicule and shame were daily features of our school day. I’m glad I’ve taught in classes that are run so differently.