Chalk Dust - A Modern Fairy Tale
There was once a young girl who loved to learn. She worked hard at school and grew up to be very clever, wanting nothing more than to share her love of learning with others.
‘I will become a teacher,’ she said to herself, and she set off to find a job. For many weeks she searched throughout the land, but nowhere could she find a school in need of a new teacher.
‘Come back when you have proved yourself,’ everyone said. The beautiful young teacher began to despair.
‘I will never realise my dream,’ she sighed. She buried her head in her hands and began to cry.
As she wept, the room she sat in grew cold. When she looked up, an unsmiling old woman dressed all in grey stood before her.
‘I am willing to give you a chance,’ said the old woman. ‘The children in my school are dull and not fond of learning,’ she went on. ‘I will give you a year to change them. If you can do this, then you may, one day, become a real teacher.’
The beautiful new teacher was overjoyed.
‘I will not let you down,’ she cried.
‘We’ll see,’ said the unsmiling head teacher. She vanished in a puff of chalk dust.
On her first day, the beautiful new teacher arrived early. She was shown to her classroom, which was bare and shabby. Paint was peeling from the walls and, in the corner, water dripped from the ceiling into a bucket. The books on the shelves were tattered and torn. This was not what the beautiful new teacher had been expecting. She sat on one of the tiny chairs and wondered where to begin.
Suddenly, a kind faced man with twinkling eyes appeared. He introduced himself as the caretaker.
‘Young lady, this is a dark and unhappy place,’ he said, ‘I can see that you have come to try to make things better. I will help you in any way I can.’
Working together, the young teacher and the kind caretaker painted the classroom walls in bright, cheerful colours. The caretaker fixed the leaking ceiling, and the young teacher spent her own money on many new books, with which she filled the shelves. In no time at all, the classroom was ready for the children.
They were children like none the young teacher had met before. Every morning they came dragging their feet into the classroom, looking down at the floor. They did not know how to play. If the young teacher asked a question they stared at her without speaking, their eyes empty. None of them seemed curious.
‘This will never do,’ said the young teacher. Night and day, she worked to make her classroom a magical place for the children. She filled the walls with wonderful artwork, she played music to them and taught them to dance, she read to them from the new books. When the weather was fine, she took them out walking in the beautiful countryside. They played games. They made models. Every afternoon, the young teacher would smile lovingly at each child as he or she left the classroom.
Slowly, the children began to change. In the mornings, they would skip into school with smiles on their faces. They asked to read the books for themselves, and to take them home at night. When the young teacher asked a question they would get up on their knees with their arms in the air.
‘Choose me, choose me!’ they all cried. They began to ask questions of their own.
At the end of the school year, the old head teacher appeared again. The young teacher met her with a smile.
‘Surely you can see what a difference I have made,’ she said hopefully. The old head teacher gave a laugh that sounded more like a bark.
‘Foolish girl, you have a lot to learn,’ she sneered. ‘I can see that the children are very happy, but I cannot measure happiness. I need to see results. I need to see numbers.’
The young teacher’s face fell. The kind caretaker arrived and placed a hand on her shoulder. He pleaded with the old head teacher to give her one more chance.
‘Very well,’ said the old head teacher. ‘I will give you one more year, but this time you must test the children to prove how much they have learned.’
‘I will not let you down,’ said the young teacher.
‘I have heard that before,’ snorted the old head teacher. And she vanished again.
On the first day of term the new children arrived, eager to meet the young teacher they had heard so much about. The young teacher smiled her best smile and welcomed them all. But things were not the same. Instead of singing, dancing and playing, the children spent many hours sitting at their desks. If they chatted, the young teacher would tell them to be quiet. If they asked questions she would frown and tell them to get on with their work.
‘This is no fun,’ said one of the children. The young teacher exploded.
‘You are here to learn, not to have fun,’ she shouted. The children gasped in horror. They had never heard the young teacher shout before. The kind caretaker paused on his way past the classroom. He sighed and shook his head sadly, but he said nothing.
The children wanted to please the young teacher, so they worked very hard. When the time came for them to take their tests they all did the best they could. The young teacher was pleased. She showed the results to the old head teacher.
For a long time, the old head teacher said nothing. Then she looked up at the young teacher, smiling a terrible smile.
‘You stupid, stupid child,’ she mocked. ‘When will you ever learn? These results are good. But I am afraid that good is no longer good enough. You must teach the children to be perfect in every way.’
The young teacher sank to her knees and begged for one more chance.
‘Just give me one more year,’ she pleaded. ‘I promise that my test results will be the best in the land.’
‘This is your final chance,’ said the old head teacher. Once again, the room was filled with chalk dust as she disappeared.
The kind caretaker, who had grown to love the young teacher, tried to reason with her.
‘No-one can do more than their best,’ he said. ‘How can you possibly do as you have promised?’
‘I will find a way,’ the young teacher vowed. ‘I will do whatever I have to do to keep my place at the school.’
But as the year went on, she saw that the kind caretaker was right. The children tried and tried, but they could not do better than their best. The young teacher grew angry with them. She gave them more and more work to do at home. She kept them behind after school. When they got things wrong she banged her hand down on the table and made them jump. They grew afraid of her. She stopped smiling.
One night, as she sat at home alone, she had an idea. If the children could not do better, she would have to help them. When the children had done their tests she collected up their papers and took them home. Whenever she found a wrong answer she carefully rubbed it out and inserted a correct one. She worked all night. By morning, all the children had perfect scores.
The young teacher showed the scores to the kind caretaker. As he looked at them, his eyes filled with tears. Silently, he led the young teacher into the staff room and made her stand in front of the mirror. The young teacher could not believe her eyes. What she saw before her was not her own reflection, but that of the old head teacher. She brushed the chalk dust off the shoulders of her grey jacket.
‘What have I become?’ she cried.
That was the last day that the young woman called herself a teacher. She tore the test scores into tiny pieces and threw them into the air. Then, picking up her handbag, and even though it was only ten past three in the afternoon, she walked out of the classroom for the very last time. The kind caretaker followed her.
By the end of the summer, the two of them were married. Together, they raised a family of talented, intelligent children. Things were never easy, since they had very little money, and they were never entirely sure what the future would hold. But, in a way, that just made things more interesting. They made sure that their children understood that the most important things in life cannot be measured or counted. And, knowing this, they lived happily, if not quite forever, at least for a very long time. As for the old head teacher, rumour had it that she vanished in one final puff of chalk dust, never to be seen again.