Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s
distance from the problem. (John Galsworthy)
Gibson wiped his glasses with the blade of his tie and squinted down the lab at the boys of Form Four B. It was not the ideal venue for an English lesson but his request for a more appropriate room had predictably been ignored.
He knew his colleagues disliked him. He was not just the newest teacher there but the youngest, and the only one with a degree. All the others had been emergency trained after the war and their hostility towards him was palpable. They glared with contempt at the Hands-Off-Cuba badge he wore on his duffle coat and openly mocked his repudiation of corporal punishment.
But he cared nothing for their opinions. They were an ill-equipped bunch of cynics whose notion of teaching extended no further than the instillation of obedience into these eleven-plus failures (what else would be expected of them in their shiftless lives?). And every one of them used the cane, the gym shoe or whatever implement suited his idiosyncratic tastes in the infliction of pain.
Gibson had chosen H G Wells’s The Invisible Man as his topic, and some of the boys thought it would be ‘cool’ if they could make themselves invisible. So he’d asked them to think about the things they’d do in their states of invisibility and discuss their reasons in class.
“Miller,” he began, hooking his glasses back on and standing before them, “tell us what you’d do if you could make yourself invisible.”
An emaciated, round-shouldered boy got to his feet at the back of the lab beneath a shelf of preserved specimens. His hair looked in need of a wash and his sunken cheeks and bulging eyes reminded Gibson of a famine-relief poster. His mother, said the staff-room gossips, hawked her faded charms around the seedier pubs and took to carrying a roll of cling film ever since the accident that became her son.
But the lad was Gibson’s protégé, the very kind of pupil for whom he’d chosen his career. It was why he’d forsworn grammar schools and applied only to secondary moderns. Teaching the academically able would be easy; the true reward of teaching lay in enriching the lives of the underprivileged, patiently building in them the confidence and self-esteem that circumstances of poverty and class had conspired to deny them. Gibson had already got the lad to speak, and even to return his smile, achievements that would have seemed impossible just weeks ago.
Before Miller could begin, however, the door swung open and a tall, athletic boy walked in.
“Sorry I’m late, sir. I’ve been with the Head. It’s my first day back.”
“And your name?”
This was the pupil Gibson had been told to expect sometime this week after his release from borstal, and as the new arrival swaggered up the lab, studiously ignoring the looks of deference bestowed on him by the other boys, Gibson noted the hard-set jaw and the bungled ink tattoos on his fingers.
The boy made his way along the top bench and took a stool right in front of Gibson.
“We were just discussing the prospect of becoming invisible, Crawford, and Miller is about to tell us what he’d do in such a condition.”
“Miller is invisible, sir,” the boy said, prompting laughter from the others.
“That’s enough of that, Crawford. I won’t have pupils abuse one another in my class. Is that clear?”
But the words had hit their mark. Miller had resumed his seat, eyes down in terror of being addressed again. Gibson took an instant dislike to this new boy but was anxious to avoid a rift so early in their relationship.
“So how about you, Crawford?” he asked, trying to keep his voice neutral. “Would you enjoy the power of invisibility?”
The reply was swift and decisive. “No, sir.”
“No? Why not?”
“Because power don’t mean a thing without respect, and you don’t get respect from being invisible.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Okay, there was this kid in borstal, right? Frankie. Acted like he was Al Capone. On my second day, two of his goons held me down in the exercise yard while he took my new gym shoes off. He tried them on, then left me his old pair.
“But this wasn’t about the gyms. This was about power. He sees a new bloke with his shoulders back and a spring in his step and he smells competition like a horny tom cat. So he’s got to put me in my place, right? I don’t blame him; it’s the way of the world. But I got to act. If I don’t, he’s gonna walk all over me for the rest of my time.”
Gibson noted how the boy had the undivided attention of the class, something he’d always struggled to achieve, in spite of his training.
“I went inside to the kitchen and found this bottle of bleach under the sink. I poured some in a mug and went back out to the yard. I walked up to Frankie and called his name, and when he turned, I threw it in his eyes. He dropped to his knees, screaming like a girl, and I took my gyms back. His goons didn’t even make a move.”
This brought murmurs of admiration which Crawford characteristically ignored.
“I took a beating from the screws,” he went on, “but Frankie was as sweet as a kitten after that and no one messed with me again. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d sneaked up on him in secret like I was invisible. The other blokes had to see me dealing with the problem.”
Gibson understood now but was appalled at this code of might-is-right the boy seemed to live by.
“And is violence the solution to all your problems, Crawford?”
“No, sir, but sometimes it’s the only way. I don’t look for trouble, but if trouble finds me…” He have a shrug. “I may be a fighter, but I’m not a bully. I make sure no one picks on the weaklings in this school. If you don’t believe me, sir, ask Miller.”
“I’m not a weakling!” came a cry from the back.
“Leave him alone, Crawford. I won’t tell you again.”
“Just making a point, sir. I mean it’s like you as a teacher. You treat the boys fair, but if they mess you about you got to stamp on them, right?”
Gibson took a moment too long to respond to this and Crawford continued, as if pressing home an advantage.
“’Cause if you don’t, you lose control – and the boys control you.”
There was something unsettling about the way Crawford glanced back at the others as he said this, and for the first time Gibson sensed a subtle shift of mood in the room. Even at their most boisterous the boys had always been good natured, but he detected an undercurrent of resentment now and was forced to reappraise this boy sitting before him.
What he had taken for a mindless thug he now saw was a shrewd and manipulative young man who possessed that unlettered wisdom that gave his kind all the confidence and hubris of articulate Etonians. He seemed deliberately to be sowing discord in the class, though to what purpose Gibson could only guess. His use of the word ‘sir’ now appeared sarcastic, and his choice of seat less a sign of enthusiasm than an act of defiance.
He decided it was time to get the lesson back on track and was about to pick up the topic of Wells’s novel when Crawford spoke again.
“So tell us, sir,” he said, folding his arms over his chest, “how do you get respect – as a teacher, I mean? Or do you prefer to make yourself invisible?”
Clarity came like the whump of a gas fire. This was not a dialogue. This was not a discussion. This was a battle. The lab had become a lair of wolves, the pack animated by the return of the alpha male to face a challenger. This was Crawford’s bid to reassert his authority, a sublimation of his brawl in the borstal yard.
All eyes were on Gibson now as he fought the urge to wipe away the beads of sweat forming on his brow.
“I resent that remark, Crawford, but I’ll tell you this. Respect comes from being open and honest, and showing respect in return.”
“But when that doesn’t work, you got to use the cane, right?”
“I don’t cane my pupils, Crawford.”
“Then there’s more than one weakling in the room, sir.”
Before Gibson had time to absorb this insolence, Miller was on his feet again, voice trembling with anger.
“I’m not a weakling! I’m not a weakling!”
“Aren’t you?” said Crawford, his eyes still fixed on Gibson. “Then prove it, Miller. Prove it!”
The chant was taken up in an instant, the boys beating their hands rhythmically on the benches.
Prove it! – Prove it! – Prove it! –
Gibson’s calls for silence were either ignored or unheard as the chant went on like some ancestral war cry, rattling the windows and racks of test tubes.
Prove it! – Prove it! –
Never before had Gibson seen a look of such pathos on a human face as his eyes met Miller’s across the lab, a look midway between a rebuke and a heart-rending supplication.
Help me! it said. I thought you were my friend.
Gibson knew this was one of those perilous moments when a word, a gesture, could alter the course of a human life, but the din was overpowering and inspiration failed him. He was paralysed.
Miller covered his ears and gave a bestial cry of distress, and Gibson knew he’d lost him.
The storm was brief and violent.
Miller turned and swept his arm along the shelf, sending jars crashing to the floor, their pickled specimens lying scattered in pools of formaldehyde and shards of glass. The boys cheered him on as he tore a roller blind from its housing, then turned his attention to his lab stool. Gripping it by the legs, he brought it down again and again on the bench until, failing to break it, he collapsed against the wall and sank to the floor, shoulders heaving in sobs of impotent rage.
Gibson felt the snap of bone as he drove his fist into Crawford’s face. The boy tumbled back on his stool, cracking his head against the bench behind, then rocked forward again.
The cheering died away as the boys nudged one another to silence. Those either side of Crawford slipped quietly away as everyone awaited events, the brittle hush broken only by the tick of the wall clock and the wheezing of Miller’s chest.
Crawford put a tentative hand to his twisted nose and stared at the profusion of blood streaming on to his sweater. He tugged a dislodged tooth from his mouth and laid it on the bench. Then he lifted his eyes to Gibson, his lips curling into a grin of sardonic triumph.
“It’s what I been saying, sir,” he said. “It’s what I been saying all along.”