Chalk Dust - L. P. Ring - THIS IS TOO TENSE
Tapping out the numbers one to ten, you become aware of the ripple of whispers and giggles behind you. You are exposed up here, your existence but a fleeting, inconvenient incursion into their teenage stream of consciousness. You turn, chalk in hand, wondering what reaction your fingernails running along the board would get. You’ve never done that. Not even once. That would have everyone’s attention – albeit briefly. Before the histrionic whining would start.
“Number one?” Some eyes flicker towards the board, others drop to their books. More just continue as they were. Shoma is staring gormlessly out the window. Kanako is playing with Tomoko’s hair again. Should you ask about the split ends?
It would be easiest to just pick from the front row, but instead you resolve to search in less cultivated – and less voluntary - places. Your eyes drop to the attendance sheet, the rows of ticks – remembering the answers of ‘Hai’ at the beginning of the class. You stopped trying to get them to say ‘Yes’ or even ‘Here’ months ago. Or was it years?
“Matsubara Koji? Koji! Answer one, please.”
The sound of shuffling books blends with the mumbles of paired congress. “What’s the question? What’s the answer?” Across the rest of the classroom, eyes glaze over. Respite until this answer is delivered.
Was it always this way?
You write ‘C’ next to the ‘1’ on the blackboard. 30 swishes of a pen mark a tick, mark an X, scribble out an answer choice, or mark in a new one. When you turn back, you catch Chinatsu’s frown, and for a moment you feel a flutter of unease rise from your chest, perhaps a cold trickle of doubt running from your brain stem down your back.
“Let’s get all the answers. We can double-check later. Suzuki Risa? Number Two.”
The Westminster bells chime while you’re boarding question nine. Grumbles ripple at your insistence on finishing. “Check these answers for homework. And do exercise four. And exercise five.” The bric-a-brac of high school life gets stuffed into bags, phones get checked, lunch arrangements are made. You wish for those half-required bows, yearn for a few mumbles of ‘Goodbye Sensei’. Will you miss all this - the hours of mediocrity traded for those few glimmers of respect? Outside they will grumble at homework, about leaving late, about the point of these classes. If you were them, aflush with youth, blithely unaware of their mortality, you might well say the exact same things.
You glare at the answers. Number one might be ‘which’ instead of ‘that’. You’ve never been sure about the difference. The foreign teacher might know. Jeff? That was the one two years back.
The duster’s vanished again. You use your hand instead, the chalk residue smudging down the board - also now smudged into your fingers and palms, its grimy texture irritating you, setting your teeth on edge. You need the washroom.
They won’t even remember Number one next week - just don’t mention it. You slap the chalk onto the tray and slide the well-creased textbook into the battered satchel. The snapping of the clasp echoes throughout the classroom. Running footsteps pound against the corridor’s linoleum floor. You stifle a shout for them to slow down. As you step gingerly off the lectern stage, a door slams in the distance.
Into the corridor, you stop at the window, watching knots of students dotting the grounds below. The day is warm, the sun a comfort, the air not yet heavy with that summer’s oppressive heat. Even on this spring April day, there is still a chill.
Go back to the teacher’s room. Sit alone. Listen to Ritsuko-san complain about her afternoon Math Club group again. Do your paperwork and finish your lesson preps. It’s an early finish today for some sports festival. Your involvement hasn’t been asked for - a rare happiness, irrespective of what that signals. Go home. Rest. Watch some television. Maybe even read a little before switching off the remaining bedside lamp.
You will be alone there too.
That door slams again. You wince, imagining the glass shattering on the next bang, leading to questions in the staffroom, tuttings from the principal. “Did anybody see it happen? Could somebody have stepped in?” You stare down the hall, morosely playing through the conversations to come. “It was near your third period classroom Ito-sensei. Did you hear or see anything?” You emit a ragged sigh. You can wash the chalk from your hands there too.
The hallway echoes with each slap of your rubber sole. Nobody is indoors today: no tardy students tramping up the stairs to copy some final homework, no teachers mapping out their lessons on the chalkboard. It would be so easy to forget this whole thing. Instead, here comes Masaya Ito, one year from retirement, haranguing misbehaving high schoolers in the toilet. You knock on the frosted windowpane. Cough, knock again, and twist the handle. It would be too much to ask for the student to just show themselves. “Excuse me, is anybody in here?”
Masaya Ito, 59 years old, lingering in the girl’s bathroom. “His wife’s death really hit him hard. But I’d never thought of him as a dirty old man!”
“Hello?” You inch into the bathroom. Only one cubicle - the third one - is closed. “Hello, young lady? Were you slamming this door? Aren’t you afraid of breaking the window?”
Silence. The door whines shut behind you. You resist the temptation to crouch down to look for legs. That would get you in worse trouble. “Are you okay there? Can I get someone from the office to help you? When there’s again no answer you do crouch, your knees grousing at the exertion.
You step to the basins, balance your satchel on one, run the tap on the other. Graffiti is inked around the mirror, notes about bands, boys, a note or two about a former teacher that makes you frown. Brown water spurts out, bouncing off the porcelain bowl. You dart back, wincing at the brown splotch you can already imagine forming at your crotch.
Nothing. You must be quicker on your feet than you realize. You step back, fiddle with the tap, pump the soap dispenser, its sound like damp bellows pumping through a vacuum.
Maybe it is the right time to retire. Nothing works around here anymore. You can only imagine the relief of sluicing the chalk dust from your skin. What’s becoming discolored half-sludge sputters, then gushes; you bite back a swear and twist the handle again, dumbfounded as the damn thing comes off in your hand. Now you do swear.
The titter makes you spin round. “Hello?” You stride to the cubicle door and slap on it, sending a shiver through the laminated wood. The tittering turns to laughter, definitely loud enough to be heard over the water now overflowing from the sink and splashing to the floor. You slap on it again, imagining her perched on the toilet seat, grinning at your frustration. “Young lady! I know you’re in there,” you half-splutter in indignation, your left hand reaching up to rub at your shoulder. “Were you the one slamming the door?! Answer me!”
You’re wheezing. The laughing stops. There’s a sharp pain flashing across your chest. You’re feeling a little light-headed. A teacher in your age and condition should just ignore this nonsense, slamming doors or not!
Your standing foot almost slides beneath you as you tread carefully to retrieve your satchel. Let Ritsuko-san or one of the office staff deal with this. You step around the puddle forming across the tiles, wary of any of the filth staining your shoes. And careful now. You wouldn’t want a fall at your age. You grasp the edge of the sink, trying to level out your breathing, willing for the chest pains to pass.
The chimes of the Westminster bells ring out. How can it already be time to return to class?
No matter—you are ready. You tap out the numbers one to ten. You’ve barely used the chalk this class, yet that grimy residue is already caking your fingers and palms. There’s another ripple of whispers and giggles, all nothing to do with you of course. Yet why do you feel so exposed up here, with your back exposed and a lifetime of teaching weighing down upon your head and shoulders?
You ache to know how they’d react to your running your nails down the chalkboard.
Just this once.
L.P. Ring is the author of four crime novels and a neo-noir thriller which are all available on Amazon. He has had work published with lifestyle magazines in Japan and South Korea and crime fiction published with the UK-based Close To The Bone. He currently lives in Japan with his wife and a cat who’s always around at mealtimes.
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