On Thursday he was uncharacteristically buoyant as he walked to school. The sun and birds and flowers and coffee were doing what they’re supposed to in early Spring. He texted his girlfriend in America and declared his love for her, the planet, its coffee, its blooms. He got to school early, ready to prep. He was characteristically un-prepped.
The door to his room was locked — third lock in as many weeks. Some idiot kept losing it. Some other idiot.
He paced the corridor for 20 minutes, ran down to a deserted staff room. He called the new and pregnant department head. Someone else answered: “She…is…not… here.” Increasingly edgy, he called A___, her predecessor. No answer. He watched the clock through the door glass tick closer to 9:00.
He texted his girlfriend again. “Can you call me?” he said.
“Sorry, babe, gotta unload before I fucking explode. These people… Some dummy lost the first lock, then they put a padlock on and immediately lost the key, now it’s a combination lock, but nobody considered that — just maybe — the one person who uses the room for every single damned lesson might need the combination.” He paced back and forth. “Nobody communicates, nobody tells me anything. I don’t know how the hell anything gets done!”
“I’m sorry, hon,” she said. Still on the phone, he strode round the corner, found the pregnant lady counselling some kid. She rose apprehensively. He unleashed a furious tirade; she fled downstairs. “Did you hear that?” he asked his girlfriend. “I just shouted at a pregnant lady.”
“It’s okay, hon,” she replied. “Shouting doesn’t hurt a fetus.”
At last the pregnant woman reappeared, this time with A___, who clicked through the combination without apology. “I wrote it on the lock,” she said. “But people’s hands rubbed it off.”
“She wrote it on the fucking lock,” he told her after they’d gone. “She wrote it in PEN on the fucking LOCK…”
He had five minutes. Girls drifted in silently as he tried to prepare. The bell, that insane, inane chime, sounded. The co-teacher came in, stood silently at the back. He started his lesson. His own speaking was excellent indeed, but the students were mute, frozen, exhibiting few of the internationally recognised signs of life.
“Um, Ian,” the co-teacher said eventually, “This is a writing lesson.”
“What? And nobody thought to inform me of this?”
He recovered, dying inside, steered the lesson into writing (Praise Your Best Friend was the title on page 20) and did it again, more smoothly, for the following class — more silent, depressed girls for whom the challenge of naming their best friend was evidently a cruel imposition on their day.
“What’s wrong with these girls?” he asked the co-teacher, without bothering to lower his voice. Plainly unnecessary.
“I don’t know! They’re so passive.”
“Elementary school boys could do this.”
That morning he’d calculated the number of days remaining in his teaching year. 285.
Friday. He clicked through the combination. Another flock of miserable girls slumped in. He started this lesson differently, talking about his own friend, painfully “eliciting” the questions What’s his/her name?; How long have you known him/her?; and What’s he/she like?. Outside, another beautiful morning.
Their turn. “Write your answers and share with your partner.” The room was silent, still. Girls stared at books, laps, bunny-rabbit pencil cases. The co-teacher circulated, attempting in Korean to spark an outbreak of communication. He tamped down his frustration while most of the girls sat there contracted, as though in pain, over the clean white paper of page 20.
When the fury escaped, his voice took on a terrifying life of its own. Girls looked up, wide-eyed, from their shoes and bunnies. He knew they didn’t understand the words but their meaning was unambiguous. The last word before he stormed out was shit.
He wrenched the door open and strolled out of the building. Girls doing P.E. shouted out, “Nice to meet you!” giggling as he walked to the street. He sat on a rock in the sun and waited, while cherry-blossom petals blew over the cigarette butts. A hearty hack-and-spit, the sound of Korea at work, from a nearby gardener. He imagined a drift of cigarette butts blowing down the road.
The bell chimed. He went up to the empty room, grabbed his stuff, and walked out. Unplanned long weekends are the best kind. He spoke to his girlfriend. “I just walked out. I’m not going back. Can’t do this anymore.”
“Good for you,” she said.
His phone rang while he photographed cherries and magnolias; rang out. Then again: the pregnant teacher, begging him to return. “That class, 2-5, is the worst in the school! All the teachers hate them!”
“I’m not coming back,” he said. “Life’s too short.”
She pleaded; he walked. “Okay, take the day off and we’ll see you next Thursday!”
Later, his co-teacher: “Teaching is very difficult. A teacher must be patient and encourage the students.”
“That’s why I can’t be a teacher anymore. 12 years is enough. I’m tired of entertaining babies. I’m not paid enough for this. It’s killing me.”
He came to the brilliant pink-white blaze of a cherry-covered hillside, climbed up beneath the flowers onto a wooded ridge. Sunlit patches warm and soothing, shadows enlivened by the hot-pink sparkle of hundreds of azalea bushes. Insects crawled across the path, bumble-bees careened drunkenly around the blooms. He meandered after them on his own lazy trajectory, snapping pictures, sinking to his knees, climbing atop boulders, feeling empty and alive.
It had turned into an excellent Friday — but there was almost too much sunlight. Saturday found him back there just after dawn. The blooms glowed brighter and the woods were cool. Locals hiked; a boy said, “Hell-o, Teacher.”
He embraced the emptiness, the stillness, the quiet. He walked two miles before descending for coffee.
(All pictures taken in the kinder light of Saturday.)
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote