The ring of empty seats that surrounded him was an indication not only of the nits he was supposed to have in his wild red hair, but of how they all shunned everything about him. He had gotten used to being ignored by the others. It wasn’t the first time he’d experienced ridicule and loneliness in a classroom.
As the fire alarm bells rang, Miss Dufour put in motion the well-rehearsed drill. It was not Friday at 11 am after all, it was Tuesday.
They didn’t do drills on Tuesdays.
The children paired up at the front of the classroom, shoving him aside as he readied himself for the evacuation.
Clearly and precisely, using the scripted words that hung on the wall by the classroom door, Miss Dufour gave the instructions: –
“Get in your pairs. Hold hands. Walk quickly. Do not run. No talking. Leave everything behind. Keep calm. Be as quick as you can. Just keep going.”
She made a small silent prayer in her head that they would just keep going.
As the flustered teacher came to open the classroom door, she felt the handle come away in her hand. She heard the one on the other side of the door fall to the ground with a clatter, even over the alarm bells. The teachers and children moving quickly past her door were only intent in their own evacuation and did not notice her difficulty.
Her mouth slipped open as she looked at the handle in the grip of her whitening knuckles. She glimpsed at the windows, long barred to keep out the thieving miscreants who might want to make off with whatever they could find of value inside.
As she turned to look at the door, she felt all 27 pairs of silent eyes on her, imploring her guidance and leadership. Skills which her young and inexperienced years had struggled with at the best of times this year as a new teacher, let alone in this critical moment.
One face was pushing through the expectant eyes. One head of scruffy red hair was moving towards her.
“Tommy, wait there,” she heard her voice call out.
“A spoon.” Was all he said. Then, irritated, “Give me a spoon.”
Three hands proffered theirs from the lunch pails on the shelf by the door and he inspected them, one by one. Whilst selecting the best for his needs, only metallic ones were considered. Tommy knew exactly what he wanted.
“I’ll try this one.” He hurried to the door and tried the spoon’s shaft in the hole where the door handle was. Quickly he turned it, failed and asked for one of the others, previously rejected.
“Everyone stand back. Give me light.”
The small boy was taking control, so they did, offering Tommy a respect he had never achieved until now. Never earned from the rest of that privileged class, with their warm, detached lives, coming from their warm, detached homes.
And him from the trailer park with the five brothers and two sisters, not to mention the father in jail for masterminding the big bullion heist last year, taking his two uncles with him. He manoeuvred the handle of his chosen spoon into the hole and suddenly, it slipped and fell out and Miss Dufour began to push him to one side.
“Tommy, leave it, it’s not going to work.” He glared at her, with those rare blue eyes peering through that knotty ginger thatch. No-one else was even breathing.
“I have it.” Was all he said. And she stood down, doubtful and still trusting the grubby face in front of her.
An eight-year-old in a room full of scared kids and a scared teacher and smoke under the doors. And he said he had it.
Without further ado, he turned and tried again.
This time, he was more precise, even though he was against the clock and as no-one breathed a breath, he slowly turned the spoon handle in the space where the door knob should have been, rather than useless in Miss Defour’s hand.
Tommy had learned well the dubious skills of his extended family. Hours with boys and men who came from the less attractive parts of town. Skills handed down from a litany of predecessors who knew how to fashion a buck or two in ways that most wouldn’t. ‘The hard way’, they called it, as they laughed with him as they showed him how to open windows and pick locks instead of framing words in a pretty reading book.
A gentle, controlled tug this time, with the spoon handle still precariously in place, the door slowly opened and more smoke billowed in. Tommy stood aside.
Ahead of the teacher, he beseeched the children. “Hold hands in your pairs. Walk don’t run. Turn right and keep going.”
Which they all did.
Miss Dufour held Tommy’s hand as they made their way down the choking corridor, for he was no-one’s partner for the fire drills. No-one had wanted to hold Tommy’s dirty little hand. Like the fat kid when choosing schoolyard soccer teams, he was the one left behind, unloved by all. The kid they all picked on.
There was no partner for Tommy to pair with. Until now, of course.
Once they got to the assembly point, even before the roll-call was done, every one of Tommy’s classmates became his new best friend. There was laughing, hugging (despite the supposed nits), pats on the back and cheering – such cheering – for the one everyone would now want to sit by. For the one everyone would want to pair with. The scruffy one with the mad red hair, or so they all said as they had taken sides against him.
Inwardly, Tommy smiled to himself. His life might not be ideal, but it was natural for him to learn to survive. For this, he knew, there was no-one quite like his father.
“My Dad’s son, I am,” he beamed.