The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Pauline is small, scrawny, unkempt, underfed. She gets bullied a lot. She invites it. She loads a story about her cat onto the screen at hometime, then stands by the projector, moving from foot to foot, saying nothing.

She wants some attention.

As I tidy the room, I ask her to read her story out loud. It's about a cat who meets an angel one day, and is surprised at the encounter.

I sit closer, by the keyboard, and read the dialogue out, asking her to listen to my voice to hear the punctuation. Award a reason for this time-filling, a reason above and beyong the need for company, for reassurance and reward.

I ask her to listen to me 'live' the voices. If my voice rises, it's a question mark. If it shouts in surprise, an exclamation.
"Excavation" she mumbles, and asks me to point it out, hovering over the '1'.
If my voice is flat, it's a ...
Yes. A dot. Quietly I teach her the phrase 'full stop', and wait for her to edit her piece.

We add in some pictures, and she finds a kitten photographed inside a breakfast cereal carton. She's delighted, but I tell her to shut down, now, it's time to go home.

"Would you like a lift, Pauline?" I ask.

"Oh yes please, Miss L." Now I have to find a topic of conversation for the journey home as far as "past Woolworth's."
No matter. I should restrain my end of term temper long enough to allow one little girl a spot of company.

We talk about cats. It's a topic she becomes animated over, telling me their names, their patterns, their habits, their secret loves.

At the traffic lights, I notice two street wardens - support police officers, suited in neon jackets and mounted on state owned mountain bikes. Distracted, I tell Pauline that my dad does that job.

Pauline continues the story of the salmon that made the cat throw up.

Noticing the group of teenage boys the officers are speaking to are known to me, I crane forward, blurring the audio distraction of the cat who hates fresh fish.

Hassan is there, gesticulating crossly. Another boy shifts, and I identify Mev. A car hoots at me, indicating I should reverse to allow them to pass, and Pauline's words float into the foreground again. Betsy will only ever allow Spuds near her kittens, he's the only one.

"Which cat is the dominant one, Pauline?" I ask, as I try to figure out the body language of the boys at the junction in front of me. Are they being questioned? Or are they just chatting? Should I get out of the car?
"I mean, the cat who's in charge. Not the bully, but the boss."

She thinks carefully, biting her lip. "Mister Poshpaws. I think. They don't hate him though."

"When you feed them, Pauline," the boys begin to move away, and the officers remain static, watching them as I watch them being watched. "When you feed them, who gets to the food bowl first?" It's then that I notice all the boys before me are turkish. Did they think of them as a gang? I check the officers' faces. Both black. That's got to cause comment in our neighbourhood. Perhaps the boys invited the dialogue - merely asked them why they were police, or why they rode bicycles? Perhaps it was innocent.

"Mister Poshpaws!" Pauline crows in delight at the vindication of her first conclusion. "They leave the food when he comes in the room, and let him eat first."

"Then that's what we call the dominant animal, Pauline. The one who leads them. It's not a horrible thing. It's just how animals work: they need to know who's in control. They play the same games every day they're alive."

The boys turn the corner, relaxed strides, easy joyful arm punches, rolling gait. The officers lean into the sun and pedal forward. No tension. It's all okay.