A/N: I feel terrible for starting something new when I've been stuck on JxM for a while but I just can't help it. This chapter almost wrote itself after a dream I had last month and my muse wants me to carry on.
When the Headmaster walked into the room and asked to speak to me, I didn't think for a single second that the conversation we were about to have could be of the life-changing sort. And why should I? Everything that day had been just like any other day. The end of the afternoon was nearing and I'd just taught my last lesson for the day. The private all-boys school where I taught Mathematics had been my home for the past five years and naturally I'd settled into a routine I was quite fond of. On Friday afternoon, after my last class, I would usually walk to my room, dump all my things on my desk or my bed and go for a long walk around the school grounds.
But it wasn't meant to be on that particular day. As I said, Mr Cunningham — the Headmaster — was waiting for me.
"May I speak with you for a few minutes, Mr Cole?" he said, leaning against the wooden door frame.
"Of course, please come in. How can I help you, sir?" I asked, stacking up my books and papers hastily. I'd just given the third years a test that would keep me busy over the weekend.
I raised an eyebrow when he seemed to take particular care in closing the door behind him, but kept the observation to myself. Wayne Cunningham, who had been Headmaster of Whitehall for ten years after teaching History for over twenty, was not a shy man and didn't usually care about being overheard. But I said nothing.
"I'm here to talk about a student," he said slowly, almost as if he were thinking carefully about the words to use.
I must admit I'd never seen him act that way in the five years I'd been at Whitehall, and I was of course intrigued. I often wonder what I would have said if I'd known in advance about the turn my life was about to take. Would I have done anything differently? I'd like to think I'm the sort of man who wouldn't care about these things, but how can I be sure? Back then, though, I was a little concerned about having the Headmaster speak to me privately about a student. I spent a few seconds trying to make a mental list of the students who might have had reasons to go to him — and thankfully came up blank.
"A new student," he said after some time, sounding as though he understood what I'd been thinking.
But he'd piqued my curiosity again. Thanksgiving was only a few weeks away so this was a latecomer and I couldn't remember anyone enrolling late in the five years I'd been at the school.
"This is a bit of a… delicate situation," he said, measuring his words again. "It could take some time. Are you free right now?"
I was probably overanalyzing everything but I couldn't help thinking of his question as a test. Would I dare tell the Headmaster I didn't have time when he'd come to see me in person, especially when it was to talk about a student? Besides, he must have known I had finished my last lesson before leaving his office, so why ask?
"Absolutely. I'm free until dinner time."
He smiled and walked up to my desk, standing on the other side of it.
"Have you heard anything about a boy called James Ellison? From other members of the faculty, maybe? I've done my best to keep things quiet but you can never truly stop information from leaking."
The name didn't ring a bell. "I don't think so, sir."
"Mr Ellison is a sixteen-year old boy who will become one of your students on Monday morning."
"I… don't teach Eleventh Form, sir," I couldn't stop myself from saying.
"I know, I know. I'll get to it in a minute."
"Two years ago, during the Christmas holidays, Mr Ellison lost his family."
I blinked and felt my jaw drop. "Wh—What happened?"
"Burglars got into the house in the early hours of Boxing Day while everyone was asleep. I don't know much about it but it seems at least one of his brothers was killed before his eyes. They were… found in the same room. And as if that weren't enough," he added after letting out a long sigh, "he was… abused, wounded and left for dead in the house."
I don't know how long I remained still, staring at him incredulously and unable to utter a word. Thankfully, he broke the silence before it became too uncomfortable.
"He spent a long time in hospital, recovering from the knife wound, and then moved to live with his grandmother, here in Washington."
"Where… did—" I asked, ashamed of the way my voice shook.
"Near Boston. His oldest brother attended Harvard."
My mind had gone absolutely blank. I suppose I'd been living at Whitehall for too long already. Constantly surrounded by rich boys whose only worries were about grades or what high-profile careers they'd have in the future, I'd forgotten that there was more, much more out there than the parts of this school I called home. I had been so desperate to dedicate myself to teaching and forget the reasons why I'd left my job in a regular high school that I hadn't even seen it happen.
The Headmaster's voice brought me back to reality. "Anyway," he said, clearing his throat, "Mr Ellison is going to be attending our school from Monday onwards and he requires… special treatment. First of all, as you pointed out, he will not be attending Eleventh Form classes. Although he is sixteen, he hasn't been at school since the… accident.
"I'm sure you won't be surprised when I say that he has problems with meeting and trusting strangers. Regrettably, he secluded himself for too long after what happened so it took his grandmother several months before she could get him to agree to come here," he said, crossing his arms over his chest, and I noticed something akin to… criticism in his tone. I made sure to keep my expression as neutral as I could.
"He took an entrance test of sorts a few weeks ago. Even though he technically missed most of Ninth Form, it was decided to put him in Tenth Form anyway, based on his results. His grandmother says he spent a lot of time reading."
The quiet, caring attitude that had bemused me so much when he'd started the conversation was slowly disappearing and the criticism in his voice was more and more obvious. I refrained from saying what was on my mind since an argument with the Headmaster was the last thing I wanted, but I couldn't help feel disappointed with the man.
"I am placing the boy" — I didn't fail to notice that we'd gone from "Mr Ellison" to "he" and finally "the boy" — "in this particular class so that you can be his Homeroom teacher. I know it's only your second year doing so but the reports coming into my office are very good, Mr Cole."
"Thank you, sir."
"I'm sorry to place such a burden on your shoulders but you are the youngest member of our faculty, and as such I thought that maybe you would be able to… connect with the boy more easily."
I ought to have said something, I know. I was a simple Mathematics teacher; I had no idea how to treat a… special student. The reason for that was that Whitehall didn't have any special students and it made me wonder just what sort of influence Mr Ellison's grandmother had. And I didn't buy the part about the age. Being the youngest — and in some cases the age difference was quite important — I had the least experience so I was more likely to completely mishandle the situation. I couldn't help thinking that I'd been chosen precisely because I had the least experience. I couldn't imagine that any of the established teachers who'd spent most of their lives at Whitehall wanted a challenge from which they might not come out victorious.
Did I want such a challenge?
More importantly, did I have a choice?
"Are you sure it's… in Mr Ellison's best interest?" I asked, knowing fully well that I couldn't just say no.
He smiled at me. "I'm sure you'll be just fine."
Well that settled it. I would have thought that after five years my position might have been a little more… substantial, I suppose, but I was obviously wrong. Part of me wanted to discuss the matter further and not give up so easily, but another part — the caring teacher part, no doubt — was already focused on the student I yet had to meet. Knowing what I did, could I refuse and simply pass him on for someone else to look after? No one would welcome such a challenge. And when I caught myself thinking that way, I realized that deep down I'd already accepted the responsibility.
"I'll do my best, sir," I replied after what seemed like an eternity.
"Fantastic. I knew I could count on you, Mr Cole. Shall we meet your new protégé?"
I looked up. "He's already here?"
"Yes, we thought that spending the weekend here would give him time to… prepare himself."
"So he's staying at the school?"
"Yes. We had to make special arrangements," — the criticism crept into his tone again — "but everybody agreed it was for the best. Our school is a boarding school, and even though his grandmother lives in Washington, rules can only be bent to a certain extent. Mr Ellison will be staying in one of the teachers' rooms."
And with that he walked to the door and stepped into the corridor, which gave me the feeling that he didn't want to talk about the rest of the arrangements he'd had to make. I gathered my papers, books and bag and ran after him, thinking again about the sort of influence Mr Ellison's grandmother had. Surely, this had to be a precedent Mr Cunningham wouldn't want to see repeated if he could help it.
"I need to tell you more about the boy before you meet him, Mr Cole," he said as he led the way. The corridors were empty so he could talk freely. "As I told you earlier, trust is a very big issue at the moment. We're hoping that being among the other students will help him open up again. Seclusion is never a good solution."
"What exactly do you mean, sir?"
Mr Cunningham didn't look at me and kept walking. "He doesn't speak."
I stopped for a few seconds but he carried on so I had to run after him.
"Not at all?"
"He doesn't speak to strangers, only to his grandmother. And of course, every single person attending and working at this school is a stranger. That's the reason we can't have him in the dormitories."
"But, sir, how —"
"It won't be easy. He doesn't speak and won't let anyone too close to him. Touching him is of course impossible. I was told he would probably feel more comfortable around women but that's not an option here. So I thought you would probably be our best option. It won't be easy but I have faith in you, Mr Cole."
I still didn't buy it but I was already too involved by then to back away.
"Are you ready?" he asked, stopping in front of an empty classroom door and taking a key out of his pocket. I blinked.
"Only to keep other people out so they didn't risk frightening him. Mr Ellison," he called out, "we're coming in."
When I stepped into the room, I first thought it was empty. After a couple of second, I saw a young man sitting in the opposite corner, under one the windows, bent over a table. My first impression was that he was ignoring us and that didn't bode well. I was wrong, though. It turned out that he hadn't heard us and my heart went out to him when he jumped after Mr Cunningham called his name again and switched the light on. With his hands clutching the desk and his big blue eyes wide open and fixed on us, he looked like a trapped animal for a few seconds.
"It's all right, Mr Ellison. It's just me," Mr Cunningham said, holding his hands up in an attempt not to look threatening. "And this is the teacher I told you about."
Mr Cunningham moved out of the way and so the boy's — Mr Ellison's — eyes quickly moved to me. Thankfully, they didn't stay on me for very long because he looked absolutely petrified and I'm ashamed to say that it immediately made me uncomfortable. I wished Mr Cunningham had given me some time to prepare myself and figure out how to act… appropriately. With anyone else, I would have tried to reach out and create some sort of bond, but I knew I couldn't touch this boy. I didn't want to do anything that could be seen as threatening but at the same time I didn't think Mr Cunningham had the right idea. We needed to appear inviting, I suppose, and standing aside with his arms crossed over his chest didn't send the right message.
I slowly made my way to a desk — still quite a distance away — and sat on the chair to bring myself down to the same level. I did my best not to stare at him too much and I was pleased to see that he glanced at me several times, even if it never lasted more than a second. I couldn't tell for sure since he was sitting down but he seemed rather average build-wise. His hair was — again, from what I could see — dark brown, short and neatly parted on the side like so many boys his age. His face, however, was anything but average, with very fair skin and beautiful, slightly feminine features, I suppose. Add to that a pair of light-colored eyes and the result was indeed quite lovely. Not that someone like Mr Cunningham would have noticed, though.
"Good afternoon, Mr Ellison," I said softly and he glanced at me again. "My name is Thomas Cole, I'm your Mathematics teacher. I will also be your Homeroom teacher, so if… if there's anything wrong, anything you're having trouble with, I'll be there to help. Hopefully, that is," I said with a smile he didn't return — not that I expected him to. "I hope you'll like Whitehall and I'll see you for our first lesson… well, on Monday morning."
I hadn't expected an answer and of course I didn't get any. When the silence became uncomfortable, Mr Cunningham thankfully stepped up again.
"Right, I think we'll leave it here for today. Thank you for your time, Mr Cole," he said, accompanying me back into the corridor silently. As soon as he closed the door behind us, he turned to me, frowning. "So, what do you think?"
What on earth did he mean by that? Was I really supposed to be able to draw any sort of conclusion from such a short encounter?
"I… don't know, sir," I replied honestly. "How are we supposed to interact with him and teach him if—"
"All you need to do during the lessons is to let him sit at the back of the classroom and not prompt him to speak up. Every class has a shy student whose voice you never hear; think about him that way."
I must have managed to hide my surprise — and more importantly, my repulsion — well enough because he didn't say anything. I was convinced that treating Mr Ellison like any other shy student was precisely the wrong thing to do, so how could he not see it? The boy needed help, that was for sure, but I wasn't sure he would get the help he needed at Whitehall.
"Mr Cole," he said shortly, "we all agree that someone like Mr Ellison should probably be placed in a… special school. However, his grandmother is determined to have him complete his education at our school since his father was a pupil here."
I looked away for a few seconds, afraid my eyes would betray my thoughts. I couldn't believe what I'd just heard. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with that boy so how could My Cunningham suggest that we should… give up on him and let him be locked away? I had always had a profound respect for people who devoted their entire lives to teaching and I hoped to achieve that goal myself, but I was slowly losing my respect for him. How could a man who had spent his life surrounded by students seem to understand so little about them?
As I said before, I had absolutely no experience in the matter but I was convinced that what the boy needed was to be treated… normally. I realized, of course, that some exceptions were needed here and there, but I wasn't going to leave him in a corner and pretend he wasn't there. And naturally, when I realized where my thoughts had taken me, I could only smile to myself and finally surrender.
Fine, I would accept this challenge and show Mr Cunningham and anyone who thought the way he did just how wrong they were. And hope not to fail and make a fool of myself — and, worse, of the boy whose future now seemed to be in my hands.
We only exchanged a few more words before parting ways and I heard him let out a rather loud sigh before going back into the classroom. With thoughts running wildly through my mind, I made my way back to my room. As I passed one of courtyards, I suddenly remembered my walk. I was in charge of overseeing dinner on Fridays — since I did not leave the school at the weekend, unlike more senior, married teachers — and my long walks were a way for me to relax beforehand. I'd been looking forward all day to strolling down the paths in the crisp autumn air but it all seemed so long ago. As I looked at the trees in the distance, all I could think about was Mr Ellison — even then he was no longer just the boy — and the expression on his face after I'd talked to him. He'd looked so uncomfortable, as if he were wishing he could be anywhere but in that classroom with Mr Cunningham and me. No sixteen-year old boy should feel that way and my heart tightened when I remembered the look in his eyes.
I glanced at the trees again and let out a small sigh. Maybe I'd make myself a hot drink and start working on grading those papers.
A/N: If you want to see what James look like, visit: [ http:// HiddenGems . deviantart . com / art / Invisible-117059374 ]. Remove all spaces. Don't know how to insert URLs here any other way, sorry.