I was convinced that Mr Ellison's arrival at Whitehall and Mr Cunningham's request that I essentially look after him would bring immediate and rather radical changes to my life.
Well, I was wrong.
Yes, I had one extra pupil in my Tenth Form class and I had to remember not to expect or prompt him to participate during lessons, but that was about it.
From the second day onward, he started coming to Homeroom period and, really, apart from the absence of talking and eye contact he was just like any other pupil. To me, at least. It still pained me a little to see him eating every meal on his own at the end of the teachers' table, though. I was relieved to notice after a few days that he always had a book or a notebook with him, though; seeing him sitting there all lonely and miserable really would have been too much for me, I fear.
Before I knew it, the week had gone by and there didn't seem to be any trouble at all. I don't really know why I'd been expecting problems. In retrospect, it was some sort of discredit to Mr Ellison and the rest of my pupils and I ought to have known better. I promised myself to endeavor not to fall prey to such presumptions again.
So I was less worried about my… protégé, I guess, but I was still curious. At the end of our lesson on Friday just after lunch, I called him out.
"Mr Ellison, can you please wait before you leave?" I asked while I wiped the blackboard.
When I turned around, he was standing by his desk, looking very anxious. The Eighth Form pupils were about to come in so I went over to him quickly. I smiled and sat on the edge of the desk in front of his so I wouldn't tower over him, making sure there was a comfortable amount of space between us.
"So… it's been a week," I said just as the first pupils walked in. A few of them glanced at him briefly and he ducked his head when he became aware of them.
Hmm, that wouldn't do.
"I think we'd better step into the corridor, if you don't mind," I said, beckoning him to follow me. "Gentlemen, please sit down and wait for me quietly, thank you! I'll only be a minute."
I knew most of the pupils would be coming from the left so I took a few steps to the right and leaned against the wall, trying to look casual.
"So yes, you've completed your first week here. Has everything been all right so far?"
"Good. No trouble at all since Monday morning?"
He slowly shook his head, fingers fiddling with the strap of his bag.
"Have you managed to adapt to our school without too many problems? I don't know if you were attending a boarding school before…"
He nodded first and then shook his head slowly, still not taking his eyes off the floor. I knew I'd better keep the conversation short.
"Well I'm glad to hear that," I said automatically, only realizing a bit too late that I hadn't technically heard anything, but how else was I supposed to phrase it? "I just wanted you to know that if there's anything you're having trouble with, you can come to me. I don't know that I'll always be able to help, but I'll try. I'm only ever here, in the refectory, the library or my room in the evening, which is just a few doors along from yours. So please don't hesitate, because that's what I'm here for; I'm here to help."
I'd only just finished saying the last word when he suddenly looked up and stared at me right in the eye. The intensity coming from his unusually light eyes — in the better light I could now see that they were of the most unusual blue-grayish shade I'd ever seen — took me by such surprise that I found myself straightening up and letting out a very soft gasp. It didn't last very long but I suddenly got the feeling that he was truly looking at me, as opposed to maybe only seeing me so far.
And I was at once filled with the hope that I was doing things right without even necessarily realizing it. Even though I confess I had rehearsed them a bit during the day, I hadn't thought my words would have any particular effect on him. I'd been hoping to… make him feel more at ease, I suppose, but it seemed I'd picked the right ones to maybe help him start opening up after all.
When he finally looked away, I became aware of the now empty corridor and realized we'd been 'talking' longer than I'd intended. And the level of noise coming from my classroom was much louder than it should have been.
"Well anyway, don't let me keep you here," I said, quickly going through his class' schedule in my head — I'd made a point to memorize it at the beginning of the week. "You should be on your way to… some sporting activity, shouldn't you?"
I'd barely finished my sentence when I became aware of what I'd just said. Second blunder in only a few minutes; what an idiot I was! He shook his head slowly, crossing his arms over his chest, and I had the distinct feeling that he was sort of clinging to his own body. I'd made him uncomfortable, which was the exact opposite of what I'd set out to do.
I really was an idiot.
"Of course you don't, I'm sorry…" I mumbled awkwardly, unable to find a way to change subjects smoothly. "Well I'm sure there's plenty of studying to do with a full week behind you and I have my own class to return to. Have a good weekend and I'll see you on Monday morning. And don't forget what I said about asking for help. I'll always be there."
I know he'd understood the first time around but after my blunder I felt that I had to redeem myself so I was glad when he nodded. Then he gave me the small bow I'd only ever seen him do every time Eloise brought him food and turned around when I did the same. I couldn't help glancing back at him just before I reached the door, though, and once more I felt a small in pinch in my heart looking at the small, lonely figure making its way down the deserted corridor.
Thanksgiving came and went, the weather grew cooler and life just carried on. Mr Ellison never came to me for anything so I assumed everything was fine but I got into the habit of paying more attention than usual to my colleagues' conversations, just in case.
On a cold Friday afternoon in early December, I welcomed my Tenth Form boys with a smile slightly wider than usual, knowing they were about to be very unhappy with me. We spent the first twenty minutes going over the test I'd set them at the beginning of the week and I must admit I was quite pleased with them. The grades were pretty good on the whole and Mr Ellison was among the few who'd scored the highest. I knew, because I'd seen some records from his previous school, that he had been a top student before the incident, and I'd been curious to see if that had changed. I was pleased to see it apparently hadn't.
"Right, gentlemen," I said, sitting on the edge of my desk. "We're now moving on with the curriculum and going back to algebra."
A hand shot up even faster than I expected.
"But, Mister Cole, the next chapter is supposed to be geom—"
"Ah," I interrupted with a smile, "a pupil who actually checks lessons ahead of time. What a rare treat."
I got a laugh from everyone. Good, maybe that would help for what was coming up.
"I know what the next part of the curriculum is supposed to be, but I like spicing things up a bit."
"But surely, sir," the boy went on, "wouldn't it be easier to simply follow the curriculum just like everybody else? The other teachers—"
"Oi," Mr Finch interrupted, "are you forgetting who you're talking to? This is Mr Cole; he isn't like the other teachers."
"Thank you very much for defending me in such a chivalrous way, Mr Finch. I feel… like a young maiden in distress," I said, earning another laugh when I struck the most dramatic pose I could manage. "I know my teaching methods aren't always as… conservative as most of my colleagues but I promise you all that I'm not skipping anything; I'm merely rearranging. For your sanity and mine too, I thought it might be nice to have some variety.
"Which is why," I added, picking up the pile of papers I'd kept hidden under one of my books, "I would like you fine gentlemen to put your books away and have a look at what I've prepared here."
The groans started as soon as the first pupils got their eyes on the paper and kept going until the last sheet reached Mr Ellison — whose eyes widened a bit, but nothing more. I stood by my desk quietly until they'd said all they wanted and silence finally returned. They would learn eventually — they were already much better at it than at the beginning of the year.
"Yes," I finally said with a grin. "Quadratic functions! Don't you love the sound of it? Oh don't look at me like that, you know you do. Say it after me: Qua-dra-tic func-tions…"
"Mr Finch, I know you know you're supposed to raise your hand if you want to speak. I'm quite relaxed with a lot of rules but there are some I need to enforce. So if you please…"
He raised his hand and I counted to five in my head before smiling at him.
"Yes, Mr Finch?"
"You gave us a test just the other day. And this stuff's—"
"This will not be graded. I know you only started touching this truly fascinating subject last year and I just want to see how much you do or don't remember. I have no doubt that most of you did not open their books much during the summer break — and I don't entirely blame you for that. But I need to know how much revision we need to do before we can move on. I can't show you how to use the quadratic formula to solve quadratic functions if you've forgotten how to even expand them."
I had to stop for a second because a few pupils were now looking at me as though I'd suddenly started speaking in a foreign language and I noticed that Mr Ellison appeared clearly worried.
"All right, children, let me make one thing clear. This. will. not. be. graded. You don't even have to write your name down if you don't want to, but that might make it difficult to get it back next time. So there's no reason to worry. If you do well, good for you. If you don't, it doesn't matter because we'll go over it again."
"Kind of sounds like you want us to be quiet for half an hour because you haven't finished grading papers or something," Mr Finch said, sort of whispering but still loud enough for most of the class to hear.
"Very funny. As always, thank you very much, Mr Finch. Now come on, put your books away and do your best. But don't. panic."
I did not spend the next half hour catching up on grading papers, as Mr Finch had speculated, but looking through the textbook and coming up with different lesson plans to lead us up to Christmas. I tried not to chuckle at the many sighs I heard during those thirty minutes but it was sometimes difficult to suppress a smile when some gradually turned into moans of despair. I was curious to see, among other things, how Mr Ellison was reacting to this unexpected test but I kept my eyes firmly locked on the book in front of me. It was clear that after nearly a month he didn't need my help so I had to stop fretting about him.
"All right, gentlemen, your thirty minutes are up so please leave your papers with me on your way out. Come on, don't be shy," I prompted with a wave of my hand. "And don't let this ruin your weekend; I'm sure you can't afford to spend your time worrying about something that won't be graded anyway," I added when I saw some obviously worried faces.
One by one, reluctantly, they put their things away and handed me their papers before walking out of the room. I smiled and arranged the papers in a neat pile in front of me. I'd started looking over a couple of them, thinking everyone had left, when I realized Mr Ellison was standing on the other side of the desk, looking very anxious.
"Mr Ellison," I said with a smile, leafing through my stack, "did you give me your paper?"
He looked down and slowly shook his head.
"Can I… have it, please?"
He carried on shaking his head, still not meeting my eyes.
"Do you— Is there a reason why…"
I waited silently while he wrote in a small notebook, tore a page out and gave it to me by placing it on the desk and quickly moving his hand away. Trying to act as casually as possible, I slowly held out my hand and grabbed the small sheet of paper — the last thing I wanted was to startle him.
"I don't know anything about quadratic functions."
One thing I can say is that I wasn't expecting that. I looked up at him with a raised eyebrow.
"Nothing at all? But it's part of the Ninth Form curriculum; you should have studied it…" I paused for a second — I was just about to say 'last year' — "… at your previous school."
He shook his head once more and wrote on another page. He wrote quickly and I could see his hand shaking slightly.
"I left school before Christmas."
He looked down at his feet, a faint blush spreading through his face and gradually darkening, and again I felt extremely stupid. I knew he'd missed more than half of the Ninth Form curriculum, didn't I? Why hadn't I checked this sort of thing earlier? Why hadn't all his teachers been given an idea of what he did or didn't know? Oh but we weren't supposed to pay attention to him, were we, so I supposed that hadn't mattered to the Headmaster and the others. I clenched my right hand, feeling angry at the situation again.
"I'm really sorry," I said at length. "I should have known. Don't worry about it. Maybe I'll go back to the beginning after all and…"
I was sort of talking to myself at that point, wondering how far that would set us back and whether we could do it at all, so I didn't notice that he'd been writing again.
"Please don't change the class schedule for me. I'll try to study on my own."
I scratched the back of my head. "I guess I could see about lending you a Ninth Form textbook. And maybe see with a colleague if—"
And then it suddenly hit me. Something that might help him in more ways than one.
"Or I could… be your tutor."
He looked me in the eyes, eyebrows shooting up. There was nothing akin to fear this time, only genuine surprise, and that almost made me smile. I refrained, though, because I wasn't sure how he'd take it in the situation. He went on shaking his head and even took a step away from me.
"If that's all right with you, of course. I don't want to force—"
"I don't want to bother you. I can study on my own. Thank you, sir."
"No, you don't get it, Mr Ellison. I'd be happy to help you. I might need some time to figure out a schedule that would work for the two of us but I'm sure it'll work. You don't take part in afternoon physical activities at all, do you?"
He shook his head, and again I noticed the way he grabbed one of his arms and squeezed, making his knuckles turned white.
"Well that could work to our advantage. If you could take care of some of your regular homework during the afternoon, then maybe we could arrange something during study time after dinner… I think we could make this work. Only if it's all right with you," I quickly added before getting carried away. Organizing everything was all very well but ultimately pointless if he didn't want to do it. And it was highly likely that he wouldn't.
He bit his lip and looked to the side for a while, which filled me with the hope that he might be considering it, but then he heard the Eighth Form boys and the trapped animal look flashed across his face.
"All right, think about it," I said quickly, motioning him to the one of the room so he would walk past fewer pupils on his way out, "and I'll see if there's even a way we can do this. We'll discuss it later, yes?"
He gave me a quick nod and hurried out the room while I put the test papers away, along with his notes. This could work, I knew it, and I was going to try my hardest to make sure it did.
I should of course have expected problems…
"And how exactly do you expect to do something like this?" was the first thing Mr Cunningham said when I cornered him the following morning after breakfast. "Besides, no teacher has ever acted like a tutor for a single pupil before."
"But this school has never had a pupil like Mr Ellison before!" I said honestly, tired of always watching my words around him.
"I've warned you about taking things too seriously before, Mr Cole, and now I feel I have to warn you about taking them too personally… Had it been up to me, the boy would have been placed in Ninth Form in the first place. We cannot be blamed for the gaps in his education."
"With all due respect, I cannot agree with this. He is one of my pupils and you, sir, wanted me to help him, didn't you? Well, this is my way of helping him."
"At the risk of neglecting your other duties?" he asked accusingly. "Mr Cole, you have several classes worth of pupils to think about."
"And I'm not saying that I would neglect anybody! Mr Cunningham, I realize that this is going to require some thought but if I can make time for it without any negative consequences on my other duties, will you allow it?"
"And where would you carry out these lessons?"
"I… I admit I hadn't thought that far just yet. Couldn't I just use my classroom?"
"The classrooms are cleaned before dinner, Mr Cole, you know that."
Oh how frustrating the man could be! Would he really not let me do it for an unwashed blackboard?!
"I would clean any mess we make before leaving, sir. But if it proves too inconvenient, I suppose my room would do. Pupils sometimes come during study period so it wouldn't make much of a difference, as long as Mr Ellison is all right with it."
There was a gap and then he sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. "I see you've been thinking about this, but you seem to have forgotten something. How exactly are you going to carry out private lessons with a pupil who doesn't talk?"
"Talking is not the only form of communication, sir. He can nod, shake his head, use hand gestures or write, so I don't think communication will be a problem. And anyway, being the teacher, surely I will be the one doing most of the talking."
Another sigh. "Very well, do as you like. But remember your promise not to neglect your… other students," he said, and I just knew that what he really meant was 'normal' students. "Should these private lessons prove too much for you to handle on top of everything else, I'm sure you'll understand that I'll have to ask you to stop."
"Yes, sir," I said, gritting my teeth and clenching both fists — discreetly, of course.
By the time I walked back to my room, I would have liked nothing more than to punch something in order to vent my anger. Alas, I didn't possess anything I could dispose of so carelessly so I put on my coat and went for a brisk walk to clear my head. It worked, thankfully, and by the time I came back I started comparing our two timetables for matching gaps. As I thought, the most convenient time would most likely be in the evening during study time — at first glance anyway. But he had a lot more 'free' time in the afternoon than the other students so as long as he was prepared to do his homework then, it should be possible.
By lunchtime, I'd found the teacher in charge of Ninth Form Mathematics and managed to secure a spare — albeit battered — textbook. I walked briskly past my colleagues without stopping and made a beeline for Mr Ellison at the end of the table.
"Hello," I said when I finally stopped in front of him — he'd seen me come towards him so this time I thankfully didn't scare him. "I don't know if you've given my proposal any more thought but I have something for you."
I put the book down on the table and pushed it towards him so I wouldn't risk touching him, just like he'd done the day before with the pages from his notebook. He turned it around, looked at the cover and then up at me.
"If you have some time, I would like you to look at the table of contents and make note of the chapters you didn't study back in Boston."
He started shaking his head but this time I interrupted him.
"Is this still about not wanting to bother me or is there a different reason?"
He nodded, which didn't actually help.
"A new reason…?"
He shook his head quickly.
"All right," I said with a smile, "let me make something perfectly clear, Mr Ellison… Tutoring you would not bother me at all. I told you I was here to help, didn't I? You haven't needed me since you came here but now I can finally be of some use. So let's give it a go, shall we?"
His eyes moved from his hands to the book in front of him and finally to me for a second or so and he gave me a small nod. I smiled and nodded back.
"I'll work out a possible schedule over the weekend and talk to you about it on Monday. For now you're free. Enjoy your lunch and have a good weekend."