The ninth kid I hated confused her father for a food delivery van. An easy mistake for any teenager whose mood would swing as easily as an arachnid hanging from a thread below an exhaust fan.
One minute she’d be the virtuous student, completing all her work, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, contributing to class discussions, helping to carry things and so forth. At other times you’d be lucky to get within ten metres of her without being hit by a spray of contumelious expletives. When she decided not to work, she would pout and erase her memory of anything academic. Often, her petulance would become so consuming, she’d be one step from regressing into a thumb-sucking ball of disgrace.
All of this changing between good and bad, was complimented by an ongoing truancy. The amount of sick days she was taking would put Ferris Bueller to shame. And where you may think it would be hard to hate someone who isn’t there, her absence made it all the more worse. The fear was ever present that at any moment she may return, revitalised from roaming the suburban streets of Perth with her goons for the past week. She would always arrive back with a stronger displeasure of the system, a bigger chip on her shoulder and, most importantly, armed with her mobile phone.
The phone would be my undoing.
Mobile phones are my kryptonite professionally and personally. During my second year of university I insisted on using the landline phones in the student newsroom for assignments. It was only after a solid three months playing phone-tag with the subjects of my soft news articles, I succumbed to the power of the portable handset. It was the early 2000’s. Flip phones were at their height of popularity. So, taking my ever pragmatic approach to phones, I unofficially adopted my parent’s Nokia 3210 as my own. (That little metallic red phone would serve me monochromatically for a further five years until it flew from my pocket onto the garden pathway as I jumped to retrieve one of my thongs from a roof gutter – but that’s another tale).
My point is, when it comes to phones, I hate mobile telephones second only to the soon-to-be-adult people who brandish them brazenly in classrooms around the globe. There have been stories of: teachers collecting phones in a bucket as students enter the room; the installing of devices that disable any network coverage within school premises; or, as one lecturer led me to believe, a school in South Africa collecting all the students phone numbers, forcing them to wear their phones on a lanyard, and then using an SMS notification system to text students homework and other general business, thus rendering the phones as fun as an Advanced Calculus textbook.
Unfortunately most teachers are not privy to such technological tricks – like buckets. Most dialogue with students is as follows:
Teacher – “Please put your phone away.”
Student – “But I’m messaging my mother.”
Teacher – “Please put the phone away.”
Student – “I’m doing it.”
Teacher – “Please put the phone away.”
Student – “I’m just finishing the message, otherwise my mother will worry.”
My naivety and own general incompetence with phones led me to believe until quite recently that this was the case. It was revealed to me by a parent, not many years apart from myself, that when teenagers say they are texting a parent, they are normally just messaging a friend in another classroom – or in a fit of lunacy, they are messaging a friend within the same classroom.
It had always seemed strange to me that parents would want direct contact with their child in the classroom, listening to the every whim and woe of their ungrateful offspring. Back in the day, you’d split your head open on a limestone paving stone and be lucky if a staff member had the foresight to send another student to the front office for the school secretary to flick through the lever arch of parent contacts and call home, only to have the phone ring out because your mother was down at Woolworths, and leave a message with your father’s secretary that he’d only receive in time for you to have bled out. They were the good old days, where a bit of miscommunication would go a long way.
Now students in the classroom have a hotline to home. In the case of the ninth kid I hated, she used this hotline as regular blackmail when she was having one of her hissy fits. A power play would unfold where she would act as though she’d get in her parents’ ears before the teacher would be able to give their version of events.
Now, while this would be the perfect situation to have known what I now know, about students bluffing who they were actually messaging, one incident stood out that made clear this girl really was messaging home when she said she was.
One lazy Thursday afternoon during English, ‘madam’ was kicking off as usual. It was still twenty minutes until lunch break, which probably explained part of the mood she was in. But then with one inconspicuous vibration of her pocket device, things really heated up. She pulled out the phone. She was asked politely to put it away. But she continued to read it.
“Sir, sir! My dad’s outside.”
“I can’t see him.”
“He’s in his car.”
“I’m sure if he needs to see you, he’ll do the old fashioned thing and let Ms Smith in the office know that he needs to see you.”
This placated her momentarily, until a few more messages were exchanged.
“He has my lunch sir.”
“It’s lunch time in twenty minutes, so you can have it then.”
“But its takeaway, and it’ll be cold by then.”
This was the point I looked out the window to see first hand the cause of this child’s social ineptitude.
Parked in the loading bay outside the school reception was a beaten up old car from the 80s with the driver’s door open and a man standing beside the car with holding two plastic carrier bags of steaming chicken and chips.
“Sir!” Her voice was becoming shrill. “If I don’t go now, my brother will take all the food and won’t give me anything.”
“I’m sure he’ll keep yours safe for you,” I responded, not entirely sure that her sixteen year old oaf of a sibling would be so generous.
Sure enough, I could now see her brother heading out to the car park, having no doubt given his own teacher some cock and bull story about going to the toilet. Unfortunately for the girl her honesty, and the classroom’s proximity to the car park, had not lent her the opportunity to bulldust me.
“I can see him getting both bags now,” she squealed.
“I can see him getting both the bags, now,” I muttered.
Turning back to the class, I demanded another two paragraphs from each student about the character development of Griff Price in the novel Two Weeks With The Queen; not before the remaining moments of Year Eight English were interrupted by screams of “There’ll be no chips left,” and “He’s going to eat all my chicken”.
When I finally dismissed the class, we entered the playground to find the older brother stuffing his face with the contents of both bags as the young girl had predicted. I approached him and requested he give the appropriate share of the food to his sister.
But in this confused new world of mobile telephonic machines, parental fast food delivery services and misogynistic older brothers; I couldn’t help but feel somewhat complicit in the dietary and emotional assault that had played out on this vulnerable young girl.
Perhaps if history repeated I’d confront the father directly, but if we met again in a major fast food burger chain I doubt I’d join them in a Japanese style ‘potato party’.