The Inexplicable

Many years ago, before I’d turned my back on teaching for the first but not the last time, a student of mine was murdered. She was a beautiful person. I can say that because it was true.

I was teaching an all female Drama class. It hadn’t been planned, it just worked out that way because the boys had all chosen something else, I suppose. The were extraordinary young women and I was their teacher. A young woman myself.

One day, she didn’t turn up which was unlike her. One day, the rumours were flying that someone had been killed. One day, one of the girls said, I think it’s her, miss, and I said, no, no, it’s not. One day, the school psychologist came to my classroom door and took me to the conference room and told me yes, yes, it is.

We journeyed and negotiated through the grief process together. A bunch of 17-to-18 year olds and their not-quite-24 year old teacher.

I knew nothing of that kind of grief.

We would make Milo together and eat Tim-Tams because some professional development I’d attended once suggested all teachers keep a packet of Tim-Tams in their office for student emergencies. This was so much more than an emergency. I’d say, let’s take class outside today, and we’d sit in the sunshine and someone would cry and we would forget about the lesson plan for that day.

I don’t know how her family got through it. I don’t know how her friends got through it. I assume they haven’t. It’s not the sort of thing you just get through. I was too young and too inexperienced to approach the family, to knock on their door and offer them a Tim-Tam. I wish I had. But I did what I could with the young people I was responsible for. My drama class.

And then, years later, a man turns up in my inbox. He is writing a book about it and would I be willing to be interviewed. He needed different perspectives, stories, things his careful research wouldn’t uncover. He had her parents’ blessing and trust and he was a respected journalist. He was good at what he did. I Googled. He was. Would I agree? To be interviewed? I said yes. I don’t know why.

And we meet at the coffee shop and he wants to record it and he does. And I cry and say sorry a lot because I shouldn’t be crying. I have no right to cry. Not after all these years. Do I? I don’t think I ask him that but I think it. I offer stories and details, those seemingly unimportant things I remember and probably never got to tell anyone. People get bored of other’s grief pretty quickly. They don’t care for anecdotes. Silly little details you remember and want to share and hold on to. During the funeral, one of my students reached out and held onto my hand. She squeezed my hand tight and cried and we walked up to put a rose on the coffin together. She is a teacher now.

I talk with the man, the stranger, the respected journo, for hours.

He pays for the coffees.

He says, do you want to mentioned by name and I think, no, no, no, this isn’t my story. This isn’t about me. But I say, let me think about it and he says that is fine. He says he will send me the pages and I can see how I feel about it. About my name being in his book. He says he’ll check in with me first and I believe him.

Only he doesn’t.

He emails and says, the book is done, I’ll invite you to the launch.

Only he doesn’t.

And then people I barely know message me on Facebook. Some write on my wall: is that you? Are you the Katy Warner, the Drama Teacher, in the book? Thumbs up. Like.

What the hell is going on?

I email the respected journalist turned author and, with respect, I say what the hell?

He replies, I’ll send you PDF copy.

Only he doesn’t.

And he still doesn’t.

And he still doesn’t.

And he Tweets, today, with a gif of a cat high-fiving a human, that his book is a top five, non-fiction pick of all time for someone who must be a Someone. And I think: a GIF? Really? A cat gif? Really?

And I think how difficult it is to write a book.

And how much more difficult it would be to write a book about someone who lived and breathed and was loved and was taken from us too soon, too tragically, too violently, too inexplicably.

And I think about emailing him, again. I think about Tweeting him in 140 biting characters. I think about why I agreed to the interview in the first place. I think about that drama class and how they’re all about to turn thirty. I think how this isn’t about me. Or him. Or launches or top-five lists or cat gifs.

I don’t know what it is about.

But it still makes me cry.

 

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something stupid

I did something stupid last night.

That’s what I told them at work today. I did something stupid.

This is what I did.

I got in a taxi cab. It was nearly midnight. I had just gotten off the plane and I hurried out of the terminal with my cabin-bag and no checked baggage because I’d travelled light. As you do on flights of a certain nature. The taxi rank was clear and the man in the fluro vest radioed for a taxi and joked about the cold weather and held the door open for me so I could get in.

None of this was stupid. This was okay.

I told the taxi driver my address and asked him to take a certain route because I’d been tricked into going the long way once or twice before and was determined it would not happen again. I was tired. I had limited funds. I wanted to get home to my bed.

This is reasonable.

The taxi driver said okay okay yes yes sure but you’ll have to direct me. I was tired. I said I can try but don’t you have a … and he said yes yes okay okay sure I do, I can do that. And plugged my address into the maps app whilst we drove out of the airport, his mobile phone glowing from his lap.

This was the beginning of the stupid thing.

He wanted to know who I lived with and did I have a boyfriend? I said yes, I have a partner and a cat because I thought the cat consolidated it. The cat created an image of familiar, long-term relationship and he should just back off and stop talking. But he didn’t. He said, am I too late then? Too late for you? Have a missed my chance? You are a pretty girl. And I said, yes, you are too late and I should have said more but I was sitting in the back of his cab and it was midnight and I was tired.

That was stupid.

This was even more stupid.

He asked if I used taxis much. I don’t. But the last time I told a taxi driver I used Uber I feared for my life so I said, I suppose, sometimes. He said, okay okay, great great – I’ll give you my number so you can just call me direct. You can just text me, he said, and I’ll get you. Any time. Anywhere. Even if I’m not working, I have my own car, I have a Ford Falcon and I can drive you anywhere. You and your friends. If you’re at a party you call me.

And I took the number because it was easier. I thought. Until he wanted me to text him so he had my number. He said he wanted to make sure I had the right number. He said he wanted my number so he knew who needed the taxi. I was sitting in the back of his taxi at midnight and I should have said no way, you’re not getting my number. But I didn’t. I sent the text.

He said we were friends.

I should have said no, we’re not.

But I didn’t say anything.

That was stupid.

Then he wanted to know if girls like men who sing and dance and I said I suppose when, really, I should have said I am tired, please just drive me home. He then sang which I thought was funny and something I could write into a short story or book and I clapped a little to make him stop for it was really quite terrible but he kept going even when he couldn’t remember the words. He didn’t know when to stop. It went on and he kept checking my reaction in his rear-view mirror.

Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you, that is how I know you … go on … 

There was a story about a couple kissing in the back of his cab and his high school crush and what is the definition of crush and perhaps he should go to university to meet girls.

I listened and smiled and laughed in the right places. But I didn’t want to.

When we finally arrived I paid him and got out as quickly as I could. He got out too. He demanded we get a selfie. We have to get a selfie he kept saying and ran around from his side of the cab to mine, blocking my path. I said no, I am tired. I said no, I’ve just got off a plane. I said no, I don’t want to. But he put his arm around me and pulled me in and held his phone up high and took a photo but he didn’t like that one and he shoved the phone in my hand and said you do it and he tried to position himself behind me, as if we were a couple standing in front of the Eiffel Tower or something. I said no, I don’t know how and he did it himself. I saw the photo. I am smiling. That is stupid. Then he hugged me and kissed me on the cheek and I scrambled up to my front door without looking back and felt so very stupid.

 

The kid who hates me or: Attempts at being a good teacher.

Lockers at school by Brett Levin

Image via Flickr – Lockers at school by Brett Levin

There’s this kid who hates me. I know because he tells me. Not directly. He mutters it. Under his breath. Rolling his eyes. Whispering to his friends. As he leaves the classroom and I stand by the door to say bye and thank you and good class today and I look forward to seeing you next week and you were great because that’s some tip I picked up somewhere. Welcomes and goodbyes. At the classroom door. They’re important. Teachers should do that. As much as they may prefer to be checking their emails or reading the news online. It helps. Helps build relationships and rapport and minimise behavioural issues.

He hates me. He hates Drama class.

And that’s OK.

See you next week, you were great today, thanks so much.

I tell him it’s OK to hate Drama class. I tell them all you don’t have to like it, you just have to try. I sound like a parent trying to make their kid eat broccoli. I say, I hated Drama, too, when I was your age which is not entirely true nor is it entirely false. Sometimes I hated it. When you had to be hilarious in improvisation games. I was thirteen. We were awkward. Boys would always do these scenes where they would act as if they were in labour. That was funny. Boys would pretend to be girls. That was funny. Boys would impersonate funny characters from movies or TV. That was funny. I’d put on a bad Russian accent and no one would laugh. We were thirteen.

I say to my class, as whole, to all of them, never singling anyone out, that it’s OK not to like Drama. Just give it a go. Try. It’s like broccoli. Some people like it, some people don’t but you don’t know until you try it. Plus, you should eat it, anyway, because it’s good for you. See? Drama and broccoli. I was losing them … and myself … And then, the kid who hates me complains loudly that the only reason anyone is listening to me is because I am an adult and it’s not fair that kids have to listen to adults, why should they listen to me, just cos I’m old and they’re young and it’s not fair because no one ever listens to him. No one. Ever. I listened and said, I’m listening but that just got his eyes rolling and I bit my tongue because I didn’t want to say the things I think my parents would have said all those decades ago when I probably said the exact same thing. Because we all say those things when we’re kids. Don’t we?

I wanted to say; Malala is a kid but adults listen to her because she actually has something to say. I wanted to say; Do you actually have something to say? I wanted to say; Say it. I wanted to say; Tell us something, go on, talk, talk, talk.

But I don’t.

I do say, yes, I know, it is hard being a kid sometimes but I don’t say “it sucks” because kids don’t say that so much anymore. I also don’t say “dude” after one kid commented on how sad it is when old people try to sound young and cool by using their words. I looked around but he was referring to me. I wanted to say, dude, dude is not your word, it’s not my word either but we were pretending to be a surfers in our little primary school in the middle of the bush before you were even born. But I didn’t. Instead I asked him, very politely, not to be so rude … dude …

Kids put their hands up and I say, do you have a question and they say, no, I have a comment.

Sometimes I say “shivers” because I sometimes nearly say the other word. You stub your toe, you hit your shin, your computer just closes down in the middle of a presentation, the kids just won’t shut up. Sometimes it is hard not to swear.

The kid who hates me doesn’t get it. He has decided: I am the enemy.

I tell the whole class (because I’d never embarrass or single anyone out) that Drama can be confronting, at times, but I’d never, ever make any of them do anything they made them feel anxious or too nervous or sick or whatever. I wouldn’t. I was the kid who’d get butterflies and a dry mouth and panic as the teacher got ever closer to my name on the roll and I knew I’d have to say here or yes or present or something in front of the whole class and how would I do that and what sort of voice would I use and how would I arrange my face … I don’t tell my class that. They don’t need to know that. But I do understand.

I explain that nervous is good. Nervous means you care. I explain that we only have three rules in this class: Be Kind. Listen. Try. I wish I’d had this class when I was at school. One of the kids who doesn’t hate me says that it seems like Drama class is all about feeling comfortable and I liked that. Another kid says I am like pretty much the nicest teacher at this school and I say can I have that in writing and he raises his eyebrows and says he doesn’t get it. Another says he is busting to go to the toilet and can he go and when I say yes he says he knew I’d say yes because I’m understanding. The kid who hates me says something about rape being funny.

I get cross. I feel my temperature rise and my voice lowers and I say no, no, no. I say, you know what that word means. You know. You know that I am a woman. You know what that means to say that to your teacher, your female teacher, in an all-boy school. You know how those words hurt and upset me. They know because we went through this last year when they all created a game gleefully called rape-tiggy. They chased down boys and jumped on them and held them down and shouted rape. It was just a bit of fun. A bit of playground silliness. I look at them and see these young men with more-than-considerable wealth and opportunity and the chance to be the difference. I say, boys, you are all so fortunate – this is your world and you can change it. You are the future. You are the difference. Be the difference, I say, make the change and create a better world.

And I think, now, this is your chance. Say something. But he has nothing to say. And I try to speak in general terms and not single him out or make him feel uncomfortable or get confrontational and I speak to the whole class, all of them, and he smiles a sideways smile and giggles and giggles and giggles and I wonder … will you ever have anything to say?

We move on and I praise his efforts. Not too much. Not too much. Quietly. Subtly. Good work. I like the way you … That’s great how you … Thank you for … That sort of thing. I try not to snap up the bait he lays out like a professional fisherman.

I look for the positive. Because he is a kid. And he deserves that. They all do.

I smile as they leave. I always smile and say thank you and see you next week and great class. And some of them say, thank you and see you next week and I had fun and some don’t say anything at all.

He says I hate you. He says I hate this class. And I smile and say thank you.

 

I think we’re making progress.

 

Otto: A soppy story

A lot of writers have cats. That wasn’t my reason. I’d always wanted one, you see. Or, maybe, I’d wanted the idea of one. Anyway …

Like they say, the cat chose me. I’d been set on getting a Ragdoll or Scottish Fold or Russian Blue or something. A cat with title. Instead, I got Otto.

We hadn’t expected to get a cat that day. At least, I hadn’t. Visiting the shelter had been a surprise but I was very aware of the current inmates they were housing as I was in the habit of liking the many photos they shared on their social media pages. I was also in the habit of tagging my boyfriend in aforementioned photos. He got the hint. I had talked, liked photos and generally been a pain in the ass about a sweet, pretty, delicate, princess of a cat called Delia and I was finally going to meet her. We met. I felt nothing. Delia felt nothing. I thought that was that. Until we almost walked right past Ulysses. Like his namesake, he had clearly been on quite a journey. Ulysses had an injured ear; someone or something had taken a good chunk out of the top of it. Ulysses was huge. Ulysses filled his little cage. Ulysses had a cool name. He was proud and made eye contact and never felt the need to perform.

He kept on staring. So, I gave in and met him and that was it. We knew. He knew. I knew. The moment he stepped out of his cage. The moment the shelter volunteer picked him so easily despite his hefty size. He was huge, even bigger outside the cage.

We went away to think about it but not really think about and came back and said yes. Sign us up.

He came home.

We called him Otto because Ulysses didn’t have the greatest ending, really. And we wanted him to realise his travelling days were done; no more epic journeys, no more ear-biting-crusades, no more Helens to save. He had retired to a life as an indoor cat because he had to. They said that would be fine. But nobody asked Otto.

When I was teenager I wanted a kitten. Desperately. I was anxious and miserable at high school. I had this dream that a kitten could help all that. A cat would understand. Just as Mum finally gave in to the idea, I backed off. The idea, the dream, of a kitten was easier than reality – maybe? Or maybe I just got scared. What if it didn’t work out? What if I wasn’t quite ready, quite yet, to be a cat owner? What if it didn’t like me? What if … So, it just didn’t happen.

I tried the cat thing again, in my late 20s; supposedly happily married and ready to take the plunge into pet ownership with my supposedly solid relationship as a foundation. It had been eight years, three nearly four of marriage, of course we were ready. We named her Scout because of the book and hipsters weren’t naming their kids that yet. But he discovered a cat was too much commitment too soon and found someone else. They now have a baby with an incredibly hipster name and undeniably big expectations to fulfil – clearly, this child must grow up to front an alternative/indie/pop/rock band with such a name. Somehow, he left me but I moved out and Scout stayed. There was no talk of custody. I didn’t fight the decision.

So. Cat Attempt Number Three. Here I am. A woman on the wrong side of thirty, as I have been so delicately told, once again wondering … is this the right time for a cat? If I don’t do this now, will I ever do it? Will my lifestyle change too much? I mean, no more jumping on a plane for a spontaneous weekend in Sydney. Not like that ever happened. Not once. Although it could. As non-cat owners it could happen. We had that option, that choice. Is our relationship stable enough yet, it has only been three years (zero of that marriage): To share the responsibility of cat could be, I don’t know, a big step. It could change so much …

And yet …

There we were. Bringing Ulysses-now-Otto home. To our home. We hid the delicate artworks that adorned the mantle. We paid far too much for a bit of carpet stuck on a wooden post which doesn’t much our furniture whatsoever. We bought toys which scatter over the floor and trip us up.

We don’t get a good night’s sleep.

We don’t stay out too late.

We clean up poop and furballs and pick cat fur from our black pants and sweaters and sweep and vacuum like we have OCD.

We consider how we could go away and where we could leave him overnight or for a few days and we read blogs and forums about other cat owners.

We learn what his different meows mean and what he is communicating by the shape his tail makes or the position of his ears.

We say how cute, whilst he is sleeping.

And still, I wonder, have I done the right thing? Is this the right decision? It’s too late to change my mind now. When I attempt to get him to stop scratching at the mirror (why the goddamn mirror?) at 3am or crying incessantly at 4.30am or leaping on my pillow only ten minutes before my alarm goes off … But it is too late now. We love him. The commitment has been made. And our lives are, probably, better for it.

Otto.

Otto.