Making a Scene

A contemporary short story

My second first person story. I wrote this on a Saturday afternoon with the Lisbon Writing Group. We are often given prompts, and I like to blend a couple of prompts together. In this story I have combined a titbit from one of my fellow writers that she was teaching her students about scenes, and how they’re structured. The second bit of inspiration was another of the writers who mentioned that something shocking had happened in class, but he wouldn’t say more than that.

Third row into the classroom, three desks in front of me, three desks behind. Slap bang in the middle with nowhere to hide. Damn, it couldn’t get any worse. My second preference is right at the back where the teacher has less chance of getting to you when they’re working their way down the desks. But right at the front is the absolute best. 

Not many people realise this, but I’ve made a speciality of hiding from teachers at the front. The teacher, you see, often stands in line with the front desks and looks out into the body of the class. They usually forget about the people right in front. 

Then there’s reverse psychology working for you too. People assume you’re a keen student if you’re sitting in front. It looks like you want to get involved. A teacher never asks the front row. They just assume you are engaged, listening and will know the answer. 

Their gaze always homes in on the students in the middle. Doesn’t matter if you put your hand up or not, they’re going to pick on you. Worse luck then that I’ve landed on ground zero, maximum teacher attention zone.

Ms Anderson is at the whiteboard, black marker in hand, black stains on her fingertips and a smear of ink across her nose and forehead, her frizzy red hair escaping from a loosely tied scarf. I mean, who uses a scarf to tie up a ponytail? The woman is a mess.

‘Today class, were going to talk about scenes. Last week we learned about story structure, what needs to happen and at which point to create a satisfying story. Today you’ll learn about scenes. If you think of structure as the skeleton of a story, then scenes are the muscles. They do the heavy lifting and propel the story forward. Every scene must have a reason for existing, if they are just pretty description but don’t move your story along, you should excise them.’

She turns to face the class, grubby face beaming. Is she seriously proud of her vocabulary? Should it impress us that an English teacher uses a word like excise? I snort and realise it was too loud. 

‘Do you have something to add?’ Ms Anderson says, looking right at me. But she even manages to make that vague when her eyes slip off mine the moment they make contact.

I annoy myself but also looking down and notice she’s wearing mismatched socks, one pink, one baby blue, both edged in lace, peeping out of brown lace-ups.

‘No Miss,’ I say, looking back up, sensing that everybody is watching us, waiting to see who will win this battle of wills. ‘Although, I might have said eradicated, expunged, extirpated or maybe even bowdlerised, instead of excised. Or maybe,’ I say, emboldened by the faces of the other students, eyes glowing, mouths twitching. They want to smile, oh yes they do. ‘Maybe we should use simpler, everyday phrases that everyone would know like, delete, cross out or remove.’

She stares at me, and the class holds its collective breath.

‘Thank you, Bernice, If you’ve finished nitpicking, I’ll continue.’

‘Hair-splitting, quibbling, or cavilling,’ I murmur.

She moves like an Olympic athlete, swoops down on the duster, turns her body halfway back to the board, then unwinds and flings the duster at me.

I don’t have a second to react, and the duster connects with my head. I shouldn’t have been rocking in my chair, but I do that when I’m feeling cocky. Big mistake. I tip over, arms flung wide. Bang, I’m on the floor. 

‘Oooh!’ the class cries.

I’m staring at the white and grey speckled ceiling. It was so quick. One minute I’m upright, the next I’m on the floor. No slo-mo, no sense of falling. Strictly binary. Up, now down. Nothing in between.

‘Are you okay?’ Susie asks, leaning over her desk to look at me.

‘Shit,’ I gasp.

‘Get up!’ Ms Anderson snaps and she comes marching down the aisle, pushing students out of her way.

I’ve just realised two things. One, I’m still in my chair, my legs poking up above me, although gravity has pooled my skirt into my lap. Two, everyone else has rushed over and is huddled around me, looking suitably surprised.

‘Out, out!’ Ms Anderson shouts, pushing the biggest boy in the class aside so violently he staggers sideways.

And then she’s standing over me, hands on her hips, breathing like she’s run a marathon, her face red, her eyes blazing.

‘Shouldn’t you ask if I’m okay?’ I wheeze.

‘I’ve had enough of your crap,’ Ms Anderson says. ‘Why don’t you give me a few synonyms for that?’

Balderdash, hogwash and baloney actually do occur to me, but I know better than to say it out loud. Ms Anderson’s lost it. I’ve never even heard her raise her voice. We all think of her as harmless and ignorable.

‘You threw the duster at me,’ I say. ‘You should apologise.’

‘Me? Apologise to a little troublemaker like you? Someone who thinks its clever to undermine the teacher. Someone who acts up to get a laugh out of the class. Someone who could be a halfway decent student if she bothered to put in the effort, but instead slinks about undercutting everybody? Do you really think somebody like that deserves an apology?’

‘But, Miss,’ Susie says, ‘Bernice fell. She might have hurt herself.’

I roll my eyes. Susie looks funny from this angle, so does Ms Anderson. Foreshortened. Skirts with legs vanishing into them and heads looming overhead.

‘Everybody out!’ Ms Anderson says, and she actually sounds implacable. Like a proper teacher.

It works too. The kids troop out, some casting surreptitious glances back at me, but nobody’s sticking about to help me. Point to Ms Anderson.

The class door clicks shut, slowly, carefully, like they don’t want to annoy the teacher with any slamming.

Ms Anderson lets out a shaky breath, and it’s like she’s deflating.

‘Are you alright?’ she asks and sits side on at the desk next to mine.

I don’t really know what to make of any of this but I roll onto my side, then over onto my hands and knees and then settle cross legged on the floor. I don’t dare stand up yet. Ms Anderson may have gone back to looking shapeless and dejected, but she might turn into an Olympic shot-putter at any second.

‘My head hurts a bit.’

Ms Anderson leans forward, and I turn my head so she can see the back. 

‘It isn’t bleeding, but you should go to the school nurse after this and have it looked at.’

‘Yes, miss.’

‘I’m sorry I lost my temper,’ Ms Anderson says.

I doubt it. Deep down, she’s probably feeling relieved. 

‘Sorry,’ I say.

‘For what?’ Ms Anderson asks, a teacher to her fingertips.

‘For being a nuisance, pest and irritant.’

‘I’m glad you’re aware of it,’ Ms Anderson says and holds out her hand to help me up.