Mr. Mellanby looked at the multitude of 14-year-old boys sitting before him. All were wearing their ties and jackets, all were looking up at him in as he stood on his podium next to his desk. Mr. Mellanby almost never moved to the floor in front of the podium. He enjoyed being a bit higher than his pupils. He also thought being so situated was quite fitting and proper in the natural order of things. This said quite a lot about Mr. Mellanby.
There were a variety of expressions looking back at him. As an experienced teacher, he was adroit at ferreting out the unprepared pupils in front of him. He felt his mission in life was to find these boys, these boys secreting themselves among their brethren, thinking they could fool him and get away with avoiding their work. He felt it his duty to bring their inattention to their studies out into the light. It was not a redeeming light, either. Mr. Mellanby's light was a scourging one.
Now he scanned the room. Ranks and rows of boys looked back, many of their faces eager and anticipatory, some appearing rather blank, a few looking worried. Mr. Mellanby had learned that boys were the very best of actors. Nothing could be discerned from their faces. The smiling, eager ones could have spent the night memorizing the lesson and were now ready to impress and earn their marks; or they could just as easily have skipped their prep entirely, and in those cases, the faces were meant only to confuse and distract and had no relationship to the amount of studying they had or hadn't done. The blank-faced boys could simply be not very energetic this morning. Their empty countenances did not mean they wouldn't be able to answer his questions. And that was his goal, to root out the boys who had not done the work he'd given them. It was not only his goal, it too was his joy.
His gaze had covered the entire class before he saw Will Tanner sitting in the third seat back closest to the window.
Will was a small boy, perhaps the smallest in his form. He had the impish look shared by many smaller boys. He might have been considered cute by some with his fair triangular face, button nose and dark brown eyes crowned with a mop of untamed dark brown hair, but what was needed to make the picture were sparkles in the eyes and a smile on his lips, and neither had been seen at the school.
Will sat looking down at his desk. He was silently chanting a mantra, a mantra that was very familiar to him as he intoned it to himself most days in most classes. His lips were barely moving, no sound was coming from him, but his entreaties continued unabated as Mr. Mellanby scanned the room. ‘Not me,' he mouthed, ‘not me, not me, not me, not ....'
"Tanner." Mr. Mellanby's voice had a hint of triumph in it. He was sure he'd caught the prey he was after this time. "Please tell us the names of the six wives of Henry VIII from the first to the last. Their birth dates too, I think."
Will's eyes remained cast downward, and his countenance turned sickly. For a moment, he acted as though he hadn't heard himself being addressed. Finally, knowing deafness was not a winning defence in Mr. Mellanby's classroom and would simply prolong the impending rebukes, he looked up. Mr. Mellanby was glaring down at him.
Given his twin feelings of dejection and humiliation, feeling very much alone, Will wasn't in the least bit aware of the poorly hidden gleeful anticipation in his teacher's eyes.
"Well? Enlighten us, Tanner. We're waiting."
Will seemed to shrink a little smaller in his seat. As he was a small boy to begin with, the additional shrinkage didn't aid his appearance. It took a few moments, but then, with a sigh as he accepted his fate, Will sat up straight and, raising his eyes and voice, timorously said, "I don't know, sir," then slumped back against the back of his chair.
"Stand up, Tanner!"
Will gulped, and shakily rose out of his seat. This was the part he dreaded.
"Why haven't you done your preparation, Tanner? Too busy reading your cheap adventure novels, I suppose. Or too many friends to chat with instead of preparing your lessons, is that it? Or were you just idling away your time again, Tanner? Tanner, the boy of daydreams and fantasies? I doubt it, you don't have the imagination. Well, boy, speak up? Why did you decide not to read the chapter last night? Why do you waste all our time like this? Come on, out with it, tell us, we're all waiting."
Will fidgeted. He put his hands behind his back and clasped them together, then let them swing free. He looked sadly to the side of the room where all he saw were other boys watching him. Most seemed to be simply glad they weren't in his shoes, though he did spot one or two whose apparent discomfort at the roasting he was enduring made him aware there was some sympathy for him, along with a few others who were clearly enjoying his discomfiture. He swung his head in the other direction and glanced out the window where a light rain was falling.
Mr. Mellanby was talking through all this, enjoying himself and his verbal attack. "We're waiting, Tanner. Why are you unprepared? Tell us! Tell us!"
Will looked down at his shoes but found no relief there. His eyes fell on the shoes of other boys, and he noted a few untied laces. He didn't really entertain Mr. Mellanby's question. He knew the answer, of course, but it wouldn't suffice, and he couldn't articulate it in any event. His only option was to stand where he was until the hurricane blew itself out.
He looked back up, and was impaled by Mr. Mellanby's scowl. That didn't help his thinking in any way. Being the focus of attention always made him nervous and tongue-tied. So, without bothering to try to think of anything to say at all, knowing he'd never be able to say it if he did think of something clever to relieve the tension, he simply stood. Sooner or later it would have to be over. Sooner or later, he'd be able to sit down and go back to being invisible again.
And so he stood. Mr. Mellanby's remarks began getting more and more sarcastic, more belittling, more cutting, finally becoming personal and addressing the boy's academic failings, then his appearance, then his character. Will simply stood. He'd changed the direction of his gaze. Instead of meeting Mr. Mellanby's dark glare, which he had done but briefly at the beginning of his inquisition, he was now looking somewhere over his left shoulder. He only half heard the questions and remarks being rained on him. He had lost himself in the fog of words.
"Tanner!" It came in the form of a shout, and it stirred Will out of his reverie.
"I've now told you three times to sit down! Haven't you been listening at all?"
"Yes, sir. Mostly, sir. I mean, I've been trying to, sir. It simply got a bit unpleasant, sir, and I may have drifted a bit. Sorry, sir. I'll sit down, sir."
And he sat. Mr. Mellanby was red in the face and continued to stare at him. Will seated himself and let his eyes fall everywhere but at the front podium.
When the bell had marked the end of the period, and Mr. Mellanby had kept them an additional four minutes as he always did as a display of his power and importance, Will left the room at the end of the queue. He was not an assertive boy, and the rough and tumble of boys who were habitually late and so rushing to reach their classes which immediately followed Mr. Mellanby's was not for him. If he were late, which he usually was, his next teacher would realize he was coming from Mr. Mellanby's lesson and excuse him perfunctorily. He hoped.
When he was finally out of Mr. Mellanby's room, he was waylaid by another boy.
"I say, Tanner, that was a bit rough. Are you all right?"
Will saw compassion in the boy's eyes, and it startled him. It had been a while since he'd encountered that. It touched something inside him he thought he had buried.
"Yes, I'm all right. Thanks for asking, Winters," Will answered a bit shyly.
The boy looked like he was going to say something else, then simply nodded and walked on.
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