Bad Man By Andrew Hutchcraft
Any teacher will tell you, no two days are the same. And when you walk into that classroom, no matter how many times you’ve done it, you always feel that frisson of anticipation.
This particular day was no different.
The children were already there when I walked in, obediently sat behind their desks. They didn’t even look up at me.
I looked across to see a middle-aged woman standing by the desk. Her thin mouth formed a straight line as she saw me.
‘You must be the supply for today,’ she said, her voice reedy and hollow.
‘Um, I think I am,’ I said, a little uncertainly. ‘I’m Miss...’
‘Miss Easton. Yes, we know.’ She held out her hand. ‘I’m the classroom assistant, Mrs Colcroft.’
She held out her hand, and I walked slowly towards her. My footsteps echoed disproportionately, as though I was in a huge empty hall, and a chill touched my skin.
‘Good to meet you,’ I said, taking her thin hand, wishing the heating could be turned on. Wrapping my cardigan around me, I turned to face the children. ‘And these are...?’
‘Children, please stand and say hello to your teacher,’ Mrs Colcroft demanded, and as one the children all stood.
‘Good morning Miss Easton,’ they chorused, fixing me with uncertain stares. I was usually quite good and knowing which classes were going to be trouble and which weren’t, but here... well, I wasn’t sure. Not only that, I noticed many empty desks. I did a very quick head count; there were only about twenty children.
I turned to face Mrs Colcroft. Her greying hair was scraped back off her forehead and tiny glasses rested on the bridge of her narrow nose. She had that look about her, of someone not to be messed with. And she certainly had the class under control, I had to give her that. ‘Do we have a lesson plan ready?’ I asked, wondering whether I’d have to delve into my bag for any of my own prepared plans.
Mrs Colcroft nodded slowly. ‘The lesson plans are in the desk,’ she said, motioning down to the wooden desk we stood next to.
I looked down to see two narrow drawers. I went to open one and had just reached the handle when Mrs Colcroft’s cold hand fell onto mine. ‘No!’ she said, and I looked at her startled.
She smiled. ‘I’m sorry. I meant the other drawer.’
Lifting my hand, I went to the other drawer and pulled out a workbook and some typewritten sheets. The heading on the first page was ‘Story: Good and Bad ‘, with bullet points stepping their way down one side, offering various suggestions.
‘We were going to do some imaginative writing,’ Mrs Colcroft said. ‘The children were going to write a story about a good person and a bad person. If that’s alright with you, obviously.’
She said the last sentence in such a way that there was no chance of disagreeing. Not that I wanted to disagree. ‘Yes, that’s fine,’ I said. ‘Then perhaps afterwards we could go through some of the stories and make suggestions.’
Mrs Colcroft nodded cautiously. ‘I said they could insert a drawing into their story. To help emphasise what’s happening.’
I pulled a face. That was certainly not standard practice in a literacy lesson. But I didn’t want trouble, especially not from this woman. ‘Fine, fine,’ I agreed, and faced the class. ‘So, are we all agreed what we’re going to do? I see you all have paper in front of you.’
‘Yes Miss,’ they said, again in chorus.
‘Right, before we get started, would anybody like to tell me their name?’
A boy with a scruff of ginger hair and thick glasses stuck his hand up into the air. ‘I’m Johnny, Miss,’ he said proudly. ‘Everyone says I’m trouble.’
I smiled. ‘I don’t doubt it, Johnny,’ I said. ‘Anybody else?’
Several more arms shot up. A girl with long straight blonde hair looked directly at me. I pointed to her. ‘What about you?’
‘I’m Amanda,’ she said. ‘I’m not to be messed with.’
She said it so proudly that again I had to smile. ‘Hello Amanda,’ I said. ‘I certainly won’t mess with you. Anyone else?’ I pointed to a boy with freckles and a side-parting. ‘And you?’
‘My name’s Christian,’ he said. ‘I’m one of twins.’
‘Oh really?’ I said, scanning the other children. ‘And where’s your twin? Is he or she here?’
Christian shook his head. ‘No Miss,’ he said. ‘He’s...’
Christian stopped suddenly as the sound of children making a shush noise filled the classroom. Christian looked around quickly then back at me, his face reddened. ‘He’s not here today,’ he said, uncertainly.
I smiled back. ‘Okay then. Are you all okay with what we’re going to do? I’d like you to spend some time writing a story that includes a good character and a bad character. And you can do a drawing alongside if it helps explain the story.’
Without being prompted, they all grabbed their pens and began writing, and presently the classroom filled with the sound of pens scratching paper.
I looked across at Mrs Colcroft and smiled. ‘They’re very well-behaved,’ I said quietly.
She smiled back. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘We’re all very proud of them. Very, very proud.’
‘And so you should be,’ I said. I went to walk around but Mrs Colcroft ushered me towards the desk.
‘Please, sit down,’ she said. ‘It’s my job to monitor the children.’ She smiled as she spoke, but there was a certainty about her voice that, again, left me with little room for manoeuvre.
‘Okay,’ I said, sitting down on the wooden chair and reaching for my bag. Grabbing a workbook, I sat down, the chair legs scraping uneasily against the hard floor.
I watched as Mrs Colcroft walked slowly around the classroom, her footsteps regular. She would stop occasionally to inspect a child’s work, then she’d begin her slow walk again, her feet a regular beat.
This carried on for almost three quarters of an hour. I beckoned to Mrs Colcroft when she caught my eye and she walked slowly over to me.
‘When do they have their break?’ I whispered. ‘That would be a good time to call a halt to the exercise.’
‘They break at ten,’ she answered shortly, and she walked back to her position circling the classroom.
I stood. ‘Okay children,’ I said. ‘Shall we say another five minutes to finish, then have your break, and then we’ll look at what you’ve done afterwards.’
‘Yes Miss,’ they said together, but I noticed they then all turned to look across at Mrs Colcroft, who was standing to one side of the classroom. She stood still, staring at the clock over the door. I turned to look at the clock, watching almost hypnotised as the red second hand clicked its way around, the sound strangely louder now I was looking at it.
I looked back at Mrs Colcroft. The children were all staring at her, their eyes wide, their expressions nervous. I was about to ask what the matter was when Mrs Colcroft raised her hand, held it in the air for a few seconds, and then lowered it quickly.
‘Now!’ she said urgently, and at once the children all scrambled out of their chairs and flung themselves under their desks. Some chairs fell to the floor, clattering noisily, others just scraped to one side. The children were now all under their desks, cowering, looking anxiously across at Mrs Colcroft.
‘Good,’ she said, smiling, motioning for the children to stand. ‘That was good. Now, I think it’s time for a break.’
‘Yes Mrs Colcroft,’ the children said together, and they began filing out of the classroom.
‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘What was all that about?’
Mrs Colcroft looked across at me as she walked behind the children. ‘Just our regular routine,’ she said, walking out of the classroom behind the children.
I was going to call after her, but she’d gone. Bemused, I walked around the classroom and looked at some of the work. The first child had filled several pages with writing, and had drawn what looked like somebody firing a gun. I checked the next desk. Another picture of a gun, this time with a woman lying on the ground. Next one, another gun, the word BANG in big red letters. The next one, a man holding a gun, with the words ‘BAD MAN’ written above him.
Puzzled, I sat back at the desk and went to return the school workbook to the drawer. As I dropped it back inside I recalled Mrs Colcroft, shouting at me as I went to the wrong drawer. Looking cautiously across at the door, I slowly pulled open the other drawer and looked inside.
There were yellowed newspapers. They were dated 1994. I pulled one out and read.
‘CLASSROOM TRAGEDY AS GUNMAN KILLS 22.’
Dropping it into my lap, I looked at another, my whole body going cold.
‘SCHOOL GUN RAMPAGE.’
‘Police have released pictures of the children killed in the school shooting two days ago...’
I looked at the pictures. They were all there. The children. Johnny with the ginger hair and glasses. Amanda with her beautiful blonde locks. Christian with the freckles.
‘His twin brother survived, you know,’ a voice behind me suddenly said, and I looked up, startled. Mrs Colcroft stood there. ‘He was one of only seven survivors. We tried our best, we really did. But we couldn’t save them.’
I looked back at the newspapers.
‘THE TEACHER HEROES OF SCHOOL SHOOTING.’ I turned the page. ‘Police have released photographs of the teachers killed in the school massacre.’
Mrs Colcroft’s photo stared up at me, that same scraped-back hair, those same glasses.
And then I saw the photo next to her...
I gasped. But somehow, I knew too.
‘Come on,’ Mrs Colcroft said softly, placing a cold hand on my cold shoulder. ‘Have your break. We’ll try and save them again tomorrow.’