Watching Bill

There’s an echo and a scrape in the empty sports hall, as he rearranges the chairs once again. You watch him from your corner, like you have been for the last hour. He is clearly agitated about something. Not that you do anything to help. For all the good you are, you might as well be a basketball hoop.

Soon, the principal will poke his head around the double-door, his practiced hurry already pasted across his face, forever due somewhere else, and he’ll barely hide his contempt as he comments on Bill’s premature preparation for the oncoming parent’s evening.

Bill will nod, and mumble some platitude, and will keep trying to make the arrangement of the chairs right.

Bill isn’t old, by any means, but he still feels lost when he thinks about the lanky cretin’s job title. Bill had a headmaster when he was twelve – “principal” seems like an affectation, like the renaming of the years, a nervous attempt to fall in line with America.

But America has problems, and Britain has problems, and the two aren’t as similar as anyone here likes to think. That’s how Bill sees it.

The principal has been on his back since the incident last year. One of the mums was arguing that her child wasn’t to blame for a scuffle that had broken out; that her daughter was seeing a doctor and they were expecting a diagnosis soon. She said, loudly, in front of the mortified girl, almost as if she was proud of it, that the girl almost certainly had mental health problems.

“Doesn’t everyone?” Bill had responded, in what he thought was a jocular, conspiratory reply. Truth be told, he was a little caught out by the woman’s willingness to discuss it with him, over such a tiny sanction, and he thinks his judgement may have been impaired by the fact. Whatever the case, the she didn’t take kindly to what she perceived as insensitivity, and had made blustery overtures toward getting in touch with the press, or a solicitor, to the principal. She was demanding Bill’s job.

The first time he put the chairs out, they were in the more traditional aspect of his one chair behind a table, with the three for the parents and child on the other side. But what had previously been a signature tableau of authority, with the teacher imparting insights into the child to the parents, now felt like it left him in the position of interrogation victim. After several more iterations, the table had been discarded.

Bill had been a more cheery soul, back when, but being disciplined and forced to formally apologise to the woman had broken his spirit somewhat. Before, he had been popular with the students, firm but fair, and his colleagues seemed to like him, but now he was like poison, and the school seemed to forever be trying to shrug him off.

His boss had, for months, theatrically workshopped a version of events wherein Bill had been lucky to keep his job. Bill knew this wasn’t the case – an in depth investigation would mean him being asked what he had intended by the comment, for a start. Under even that little scrutiny, the whole thing would evaporate into something and nothing, especially when Bill’s own mother’s borderline personality disorder became a matter of the school record, but it didn’t stop the principal playing the great, benevolent leader.

Bill had taken it all on the chin at the time, not wanting to play up to the Union, but he hadn’t known how hard everything would get afterwards.

The thing about the seating arrangement is, when you’re talking about four people, it feels like every position speaks volumes. You can’t favour one or any other of the three family members, because giving one too much power over any of the others, or the teacher, can upset some delicate, already wildly disrupted balance. The child can go centre stage, but what if you intimidate them, or make it easier for them to gain primary eye contact from any one of the three adults?

Bill can only dimly remember a time when this amount of anxiety over the details would have triggered warnings in his head. Now, it almost seems like standard operating procedure.

What we’re watching, of course, is the final, arcing onset of Bill’s next biggest nervous breakdown.

The dimensions of the hall seem almost normal to him now, but when he first started working here, everything still seemed that little bit too small. It wasn’t like visiting your own childhood haunts, or an infant school – the chairs were almost normal-sized, the ceilings higher – but the thing a parent forgets, when they see a kid go the distance from being the tiniest bump and kick to wearing trainers that they chose and paid for with their own pocket money, is that while a teen might seem to take up plenty of space in the home, they still aren’t all-grown adults. A secondary school is a strange architectural mix… tall enough for adults, but built for scurrying kids to grow into… and it could be a surreal place for a man.

As he moves furniture, he fantasises the conversations that will happen later. He tries to inform the pattern of communication with the mapping of the participants. When Bill was growing up, it all seemed pretty easy – everybody knew their place, and even the most errant children understood the causality of it. They were at the bottom of the food chain, with the adults unspoken accomplices in keeping them colouring within the lines. But despite the dangerous knowledge that the teachers and parents traded with each other, it was clear where the power lay. Your parents relied on the teachers for intelligence, the way a general relies on spies, but it was the general you were scared of.

If Bill fucked up at school, he was scared of his teachers finding out, but it was only because he was terrified of them telling his parents. He always believed that it didn’t matter how bad school got – it was what his parents did that made the difference.

Mind you, as we already know, Bill’s mum was batshit, so that might have something to do with something.

In one version of the conversations – and he’s thinking very specifically about one young family, the Lymans, and their boy Bradley – Bill starts out trying to explain exactly which adults the responsibility for a child’s upbringing falls to. To another, the Blue family, well-to-do and bright, but with a daughter whose relationship with the truth is all out of kilter, he has a few other things to share.

But it doesn’t matter how rational he makes his arguments, even in his imagination they fall apart, and each fantasy devolves into chaos. In one, he ends up screaming into the faces of one parent, or another, or in a worrying number of them the child. Shouting at the children gives him no satisfaction, but he can’t help but smile when it comes to telling the parents what he thinks of them.

In some fantasies, he draws a weapon. He never uses it on any of the other people, but he does get a reaction.

In another that thankfully doesn’t recur often, he waits until he has everybody in the hall’s attention, and then he takes his own life.

Bill doesn’t know who thinks who is responsible for what, any more. All of the adults claim to only be thinking of the kids, but the kids don’t seem any better off than they ever were before. The parents say they want their children to get what their children want, and the schools want the parents happy. The teachers, for the most part, don’t know what they want.

Bill doesn’t think that children should get what they want. Bill is a very intelligent guy, and he’s got very good reasons for thinking the things he thinks, when he’s thinking clearly, but when you’ve got an opinion, no matter how considered, that starts out like that, it’s hard to find people who aren’t a little nervous about acknowledging sympathy to that view.

But Bill thinks children should be happy. And any adult should have learned by the time they’re old enough to have kids that getting what you want and being happy aren’t always compatible. That’s the case when you’ve enough experience to know what you want, but kids are functionally idiots, in this area if no others. They want a lot of things, and they want them right away, and they want them only until they don’t want them any more.

He believes that you don’t put a dog in charge of food, like much as you love them you don’t rely on the mentally ill as your emotional or ethical barometer. Based on that logic, Bill thinks it’s crazy to let a child run their own life. But he isn’t sure anymore that that isn’t really what anyone is interested in – that it’s all just theater.

Bill isn’t going to find a seating arrangement that satisfies him. You know that, right? He’s going to have to settle on the layout that he’s got when the room has filled up with other people, and his first appointment arrives.

It feels like things might only get worse for Bill, watching him from here, doesn’t it? Should we do something, do you think?

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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