Martin and Mrs Russell

by Philip Gardner

Martin amazed his teachers. They never quite knew whether to hate him, or just keep laughing at him. He was a tall boy, with curly black hair; black eyes that were full of either fun or nothing, and a grin that was always interpreted as trouble. But Mrs Russell knew all about dealing with troublemakers.

Mrs Russell was going over her maths class's records, as the end of year was only a month away. Martin was sitting up the back, telling his mate Tony about the weekend.

Now Mrs Russell, in her early forties and with two teenage children of her own, was not a person to be messed with. She had taught (on and off) for twenty years, and had a dreaded reputation for not taking any nonsense. Her eyes were her main weapon. Whatever mood she wanted to convey, she could convey it with those glowing, hazel eyes. When she was pleased, they lit up and sparkled like the sun through rain; when you were trying to fool her they looked right into your mind; and when she was angry those eyes flashed like a knife and cut strips of flesh off you. When she added words to this look (and often it wasn't necessary) they hit like lumps of concrete dropped from a ten story building. You were flattened! It took most people several days to recover from a Mrs Russell attack.

Amazingly, she could switch it off and on. She directed it with the unerring accuracy of a circus knife thrower and the precision of a brain surgeon. It could be almost fun to watch someone cop a burst from Mrs Russell. If you hadn't been part of the trouble, she could turn to you straight after she had destroyed someone and, with a smile on her face, ask you if your dog had recovered from its visit to the vet to have the grass seed taken out of its paw. And so the class watched as Mrs Russell spoke to Martin.

"Martin, you've handed in only two pieces of work for the whole of the semester. Why do you bother coming to school at all? It's bad enough that you're squandering your parents' money and my time, but you're also setting a disgraceful example to others. Whenever you're here, Tony does nothing either. What have either of you achieved so far this period?"

"I've been thinking," said Martin in an aggrieved tone. "You always tell us to plan our work, and that's what I was doing."

"You should be able to plan the future of the world for the next five hundred years in the time you allow to plan the answer to one equation!" hissed Mrs Russell venomously. She looked at him. Her slow intake and sharp expulsion of breath managed to convey what she thought of Martin. But Martin never gives up.

"There is a reason, Miss, why I haven't finished this. But it's private. Can I see you after class?"

"All right, Martin," said Mrs Russell somewhat more gently. She wondered if it was some serious family upset. She hoped that Martin's mother or father hadn't died or something. She felt a twinge of guilt whenever she looked at Martin during the rest of the lesson.

After the rest of the class had gone, Martin approached.

"I don't think you understand, Miss. I've got a business to run. My father has a new store opening, and I'm working in it after school and at weekends. I'll be managing it next year. So I need to pass maths. Really, I just want to pass maths, and all the rest's a party!"

Mrs Russell's eyes widened, then narrowed. She remembered the twinges of guilt she had felt when she thought one of Martin's parents might have died. "Martin, you're a waste of space," she pronounced dismissively, then turned and walked briskly towards the staffroom.

Martin felt that the interview with Mrs Russell could have gone better, and he'd need to work on a few more excuses. He'd tell her that he'd done his homework, but forgotten to bring it to school; or had it in his locker and left the keys at home; or his uncle had arrived from overseas last night and the whole family had gone to welcome him; or he had been away on the day it had been handed out; or his mother had cleaned up his desk at home and thrown away the homework; or he was going to do it but he ran out of paper and his mum hadn't had a chance to buy him any; or he'd done all the main sections of the work and just had a little bit to finish off and would hand it in tomorrow. She was sure to believe one of them - it was just a question of choosing the right one.

The approaching end of year exams made most of his mates anxious, but not Martin. He had a strong belief in himself, and he wouldn't let mere facts stand in his way - even when those facts were that he hadn't handed in most of the work set for the year, and his marks were a long way short of satisfactory. He assumed that despite minimal preparation for the exam, everything would be O.K. He knew that someone of his intelligence could do maths, and therefore would pass any maths exam that mattered.

He sat for the exam, and it went smoothly. He couldn't see any major problems. He'd done the important questions, and rather than struggle his way through the paper, he had managed to finish early!

"How did you go?" asked Tony as the class mingled in the corridor.

"All right," said Martin off-handedly. "Want to go out on the oval for a kick?"

"Can't. I've got English tomorrow and I gotta study."

"Waste of time, mate. What you don't know now you'll never know. Complete waste of time." Having straightened Tony out on study techniques, Martin sauntered towards the lockers to see if there was someone else who might be more appreciative of his company.

The exams drifted on. The results came out. Martin picked up his report book and discovered that he had failed everything. There was a note with the report, saying that Martin should see the Careers teacher, Mr Peters. Round to his office Martin went. Mr Peters suggested that Martin might be better suited to a life outside school - perhaps he could go straight into his father's business? None of his teachers, Mr Peters told him, had recommended that he continue for another year. He could, if he wished, repeat the year. Martin was astounded. He knew that there were people who didn't have his intelligence who had been recommended to go on, and this disturbed him. It wasn't that he particularly wanted to continue at school, but he didn't like to think that he couldn't, even if he had wanted to.

He'd better talk to his teachers, he thought, and may as well start with Mrs Russell. She opened her office door in response to his knock.

"I want to talk about next year, Miss," he said.

"Yes, Martin?"

"I thought I might go on with Maths next year. I know I can do it."

"Your results don't show that you can, Martin. You've only finished two of the sets of exercises from the textbook, and you have 28% for the exam."

"Come on, Miss. Exams and exercises don't tell the whole story. I can understand why you didn't pass me, but why didn't you recommend me for the top maths group next year? I was too busy to do the work, but I understood it all."

Silence. Mrs Russell looked, blinked, half opened her mouth then shut it. A few seconds can seem a long time. "Go away, Martin," she said, accenting each of the words separately. She turned, and with a deft flick of the wrist shut the door uncompromisingly in Martin's face.

Martin was mystified. Who could understand teachers? At least he knew one thing for sure: in a year or two he'd be earning more than Mrs Russell, and he took great satisfaction in that as he wandered off to see if Tony wanted to have a kick on the oval.


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