The field stretched out four acres behind the schoolhouse. Two long rows of evergreens spanned from one end of the field to the other, creating a sense of protective separation from the school grounds and the outside world. It had been snowing incessantly for three days so that the grounds were white. The tree branches, heavy with snow, hung close to the ground and occasionally dropped heavy clumps of it forming high mounds that almost reached the branches that created them.
As the children returned to school, they walked quietly. Some of them in groups of three or four, others in pairs and one alone with his head down and hands buried deep in his pockets. A group of three girls stood around whispering to each other in front on the boutique across the square. As they shared their chewing gum and gossip about the other girls in the class, they watched the other children walk past through the main gate and into the playground.
Justin walked alone up the tree-lined street beyond Janet’s Café and up the path to the school. He heard the girls huddled by the boutique giggle as he passed them. He dropped his head lower so that his eyes were almost hidden behind the rim of his woolly hat and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. He willed his feet to moved faster while trying to make as little noise as possible. When he reached the door to the classroom, he paused, listening for a moment to the voices beyond, then pushed open the door and slipped inside.
Most of the class had been assembled. At the front right corner of the room, Mrs. Lawson sat facing the class with her hands folded on her desk. The tidy desk spread out before her held neat piles of paper in four stacks, waiting to be distributed. Her dark, emotionless face glanced frequently towards the clock, waiting for the three minutes remaining for class to start to pass. As Justin took his seat and the last students stumbled into the room behind him, she began to speak.
“Good Morning, Class.” She said.
The class responded in unison, “Good Morning, Mrs. Lawson.” Their even voices filled the room.
She glanced around at them without smiling. Most of them hand their hands on their desks and some on their laps, but all of their eyes were forward. She liked what she saw; polite, obedient children with polished shoes and combed hair. Most of their mothers made sure that their uniforms were carefully pressed and their white shirts well starched. One or two had less breeding and looked a little ragged, but that couldn’t be helped, she supposed.
“Today we are going to start with a spelling test.” She said, and then sharply looked around, hoping to catch one or two children showing their disapproval. All eyes stayed forward and fixed on her except two. Justin’s eyes dropped and concentrated on his lap. He could feel her looking at him. She continued to speak.
“There will be twenty-five words. When I call them out, please write down the correct spelling. Please print your answer so that there is no mistake about handwriting. This test will be graded.” She said, and then walked around the room while the children prepared their papers. They each took a fresh piece of paper from their notepads and numbered them from one to twenty-five. When she was satisfied that they were ready, she wandered up and down the rows of desks and called out the words to be spelled.
Justin leaned over his paper, carefully writing down his answers. Beside him, he could feel Billy O’Kelly staring at him. The large boy leaned towards him and whispered. “J. P., how do you spell successful? Is it one “s” or two?”
Justin ignored him. Billy tried again, “Psst…J.P…J.P….” Justin gave him a sideways glance then turned his head back quickly. He had no desire to be caught cheating.
Billy raised his head and glared at Justin in comprehension. Justin heard him whisper one last time. “You’re dead at recess.” He hissed.
When the test was over, Mrs. Lawson went to the front of the room and addressed the class.
“Please pass your papers forward. Do not speak until the papers have been collected. Once I have them all, please open your reading books to chapter five and read quietly while I grade your papers. You will be required to write a summary of what you have read after recess.”
She took the papers from each of the children sitting in the front rows then sat at her desk to grade them.
Justin sat rigid in his seat. His left had cradled the book on his desk so that Billy could not see his face behind the cover. Recess was in an hour.
When the spelling test had been graded, Mrs. Lawson handed them back to the students. Some quiet moans spread throughout the room as the students saw their grades. Billy received a 44%.
Justin looked at the mistakes on his paper and noticed an error in the grading. He raised his hand and his eyes to the teacher. Her eyes darted towards him and she sighed heavily.
“Yes, Mr. Pierce? What is it?” She said. The class turned and looked at him.
“Mrs. Lawson, I…Well…”
“Yes, what is it boy?” She said impatiently.
“There seems to be a mistake on my paper. I spelled recommendation right. It’s one “c” and two “m’s”.
She couldn’t believe it. This shabby, little boy was telling her how to spell. “Pierce, I graded these papers and all papers very carefully. I’m sure you’ll find that you are mistaken. It’s double “c” and double “m”.” She said then turned away and began to write the next assignment on the blackboard. Billy looked at Justin and smirked at him.
Justin looked at his paper. He was certain he was correct. He had studied. He always studied.
“Mrs. Lawson, “ He said quietly. “I’m sure I’m right. Could we double check in the dictionary?” His voice was shaking.
She turned around with the chalk in her hand and glared at him. She looked at his trousers, faded at the knees and the scuffed black shoes on his awkward feet. His black hair was always in need of a haircut. She resented the fact that the school had allowed such scruffy child from “that neighbourhood” to attend their school.
“Very well. Please yourself.” She said then turned back to the blackboard.
A moment later, Justin walked up to her and showed her the entry in the dictionary. She looked at it, but the stern expression on her face never changed.
“I see.” She said. “I’ll make the change in the grade-book. Now go back to your seat.”
Justin obeyed and went back to his reading assignment until the recess bell rang. The children slipped out of their chairs and went out the back door of the classroom and into the playground.
Justin walked toward the open field where he could sit on a stone bench and watch the others play their games. He had been daydreaming, not really paying attention when he felt his arms being pinned behind him and someone’s arm around his neck as he was dragged from the bench. It took only a moment to realise that Billy had made good on his threat. Adam Fisher, a gangly, profusely-freckled boy held Justin’s arms while Billy choked the air out of his lungs. As Justin tried to free himself, Adam laughed till tears rolled down his cheeks.
Justin looked around the playground while he struggled. The other children were at the far end of the field enjoying a game of tag. Across the field he could see the classroom door and the window beside it. For a moment, a woman’s face appeared and he felt a surge of relief at seeing her, but it faded as she raised her arm across the window, her eyes fixed on him until they disappeared behind the curtain.
Finally, as his began to faint, Billy let him drop. As Justin slid onto the snow, his chin hit the edge of the stone bench. Blood poured from the wound as Billy and Adam walked away arm and arm. Justin put his hand to his chin and was sure that he would be left with a scar.