Would you like a copy? – a short story
A parent pushes too hard
There were four filing cabinets in my office, tall slabs of grey metal that dominated the middle of the long narrow room. They separated the more public end of the room, near the door, from the business end. It was a place where punishment and praise, and warnings, reassurance and encouragement all had to be found – just what you would expect in a head teacher’s office.
From outside, through the doorway, the easy chairs and the coffee table could be seen, inviting, comfortable. It was not until visitors had come into the room that they could see my desk and the upright chairs twenty feet away at the other end. Between that functional area, between the desk and the coffee table, half way along the long wall that stretched from one end of the office to the other, was the line of filing cabinets where the children’s records were kept.
There were fourteen hundred children in the school, seventy classes, each with a teacher in charge. At the end of each afternoon, ten red double-decker buses lined up behind one another in the road outside and waited patiently for the children. For each child we had a folder, in most cases a flat, card envelope, containing perhaps twenty sheets of paper. A minority of the children, an interesting minority, had accumulated much larger files which stretched to bursting point with letters home, special reports and teachers’ notes. It was Jemima Walcott’s file that I had left on my desk when I was called away to a classroom.
There was no mistaking it – it must have been one of the largest in the school. It had flowed over my desk – clearly visible from the comfortable end of the room, dominating everything near it, the telephone, the diary pad, a couple of photographs and a large stapler. Like the girl herself, it spread itself without let or hindrance wherever it found itself. Like Jemima it commanded other people’s attention; “Look at me, look at me, look at me.”
Ms. Walcott had noticed. “Ms. Walcott.” She had been very adamant about that the first time we met, soon after I took over the school.
Shirley, my secretary, must have shown her into the office on this occasion, with her soft, maternal smile that she kept for visitors. She would have shown Ms Walcott over to the left, away from my desk, towards the easy chairs, the coffee table and magazines. A cup of coffee would have been offered and the door left open. Then my visitor would have waited for a few moments until I reappeared.
Ms. Walcott was a strikingly attractive black woman, about my height and ten years younger. She was athletic, lithe and quick to move, sharply alert and quick to seize an opportunity. When I walked into the office, she was sitting back in one of the easy chairs, where I had expected to find her, next to the coffee table. On the table was Jemima’s file. Her mother’s slim arm rested lightly on its summit. I had sent for the woman to tell her that she was no longer to come into school without a prior appointment and that she was forbidden to approach teachers in and around the school. Her visits resulted in shouting, unmasked aggression and tears, all triggered by calls from her daughter’s unauthorised mobile.
“Why did you take that file from my desk?”
“It’s my daughter’s file. I’ve a right to see it.”
“You’ve no right to go over to my desk and read documents that I have on there.” The desk was twenty feet away from the chair to which she had been shown. “How would you have felt if another parent had come in and read about Jemima?”
“I’d sue you for defamation, like I’m going to anyway.” She jabbed at the papers. “None of this is true. It’s pure fabrication.”
“We would contest that.” For a moment, she let me pause. “Actually,” I continued, “there are witnesses to all the incidents documented.”
“If there’s anything written down about my daughter, I’ve a right to see it. That’s why I’m going to read through this.” She patted the pile of paper and glared at me.
“Ms. Walcott, you’ve a right to see official documents in there – reports, test scores, and any correspondence, that’s all. Not teachers’ notes – they remain confidential.”
“I can see why; I’ve read some of them already.”
She lifted her right arm from the folder which had transformed itself into a mountain of papers on the coffee table. With her right hand she steadied the mountain sufficiently for her left hand to take up a handful of notes.
“Look at this.” She held the offending notes up in the air.
“You’ve all got it in for her – you can see that here.” She shook the notes angrily. “I’m going to the Race Relations Board – they’ll really go to town with these.” She slammed her left hand down on the table and continued.
“You’re all the same you teachers, always picking on black kids. That’s why Jemima’s always on the phone to me; she’s in tears every day, Mr. Inson.”
For a moment, a very brief moment, I wondered whether to point out that Jemima should not have had her phone with her in the first place then thought better of it.
“Mr. Inson, I just can’t stand much more of this. I can’t go on taking time off work just to come and sort things out for her. Day before yesterday, she rang me at break. One of her teachers was going to punish her for not doing homework. What could she do – wasn’t her fault. I couldn’t leave her Mr. Inson. I’m her mother. I had to see my supervisor and beg for leave again. You don’t know how embarrassing that is Mr. Inson.” I tried hard to imagine Ms. Walcott begging for anything.
“Why didn’t you ring the school if you were worried about Jemima? We could have looked into the matter without interrupting classes and you wouldn’t have needed to leave work.”
“Leave you to investigate?” Then she smiled the smile of a kindly adult who is explaining some obvious truth to a child. “Even you are biased Mr. Inson. You never believe the things that Jemima tells you.”
“Ms. Walcott, some of the children who complain about Jemima, they’re black too. I’m going to be prejudiced whatever I do. Anyone who does not take Jemima’s side, anyone who does not believe her, even when there’s solid evidence against her, is racially prejudiced.”
“Mr. Inson, I can’t go on arguing like this – I’ve got to get back to work.” She started to gather up the contents of the file. Her hands fumbled; now she was finding the paper less cooperative.
“No, Ms. Walcott. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave these papers behind – they belong to the school.” Her mouth moved but I continued. “If you’d like copies of the official documents in there, the ones you’re entitled to, I can send you copies.”
“Oh no, Mr. Inson, you’re not getting away with that. Once I let go of these documents I’ll never see them again. I’m going to copy them myself. Then I can really put a stop to all this harassment that you’ve been putting my girl through, all your racist games.”
It was preposterous; in other circumstances I would have laughed, but not now. Ms Walcott was not going to leave without the notes. For the moment she sat in her easy chair and enjoyed her moment of triumph, her sense that she had caught me out. She positively glowed with self-righteousness. Now, I thought, she would have to come in every day to see that all was well with Jemima; every question, every comment, every challenge, every reprimand, every punishment, every check on her daughter’s ego would be challenged. For a moment I had a vision of Ms. Walcott stalking the corridors like some outraged deputy head, tracking down teachers who had offended against her daughter’s dignity or haranguing children who had dared to cross her daughter’s path. It would have been a full-time job.
“I tell you what, Ms. Walcott, it’s going to take some time to copy that file.” I shook my head slowly and let her watch me for a moment. “But I do realise now just how important it is for you to have every single one of the notes.” She listened. “We could put them through our automatic copier – it’s very fast. I’ll just call someone and get it done for you.” She beamed, on the verge of condescension now. “Would you like another coffee while you wait?”
“Yes. That would be nice.”
I put my head round the door of Shirley’s office.
“Shirley, could you get a coffee for Ms. Walcott, please.” I turned back to my visitor. “Milk and sugar?”
“Just one sugar please.”
“Just one sugar please Shirley, and, before you do that, would you ask John to pop in please? Yes, straight away – Ms. Walcott hasn’t a lot of time.”
For a second, Shirley caught my eye.
Then John was standing there quietly in the doorway, a slim man, with the air of some one who is busy, but who can always stop what he is doing and help out. He smiled his haIf-smile and waited.
“Hello John.” I remained in my chair. “This is Ms. Walcott, Jemima’s mum.” I waved airily towards the lady and managed to smile at her. “This is Mr. Groves, the bursar. You can trust him completely with confidential matters.”
I turned to the door.
“John, Ms Walcott is going to give you these papers which I’d like you to photocopy for her please.”
Ms Walcott stood up, grasping the huge folder which she handed over with an almost ceremonial dignity. She ignored me and looked John straight in the eye.
“You will make sure you copy all of them, won’t you.” She looked round at me. “Every damn page.” Then she held his eye while he stood in the doorway holding the papers. Then she sat down.
I stood up and took a pace towards the door.
“John, those are confidential papers which Ms.Walcott has tried to remove from school. Would you please take them and lock them away in a secure place.” I too looked him straight in the eye and he turned and vanished. I returned my attention to my visitor but remained where I was.
Ms. Walcott got up from her seat like a figure in a slow motion film. It was as if all her energy was diverted into this rising. Without a sound she gathered her legs under her then leaned forwards. Her empty hands seized the arms of her chair and then her legs levered her upwards from below. She rose, reaching my height as her mouth fell open.
Then she was on her feet, shouting.
I don’t remember what she said. Shirley came in with the coffee then retreated, cup and saucer held tightly in both hands. No one was going to break the best china.
I forget too with just how many individuals and organisations Ms. Walcott threatened me, but she took herself away eventually, with an assurance that I would photocopy and send any papers to which she was entitled. I do remember her last words. She stepped out of my office and turned in the corridor.
“I’m thinking of taking Jemima out of this dump – black kids stand no chance here. You wait – I’ll find a decent school for her!”
The sound of her heels on the stairs came back to me and then, from the foyer downstairs, there came the sound of the outer door being slammed shut.