A seasonal set-in-a-school ghost story
The Ghost of Classroom Past
“Write the objective in your BOOKS,” I yell at Year 9, who are fidgeting and delving furtively into their lunchtime crisps. It’s 8.45.
Raymond, in the front row, blinks twice behind his glasses and points at the whiteboard. “You haven’t written anything, Miss.”
I look behind me and he’s right. The words I wrote up there just before the kids all piled in have disappeared.
“Who did that? Confess NOW.”
Rochelle, a sharp, slim girl with hair scooped up into a glittery hairclip, says, “Miss. No one never rubbed the words off. Honest!” Rochelle is more in charge of this class than I am. One day she’ll be a managing director or a madam; she’ll do either like a real pro.
“But - I don’t understand –“.
In the end, I dictate the objective to them, feeling guilty. Dictation is not fashionable. Inevitably, I’m going too fast for some and too slow for others. It’s called mixed ability teaching: some days I’m able and some days I’m not.
After school, I’m at my desk with a Leaning Tower of Marking. The room seems icy cold despite central heating, and the day’s events niggle at me. My lesson objectives vanished from the whiteboard in four of my lessons, causing mayhem. During a clip from Hamlet with the Year 12s, the data projector moaned like a banshee throughout, though no one mentioned it. Then, in my Year 7 lesson, when I said, “Now for the plenary,” I heard mocking laughter from my filing cabinet. I glared at it, and then at the class. “Did anyone else hear laughter?” I said, but was met with blank stares. They went very quiet, which you would if you thought you were being taught by someone who hears cackling from pieces of furniture.
The classroom has a stillness about it now, like the moment before a storm, as I mark Year 10 essays. It’s dark outside. There’s the odd de-icing sound and flash of headlights, but otherwise silence. Everyone else has headed home for sausage and mash and Eastenders.
I try to yank my mind back to the marking. “Shows understanding of authorial intentions,” I write, taking a phrase straight from the GCSE criteria, but then I hear someone behind me hissing, “Criteria, criteria – what a lot of tosh,” and on the ‘sh’ of ‘tosh’ the hissing lingers, like wind whistling under a door. I turn, expecting to see a joker of a colleague.
But, standing with his back to my whiteboard, is a man with sparse, grey hair wearing a black suit and tightly-buttoned starched collar. He is carrying a long stick and a black book. His lips are thin, his eyes a very, very bright blue. I get the feeling he can see right through me. We’d be evens if he can, because I can see straight through him. Where his stomach should be, there’s the board rubber, resting on the whiteboard shelf. And I can see the date - ‘3 January 1937’ - through his forehead. His skin is pale and translucent, like papyrus.
Bloody hell! 1937?
“What’s all this rubbish about ‘understanding of authorial intentions’?” he spits, and I shrink back as he taps his cane on the exercise book. He laughs a filing cabinet kind of laugh. “What a lot of modern clap-trap!” he says.
I’m offended. Ghost he may be, but I take pride in my marking.
“It’s not modern clap-trap,” I venture, only ‘clap-trap’ comes out hoarsely. It’s not every day I discuss educational methods with ghouls. “It – hem! - helps every child to achieve if they understand where they can improve their learning.”
All he can say is, “Piffle!” which is a term I haven’t come across, despite subscribing to Word of the Day from the online OED.
Suddenly, he starts striding around the classroom, clouds of chalk dust, or skin cells, or ash, following him everywhere. “Who arranged the desks in these ridiculous groups?” he accuses. “They’re not even real desks. No inkwells. No pencil grooves. Modern man-made madness.” He slaps a bony hand on a table to emphasise the syllables. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack, crack, crack. I flinch. I can see the outline of his bones and either he’s more substantial than he looks or he’s just sustained six minor fractures.
He pauses by a display of media work. Along with a mist of icy breath, a moan escapes his lips, and I recognise it as the data projector moan. “What is this?” he says, in disbelief, and sinks down onto the edge of a table. He lifts his cane wearily, pointing. “Spelling - dreadful. Punctuation - abysmal. Handwriting - appalling.” He stops, and seems lost in his thoughts.
“This was my room,” he says, eventually. “Before I was – was – asked to leave the school.” His voice is bitter. “I wouldn’t have tolerated this sloppiness. Oh no. Three strokes on the hand soon dealt with sloppiness.” He sighs so heavily that his head is swathed in a swirl of dust and freezing air. I can feel my bronchi constricting, but it seems insensitive to get my Ventolin out, so I breathe deeply. The two of us, sighing and huffing, are like a couple of consumptives.
“They asked you to leave?” I say.
He stands abruptly. I can see the media display through his chest wall; the words ‘tellyvision’ and ‘comunicasion’ are where his nipples would be.
“Ha!” He wanders back towards me and taps his cane on my laptop. I nearly shout ‘Open Sesame!’ and lift the lid, but resist. “What is this idiocy? I suppose you’re going to tell me you have no markbook,” he challenges, slapping his black book on my desk. A long, skeletal finger flips it open. Names - Arthur, Edward, Susan, Jean – are meticulously listed alongside strings of marks, all out of 20.
“No,” I admit. “I keep all my grades on the computer, alongside all the attainment targets and the National Curriculum guidelines, so that –“
He cuts me off, stretching his thin hand out in a blocking gesture. “Stop there!” he commands. “I can’t bear to hear any more.”
“Things move on,” I persist. “We have to change with the times.” But on the word ‘change’ he steps back as though I’ve hit a raw nerve, which could actually be the case, the way things stand.
“Change?” He glares. “Change?” He reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket, pulling out a yellowed document which he thrusts in my face. “Read that!”
I take it gingerly and lay it on the desk. It’s from ‘the Headmaster’, is dated June 1937, and charges ‘Mr Colnbrook’ with refusing to ‘desist from excessive use of old-fashioned educational strategies’. The letter gives him a month’s notice.
Something makes me re-read the name. I look up at his face. Yes! Those piercing eyes. The thin lips. The tweed suit.
“What?” he says, severely. “What are you staring at?” It seems a strange thing to ask, considering he’s a supernatural entity who didn’t even need a window to get in, but I can understand his point of view.
“You taught my gran!” I exclaim. “I’m sure of it. Mr Colnbrook! She used to tell me about you.”
He peers at me. It’s disconcerting. This close, I can see into the back of his eye sockets. But it’s a sensitive moment, so I don’t comment on it.
“What’s your name, girl?” he says, and I feel twelve again. I can see why Gran called him ‘The Grim Reaper’. I don’t let on, though. You should tread carefully early on in a relationship, especially with the dead.
“Sarah. Sarah Brandon. But my Gran was Maisie Doubleday.”
At the name, his sparse lips move upwards into a deathly smile. “Ah!” He says my grandmother’s name slowly. “Mai-sie Double-day. I remember! Yes, you do resemble her.” He looks almost nostalgic, for a spectre. He certainly has his own misty aura, like in posh wedding photos.
“She adored your lessons,” I tell him. And it’s true. Even though she called him The Reaper, like everyone did, he’d inspired her to read Dickens and Thackeray. “She became an English teacher because of you. And so, I suppose, so did I.” He grins widely at this, although I preferred the smile. The grin worsens the skull factor.
He sighs again. “Mai-sie,” he repeats. “Yes. She cried the day I left.” There’s a companionable silence, and my lung passages are even adapting now to his personal dustiness.
He takes up his previous place in front of the whiteboard, nodding towards it. “You saw my clever little trick with your ‘objectives’, then?” he says. His voice is fading; I have to strain to hear him.
“Very amusing,” I say, risking sarcasm. “Not.”
He winces. “Don’t put the negative in a minor sentence like that, my dear,” he whispers.
“Sorry. I promise I won’t,” I whisper back, reverently. “And I’ll work on their spellings. But please don’t moan from inside the data projector again, Sir.”
I glance at my laptop, and then back at him, but he’s gone. I reach out, but all that’s left is cold, empty air. The date on the whiteboard has changed back to 2008. And resting against the wall is a long, thin, flexible stick.
I leave it there. It won’t do Year 9 any harm, just to have a little reminder of how things used to be.