Every day, Derek watched the sun fry the desert until it was crisp and dry.
From the slit of a window in his office, he gazed on frenetic construction. Daily, men punished themselves in the heat, ripping apart the mud and clinker. Towers were taking root in the sand. Roads leading nowhere yet were birthing out of the soil into concrete cloverleaves. Traffic crawled on its belly, waiting for the next jam to open.
Within the school, however, all was cool and air conditioned. Derek came away from the window and was grateful.
It was hot out there.
On his first night away from England, he recalled, he had taken a walk without carrying any bottled water. Breathing had been like swallowing a fan assisted oven on full. Not a mistake he intended to make again.
Now, six weeks into his new role as Head of Science, Derek was starting to feel more relaxed. Leaving England to teach in the desert had not been an easy decision.
But, similarly, teaching in England had become an impossible job. The pay had worsened, year on year. The class sizes had increased. Low budgets had resulted in redundancies and decay. It had been killing him to watch schools cheat their way to good results then crash, burn and die anyway. And it was the children. The betrayal of the children. That hurt him the most.
Here however, things were different. The symbol of the school was an acorn set against an oak tree, It was everywhere – on the front of the concrete building, the interior walls, the stationery and, of course, on the uniform the children wore. Little acorns.
Derek walked from his office and into the gymnasium. There was a rousing cheer from the assembled students. An Indian girl, shrouded in an abaya, was speaking. Her face was cheerful and her smile infectious. She was pointing at her slide show and sharing. “You all love curry, right?” And there was another huge cheer.
International Day. A chance to celebrate all cultures and all countries. Derek grinned to himself, quietly happy.
Derek felt the tap tap of fingers on his shoulders. He turned away from the children. Facing him was a woman. Her mouth was smiling but the eyes…there was something about the eyes. “Hello?”
“You don’t know me, of course, Mr Derek,” she mouthed, in a soft voice. The accent had a harsh, nasal twang to it.
“No, no, I’m sorry,” spluttered Derek, “I was just charmed. For a moment. By the children, it’s a wonderful thing, this, isn’t it? International celebration.”
“You’re new here. Can we talk? Let’s go to your office.” She adjusted her headscarf. It was an impatient gesture.
“Of course. Anything in particular?”
By now they had reached his office, a glass fronted affair that afforded no privacy. The world looked in and watched education in progress. On a daily basis.
Derek often caught himself considering moving the book shelves in front of the glass, or putting up a gigantic poster. But, in the end, he had got used to people walking past and popping in on a whim to say hello. It was rather lovely, in an odd way. It made everything quite transparent.
“Well, yes.” The woman’s eyes had not warmed, despite Derek’s enquiring smile. She seated herself, arms folded. “I am Ms Rachel. The Principal’s PA. We have not yet met.”
“Well, we have now,” grinned Derek, reaching for his notepad. It was the wrong thing to say, though. A cloud scudded across her face.
“I’m here on a personal matter. You don’t know this, but my daughter attends school here. I hope you don’t mind me mentioning this, but…” the conjunction was left hanging, waiting for the drop.
Derek stop smiling and leant forward, pen poised. “Oh, OK. What’s the problem?”
“She is not happy in her class, Mr Derek. She has come home complaining. She is very upset.”
Derek mentally slapped himself around the chops for his optimism. Did he teach her? Who was she? He took a mental register and looked inwards at all the faces. No. Nobody looking distressed or shedding tears. Just rows of cheerful, smiling faces. “Is she in my class, Ms Rachel?”
“Oh, good. I don’t like to think of children being in any way unhappy.”
“Well she is, Mr Derek. I wonder if you can do something about it?”
“Of course. If I can help, I will.”
Ms Rachel’s face softened slightly and she leant forward to take him into her confidence. “You have placed her is Set 3. You don’t know my daughter. She should be in the top set.”
“No, it is wrong. Every night she comes home complaining that the work is too easy for her. She does not feel in any way challenged. It is affecting her. She will not eat her food. She will not sleep at night. She no longer finds Science interesting. Where, last year, Science was her favourite subject.”
Flicking his computer on and fiddling with the mouse, Derek groaned inwardly. Had this nonsense followed him from England? A file opened on his desktop and he glanced at some data, running fingertips across his sweaty forehead. He turned the screen towards Ms Rachel. “Her scores from last year seem to indicate she has been placed in the right set, Ms Rachel. The teacher, Mr Thurber, is one of our best physicists. He has been given that set because he understands his subject and has a track record of getting the best from the youngsters. I’ve seen him. He is a terrific teacher.”
“That data is wrong, Mr Derek. My daughter should be in the top set.”
“She had a bad test that day. I have explained it to the Principal. He agrees. I would, ah, like her to be moved into top set. Starting tomorrow.”
Closing the file with a click of the mouse, Derek sighed and stood. “I’ll look into it.”
Ms Rachel also raised herself and opened the office door, “I’d appreciate that, Mr Derek.”
As she walked past the celebratory assembly that was coming to its conclusion, Derek caught sight of the Principal who glanced at him, then joined Ms Rachel. They now stood together, looking over the children, applauding.
Derek opened a desk drawer and picked up his diary, emblazoned with the school’s logo. “Little acorns,” he muttered to himself. He wondered, idly, if there were any flights to Reykjavik leaving that week.