Here we are, back again. That is what Elena thought to herself as they approached the school gates. The weekend had flown by yet again, Monday morning rolling round in what seemed a perversely short amount of time. Somehow it always seemed to come around quicker than Friday night, the same way winter always seemed to arrive much quicker than summer.
At the end of the long straight drive sat the building she had come to despise. It had looked so impressive on her first viewing, with its glass frontage and wood panelling. Back then it had seemed so sleek and modern, more like a university than a secondary school. Nowadays, she could quite happily have burned it to the ground.
It wasn’t always like this. She thought back to her interview, when she had been convinced that this was exactly the kind of institution she wanted to work in. She had been won over by the unique ethos, the impressive array of facilities, the calm and orderly conduct of the students. Smoke and mirrors. That’s all it was. They were good at putting on a show. Enticing you in with promises of a positive working environment, and Elena, then in her second year of teaching, had fallen for it hook, line and sinker.
Not everyone was so easily fooled. Elena’s former teacher had also applied for a job there, but unlike Elena, she saw straight through the facade.
‘He’s really weak,’ she said of the Head Teacher the next time they met up. ‘As soon as I met him I could tell he’s just the CEO’s tiny bitch puppet.’
Harsh? Maybe. Inaccurate? Sadly not. Now, whenever Elena saw the Head, she heard Veronica’s voice in her head repeating the words “tiny bitch puppet” over and over again.
As she passed through the automatic double doors, Elena deliberately avoided the gaze of the SLT members loitering in the foyer. An easy task, given that they barely seemed to acknowledge her existence anyway. Once they had all signed in, they made their way downstairs to the staff room, Jay chirpily greeting students as they went. Elena ignored them. It was too early in the day to be talking to children, and until she had had two cups of coffee, she simply couldn’t muster the energy. Jay could. He was one of those quirky, exuberant people whom everyone loved, staff and students alike. The kind of person who thrived in a school like this. She, on the other hand, was not. She thought she was, once upon a time, but those days were long gone.
Schools, she had learned, were like bras. There was a perfect fit for everyone, but a bad fit could leave you feeling irritated, unsupported, and ultimately miserable. And like bras, you were obliged to spend the majority of your day trapped in it, longing for the moment when you could liberate yourself. The fit didn’t always start off bad. Sometimes it was perfect to begin with. Then, after weeks, months, or sometimes years, the elastic started to go and the wires bent out of shape, and you suddenly realised you were wearing something that didn’t fit you at all.
The staff room smelled of a mixture of stale food and drains. Elena had worked in several schools over the years, and not one of them had smelled pleasant. After leaving university she had worked as a mentor in a primary school for a year, and the smell was one of the first things she’d noticed.
‘It smells exactly like you’d expect a primary school to smell,’ she said to her then-boyfriend, hoping he would understand what she meant. His response made it patently obvious that he did.
‘You mean like farts and fromage frais?’
‘Yes, that’s exactly it,’ Elena had giggled down the phone. Even now, the memory still made her chuckle.
After getting herself a coffee from the vending machine, Elena logged onto a computer to check her emails. As always, the vast majority of them were either useless or didn’t concern her at all. Elena deleted them without a second thought.
‘I get so sick of these,’ said Kimberly next to her. She too was clicking her way through irrelevant emails, most of them from admin staff with messages like, “If you have tried to call so-and-so’s mom, could you please try again?”
Kimberly was one of the few people at work whom Elena actually talked to on a regular basis. They sought each other out every break and lunchtime to vent their frustrations, which were numerous, or else to share the latest gossip. In fact, if it wasn’t for Kimberly and Jay, and a couple of other people, Elena might have quit long before now.
She’d been on the verge of doing just that last March, when a group of Year 10 Geographers had driven her to tears by surreptitiously throwing Play-Doh at her when she wasn’t looking. Elena had tried to deal with it by herself, but despite her best efforts it continued, until one day she finally snapped.
It was the second hour of a double lesson. Elena was busy dealing with a particularly challenging student when a ball of Play-Doh came sailing through the air and hit her on the chin. It didn’t hurt, but the wound to her pride was severe, and she knew she had to get out of there before the tears came. Thankfully, there was an office just next door, and two heads of department who sprang into action the moment they saw Elena’s stricken face. She decided there and then that she was quitting. Then, a few weeks later, something wonderful happened: she made friends. Real ones. Ones who made the prospect of staying for another year palatable. So stay she did, only now she was regretting it.
At around twenty past eight the girly girls started arriving. Next to them, Elena felt woefully inadequate. They rocked up every morning looking like they’d just stepped out of the salon. Hair perfectly straightened or curled, with flawless foundation and winged eyeliner. Some mornings Elena didn’t even brush her hair until she got on the bus. She often wondered how long it took them to get ready, what time they had to get up in the morning. Some ungodly hour, most likely. There was no way Elena was doing that. These women clip-clopped around the school in skyscraper heels, looking powerful and authoritative. Elena had thought about wearing heels to work, but concluded that it would only add an extra layer of difficulty to an already difficult job. Besides, she associated heels with partying and having fun. She didn’t want to ruin the association by wearing them to a job she hated.
Emails checked, Elena’s next job was to print the resources she needed for the day’s lessons. Thus began the daily battle for the photocopier. Every time Elena turned around, someone else was using it. She waited and waited, until finally it was free. She made a break for it, crossing the room as swiftly as possible to ensure no one beat her to it. She was almost there when the door opened and the SENCO entered, armed with a pile of documents that needed scanning. A few steps and she was at the photocopier, blissfully unaware of Elena’s thwarted intentions. Elena swore under her breath and changed trajectory, making it look as if she were heading to the vending machine all along. It was time for her second coffee anyway. She punched in the number 23 and waited for the flimsy plastic cup to fill. It was hardly the best coffee in the world, but it was caffeine, and that was what mattered. Of course, what she really needed was a few shots of espresso straight into her veins.
With her resources finally printed, and a sufficient amount of coffee inside her, Elena had a last few minutes of peace before the chaos started. At eight fifty-five the warning bell went, and shortly afterwards the Mission Impossible theme began playing over the tannoy. A collective groan issued from the teachers as the first few bars kicked in. The music was supposed to motivate them and chivvy the students along so that they got to class on time. In reality, all it had done was turn the Mission Impossible theme into the soundtrack of Elena’s anxiety dreams.
On the way to form she passed several kids still wearing coats. Some had headphones in, while others were on their phones. Strictly speaking, she should have stopped and challenged them, but the truth was she couldn’t be bothered. Easier to pretend she hadn’t seen it. She knew it wasn’t the correct approach, but it had saved her an awful lot of bother over the years. Once, she pretended not to notice a fight brewing because it was her birthday and she didn’t want to deal with it. Besides, another teacher was already onto it-someone much more experienced and better at behaviour management than Elena, so she didn’t feel too bad.
The Mission Impossible theme was still blaring when she arrived at her form room. There were her tutees, lined up sensibly outside. As she began letting them in, she thought about the five hours that lay ahead of her, and how there was no way of knowing if they would go to plan or be a disaster. Most likely they would be a mixture of the two. But she would get through it somehow. And the next day, and the next, until the end of the year when she could finally leave this place. For Elena, that day could not come soon enough.