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Beginnings (HBTC Novella)

FIRST DAY

    "Now then children, go and line yourselves up against the wall over there."
    The tall, kindly woman eyed them over as if they were all the same, which, after twenty-five years in the teaching profession, they essentially were, to her. Girl or boy, long hair, short hair, pigtails, crew-cuts—it made little difference at this age. Each September brought with it a running repeat of head colds, head lice, proverbial heads being banged together, as the children vied to be number one. For some, the rank was one that would be derived from physical strength; for others it would be their newfound understanding of the incredible frontiers revealed to them through words and pictures and ways of calculating distance and time. Many more of the boys would find success through sport; the girls in their propensity for the arts. These traits combined within each to create a unique little person, but for now, on day one—their first day of school—they were all exactly the same.
    "Excuse me!" she called loudly, attracting the attention of nearly all of the children but the one her chastisement was directed at. "Young man," she tried again. Several little boys, in a tiny huddle of shuffling legs and flaying fists, turned their heads in her direction and froze.
    "Come here, please." She called one particular boy using a finger, crooked to beckon him close.
    He shrugged off his accomplices and obeyed.
    "Now then, what is your name, dear?" she asked.
    "Daniel Jeffries," he replied, his eyes darting in the direction of the other boys, some of whom were snickering bravely, while others were quietly petrified.
    "Daniel. That's a very nice name, isn't it?" she said, her tone of voice a mismatch for the kindness of her face and words. Daniel nodded solemnly, not yet aware of the customary address used by pupils of all ages when speaking to a female teacher. "I expect that with such a nice name you're probably a very well-behaved young man who's just a little over-excited today," she told him. He stared up at her and blinked his big brown eyes once, his lips pressed together like a tiny pink buttonhole. "Off you go then, Daniel." He turned and fled, straight back into the middle of his new gang. "And do leave that girl alone," she added, too late.
    
    Eventually, after much shuffling and impatient queuing first outside, then along the corridor, the teachers re-assembled their new classes in the school hall, prior excitement temporarily constrained by the cross-legged, arms folded position the children had been commanded to assume. Mrs. Jones looked along the two lines of neatly uniformed four year olds, mentally noting who looked most and least afraid, where the genetic associations lay, which one wore the hearing aid, and so on and so forth. Several feet away, Mrs. McGill was doing likewise with the first years, having duly noted the presence of a new Jeffries boy in the Reception class. As if two were not enough already. Along again from Mrs. McGill, Mr. Smythe was having a problem seating all of the second years in the allocated space—a responsibility that the junior school teachers were very much dreading having to undertake in the future. Why there should have been this sudden spike in the birth rate, no-one could say, but the average class size of 24 was far surpassed by the current 31 in second year infants. Meanwhile, Reception had just 19 children, so it all looked the same to the government. However, it wasn't the education secretary who would have to teach this bunch for the next ten and a half months, Mr. Smythe thought begrudgingly. This year would be his last, for he was done with teaching.
    A flurry of activity from the back of the school hall brought with it a short parade of bigger children, selected from the eldest pupils, each proudly displaying their enamelled prefect's badge. They parted like curtains to allow a stretched, willowy woman to sweep her way towards the stage, her long, floral skirt swirling like a troop of Whirling Dervishes as she spun to face the children.
    "Good morning, everybody," she declared.
    "Good morn-ing, Miss-us Kin-kade," the mass of children responded in sing-songy unison, with the exception of the newest pupils, who had yet to know of these things.
    "How lovely to see you all again after a wonderful summer break. I hope you are all well rested and ready to learn." She addressed them all and yet none of them, her gaze appearing to settle on children here and there, as she scanned the room, making eye contact with no-one in particular.
    "What a beautiful Reception class we have this year," she said, smiling down at the tiny children directly in front and to her left. They all stared up at her, eager and wide-eyed. "It can be quite a strange experience to be in a big school like this, with lots of new children and adults, but don't worry." Her eyes crinkled and twinkled as she scanned their little pink and brown faces, settling momentarily on each and every one, "our prefects will help you and you'll all settle in perfectly well." She gave them one last smile and lifted her head to address the entire assembly.
    "Now, as those of you who were here last year are aware, Mrs. Patel is on maternity leave, and it is my pleasure to inform you that she had her baby during the summer holidays. This is, of course, why I am standing here, talking to you today."
    "I told you," one of the first years whispered to his friend. "My mum saw her at the shops with a pram."
    "Shhh," Mrs. McGill urged. Mrs. Kinkade gave her a swift, sympathetic wink.
    "Until Mrs. Patel returns, I shall be acting headmistress."
    "Who's teaching her class?" the other little boy asked. Mrs. McGill shot him a warning glance.
    "Mr. Patton," the friend whispered out of the side of his mouth. "Our Michael had him last year."
    "Oh," the other little boy mouthed back.
    "Yes, thank you, Andrew," Mrs. Kinkade said loudly, "you are quite right of course. Mr. Patton is teaching my class, and Mrs. O'Dowd is looking after the second year juniors. Anything further you want to say, Master Jeffries?"
    "No, Miss. Sorry, Miss," Andrew blushed. His friend giggled.
    "I'll see the two of you at the end of assembly," Mrs. Kinkade ordained, then continued as if she had not been interrupted at all. "I won't take up much more of your time this morning, children, as I'm sure you're all anxious to settle into your new classrooms. So, I have just one final notice. I see that some of you are wearing training shoes. Please inform your parents that this is not school uniform. I shall be sending a letter home at the end of the day to this effect. Thank you."
    With that, Mrs. Kinkade swept her way back along the aisle and exited the hall. The prefects stood their ground. Fourth, third, second, first: the junior pupils departed next. The second year infants, well accustomed to this ritual, looked to Mr. Smythe for their signal to stand, then filed out, in silence. The Reception children watched as the first years followed suit, then, understanding now what was required of them, got to their feet and scurried along after Mrs. Jones to the large, airy Reception classroom.
    Their first day of school had begun.

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