by Kate Maxwell
He wasn’t actually square-shaped, just jagged, and gangly, but he still didn’t fit into the rounded holes and moulded spaces of the every day. She’d stood for years before rows and rows of students. Even the oversized, or odd-shaped ones—with their too-effusive responses, high-tucked shirts, smelly lunches, or nervous stutters—usually found some way to scrape or squeeze into their allocated spaces. Once they realised, they had so few options. Once they realised that difference wasn’t the lauded wonder that self-esteem posters and personal development lessons would have students believe. So, she was always particularly careful with the square-peg students. Winced at their struggle to keep form as they were whittled down and blunted with humiliations, even bruises, from those who sought their compliance. But Bak remained steadfastly non-elliptical.
Bak didn’t even seem to recognise ‘round’. He seemed not to identify with a world of rhythmic loop routines, familiar curves, or flow. His eyes: always shifting like a feral cat ready to pounce, hiss, or flee. His every reaction, fast-twitch and scratchy. So, when he shoved his book on her desk and said, “This stupid but I show you, anyway.” she knew it was their moment. Sometimes a frantic day, a headache, or another child’s emergency, cast a shadow over these moments and the opportunity simply blurred into the background.
It was a rare quiet morning. Usually, Bak would write a word or two then sit snickering, throwing things, making faces at other kids, doodling on his page, dropping his pen, picking it up, crossing the room to get a tissue, or sharpening a pencil, bumping, and fussing on his way. And, when she got sidetracked with other needy children things escalated quickly.
“Not my fault, Miss. Got no pencil.”
“Ahhh, Miss… Jason fart again. It stink!”
“He start it, Miss!”
“Miss, you dye your hair?”
Usually, these interjections got louder until he’d managed to distract most of the class. Finishing the task in the Deputy Head’s office was never a deterrent. Harsh words, deprivation, or disappointment were Bak’s ordinary currency.
But this morning, Bak jutted out his jaw, set hands upon lean hips, and waited at her desk. He’d written a simple poem inspired by the class novel she’d been reading aloud to the class. It wasn’t that the poem was magnificent—although the images and words were powerful—it was that finally, he was seeking approval. She knew she had to be careful or there’d never be a repeated moment of trust.
“I love this poem, Bak. It’s powerful and true. I can see you in this poem.”
She wasn’t prepared for his eyes. All his hardness melted, and standing before her was a boy she’d never seen before. A boy, so used to guarding body and soul that she’d never noticed the soft sweetness of his eyes. But he slammed the shutters down quickly, set his mouth hard and glanced back at the class.
“What you looking at, Jason? You fart-face.”
She didn’t get many more moments with him like that. Not with someone as wild and fierce as Bak. Nobody ever explained to him why he didn’t fit. Why kids laughed at his second-hand clothes and shoes, his command of a language he’d only started learning three years ago. Why he’d never be invited to Sally Wentworth’s party with the rest of the class. How he’d probably never see his father again, who had gone back to their home country to marry a younger woman, leaving his old wife and four children in this strange new land.
Bak did get his final explanation six months after he left her class. On a stinking hot afternoon, Bak and his sad-eyed mother sat across from the Junior High principal, who explained to them how angry young boys weren’t welcome in schools when they punched their teachers. She heard he was placed in a behaviour school and eventually juvenile detention. The hole had widened as he thrust himself deeper and deeper and expectations closed tight over him. Sometimes, after spending too much time at her desk, she rolls her tight shoulders up around her ears and catches a flash of his split-second sweetness. She still wishes, impossibly hopes, that he— and all the other square pegs she’s lost track of—somehow manage to climb out of those holes and find new spaces to fill.
Kate Maxwell grew up in the Australian bush. Now a city dweller in Sydney, her interests include film, wine, and sleeping. Her work has been published and awarded in many Australian and International literary magazines and she’s published two anthologies, Never Good at Maths (2021) and Down the Rabbit Hole (2023). Find her at https://kateswritingplace.com/