Best of Times, Worst of Times

Derrick Coyle

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

– Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities)

∞PROLOGUE∞

It starts early. Life roles are cast as the schoolyard bully separates the timid boy from his lunch. Lines are rehearsed when a child with swagger holds court among admirers happy to follow. Parts are assigned as the pretty girl, at center stage, basks in the praises of adoring sidekicks.

Character arcs progress as deceivers hone their skills and truth-tellers dutifully turn them in. The power of influence is showcased when an anonymous donation to costumes earns the rich kid the leading role, and the hand-me-down hopefuls scramble for the best of the bit parts.

Anticipation builds as the discordant tuning of an unseen orchestra foretells of dimming lights and new beginnings. Commoners bask in a rare indulgence as they strain for a clear view from the upper circle—their enchantment temporarily suspended with the grand entrance of pretentious latecomers, deferentially ushered on a trifecta of privilege, to a private box of entitlement.

By the time the curtain of societal conformity rises, and a play called Destiny opens to a voracious house, the actors are in full command of their parts and the performance of a lifetime begins.

All the world‘s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts

– William Shakespeare (As You Like It)

∞ACT I∞

Many years ago, Ms. Liberty, a respected teacher in the elementary school system, decided to assign her third grade class a practical exercise with the hope of teaching them something about the privilege and responsibilities of an election process. She provided the class detailed instructions for the special assignment, and committed to observing from the periphery as the children played out the exercise to its conclusion.

The class of twenty students—evenly divided between boys and girls—were to decide on the two candidates best suited to represent the class for a very important role. A free vote would follow and the class would choose between the two candidates.

Ms. Liberty had thought about the responsibility she would delegate and finally decided a suitable role would be ‘Supplies Monitor.’ With all the back-and-forth to the cabinet to replace pencils, crayons, erasers, and note pads in the course of a year, having a student to look after the task would be a welcome relief.

The class was beyond excited when the teacher shared the idea. She explained that students would have the full recess period to talk among themselves and decide on two people for the new position of responsibility. The students would announce their nominees as soon as they returned from recess.

The entire class would ‘vote’ by writing one of the two names on a blank square of paper and dropping it into the cardboard ‘ballot box’ on her desk, Ms. Liberty explained.

There was some commotion when a boy named Ronald shouted “rigged!” from the back of the classroom and Ms. Liberty assured the students that the voting process would be perfectly fair.

A buzz of excitement followed the children into the schoolyard as they prepared for the important decision.

∞ACT II∞

Ms. Liberty observed, with great interest, the dynamics of young children enthusiastically participating in a simulation of the democratic privilege they would one day experience. From her schoolyard monitoring station, she could see just how practical this exercise was in preparing a new generation to participate in the election process.

She marvelled as the exercise progressed. Clusters of support for a half-dozen interested students, at the outset, had gradually consolidated around two of the more assertive students. So impressed was Ms. Liberty with the enthusiasm of the children and the educational value of the exercise, she decided to invite Mr. Eagle, the school Principal, to sit in for the afternoon ‘election.’

In the schoolyard, Ronald—a rambunctious boy from a well-to-do family with a chain of laundromats—was hopping from one group to another. Occasionally, he would hand other boys something from a yellow package. It wasn’t until after school, when the exercise was over, Ms. Liberty noticed a litter of Juicy Fruit gum wrappers blowing about the schoolyard.

A girl named Terryanne was spotted in animated discussions with small groups of classmates. It first appeared she was making a case for her own nomination, but Ms. Liberty wondered about that when Terryanne repeatedly pointed towards Ronald, who acknowledged the attention with the waving of a package of Smarties.

Ms. Liberty also noticed Ronald spending an unusual amount of time with Konstantin, the new boy from the exchange program. This puzzled her as she’d never seen the boys speaking with each other before. At one point, Ronald seemed agitated by what Konstantin was saying. He reached into his cardigan pocket and handed the smiling boy papers, and what appeared to be a candy bar. Whatever the dispute, she was pleased to see it been had resolved as the two boys laughed before walking off in separate directions.

Ronald was an peculiar child and his behaviour troubled Ms. Liberty. He was a mediocre student with limited vocabulary, yet after each test, he would insist that someone had changed his answers. She spoke to his parents about this pattern of paranoia and deception, but they insisted the allegations were “sad” and it was the marking system that was “failing.”

She’d also received complaints from several girls and a boy about disturbing notes he was sending them. When his mother began dropping Ronald off at school early, other children were arriving to find Post-it notes affixed to their desktops. The short notes had insults and accusations written in pencil crayon. A girl named Eve had shown Ms. Liberty a Post-it that said, “Your a slob and a nasty, nasty girl!”

For another girl, the message came in three parts: “Wrong! I do NOT want to mary—” written on the first square, “—Konstantin and your DISCUSTING—” continued on a second. Finally,  printed on a third Post-it, “—and a STUPID girl. SAD!!!

There was little doubt in Ms. Liberty’s mind as to who was responsible as the notes, they were clearly in Ronald’s handwriting and included the same grammatical and spelling errors found in his schoolwork. Though he denied it repeatedly and referred to accusations of his involvement as ‘fake’, the teacher had a conversation with him about how writing insulting Post-its was not an acceptable way to treat his classmates.

***

At the other side of the schoolyard, Ms. Liberty noticed many girls and some boys were also supporting Mallory. Mallory was a smart girl, but had once been caught letting another student copy her work during a test. She was otherwise popular among classmates and had often defended girls and boys when Ronald teased them.

As recess drew to an end, Ms. Liberty could see that the nominees for the position would be Mallory and Ronald, and she was pleased the students had followed her instruction to narrow it down to just two. From what she knew of the candidates and the other children, she fully expected Mallory to receive the majority of the votes.

When the bell rang, Ms. Liberty was amazed at how quickly the children had funnelled back from the outer reaches of the schoolyard and how excited they were as they lined up in front of the third grade entrance.

The double doors opened to a rush of girls charging up the stairs to the second level. There was some disruption at the foot of the staircase, where Ronald had positioned himself to look up dresses, and he was laughing as he drew attention to Eve’s polka-dot underpants. Ms. Liberty wasn’t close enough to hear, but a girl named Hope was telling Eve not to worry ’cause Konstantin told her he saw Ronald pull down a first-grade girl’s pants and that he would probably tell on him anyway.

∞ACT III∞

While the children settled at their desks, Ms. Liberty noticed Mr. Eagle had quietly entered the classroom and was seated in the Arts & Crafts area at the back. She smiled at him and returned her attention to the class.

“Before we get to the vote,” she said, “each candidate will have an opportunity to give the class one good reason classmates should vote for them. You may go first, Ronald.”

Ronald looked around the classroom menacingly, and after what seemed a full minute, said, “You should pick me ’cause Mallory is a horrible, horrible girl.”

Ms. Liberty shot a tentative glance at Mr. Eagle, who had one hand gliding over the top of his balding head. She turned her gaze back to the candidates, “Ronald, please do not insult Mallory. This is your opportunity to tell the class why you would be the best choice for Supplies Monitor.”

At that point, Terryanne jumped from her chair, sending a package of Smarties smacking to the floor with the contents scattering across the linoleum. Undaunted, she smiled sweetly, “But, Miss Liberty, it’s not really an insult ’cause it didn’t make Mallory cry.”

Before Ms. Liberty could respond, Ronald turned back to the class and said, “You should pick me ’cause I never let anyone copy my tests, okay?”

Terryanne was on her feet again, “Miss Liberty, what he me—”

“Sit down, Terryanne,” Ms. Liberty said sternly. Clearly frustrated with an exercise slipping out of control, she shook her head before turning her attention to Mallory. “Let’s hear from the other candidate and then we’ll get right to the voting.”

In one fluid motion, Mallory transformed a searing glare at Ronald into a beaming smile to the class. “Of course, you should choose me as Supplies Monitor because I will be fair to everyone.”

“Thank you, Mallory,” said Ms. Liberty. “Now everyone has a square of white paper on their desks, this is called a ballot. Please write down the name of the person you choose for Supplies Monitor, without discussing it or letting anyone see what you write. When you’re finished, bring it to the front and drop it in the cardboard ballot box.”

***

Excited glances were exchanged as the children dropped ballots in the box and eagerly awaited the results. When the last one had been delivered, Ms. Liberty clasped her hands in front of her and said, “Now, I’ll need a volunteer to count the—”

Konstantin, with hand raised, sent his chair flying as he charged the ballot box from his third-row desk. Having been trying to get the boy—with limited command of the language—more involved, Ms. Liberty was delighted with the unexpected show of interest and smiled as he arrived, winded, at the ballot box.

In a spirited attempt at English, the eager volunteer explained that to make it easier, he would quickly draw the ballots and put all the votes for Mallory in his left pocket and the votes for Ronald in his right. Then, one at time he would count them into two piles to determine the winner.

Perhaps it was the new boy’s initiative that allowed her to overlook an unconventional methodology and the outline of an Alenka Chocolate Bar hidden beneath the left sleeve of his kosovorotka shirt, but by the time Konstantin had pulled the ballots from his pockets and counted them into separate piles, the vote stood at 11 to 9—in Ronald’s favour.

***

What followed was frightful. After dancing around the room yelling, “I won, Mallory failed!” and pointing at a large ‘R’ embossed on the breast of his cardigan, Ronald had returned to his desk and was feverishly writing up Post-it notes.

At one point he threw a pencil he’d broken the lead tip from, at Changpu. A couple of boys he’d often quarrelled with were asking if they could be his helper and he told them, maybe if they gave him their lunch treats.

Girls had gathered to comfort the sobbing, Mallory, and with mouth agape, a tearful Eve sat in stunned silence.

At the other end of the class, Juan had taken cover behind a partition panel, where Ronald had once suggested he permanently sit. Tyrone was defiantly shouting something that sounded like ‘whitelash’ and Ahmed and Tristan looked shell-shocked as they stared vacantly out the window toward a neighbouring school to the north.

By this time, Ronald had posted a half-dozen sticky notes to the blackboard under a horizontal heading with a word on each of three notes: “Supplies-Monitor-MANifesto”.

***

While this was going on, teacher and principal were huddled in serious conversation, periodically glancing up to survey the frenzy. Recognizing the fine line between ‘valuable lesson’ and ‘permanent psychological damage,’ the two adults paid close attention to the children as, one-by-one, Ronald pulled a note from the blackboard and read it aloud.

  • “I’m the only one who can use Post-its—except for Terryanne”
  • “Juan and Eve have to give me back all their supplies”
  • “Tristan can’t have any coloured pencil crayons”
  • “Tyrone only gets supplies after everyone else has theirs”

At this point, Ms. Liberty was rising to intervene when Mr. Eagle touched her arm and pointed towards Marilyn, who was holding Juan’s hand and guiding him back to his seat from behind the partition. With each reading of Ronald’s Post-its, children had gathered around the desks of Eve, Tristan, and Tyrone.

  • “And girls can’t have erasers no more,” Ronald said with a punctuating sniff.

Several girls jumped to their feet at once. “We can so have erasers!” Jane protested. And, emboldened by nods of assurance from Ms. Liberty, “What if a girl makes a mistake! Or a boy scribbles on her page!” her face reddening.

“Girls should do their work right the first time, and they can just hide their page from boys,” Ronald explained.

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

– William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

Ms. Liberty was now on her feet and quickly making her way to the front of the class.

“Okay, okay, everyone back to your seats,” she said calmly. With the students in their places, except the Supplies Monitor-Elect who had remained at the blackboard, she added, “That means you too, Ronald.”

With a peripheral sighting of Konstantin chewing vigorously on something he’d just deposited in his mouth, she continued tentatively, “At this point we will assume there has been a fair vote and that Ronald will serve as Supplies Monitor.”

After allowing a swell of high-pitched protest to settle, Ms. Liberty continued. “I would now like to clarify three important rules for the new job that must be followed by everyone:”

“The first rule, I’ll call Expectations. It is expected that all students will request supplies prudently, and every student is entitled to request any supply from the Supplies Monitor who will provide the student the requested supplies.”

There was a chorus of squeaking chairs as students shifted to exchange smiles of approval. At the front, Konstantin’s chewing had slowed considerably and Terryanne was gently rubbing the back of a stone-faced, Ronald.

“The second rule, I’ll call Responsibilities,” she said. “It is the responsibility of all students and the Supplies Monitor to work together to resolve any supplies dispute involving the Expectations rule.”

“And the third and final rule: If a dispute cannot be resolved between the student and the Supplies Monitor, it will be brought to me to settle the matter.”

***

Just then, the afternoon bell sounded and the children were gathering their belongings and filing out of the classroom in small, chattering scrums.

As Mr. Eagle helped Ms. Liberty re-position chairs and tidied up the makeshift voting station, she laughed ruefully and said, “Well, I think I got more than I bargained for with that exercise.”

Mr. Eagle smiled, “Maybe so, but it provided a great lesson on the power of the vote and gave the children an understanding of their Expectations and Responsibilities. It was also really nice to see the children taking a stand to support their friends.”

“By the way,” he continued, “I noticed you didn’t give a name for your third rule—where they come to you to sort things out.”

Ms. Liberty smiled as she flicked the light switch on the way out of the class and closed the door behind them, “Oh, that, well, it’s clear there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye, but with time running short,” she said as they exited the building, “I didn’t want to get into an explanation on ‘Impeachment Hearings.'”

The pair exchanged weak grins as they fastened their coats against the chill of a winter gust and headed their separate ways in the fading light of a long day.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

– William Shakespeare (Henry the Fourth, Part Two)

*****

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