“It’s only for a day, Andy.” Lucy smiled reassuringly over the rim of her coffee cup. “I’ll have written out the day’s plan for you and will get everything ready beforehand. You just need to follow the plan and go with the flow.”
“Lu, you know I have always acknowledged that teaching Grade 1 is such a specialised job that I would never presume – “
“Think of it as care-taking.” Lucy leaned forward. “I’ve already told my Head about you and he’s happy. You’re a teacher after all!”
“Was a teacher and a senior school teacher at that!” Andrea recalled in a flash the cut and thrust of the senior school; the joy of arguing over poems with matrics; reading to the Grade 11s to encourage an interest in their prescribed literature; and the satisfaction of knowing that the Grade 8s finally understood how sentences were constructed to make a particular impact. All that had ended after Frank was born three years earlier. “I’m not sure I can deal with such young children, not even for a day.”
“Rubbish! You’ve done a marvellous job with Frankie and his friends. Besides,” Lucy reached to touch her friend’s hand across the wooden table, “the Grade 1s can walk, talk, draw, write and go to the toilet on their own!”
She made it sound so simple. Andrea spent half a morning watching her friend teach, met the headmaster, and returned home feeling the deed would be do-able. That had been a month ago.
Now Andrea sat on the floor encircled by what felt like a horde of children – only fifteen – eagerly watching silkworms spinning their golden threads. She observed their eager faces and felt her heart softening and swelling with a sense of love: they all wanted to share their experiences and have someone who would listen to them and regard what they said as being important.
“You should have seen how big the worms were in the cow dung in the cattle kraal! Donavon (“Mind how you spell his name,” Lucy had warned) gestured the thickness of sausages.
The Hadedas were pulling up worms as long as my arm the last time it rained,” Colleen chimed in.
“I like sticking worms on my hook when I go fishing with my Dad.” Tony had almost tucked his head under Andrea’s arm. “They go all squishy.”
“Yuck!” Jackie shook her brown curls. “That’s so cruel!”
It was time to move onto the next activity. The silkworms were carefully replaced on the shelf near the window and workbooks handed out. “Now that you have had another look at the silkworms, you can finish writing your stories about the life of a caterpillar.” Andrea knew she sounded more confident than she felt. She was actually exhausted and her heart quailed ahead of the music session looming shortly after break.
“When can we have our snack?” Helen looked up from her workbook. “I’m too hungry to write.” She had written only three words and was chewing the end of her pencil.
“My mother’s given me a sausage today,” Geoff volunteered. “Do you want to see it, Simon?” He bent down to scrabble around in his school bag lying at his feet.
Shucks, Andrea realised, she’d forgotten to remind them all to place their bags in the lockers under the window shelf. Alice was already unwrapping a cheese wedge! “Put your food away and if you will all be good little caterpillars for ten minutes you’ll be able to eat your snacks at break time.” She pointed to the wall clock. “When this hand reaches the number twelve here, you will be able to go outside and eat.”
“How are you managing?” Jenni, the Grade 2 teacher asked Andrea as they collected their tea in the staffroom. “Oh yummy! We’re getting toasted sandwiches today! Leslie, be a love and pass us each a sarmie.”
The two women sat on a comfortable couch with the sunlight streaming in behind them. “I’m managing. The music session ahead fills me with dread though.”
Jenni laughed heartily. “Not a problem. Lucy tells me you’re great at reading stories. Let’s swop: I’ll do your music and you read to my class. They could do with a change of voice.” Andrea almost cried with relief. “Have you heard from Lucy about her brother’s wedding?”
“Only that it was ‘awesome’ and that she’s on track to get home this evening.”
The hours seemed to fly by. Glancing at the wall clock, Andrea realised all would be over within half an hour. She would collect Frank from his playschool across town and they could catch up while she boiled the kettle and made a sandwich for her own lunch … mashed avocado would be good. Perhaps she should fry some bacon too. Frankie would like some …
“You know what?” Christina had moved so close to her that Andrea jumped. The children were finishing off the pictures they had started on Friday; some were working on the floor while others sat at their tables. She smiled at Christina.
“What’s the problem, Christina?” The little girl had already cupped her hand as she reached for Andrea’s ear. She bent down obligingly.
“I know something about Mommy and Daddy that you don’t know,” Christina whispered confidingly. Andrea moved away slightly, looking directly at the serious face in front of her.
“Perhaps,” she spoke carefully, “your Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t like me to know that something about them.” She eyed the clock. Ten minutes to go.
Undeterred, Christina sat on a low stool and placed a sticky hand on Andrea’s knee. “I know what my Mommy and Daddy do at night when they think my brother and I are sleeping!” Christina’s eyes were shining with delight. “They don’t do it nearly every night, but sometimes I can hear Mommy tiptoeing past our rooms when the lights are off. Sometimes she whispers to my Dad that we are sleeping and then they go –“
“Christina, it’s almost time for everyone to pack up. In fact, it is time. Children, it’s time to pack your crayons away and to put your pictures in a pile on the table at the back.” Christina didn’t move except to tug at the hem of Andrea’s blouse.
“When my Mommy and Daddy think we are asleep,” she persisted, no longer whispering, “they open the front door and go to play cards with our neighbours,” she finished triumphantly.