‘Tell me, Ross.’ The head teacher said as he deliberately and very slowly squinted down the barrel of a pencil. ‘Is there a reason for this sudden deterioration in your behaviour? I’m afraid I haven’t been able to discuss this, this latest distraction with Mr Hyslop due to him taking a few days leave, so it looks like we’ll have to muddle through – just the two of us.’
Aiming the wretched pencil directly at Ross’s head he shut one eye and flexed his forearm delicately and at a decreasing angle until it came to a threatening halt. He remained motionless and meditative for a few seconds and then, as if remembering where he was, put the pencil down. ‘Sorry Ross. I’ve got a darts match tonight – was hoping to get away early for a practise… So let’s do this, shall we?’
Giving the pencil one more sly aim before opening a drawer in his desk, he dropped it inside.
Ross had made up his mind a long time ago that Mr Leadbetter was mad, the pencil confirmed it, and Ross begun to stand up, but the noise of a gun going off made him rethink. Only it wasn’t a gun; it was the front legs of the head teacher’s chair hitting the floorboards. But there was something in the force behind it, and the way Mr Leadbetter rammed his glasses down onto his nose, that made him sit up and pay attention. Mr Leadbetter didn’t speak, though. Instead he lifted two A4 sheets of paper off his desk and hid his expression behind them for what seemed like an awkwardly long time.
‘Sorry about that, Ross. I wanted to read back over the year. A promising and intelligent boy. Well-mannered and conscientious.’ He sat back and resettled his glasses onto his forehead. ‘But sadly this all changed over the last few months. Let me quote. A bright young man heading for trouble. His attitude towards authority is challenging. Unable to focus on work, affecting apathy towards all subjects. Social difficulties. You’ve already been excluded once and have a lot of unexplained absences.’ He lowered the sheets and let them drop. ‘Fair summary?’
‘Because.’ Mr Leadbetter went on, patting the papers. ‘Because, the thing is, Ross, if you keep this kind of thing up, your prospects of leaving school with some useful grades, and by useful I mean grades that might help you get into college or pick up an apprenticeship of some kind, will be compromised. Have you taken that pencil by the way?’
‘You put it in the drawer, sir.’
‘So I did. See? You’re a bright lad and I don’t want you to fail. Any ideas what I should do with you?’
‘Anything going on at home I should know about? Any reason you’re late most mornings?’
Briefly Ross felt the shame of his father leaving for the last time. It had been very sudden. He’d missed the bus, was hoping for a lift to school, sitting on a stack of blocks beside the garage, muttering under his breath in a range of emphasis and tones. ‘Dad, can I get a lift?’ or ‘Dad, the bus was early and I missed it?’ or even ‘Dad could you drop me at school on your way to work?’ And when his father appeared through the front door, he’d stood up, and prepared to begin. But the withering look on his father’s face erased the small speech and skewed his mouth into a frightened smile as he flattened out against the garage wall. And when his father climbed into the sleek black two-seater and Ross had willed his legs to move, they wouldn’t, so instead of running round the side of the car like any other boy would do, he’d stood like a dummy and watched the wheels bite the gravel and speed away. And that was the last time he’d seen him. Or heard from him or anything.
‘Well?’ Mr Leadbetter said.
‘Sometimes I miss the bus. Then get a lift. Makes me late sometimes.’
‘So that bus might be something you make an effort to catch. Got any idea of what you want to do when you leave school?’
‘Nuh.’ Ross shifted uneasily in his seat. The longest term thing he’d ever pictured was moving in with his father, how to get money to score, and, of course, Abi…
‘Maybe it’s time you did, because in no time at all you’ll be asked to choose your subjects for Standard Grade; you need to get a picture of what you want to do in life. What does your father do, Ross?’
‘He’s the manager at the Soroba Hotel.’
‘Hospitality. A very good career. Does that appeal to you at all?’
‘Not thought about it, Sir – maybe.’
The conversation ran along these lines, with the head teacher vividly describing some of his own less orthodox ambitions when he was a lad, until Ross, despite doing his best to remain numb, found his mind forming a daft picture of himself as Alan Sugar or a vet or a lawyer or the owner of a chain of hotels with a massive salary and a holiday home and at least one fast car…
‘But without qualifications, Ross,’ Mr Leadbetter continued after the long pause, ‘without keeping your focus and your emotions under control, you won’t have any of that, in fact…’ He leaned forward in his seat ‘In fact, I’d say that, with the way things are looking right now, you’re treading a very fine line, Ross. Because once you stop caring, once you actively start making the lives of your teachers hell, once that happens, it’s very easy to slip through the net. And some do. We do our best, but a lot of young people are leaving school without a lot going for them. I’m sure your father would feel very disappointed if you became one of those boys.’
Ross stared down between his knees.
‘Tell you what. We’re going to arrange a meeting. I’ll invite your parents and Mr Hyslop to it and we’ll talk things over. We’re only human, Ross, no one at this school wants you to fail, but we can’t do this without your co-operation. You are the hinge, so to speak, on which the door to your future depends. As I said, I’m know you’re a good lad at heart, and a bright one. But poor behaviour has consequences. Do we understand each other?’
Ross lifted his gaze briefly and found to his surprise that the head teacher’s face was softer than he remembered and a lot friendlier too. A painful lump gathered in his throat and he tried to clear it. ‘Yes, sir.’
And along with the lump came the beginnings of a hazy picture in his mind of his parents sitting in this office or another one just like it: his father was shaking the head teacher’s hand and smiling and wagging his head in tearful disbelief and approval…
‘Well, good. And because I’m a big softy I’m going to recommend that we don’t exclude you this time. However, I want you to do something for me – I want you,’ he said holding up a pamphlet, ‘I want you to take this booklet on careers and look through it, see if anything takes your fancy. And I want to talk again tomorrow. Okay? How does that sound?’
‘Good.’ Ross made eye contact for the first time. ‘Thank you.’
‘Good lad. In my opinion, there’s nothing like seeing yourself in the future to find yourself in the present. At least, it helped me when I was your age. Now, Ross, I believe Mr Walters is waiting for you. You’ll be wanting to apologise for your outburst won’t you, and complete the work you’ve missed in class?’ He smiled. ‘You can go now – unless there’s something else you’d like to say.’
Over the course of the last fifteen minutes Ross had forgotten. But now he remembered and stood unsteadily. He picked up the chair he’d been sitting on and threw it hard at the window.
‘Nothing else, no,’ he said.