The Tiny Coral Scar, by Alan Forsyth.
She was fully equipped and listened carefully to the safety instructions as her legs ventured ever so gently into the tropical waters, hints of seductive corals below. The water was alluringly tepid and she slid away from the launch, her facemask allowing a clear view below and beyond into this strange and daunting world.
The brochures had promised, “unsurpassed beauty and precious aqua-life.” But she was not so sure, just a little uncomfortable with this unknown world below the surface. She glanced back towards the catamaran, gaudy blues and yellows swirled to reveal its name, The Reef Discovery. Jenny was up for a discovery and agreed to this trip sans kids with her husband.
The world was different under water, still and terrifying. She had heard stories of so many huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ types who were stung by vicious sea creatures or swallowed by sharks. It wasn’t the living sea creatures that she should have been concerned about. For the meantime though, the water was pleasant, the mask snug and the flippers allowed her to stay buoyant and tolerate the experience.
“Keep e’m mean for two months!” Mrs Dunston blurted, punctuating her declaration with a raised glass.
The student teachers, now congregated at the Armadale Hotel for the start of term drinks were generally alarmed by this outburst. “Really?” questioned Mari.
“Yes, accept no crap from them, your job is to let them know who is the boss for the first two months, then you will be sweet for the rest of the school year.” she added, her glass held aloft in some bizarre salute.
Jenny had only accepted the offer of a drink to appear keen and like the others was not at all surprised but noticeably more disturbed by this statement. They observed her with trepidation, unwilling to challenge further.
Jenny had already experienced the wrath of Mrs Dunstan earlier in the day and was keen to keep her head down and stay out of her flight path for the duration of her in-service training, a challenging three weeks.
It was Jenny who discovered Dunstan’s blunt management strategy as applied to herself earlier in the day. Jenny found a seat at the scheduled time in Mrs Dunstan’s Year Nine Biology class, she smiled at the students around her table. This was her third observation of the day and she was enjoying learning from the teachers and interacting with the students. Noticing Jenny’s presence, and more particularly her smile, Mrs Dunstan inhaled, poised and struck, “Student teachers are to remain quiet in class and not engage with students.”
She continued, “Student teachers should not be sitting with students at all, they should be up the back of the class. Put simply, they are here to observe and should only observe.”
As Mrs Dunstan strode to the board at the front of the class, a young girl sitting next to Jenny turned to her, brushed her shoulder and whispered, “She is a fuckin bitch!” Jenny allowed the whisper to salve her a little, like some cool body lotion applied liberally at the end of a day at the beach.
There was only momentary relief, her cheeks were burning, her heart rate increasing and her mouth, unable to generate the requisite amount of saliva required to speak. She wanted to speak, to articulate how inappropriate and hurtful the statements were and explain at least to the students present how professional she really was. Instead, she stood, awkwardly scraping her chair on the wooden floor, before abruptly departing the classroom.
Jenny was what was commonly described as a mature age student. She returned to complete her Post Graduate qualification in education in order to follow a calling into teaching. Hitherto her experience of returning to education was stimulating, she was thoroughly engaged with university life and achieving fantastic results in her submissions and previous teacher training placements.
Jenny, having spent almost twenty years as an exceptional administrator including leadership roles in the corporate world was most adept at managing priorities and managing her commitments. She had developed high expectations of herself and her people and generally achieved them.
With her two boys soon to take their places in Senior School and a healthy wealth portfolio generated over the years, Jenny knew that this was the time to take the risk and shift to a vocation she had always been interested in. She was driven to teach. The legitimacy she felt, that empowered her throughout her Post Graduate Diploma of Education was imploding. Now she felt like an imposter, unable to simply prove how good she could be as a teacher.
Her discomfort started to form like a fist in her gut as she realised she was literally only a meter or so above the Great Barrier Reef. She had drifted on to a shallow part of the reef and the water whilst tepid earlier was cool and clamy. Despite her efforts to swim back towards the boat, the swell had stealthily placed her dangerously close to the reef, the coral edging closer. ‘Don’t touch the coral’, the dive master had declared earlier. If you get in trouble just raise your right hand and we will pick you up.”
Jenny attempted to keep her legs and flippers close to the surface and raised her right hand. Her flipper clearly brushed over the top of something hard below. It was as if the coral was intimidating her, challenging her like some bizarre arcade ride. She imagined razor sharp flowers set to lacerate her skin. Again she had tried to attract attention, this time shouting towards the boat. Fatigue and fear combined to muffle her cries. She felt helpless, exposed and unable to escape the situation that enveloped her now.
As a professional woman, she was appalled by the way she had been treated at the school today but she could not take the milk out of the tea, it was real, it had happened. Her helplessness had immobilized her like those little injections applied by dental technicians to numb your skin. Her husband, Barry would be home soon with the boys and she would value his counsel. In the meantime, she replayed the classroom experience as if on one of those cheap in house store cameras. No matter how many times she replayed it in her mind, it was confusing and deeply uncomfortable.
Yes, she had left the classroom after being so liberally ridiculed in front of the students. She had however remained at the school and attended two other lessons by different teachers scheduled later in the day. She worried though about the consequences of her walking out of Dunstan’s class. This was her final placement, her final point to prove before she could go out into the world a certified teacher. Had she just blown it.
The fear appeared more distant and less threatening as she attempted to analyse the problem as she would in her previous roles. She decided that she would request a conversation with Dunstan tomorrow to outline her concerns with the way she was treated, indicate how embarrassing it was for her and find a way forward in order to complete her in-service successfully.
“I have never felt so disempowered in my professional life,” she declared to her husband. Following a lengthy conversation they both agreed on her earlier strategy.
Jenny was a bit more re-assured when she arrived in the Staff Room, ready to sit in on a number of classes and request a meeting with Dunstan. It will be just fine, she told herself, she had managed much worse before. A number of other student teachers were gathered by the coffee machine, sharing stories from the day before and expectations from today. Matt was studying at the same University as Jenny. They had shared the odd coffee and conversation throughout the year, reflecting on the course and their aspirations as mature age students. Matt whispered to Jenny, “I have been warned by my supervisor not to have anything to do with you during my placement here,” said Matt carefully, “I have been advised to avoid you, I’m sorry, but I had to tell you this.”
“Be the water, not the rock,” her best friend Cassie had texted early in the morning. This and the declaration from Matt was featuring prominently in her thoughts as she entered the Principals Office. The Principal & Mrs Dunstan knowingly ignored her as they continued to deliberate on the venue for the Senior School Social.
“So young lady, please explain why you left Mrs Dunstan’s class yesterday.”
It was as if she was observing the conversation from a distance, her flippers now dragging on the coral reef, so close to her skin. After a moment of silence, the question was repeated, “Please explain” demanded the Principal. Jenny retreated into herself, like the day before her voice was culled by the rasping drought in her mouth. She had no control over the swell, it continued to draw her towards the centre of the shallow reef. The sand looked reassuring on the edges of the reef, if only she could reach those soft white pillows of sand, she would be fine.
She gushed out of the Principals Office, colliding with students, tumbling against the banks of lockers and falling heavily on to the black unforgiving bitumen of the playground, her blood staining the recently painted lines of the netball court.
Later that day her GP, Dr. Ferguson took her hand with compassion and said, ‘I recommend that you do not return to that school. I will give you a medical note explaining your absence. In the meantime you should report this bullying to staff at the University.”
As was the practice, Jenny phoned the school early in the morning advising that she would not be returning due to medical reasons and that she had a certificate from the Doctor for the school. Feeling relieved at this, she proceeded to write an email to her supervisor at the University explaining her situation and requesting what should she do next.
Dr. J.C Bucharat left her spacious office overlooking the courtyard of the university to join Jenny in the smaller conference room. She was carrying some paperwork and set this down on the coffee table. “Jenny, she said, getting straight to the point, I understand that there have been some problems with your last placement. Unfortunately it is the position of the University that unless we get a successful evaluation on all three of your placements, then you cannot graduate”.
Jenny was blindsided by this statement, she had expected that her appointment with the Assistant Dean of the School of Education would allow her to explain her situation and establish what to do next. She was unprepared to discover that she may not achieve her qualification.
“I don’t understand, she said, her heart increasing tempo and her voice catching, “I achieved the highest possible grade on two placements and was unable to attend the third due to medical reasons.” “Yes,” said the Assistant Dean, “but you have failed your third placement, I have the results here.”
Dr. Bucharat turned over an evaluation paper to face Jenny and read out a number of assessments indicating that she was not at a standard of suitability to teach. The assessments were farcical including, “She sends her lesson plans by email” and “she engages students inappropriately.”
Jenny stood slowly and requested some water, she was not going to be bullied again. When the water arrived, Jenny told her story as best as she could in her perturbed state. She left the office not knowing whether she would achieve her qualification or not.
Gasping now for air and stung twice by the coral, Jenny ripped of her facemask and snorkel. Her lungs were burning, her panic escalating just as a bright yellow dinghy came into view. She was hoisted out of danger, briefly catching her calf on the coral. Embarrassed, she grasped held her small wound, her salty blood trickling through her fingers as she was roughly transported back to the launch.
Later, sitting on the deck, examining the spot of blood emerging from soft bandage on her leg, she sipped on a smooth cold beer and looked down to see her husband deftly striking a course back to the launch. “Amazing”, he yelped, “what a discovery”. Indeed she thought, her goose bumps presenting themselves for judgement to the warm afternoon sun.
Alexa exuded a positive presence. Jenny was confident she would be able to help. Since the incident with the Assistant Dean she had been forced to take on an additional placement at a nearby school. Interestingly enough, her supervisor at this final placement had had a previous run in with Dunstan and made sure Jenny’s placement was a pleasant as possible. Not only was she assessed positively, she was given another high distinction, an assessment that matched her overall results.
Alexa articulated expressions like institutional bullying and a systemic breakdown in duty of care during her presentation to Jenny. With a strong legal background and a passion for advocacy, she was poised to make a case against the university for bullying and harassment and willing to fight by Jenny’s side.
There was no way the University could prevent her from becoming a fully-fledged teacher now. Meeting with the confident Alexa, reinforced her own confidence that she would achieve an apology and compensation from the University. Alexa was convinced that she had been bullied and arranged to go with her to see the Dean and outline her concerns and experience.
The morning of the meeting with the Dean, Jenny noticed when dressing the flimsy coral scar, now several years old. Usually oblivious to it, she smiled at its pearly white appearance and was intrigued by the slightly raised contours of this defining piece of coral surgery.
Meeting with the Dean was perfunctory. Alexa had advised her that this was likely. There was an apology and there was congratulations on her graduation and recent appointment as a teacher. Then in a few weeks’ time an envelope arrived from the Dean’s Office, the letter said very little and admitted nothing, yet the cheque, not that it was a large sum, was all the admission Jenny required.
Earlier that week, the Principal of the impressive school where she gained her first teaching appointment had beckoned a chat before school assembly. “I hear you are meeting with the Dean at the University this week. Congratulations on standing up for your beliefs, you do a great service to our profession.”
She had a choice in the moment. Her assorted groceries were progressing inevitably along the belt in Woolworths and there at the register barely a meter away was Mrs Dunstan. The briefest of glances was all it took for both women to know.
Jenny chose to breathe, she chose to elevate, and she chose only to learn from what had cornered her and substantially hurt in the past. Finally she chose to ignore the bully and focus on who she had become. She placed the last item from her trolley on the belt and moved deliberately forward to the checkout.