Past Due by Kendall Defoe

There was a problem in the room and no one wanted to know about it. The usual students were causing the same problems and the others were entertained. But no one could put a definite date to this particular problem; not this time. A plan to have “special needs” students in the class was passed by the school board and everyone agreed with the plan. They were put in regular classes and began to be accepted by the other children. This worked quite well, until the students began to take classes on language and sentence construction from some of the newer teachers. The phrase “Miss Arden is a fat pig” was soon heard repeatedly in the hallways, classrooms and bathrooms on both floors of the school and became a real embarrassment for the organizers of this particular social project. The principal asked the vice-principal to find out what happened; an assembly was called so that every grade could find out what happened. They were all scolded equally in the gymnasium and the principal, vice-principal, and minders, all wanted to know who would do such a thing. The voices echoed through the rafters and the overhanging lights, and the murmur through the room was quickly stopped by other teachers. A few faces in the crowd cracked when the principal repeated the line that needed to be discussed; certain students were taken out of the gym while trying to hold on to their laughter; this talk took up most of the assembly and no one was blamed or criticized for the incident; they left for their classes.

No date on this problem for Jerome. He first heard the line when leaving for recess had someone said it in the crush of students at the main doors. All laughed and Jerome tried not to join in. He could not share with his mother his desire to leave the school, especially in his final year; high school was coming, and he would probably see the same faces again, all in different levels, at any of the local schools to which he applied this year. He knew them from his neighbourhood, too, and had to live with them after the complaints and promises of punishment.

The same group… The thought hurt his head as he sat in the library, during an open period with a few other kids; the assembly was over and the teachers, principal, vice-principal, and minders, had once again reminded them of the price they were paying for all of their “nonsense and immaturity” (we are immature, thought Jerome; what did they expect?). Three school trips to an art museum, gallery, and a matinee performance of a Shakespeare play, were cancelled because of “certain disruptive elements” in his grade level (did they really have to talk like that?).

He lived with those “elements,” he knew them well; they told the best jokes at recess, lunch, and after school; they made any kind of noise or distraction they could when backs were turned; they played road hockey hard on weekends, and they wondered aloud if Jerome and some of the people in this library session read dictionaries and textbooks all day long. They were not asking if he had ever kissed a girl or seen a woman naked yet (done and done), and he had no problem working around them. They were easy to avoid when he had to avoid, and to amuse when they needed a laugh at someone else’s pain. It was Miss Arden that worried him.

She was not at the assembly that day (a substitute covered for her just as the slur became common knowledge at the school). Jerome felt lucky; there was nothing worse for a student like him to be popular with teachers like her. She put him in an advanced group even though he did not fare well in two specific courses: math and art; all he needed was “a good and steady push” to understand the material. There was the other problem of whom she put in charge of the class or asked to deliver messages to the other rooms (why was it always his turn?). Some of those “elements” were paying too much attention to him as he got up to deliver another document, or took out his notebook to keep a list of troublemakers when she left. Jerome was glad she was not at the assembly.

It was Friday and everyone was talking in class. Miss Arden was not in yet, but they all knew that she was going to talk about what happened. A few kids looked at Jerome and asked him if he knew what was happening. He shrugged them off and looked at his desk, a very strange kind of feeling in the room. Yes, they were talking; they were also looking at the clock. Ten minutes after the hour and no teacher. Even the usual “elements” were paying attention to this and eventually settled down. The ticking of the clock soon became louder than anyone could remember it being in that room. The chalkboard was completely clean; Miss Arden’s desk was also clear.

And then they heard footsteps in the hallway.


It was an interesting start: Jerome was not called; none of the “elements” were called. At least he had the chance to see things as they were about to happen. A girl named Susan jerked her head toward the door when Miss Arden called her by her full name. Everyone watched her get up, close her binder, and walk to the door as she played with a bracelet on her left wrist. There was no eye contact with anyone in the room. Miss Arden simply turned left in the hallway and her student followed.

Jerome made a quick study of the school in his head. They had turned left. That meant she was going to be taking Susan to either the home economics room or the art studio. Probably the art studio. There was food in the home ec room, and he did not think that the teacher would want to have any sort of temptations around. No one could hear any voices in the hallway. The clock kept ticking.

It was a good lesson. For the first time, the other kids saw fear in the faces of the ones who had probably started all this. They were the kids who had pretended not to care; the ones who told all those jokes and played rough on the street and schoolyard; the ones who started all of this. Jerome felt his face get warm. He liked Susan. Well, he didn't really know her that well; she was often by herself at recess and walked home for lunch. He knew that she played volleyball, but not much else about her hobbies. She lived pretty close to his place but he never saw her with the other kids in the neighbourhood. And by the time she came back, he wondered if he would see her in high school.

Susan walked in, her head down; she wasn't playing with her bracelet, and everyone watched as she walked up to a particular “element,” and told him the teacher wanted to speak to him. She walked back to her seat, sat, and stared at her desk—with not a word to anyone else, Jerome thought. He watched. The one they had been told to avoid hesitated, grinned and shrugged, then he stood up, kicked his chair into the desk, and stomped out of the room. He didn't even ask which room Miss Arden was in; and then it was quiet again, just the clock ticking on the wall. Jerome wanted to tear it down and kick it down the hallway; he could not even pretend to be reading any of the books in his desk. The minutes were things he could hear passing him by. And then they all heard it: A loud crash came from down the hallway, it sounded like a garbage can dropped on the ground, and some of his classmates jumped, which made others laugh. They were all waiting for this to be over but also glad not to have another speech. They were being taken out individually, and returned; Jerome even smiled as he looked through his class notes. Jokes were made, more laughter in the room; it really was a wonderful feeling to be in a room without a teacher; they were all in charge, thought Jerome, not just he, the teacher’s unwilling pet. And they were beginning to enjoy themselves when the second kid came back. If Jerome thought about it, the face he brought back to the room was one of pride. It was an ugly smile; the face of someone who succeeded in doing something wrong that felt very right. And they all watched him go to his seat, lean back, and yell out another name. Jerome closed his notebook, and waited for the sound of the clock.

It went on for another five students. They all tried to get information out of the ones who came back, but they refused to talk. Jerome thought, he should speak to Susan But she was becoming quite popular with a group of girls who wanted to protect themselves. She was taken. Then he thought about Mike, a boy in his row, who played in net whenever there was a road hockey game,—but he was not talking to anyone. He sat there, looked at the clock occasionally; he had been the last out and Jerome thought he would cry (an unfortunate event that never happened). Mike closed himself off from the others; so no chance there to talk about and learn what to expect.

There was another something Jerome remarked after the fourth student returned (another “element”): not all of the students being called into the other room were the bad ones (not Susan and Mike); they were mixed and almost paired up the bad to the good. It made some kind of sense to Jerome, but he could see what it was doing to all of them. Susan became quite popular; Mike, hoping for recess, and the “elements,” having their fun.—Yes, the “elements.”—They had a group here and they were not happy; Jerome guessed they were waiting for the last called to come back in and talk (a fat kid who would often trip kids as they ran to get into line for the morning bell; also dangerous for road hockey players who got the ball passed him and thought he was too fat to run). Now they were making gestures (pointing, jabbing pens, raising fists), hitting desks and speaking too loudly about what they were going to do. Strange but Jerome did not feel nervous, and knew why: Miss Arden was a smarter woman than he had guessed; the words “divide” and “conquer” came from a comic book he liked to read, and it was clear that his teacher knew what those words meant. She was playing them; all of them. . .

Five students. . .Jerome felt his face grow warm. The students were not paying attention to him now, but he was thinking about them; all of them. A girl he did not know was almost in tears; the tough guys were not that tough (they had stopped speaking and sat noiselessly). And there was another student in the next room who was going to come back, head back to his seat, call out another name. Yes, his face was warm. Jerome was angry.

Five students. . .They did hear the student walking down the hall, but the tension in the room was something different; the ones called not bothering to look up, the rest of the room staring straight at the door as the boy sent down walked back in, not even appearing startled when he saw their waiting faces. And he did something that none of the other ones called did: walked up to the next student and, without saying a word, touched him on the shoulder and then returned to his desk. This next student got up and left the room, some of the class was shocked by this choice; but the student, now sitting back at his desk, would not talk. He had already been to see Miss Arden.


Jerome walked into the art room, the door to the home economics room had been locked and he could see sunlight inside the window: a small panel of natural light. He wanted to walk in there, but could see that the room to the art studio was wide open.

Why did he hate this room so much—a studio with some of the students' art on the walls and tables—which had nothing to do with an inability to draw or paint—no, thought Jerome, not that: he liked books and that was fine—what rankled him was how dangerous was the room for a building hemmed in with young and often very active kids: the tables, thick-topped wooden slabs; vices attached to each on the same sharp corner, and squared metal pipe legs fixing them to the floor. The students must sit on stools that Jerome was too short to really be comfortable with for a full class. There were chalkboards, a kiln (only used once for a class project), a spare room in the back, for the art teacher (not in today, Jerome thought), and that was all. Except for Miss Arden, standing in front of the main chalkboard at the far side of the room, beside a stool; she did not look up as Jerome enter the room and stood by the door.

She was finishing a small cup of yogurt with a white plastic spoon; Jerome wanted to take a seat but did not dare even touch a stool. Another clock was ticking about his head. Miss Arden put down the cup and spoon and cleared her throat. And without a look to acknowledge he was in the room, spoke to him.

“Everyone else has talked, so you may as well tell me what you know.”

Not even a look or a gesture to notice he was there. Jerome was now glad that she was not looking at him: there was a pressure in the room and he found it difficult to find his breath; did she do this with all of the other students who came in? He needed a stool and sat very close to the door.

“Tell you what?”

Without a glance (eyes still down), Miss Arden spoke once again.


It was growing in him, a feeling he had not cared to acknowledge. He looked back at the clock (nearly 11 o’clock); out the window a beautiful day. He could hear some people in the hallway.


Miss Arden looked up.

“I simply do not like you, Miss Arden.”

“What did you say?”

“I don’t like you.” He felt free to smile and rested his arms on the table top. “And I don’t like this.”

There was real surprise in Miss Arden’s face. Her mouth was stuck on words that she never thought she would say to this particular student.

“Jerome, you…”

“It’s a pretty bad thing to do. You are making us tell on each other because of something one student said. That is just wrong.”

He could not stop now.

“I did not tell the students you put in our class to say anything. The people in our group who might have said it are the ones you should talk to, not the ones you know are good. This is just. . .shit.”

Miss Arden, a woman who wanted a position on the city’s board of education; who chaired meetings between schools every other month; had managed to lose twenty difficult pounds over two summers; could not think of a thing to say to this boy who was her best behaved student.

“Now, I think that I should go back and see if Susan is still crying.”


“Which one do you want to speak to next?”

Jerome had not noticed the clipboard on the table in front of her; Miss Arden slowly went to her list and looked at the names.


“Okay.” Jerome walked out, back to the classroom; smiled as everyone stared and then he shut door. They waited for another name, but Jerome did not want to talk about this. He had a lot to tell them before the day ended.

Writer/Reader/Poet/Dreamer... Kendall is a college instructor, experimenter with the written word, and someone who thinks that books are worth saving. (Also: librarians and snail mail—damn you, Canada Post and certain school boards!) I just hope that someone gets a laugh and enjoys my work...