Classroom Lessons



Even with ten years experience, teaching demanded a lot of energy. Grade 10s most of all.

“Turn around, Henry, I’m handing out the test.”

Henry grinned, pushed his dark hair out of his eyes and turned back to face the front as I put the paper down on his desk. My period 5 Grade 10 class settled down to answer the test questions on The Chrysalids, the novel they were supposed to have read. Sun streamed in the window. We were having a week of unusually warm weather and the students had been restless. The silence was so peaceful the test was worth the time it would take to mark.

Henry finished first, as usual. He stretched and looked out at a crow squawking in a nearby tree. A more conscientious student might have re-read his answers but Henry was happy with his 74 – 78 % average. He should have been scoring 90%. He should have been in the academic stream. But he saw no reason to exert himself.

I liked Henry, his casual live and let live attitude. He talked too much but was amiable when reprimanded and I didn’t reprimand him often.

I marked the tests on the weekend, noticing that the class appeared to have done better than usual. The Chrysalids had been a good choice.

The weather was still warm on Monday. Many of my Period 5 students were back to T-shirts and summer clothes. I thought I had a new student until he turned and grinned at me. Henry was nearly unrecognizable.

“Henry – where’s – your hair?”

“Shaved it off, Miss.”

His gray scalp was hideous. His lumpy skull seemed too small for his height. He had been handsome – with hair. The kids grinned at my reaction. I stared, tried not to stare and ended up distracted, fumbling with the attendance.

“Here are your tests from last Thursday. Nearly all of you did well on the questions that were based on the first third to half of the book but some of you have obviously not read the rest. Bite the bullet. Get it done. Luigi, try making a list of the characters and identify them as you read. That way you’d be less likely to mix them up. You too, Maria. Henry, your mark should be much higher.”

He glanced up at me from the large red 79% scrawled at the top of the page.

We went over the answers and then talked about the picture on the book cover. Everyone had seen that the sketch showed two roosters fighting but very few had noticed that the rooster on top had two heads.

“Why has the artist done this? There are no roosters in the book. Henry, if you have an answer, tell all of us.” He shook his gray-skinned head and turned back to the front.


“No roosters, Miss, but Sophie has six toes.”

“Yeah, Anna, but Sophie isn’t winning any fights, is she?” said Luigi.

“It’s about change, Stupid,” Anna snapped.

“Don’t use that word,” I said automatically. “Henry, pay attention. Say more about change, Anna.”

“The adults are all stuck in the way they think things should be, like in the past. They’re trying to control everything. But you can’t.”

Henry contributed nothing to the discussion, to my annoyance. In the last fifteen minutes they started work on an assignment about six-toed Sophie’s importance in the novel. I was checking references of my own when I heard whispering. Henry was leaning toward Luigi.


“He’s just helping me, Miss. I asked him a question,” said Luigi, aggrieved.

Henry gave me a long considering look, as if I were a stranger. So did a couple of other kids. For a moment I wondered why; then I understood. My face burned. Henry’s behaviour was no different than it had ever been. Only his appearance had changed. My behaviour was different – because his shaved head made him look ugly. I dropped my eyes to my desk, feeling sick. I’d read studies on teachers’ biased treatment of good-looking students or fat students, or students of colour, but never believed I would be one of them.

The class began packing up and moving toward the door, anticipating the bell.

“Henry, what made you shave your head?” I asked as he passed by my desk.

“My dad was going on and on at me about my hair being too long. So I cut it.” He smiled with his eyes.

“What does he think of it now?”

The smile spread to the rest of his face. “He hates it.”

“I don’t think it’s your best look.”

“I know. But it’s worth it.” He slouched out. I looked after him. Maybe not having kids wasn’t such a disaster. Maybe teaching was enough.

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