S is for Story

Part 1: Will 8B get revenge on the wicked Mrs Grun?

Once upon a time there was a cruel and heartless teacher called Mrs Grun. She taught in a pleasant school in the eastern suburbs and her students, a quiet, obedient class known as 8B, were modest, hard-working and well-mannered. Despite this, she was intent on making their lives a misery. They never had any fun in class, never went on any excursions and only rarely were allowed to visit the library. All this they could have borne without a murmur of complaint, but when Mrs Grun refused to let them go to the Year 8 Formal, the social event of the year, they were especially downcast.

Their predicament was made even more painful by the fact that Mrs Grun’s other class, 8U, a bunch of cashed-up bogans and rednecks who were coarse, vulgar and thoroughly unpleasant, had been told at once that they would be able to go to the ball. “Of course, my darlings,” Mrs Grun had said to them, cooing and smiling in her peculiarly repellent way, “no ball would be the same without you. I’ll be there in my turquoise and orange evening dress with shoulder pads and a bustle. I wear it every year. Perhaps we can have a photo together.”

When the students of 8B, however, begged to be allowed to go, Mrs Grun laughed unpleasantly. “You can’t go,” she said, and they could tell she was enjoying their distress and chagrin. “You have to stay at school and clean the quadrangle with old toothbrushes.”

“What?” they cried. “Why?”

“Because you are low, unworthy and undeserving,” Mrs Grun cried. “Because even if I were to let you go to the ball, you would have nothing to wear. You are all too poor, too ragged and too pitiful for words. Why, even your uniforms are threadbare. I daresay none of you have anything you could wear to such a special occasion, in any case.”

It was true. The students of 8B were all dreadfully poor. The allocations to classes always worked that way. The richest students were in 8U and the poorest in 8B. Most teachers were too kind to draw attention to this fact, but Mrs Grun was too nasty to overlook it. She mentioned the impoverished state of the 8B students at least five times every lesson. 

Episode 2 – Another episode in the heart-rending story of the hapless 8B’s struggles with the despicable Mrs Grun…

Amongst the students of 8B there was a girl called Tarlinka, who yearned more than any other to go to the ball. Although she was a wild child, with floating hair, a worn and fraying uniform and battered shoes, she could dance with startling grace and uncommon skill. Her comrades in 8B often spent their lunchtimes watching her as she pirouetted in the musty classrooms that were set aside for the poorer students.

“If only I could go to the ball,” Tarlinka would say to them, “I could try to win the prize for the best dancer. And if I did, I wouldn’t keep it for myself. I’d share it with all the kids in 8B. With that money we could buy uniforms and computers. I could even get some stationery so that we could use pens and paper instead of slates and chalk.”

“Why should you share it with us?” said her friends. “If you win that prize, you ought to keep it for yourself.”

“No way,” said Tarlinka. “I don’t want to be rich if my friends still have to be poor.”

Unfortunately, the foul Mrs Grun heard the tail-end of this discussion and laughed in her usual demeaning way. “That’s just a fanciful dream,” she snapped at Tarlinka. “You cannot save your friends from their shameful poverty, any more than you can save yourself. Now get out your slate and chalk and write this line ten times: I must not hope for a better future.”

Tarlinka sat quietly and did as she was told, but inside she seethed with anger and determination. I am going to that ball, she thought. Right now she might have to sit still, but one day she would soar across the ballroom floor.

Part 3 – Better than a Fairy Godmother

Although Tarlinka was poor, with shabby clothes and limited life options, she was not alone. She was the centre of a small and devoted group of friends. When they saw Mrs Grun scorning their friend’s ambitions and gloating over her sadness, they were gripped by a fierce resolve. Inside the minds of Lachlan, Namit, Anmol and Tina there formed at that moment a single purpose, unspoken but no less powerful for all that: somehow they would find shoes for Tarlinka’s flying feet and a silky, glamorous dress that would get her past any bouncer at any ballroom entrance in the land.

Secretly, therefore, they laid their plans. On the next two weekends they met at Lachlan’s house, where they used his mother’s industrial-strength sewing machine to rustle up an outfit that would make Mrs Grun’s hideous bustle in turquoise and orange look like a lumpy beach ball. Since his mother was a seamstress who earned a meagre wage for her long hours of grinding toil, Lachlan had learned early in life how to thread a machine and how to make use of every scrap of material available. While he sewed, the other three students worked on their parts of the outfit. Anmol designed a simple tiara. Namit and Tina created satin ballet slippers, sewing the soles with tiny, uneven stitches. Their homework suffered and they had to endure the derisive comments of Mrs Grun on their shoddy essays, but on the day before the Year 8 Formal everything was ready.

Part 4 – Tarlinka tempts fate

The day of the ball dawned fair and bright.

The feral students of 8U were more than usually bumptious, flashing their i-Phones in the faces of the poorer students and boasting about the pink limousines that would carry them to the ball venue.

The four students of 8B, who had worked so selflessly to secure the destiny of their friend, kept their secret quiet. Any comments, they knew, would only bring more mockery and taunts from the detestable students of 8U. Even Tarlinka did not know of their labours on her behalf. At lunchtime, they had agreed, in that tiny, cupboard-like change room set aside for the seriously poverty-stricken, they would show her their wondrous achievement.

To their horror Tarlinka, in the English class just before lunch, decided to take her fate into her own hands. She bravely approached the obnoxious Ms Grun, who was sitting at the front desk writing comments on their essays. Most of her comments read like this:

  • You are an idiot – and don’t let your mother tell you anything different.
  • Your mind is as frayed as your clothing.
  • Go to the bottom of the class where you belong.

Tarlinka was pale and fearful, but she had clearly composed herself for this ordeal. “Excuse me, Mrs Grun,” she murmured.

“What do you want?” barked Mrs Grun.

“Mrs Grun, I – I want to be allowed to go to the ball,” said Tarlinka.

Lachlan, Tina, Namit and Anmol groaned in their seats. They had not foreseen that Tarlinka would throw herself on the mercy of the merciless. They exchanged frantic glances.

Mrs Grun stood up. She stared at Tarlinka as if she were a sticky lump of dog droppings on a favourite shoe. The class became deathly still, watching the large, hulking woman as she towered over the small, slender girl. It was a sight to make the bravest heart quake.

Part 5 – The girls fight back

Drawing herself up to her full height, Mrs Grun glared down at the young girl who stood before her, so quietly, so humbly and yet so bravely requesting entry to the ball. “You?” she spat, spraying Tarlinka with her bile. “You go to the ball?”

“Yes,” replied Tarlinka quietly. “I have as much right as the students of 8U. So do we all.”

The walls of the musty, shabby old classroom seemed almost to tremble around them. The other students of 8B sighed as one, and their breaths in that cold, cheerless place were like fog on a winter morning. Mrs Grun was snorting and snuffling like a dragon. “You have no rights!” she bawled into Tarlinka’s face. “You are a good-for-nothing! You are a deplorable dish-mop! I would not allow your feet to sully the dance floor!”

Tina stood up. Directing a baleful look at the teacher, she walked across the room and took Tarlinka’s hand. Mrs Grun, clearly buoyed by her own outburst, returned to writing blistering comments on the students’ essays.

Gently Tina led Tarlinka back to her seat. “Meet us in the mini change room,” she said as the bell went. “Trust me. You are going to that ball.”

Part 6 – Dancing up a Storm

“Who is that beautiful girl?” A hundred voices asked the same question.

The students at the Year 8 Ball turned as one to look as a tall, slender figure in a shining satin dress shimmered into the ballroom. There was a murmur, then a buzz. They crowded around this stunning stranger.

The boys tried to pluck up the courage to ask her to dance. The girls would have been jealous, yet somehow it was impossible to feel any emotion but awe. For this lithe and lissom dancer in the fine satin dancing shoes and glimmering dress shone in the throng of gyrating students. The judges scarcely looked at the other contestants.

Just before midnight, Tarlinka won the dancing prize.

She received it from a fawning Mrs Grun, whose billowing orange and turquoise dress drew titters from the watching audience.

Then Tarlinka changed out of her glittering costume and stood before them in her ragged uniform, her eyes bright and proud, her face resolute and her head held high. Mrs Grun and the students of 8U, still wearing their garish, tasteless outfits, stared at her in shocked recognition.

“I promise to give this prize to my friends and comrades of 8B,” said Tarlinka. “Every student should have been allowed to come to the ball.” Pausing, she looked steadily at Mrs Grun, who quailed under her steely gaze, seemingly cowed by the occasion and by the sheer force of Tarlinka’s personality. Tarlinka continued implacably, her voice reverberating to every part of the ballroom: “Every student should be able to write on paper, wear decent uniforms and work in clean classrooms with mould-free carpets and equipment like computers. Every student should be treated equally and fairly.”

The students of 8U, for whom equality and justice were novel concepts, were as inspired by Tarlinka’s words as they were dazzled by her beauty, her passion and her daring. They cheered, staring at her as if they were seeing a young prophet in their midst.

Holding her prize and cheque and moving with the light, supple ease of the born dancer, Tarlinka marched through the crowd, which parted as she walked, like the crazed observers at the Tour de France who part as the riders strive for the mountain peak.

Tarlinka had danced to the peak. The Year 8 Ball would never be the same again.

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Epilogue

♥Just as she had promised, Tarlinka used her prize to buy new carpet and computers for 8B’s once-mouldy classroom.

♥The dancing school that gave her a scholarship after her performance at the ball also sponsored her whole class, allowing them to buy enough stationery and schoolbooks to get them through school and university.

♥Mrs Grun resigned in disgrace and was never seen again.

♥Lachlan’s mother, instead of being exploited in a sweatshop, took over the school uniform shop and turned it into a lucrative business. From that moment on, 8B always had the crispest, freshest uniforms in the school, as well as the shiniest shoes.

♥Tina grew up to be a lawyer who did pro bono work for the poor and eventually entered parliament as an independent.

♥Namit and Anmol both went to university and attended numerous protest marches together, but never married.

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