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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life Stories

Hanging By A Thread
David Calleja
“School is prison for the mind”; these were the words inscribed in blue ink across Col’s English exercise book in 1988. He seemed destined to be dragged through high school labelled a nerd.


There are no auditions when it comes to determining popularity level in high school. Verdicts are handed down arbitrarily by bullies, the beautiful but not necessarily attractive people, sports jocks and anybody with more friends than Col. Nerds existed for two functions; to provide test answers at gunpoint for illiterate school tough guys who were incapable of putting one and one together, or as replacement punching bags. Maybe mathematics questions should have been phrased in the following fashion to give unintelligent thugs a fighting chance in the classroom:
Johnny beat up three students during his lunchtime hour on Tuesday. He threw two jabs and a right hook at each student. How many punches did Johnny throw overall?

Col cannot remember the exact day and date when he endured the latest episode of hell; only that he was a Year 9 student. He was running late for English class. If the coordinator saw him heading towards the building, there would be trouble, possibly after-school detention. His eyes are bleary from crying and lack of sleep. Sweat is dripping down his forehead and arms. Col’s mind has been preoccupied with dreams about getting bashed the day before. It was the latest in a series of nightmares, each over something menial. If not for being on the grounds of a Catholic school, he would have cursed God for not blessing him with the ability to fight, run, swim or play a musical instrument, something that would grant him immunity from a confrontation. Demonstrating academic excellence in class or showing diligence with homework did not impress the bullies unless they could personally profit from it.
Col ran up the stairs two at a time, puffing and panting at the end before entering into a brisk walk. Ms. Swanley, the English teacher, scolded him the moment he entered the classroom, declaring that his tardiness showed a lack of respect to everyone who made it on time. If only she knew some of these angels she harped on about were amongst the worst bullies Col faced, responsible for his fear of turning up.
“Why are you late, Col?” she yelled.
He apologised meekly, but she remained unsatisfied with the response, scowling profusely to emphasise her disgust.
“What time is it now, Col?”
Col looked at the clocked on the wall and answered nervously. “11.40.” He hated being put on the spot.
“What time does class start?”
“So how late are you?”
“Miss, is this Maths or English?”

Groans could be heard from around the class, a sign of disapproval at his attempted humour or sarcasm, whatever his answer was supposed to be. ‘If one of the more popular students in class said the same thing, there would be hoots of laughter,’ Col mumbled to himself.
“Thank you for your sarcasm, Col,” Miss Swanley said. “Maybe you would like to find a seat and open your book to page 45.You can start reading for us.”

There was an empty seat in the back corner of the classroom, but to get there Col would have to squeeze through a maze of desks and avoid the vultures eyeing him off. Outstretched legs accidentally tried to trip him up as he squeezed his way through to the corner.  Col heard a voice say, “we’ll get you after class, freak.” The safety of the desk with his name on it seemed distant, for every step felt like walking a mile in the desert.

Col opened the book and started babbling on about some text that he did not know or care about. Incessant distractions such as coughs, cat-calls and the odd paper missile or eraser fragment led him to stammer through a couple of paragraphs. Nothing actually hit Col, but the insecurity of being struck by something was enough to make him stop mid-sentence a few times. Then his mind began to wander; Last week in woodwork class, two guys grabbed Col’s arms and placed in his hands in the vice, tightening the bar as a third guy punched Col in the stomach, before submitting him to a painful arm lock and shouted, “I now declare you a nerd for life.” Memories like these were drowning Col in a pool of misery, rotting away his brain and desire to try hard in school.
Switching back to the book, Col hit a word which caused him to stutter - “ca…cata…catastrow,” he said before giving up. His brain was paralysed because of last week’s woodwork class moment.
“Catas-trophe, Col. Catastrophe,” Ms. Swanley said. Her correction provided the queue for collective laughter from the entire class. “When you’re ready, everyone,” she screeched in an attempt to regain control of the class. Ms. Swanley called on somebody else to take over, ending Col’s public humiliation.

For a few moments, Col had been left alone by everyone. Such moments were rare; it was like a stay of execution. It was time for him to take advantage of this lull. He pulled out his diary, a journal for recording odd thoughts and simple pictures. Col was not a great illustrator; he drew stick figures; a macabre comic strip of the schoolyard as an urban battlefield. There were days where Col depicted himself as a larger figure carrying a weapon, getting even with the teenagers who tormented him. This was the closest to revenge that he could realistically get. Each picture was accompanied by commentary and divided into chapters. Although the journal had no title, Col was already mapping out a vision beyond the realms of a pictorial account of his school world. He giggled to himself at the thought of adapting the show for live stage. Bullied – The Musical, the posters would read, with a cast of hundreds of unfortunate souls in drab-coloured and ill-fitting uniforms hounded every school day. The voiceless would receive the plaudits, the critics pelted with garbage. Then a moment of inspiration entered Col’s head and he wanted to record this historic entry.

Col started to write down the words “School is prison” before his diary was unexpectedly yanked away by somebody sitting in front. Col lunged desperately to try and get it back but in the process tilted his desk. It crashed into the chair directly in front of him before hitting the ground. Naturally enough, it caught everybody’s attention, including that of Ms. Swanley.
“Boys, get out! Go to the coordinator’s office!” Ms. Swanley yelled. Her face looked as if it would implode.

Both Col and the other student, whose name escaped him, walked out of the room. A rough voice hissed “you’re dead” in Col’s direction as he walked past, waiting for the instigator to disappear from view down the stairs.  As Col dragged his feet along the carpet, he suspected that he was being stalked. The snipers were following him like ghosts, ready to strike at a vulnerable moment. He tried to think of something else, anything would have done. ‘School is a prison for the brain’ – that would make a great title for my journal’, Col thought to himself. He longed for some water at the taps just near the staircase. His heart was racing, not just because of what happened, but at the thought of explaining the whole situation to the coordinator. He took a long sip of water and braced himself for a descent into hell.

Suddenly, Col was tackled from behind and carried by his arms and legs. Looking ahead, he could see that he was being taken towards the concrete barrier, the last step before being thrown over a flight of stairs. Screaming for help was out of the question, for he would be either unconscious or dead by the time any assistance arrived. Col’s body went limp as his legs dropped over the barrier, hit a pole and then dangled in mid-air. He felt like jelly, ready to throw up. Clinging to the barrier in desperation as sweat started to run down his face and arms, he struggled to look up. Peering over the barrier were three smiling faces - Les, Ren and Biff. Les, the unofficial leader, was a tall gangly guy with the charm of a snake. His sidekick Ren rarely spoke, but it always seemed to be when his superior told him to. Biff was an obese baby-faced assassin with a grin seemingly as wide as his waistline.

“G’day Col, I hope you’re well,” Les said sarcastically, a huge grin beaming across his face. “Just hanging around?” Ren and Biff, void of adding anything comprehensible, simply laughed and smiled. Col began flapping his legs about in the same manner a trout wriggled after being caught by a fisherman. He was ten metres from a sickening fall. Beneath him was a sea of brown tiling, and it appeared closer when Col’s hands started to lose grip.

Biff placed one boot menacingly close to Col’s left-hand, looked down upon him and grinned before going through the motions of spitting without discharging anything from his mouth. From the look on his face, it brought him a great deal of satisfaction. Anything could happen from here. The three tormentors, as Col called them, could play a game of This Little Piggy, removing his fingers one by one. Or they could stomp on his hands. Instead, the three tormentors raised their feet over the concrete barrier and went through the motions of standing on Col’s hands, only to pull out at the last second. For nearly one minute, this cat-and-mouse game went on. Col wished that they would just hurry up and get it over with, into medical care. The only question was whether it would be for physical or psychological purposes. Here he was, a human piñata dangling, waiting to be chopped down. But the problems would not end there.

As part of the recovery process, Col would have to disclose full details, thus breaching the unofficial schoolyard code; thou shall not name names. The penalty for breaking this law would most likely be daily beatings.  Col would have to lie. Then the interrogations would begin; parents, teachers, the year level coordinator, the Vice-Principal and Principal. They would all conduct a witch hunt for the culprits. Col could not win. He was hanging by a thread and would have to take the fall – metaphorically or literally. All he wanted was for this scenario to end.

And so it did. The three tormentors whose names Col did not want to think of anymore got bored with watching him dangle over hell. He was granted clemency. In an act of evil faith, Les, Ren and Biff lifted up a helpless Col up over the barrier, brushed down his jumper and patted him on the back the same way a sports coach would congratulate a champion athlete.
“Remember Col,” Les said. “Nothing happened, OK?”

With a signature cunning smile, both Les and his sidekicks faced the staircase and walked down the steps, laughing hysterically as if the whole matter was a joke. For thirty seconds, Col stood silently, trying to make sense of what just happened and wondering if it was real or a very bad dream. The sweat beads cascading down his back, chest and arms bore testimony to a brush with death, or at least Col thought at the time.

Although there were officially three or four hours of school time left, Col had consciously decided to switch off for the rest of the afternoon. His brain and soul were effectively on strike, unwilling or unable to absorb any new concepts or instructions. Beatings, lectures, they were all the same. Col simply could not take his mind away from why he had been singled out. How would he cope with this? Where would he draw the line? Col felt overwhelmed. Deep down, he longed to live out the fantasy out of his journal and become the muscle-bound character depicted in his journal, striking back brutally. Realistically, however, the bullies had kidnapped his dignity and pride, leaving Col with no other recourse but to simply put his head down and get through the day. For Col seemed destined to serve out his remaining school days on the frontline as a demoralised soldier with other nerds, fighting off wave after wave of bullies on the school ground, with no sign of a ceasefire in sight.

Col clenched his hands into a fist and punched the air before marching down the stairs to face the wrath of authority. The spineless revolution had begun.

© David Calleja March 2011

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