Up Front by Emma Hart


Absence of Malice

It seems timely to make a confession, one that's no doubt going to provide hours of interesting conversation at our family Christmas. Mum, you owe the Ministry of Education thousands of dollars. I was a chronic bunker.

It all started when I was nine. There was something – ironically I can't now remember what – that I didn't want to do at school. Eventually it occurred to me that if I wasn't there, I wouldn't have to do it. Shaking with apprehension, I took my first trembling steps off the school grounds, high-tailing it all the way to the empty fields near my mother's house. There I made grass huts in the sun until the time came for me to appear at home.

I got clean away with it. I'm sure this was because I was so quiet and well-behaved that nobody noticed I wasn't there. From then until about fifth form, I successfully led a double life. From my teachers' point of view, I was a sensible, smart, obedient kid who tested well. In my own special reality, I was an Evil Mastermind, manipulating stupid adults with my Jedi Mind Tricks and gaming the system like a pro.

Despite not being there a lot, I was still doing well in school. Mostly I hung out at home when I bunked, my mother being a good solo parent and working. I never committed a crime while I was supposed to be at school. (I had to have a good long think about this, but the only criminal acts I can remember carrying out during daylight hours have 'under-age' in front of them, so clearly don't count.) Once I took the day off school to make my mother a birthday cake, something she still remembers with exasperated fondness. ("No, I went to school, really. Pixies did it.")

It wasn't even that my school experience was particularly Haywoodian. It wasn't that school was so easy that it bored me. It did bore me, but I was much more likely to skip subjects I was bad at, like almost all of sixth form physics. I was there for every biology class – tricky, given physics and biology were consecutive and adjacent, but I was an Evil Mastermind. (I was such an Evil Mastermind that a simple bag search would often have turned up vodka, cigarettes and condoms. But this is not the contraband you're looking for.)

No, what disengaged me from school in the end was its inability to treat me as a person. The system was massively unjust, where you could be suspended on someone's word, and have no opportunity to defend yourself. The fact that I was guilty a lot of the time was largely irrelevant. I could bluff them out simply because they knew they had no proof.

Finally, my form teacher had some kind of conniption fit. I was absent. She phoned my house, but couldn't get an answer. She started dragging my friends out of class and interrogating them as to my whereabouts. "I know she's bunking", she said, several times.

Bit of a shitter, wasn't it Janet, that I turned out to have glandular fever. And then my mother went and publicly pwned you at Parent-Teacher Evening and said she wouldn't be writing any more absence notes, on the grounds that I was old enough to be working and wouldn't have to bring Notes From My Mum if I took a sick day.

I think Janet had some issues with me. She was HOD English, and I was gifted, lazy and insolent. I vividly remember the comment she put on my sixth form report that finally drove me over the edge:

I would like to see her develop her skills in original writing

Really? Really? My English teacher wants me to have some way to develop my writing? Oh, if only she had some ability to provide it herself. If only there was something she could have done. When I thought about it, the last time we'd been asked to do any free creative writing in school was a poem in fourth form.

There's no testing in fourth form.

I'm sure some of you have noticed the dishonesty in my opening paragraph. My mother was never fined for my truancy. Kids like me aren't the focus. Our chronic truancy is okay: we still pass the tests. It's almost as if it's not really attendance that’s the problem.

Now I'm a mother, with two school-aged children. My son loves school. He does well academically, sportingly and socially. He’s never skipped a day in his life. I do wonder if there’s something wrong with him…

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