He never felt like he spent long enough being Tom.
He was Tom when the alarm went off, and Tom as he showered and dressed. He was a bit less Tom as he alternated bites of toast with gulps of tea while he gathered papers into a briefcase and tied his tie. As soon as the jacket went on, he could feel the last vestiges of Tom slipping away and by the time he parked his car he was almost entirely Mr. Gunnerson. The Deputy Head. The man the kids referred to as “Goon-erson” when they felt like being polite.
He got to be Tom for a few precious hours at home each week, when he could share a glass of wine with the wife he seemed to see less of each year. The weekends always seemed full of other people; friends, family, obligations to others. Somewhere in all of that the young couple they were had been replaced by two slower moving, tireder people who drank wine to relax and who sometimes hardly laughed at all.
Mr. Gunnerson, on the other hand, had a small village to run. A very odd village, with only a small proportion of adults and hundreds of children. There were supplies to arrange, law and order to maintain, light and warmth to provide, and politics to navigate, and that was just internally. That was before you considered the kids. That was before you considered the parents.
This morning he couldn’t avoid the staff room. There were things to pick up from his pigeonhole, so meeting the rest of the staff was unavoidable. The staff room was tucked away, in a part of the building dedicated to administration that the kids seldom chose to visit. It was up a short flight of stairs, and the door resisted being pushed so you had to really want to get in. Every time he did, the same thing happened. Just like this morning.
The door swung open as reluctantly as possible and after a moment to clock the newcomer, the conversation died, then after only a moment it resumed. But now it had a different cadence and rhythm. Now it was the low hubbub of people being professional instead of the scatter-clatter of private lives and terrible weekends. Mr. Gunnerson walked as quickly as he could to his pigeonhole, but not quickly enough. A single stride took him within range of Ms. Appleby, who rose to greet him. Ms. Appleby had been a teacher for three years, but already her face bore the lines of perpetual worry common to a much older teacher. Three years ago she’d been a willowy brunette with a natural affinity for the sciences and a knack for creating rapport. Now she seemed to be all joints with very little body between them. There was a kind of hunger in her eyes as she uncoiled to meet him, holding out a stack of papers.
“Mr. Gunnerson, I wonder if you might look these over?”
It would have been so much easier to do as his father might have, to play the martinet and snap. To bustle, and redirect her to her Subject Head. He knew what the papers were. He took them anyway, leafing through them with as much economy as he could. He paused, for the sake of it, apparently scrutinising a detail. He handed them back.
“Your session plans are fine, Cathy. As usual, you’re doing a fine job of differentiating and an excellent job of including the core skills. Is there anything else?”
“I…no no no, thank you” she said, coiling down into her chair. The hunger hadn’t left her eyes, but it was enough of a fix for now. The session plans, detailing every aspect of her lessons for that week, were the same as for the three previous years. She hadn’t needed to change more than a dozen words in that time. He made for the pigeonhole, only to be caught at the last moment by a Hindenberg of paisley and Patchouli oil.
“Have you taken my proposal to the Head?”
Symphonia Henderson was one of the Old School, still teaching despite everything. A relic from a perhaps more enlightened era, fighting a hopeless rearguard action against all things governmental.
“Symphonia, you and I both know that the Head studied International Communications at some wretched Midlands redbrick. He’s never going to allow you to teach the Philosophy of Music to years 12 and 13.”
“More’s the pity,” she snapped back. “We could do with getting some critical thinking into their heads.”
“As addressed by the GCSE curriculum, Symphonia.”
“And completely forgotten by year 12, Steven.”
He paused. She never got it right.
“Steven is my Dad, Symphonia. I’m Tom. If that’s a problem for you, I can only suggest that you call me Deputy Head.” He regretted it as soon as he’d said it but the words were out and gone. Her pale blue eyes became diamond hard. You didn’t pull rank on a teacher this senior.
“I shall keep that in mind, Deputy Head,” she said, and put just enough bile into the title to make it rhyme with “complete wanker”. He sighed, retrieved his documents and all but fled to his office.
From his office window, he could see out across what everyone persisted in referring to as the “playground”. Technically, it was a netball and sometimes basketball court. It could also be a tennis court, although bitter experience had taught the staff that tennis played on asphalt could only ever lead to unpredictable bounces and broken windows. During break times, the playground thronged with children and now, in the last ten minutes before school opening for the day, it was at its most populous. He paid the children scant regard, in case he saw something he’d need to intervene in. There would be enough of that later. For now he was content to let the social tides of school ebb and flow around him. Out there, dozens of creative variations of school uniform were being altered and amended so they stayed cool but were just inside school uniform codes. Girls measured skirt length. Boys retied ties. The cooler kids held court, the various sporting tribes gathered to talk over the matches of the night before and the geeks, nerds, and science dorks coagulated in their strange corners to have arcane conversations about their consuming passions. Only one spot of colour caught his eye. One dark patch of jetsam, bobbing between the groups and joining none. A flash of purple confirmed it: Evans. Mr. Gunnerson sighed. Evans always seemed to be alone.
The bell went. The Brownian swirl of kids drained into the school building, and noise came with them. Mr. Gunnerson looked at his list of appointments and smiled a mirthless little smile. His first meeting of the day was with the form teacher of 3C, to discuss Evans.
Mrs. Kilburn sat in the orange plastic chair opposite him and fidgeted. It wasn’t a comfortable chair. There had been a rather nice visitor’s chair and then a Year Nine pupil had carved the cushioning off it with a flick knife while Mr. Gunnerson was in the admin office next door calling the kid’s parents. It had never been replaced. So Mrs. Kilburn fidgeted. Her dark brown hair was pulled away from her face, giving her a slightly surprised expression. She was wearing the standard teaching uniform of navy trousers and a floral shirt covered with a cardigan the same shade as the trousers. It was a uniform a lot of teachers arrived at when they realized the kids would routinely savage the way they dressed. Mr. Gunnerson tried to look sympathetic. For one thing, she was the only teacher in the school with a worse nickname than his. Some bright spark had taken one look at her last name and rechristened her “Mrs. Stillborn”, which led to regular rounds of awkward questions from pupils and parents alike as each new intake aged up through the school and met her for the first time.
“Come on, Tom, there are practical considerations to think about. You can’t just opt out of having a gender.”
Mr. Gunnerson re-read the letter from Mr. and Mrs. Evans explaining their child’s decision.
“According to the parents, Evans has decided to abandon the use of a first name and lists their gender as ‘Other’. We have to respect those wishes.”
“Tom, I know what the diversity policy says, but I don’t think anyone expected someone to actually come out as…oh, what’s the term?”
“I really don’t know,” said Mr. Gunnerson, who had been hoping the question wouldn’t come up. “I suggest we go with ‘non-binary’ for the moment and I’ll get something out to the faculty today with the appropriate vocab.”
“It’s the least of our worries,” snapped Mrs. Kilburn, her eyes darting over the contents of his desk as she unconsciously tried to find a way out. “Which toilet does the little non-binary darling use?”
“The one that’s most convenient,” he said. Her eyes met his with an almost audible snap.
“We have some very forthright year eight and nines who won’t stand for that, Tom. And you can imagine what will happen when word gets around.”
“I can imagine. All too well. But instead I’m going to hope very hard that there’s a spontaneous outpouring of support and understanding which is, of course, what the faculty will suggest and encourage. Something will go out to inform teachers and to bring it to the attention of the pupils. Once it’s worded with sufficient tact.”
Another little job devolved to him by the Head.
“The sports staff won’t be happy.”
“Evans is excused sports for the time being,” he said. “So they needn’t get themselves in a tizzy about whether Evans should be playing netball or basketball.”
Mrs. Kilburn sniffed.
“Same bloody game,” she said, giving Mr. Gunnerson his only smile of the day. Then she spoilt it. “Whatever would your father have made of this?” She gave him a smile, but Tom’s good mood evaporated.
“We will never know, thankfully,” he said. Mrs. Kilburn reached out to him over the desk.
“He wasn’t all bad, you know. Just very…traditional.”
He shuffled some papers, turned his attention to his schedule and was silently grateful when the door clicked closed.
Meetings and minutes of meetings, the anxious faces of staff and the defiant faces of pupils, of these things a morning is made. When the bell sounded to signal a break, the school sighed children onto the playground and, like some strange tide, drew teachers into the staff room. Mr. Gunnerson didn’t need to be there to know the topic of conversation. It would be the same as the chatter on the playground, and a lot of it would be about Evans. He found a pretext to cross the yard between Block One and Two, and watched as the pupils parted before him, listened as conversations died only to restart with a bark of laughter at his expense. And there, in the uniformed maelstrom, at the nexus of every social group, bumping like a lost balloon between all and welcome in none, was Evans. Mr. Gunnerson walked closer.
Evans wore the darkest clothes the uniform would allow – charcoal grey trousers and a black jacket in defiance of the day’s warmth. Pale, short, approaching spherical, Evans was hard to make guesses about. The one sign of flair, of the personality behind the pale and suspicious eyes, was the splash of purple hair that hung lifelessly over the right eye.
“Everything OK?” he asked.
It was the wrong thing to do, the wrong thing to say. You didn’t show favour. You didn’t indicate that a pupil might need the watchful eye of an adult. It opened doors.
Mr. Gunnerson turned, trying as he did to show his regret to Evans. The boy behind him was tall, wearing the dark blue of Year 10 and above, and had brought friends. His face was familiar.
“It’s Carl, isn’t it? Yes, Carl?”
“Evans won’t tell us whether it’s a boy or a girl, Sir. So what does that mean?”
This was an old game. Make the teacher look stupid. Make the teacher say uncomfortable things. Make the teacher lose their cool. And today, an added wrinkle. Make the teacher pick a pronoun. The only way to win was not to play.
“It means, Carl, that Evans has made a complicated and very adult choice about identity. If you want to know more about it, Evans is right there and I am sure if you ask nicely Evans will answer your questions.” His tone was light, but serious. Diplomatic. Non confrontational.
“But sir, does this mean the school will have to build more loos?”
“We really aren’t getting into this, Carl. It’s not a decision we need to make today.”
“Does that mean Evans is gay, sir? Oi, Evans, are you gay now? Are you a queer?”
Evans turned to stare directly at the older boy and took a deep breath, held it for a moment and huffed the breath out, as though Evans had decided to say something and then thought better of it. There was no mistaking the look of angry defiance, though.
“Int gay,” said Evans.
The discussion had attracted attention, and with that came the staff member on playground duty. Mr. Thomas, who taught French and Rugby, and who laid a hand like a shovel on Carl’s shoulder.
“I’m disappointed, Carl,” rumbled Mr. Thomas. “You know to be more respectful than that.”
Mr. Gunnerson looked over at Evans and was momentarily taken aback. Evans’ eyes, normally so pale a blue they were almost white, held an expression of lizard fury. Something implacable and alien. The expression faded and the pallid indifference returned.
“Is everything OK, Evans?” He had to ask, needing to take his mind off the look Evans had given the older pupil, as if Carl could be simply erased from the world at whim.
“Salright,” mumbled Evans, ambling away.
And that was that.
Except it wasn’t.
Mr. Reece, the affable, white-haired, genial science teacher sat in his usual corner of the staffroom and held court.
“Well, the next thing I know they’re asking Evans about which toilet the kid is going to use and Evans tells them ‘the same as last year’, so then they start asking what all the fuss is about because they thought Evans had decided not to be male or female, and Evans tells them that’s true. I tried to refocus them at that point, but you know how they are sometimes.”
The staff around Mr. Reece nodded sympathetically. They knew exactly how the pupils could be. Like a pack of dogs scenting something bleeding.
“And what did he say next, Mr. Reece?”
Reece and his little group looked up from their worried huddle.
“Oh. Hello, Deputy Head,” said Mr. Reece. “Didn’t see you there.”
“No,” said Mr. Gunnerson. “I can tell. Finish your story, please. It’s important.”
Mr. Reece shrugged.
“Evans identifies as ‘otherkin’, whatever that is. Some of the kids seemed to know. Most didn’t. Do you know what that means, Deputy Head?”
He didn’t. But the Internet would.
“And then the bell went so I had to let them go to the next lesson. I hope Evans will be alright.”
There was a lecture Mr. Gunnerson Senior would have given, and Tom felt it rise in his chest. The image of his father, a tweed dreadnought of a teacher, standing above Reece and snarling at him for wanting to be friends with the pupils, to understand them, and for them to like him in return, these things were fools errands. The job was to keep them in line and keep them focused on learning. He fought it down, squeezing it away somewhere dark and quiet.
“Well, let’s hope, shall we?”
The school was large enough, and in an area with enough problems, to warrant the part-time services of a counselor, and Tom Gunnerson called her. Ms Eliot had the reputation of being effective.
“Well, that’s a problem,” she said. “Those kids all have smart phones, so it’s a pound to a penny that they’ll take that term to the Internet and probably Urban Dictionary. Wikipedia at least sets it into some sort of meaningful context. Has Evans identified as a type of Otherkin?”
“Not that I’m aware of, but there’s some behaviour I’ve noticed. Some aggression. Posturing.”
Ms. Eliot sighed.
“Then Evans probably isn’t claiming to be an Elf, which might be easier to handle. This would be so much easier if your pupil had come out as Trans. There’s a lot we can do to support that. With this, well…I’ve no experience.”
“Do you have any recommendations?”
“Yes, the obvious stuff. Watch your pupil carefully for signs of bullying. Try to get someone to talk to Evans and establish what sort of Otherkin you’re dealing with. Tom, this might be a phase that blows over in a few weeks or it might be something else. Try to establish a common frame of reference with Evans and I’ll schedule an appointment for Thursday, when I’m next in.”
It would have to be good enough.
But it wasn’t good enough.
Reports trickled in all the way through lunch and the early afternoon. Evans had hissed at pupils who had approached too closely. Evans wasn’t talking to anyone and no one would sit anywhere nearby. Pupils were asking to be moved away from “the monster”, “the perv” and “the ladyboy”. Evans spent the entirety of lunch in the library, in a corner, reading, and had to be gently but firmly ejected once lessons restarted.
“And such a look I got off that one,” said Mrs. McKay. “You’d think I was sending the poor little thing out into the storm.”
Mr. Gunnerson smiled.
“That’s how Evans might feel,” he said “it has not been an easy day so far.”
The afternoon was meetings. Staff meetings to discuss professional development for new teachers, meetings with the Heads of Subject to discuss changes to the curriculum, and the latest daft ideas from the Department of Education. Meetings with at least three pupils with behavioral issues. In the last one, he found his grip slipping.
“It can’t go on, Daniel,” he said, looking at the sullen and angry fourteen year old boy opposite him.
The boy refused to look at him.
“I can understand you’re frustrated…”
“Lessons are stupid, innit? ‘Slike the don’ matter if you wanna be a plast’rer or summink. If you wanna join th’Army you don’t need maffs or english.”
“And is that what you want to do, Daniel?”
Mr. Gunnerson sighed quietly.
“I can’t let you go on disrupting lessons with poor behaviour, so I’ll make you a deal. I know you just want to get the next couple of years out of the way with as little fuss as possible, so I will bring in someone from Army recruitment, and the school will find out how you get into the various construction trades, and if that’s what you want we will build you a path to whatever career you like the look of, but you have to agree to a minimum standard of behaviour. Does that sound like something you can work with?”
“Something you can work with,” mimicked the boy. “Do you know what you sound like, Sir? All this, it’s just a load of shit,” and with that, Daniel stood and without a backward glance left the office. Tom put his head in his hands and closed his eyes. His father’s voice filled his ears, shouting about weakness, about mollycoddling, about respect, about the toothlessness of the modern profession. Tom struggled to quiet that voice, the one that was telling him to find Daniel and drag him by the ear back into the office, close the door, and teach the boy to respect his elders.
There was a knock. Tom forced Mr. Gunnerson back into place, feeling the work persona grow ragged at the edges, and looked up.
“I think you’d better come and see this” said Mrs. Henderson, and Tom Gunnerson saw something in her eyes that he’d never seen before. Panic.
They were on the playground. It looked like most of the Year that contained Evans, and this was also what they were doing. They’d formed a rough semi-circle and at the focus of that arc paced a lone figure, small and alone but by all indications not intimidated. Evans was pacing, pausing to flex and wave pudgy arms in an oddly stylized way.
“They were changing classes,” said Mrs. Henderson, bustling along beside him, “and someone shouted something at Evans. Apparently Evans shouted something back, and this was the result.”
As they got closer, Mr. Gunnerson could start to make out words and phrases from the general hubbub surrounding the increasingly surreal Evans.
“Freak!”, they shouted, and “Queer!”, and less pleasant terms. Questions flowed. Was Evans a male or female? Was Evans being abused? There were some very specific queries on that score, followed by speculation as to whether or not Evans was enjoying the attention. Then, over it all, a high-pitched and indignant squeak of rage rose as Evans tried to answer back.
“All of you will pay! None of you understands what is happening here! None of you knows anything!”
“I know you’re four foot of fuck all,” said a deeper male voice and an empty cola can bounced off Evan’s head.
The sound drained away from everything. In the silence, Mr. Gunnerson pushed aside two students and went to stand between Evans and the semicircle.
“Back. To. Class.” He forced the words out in a reasonable tone, but his right hand had clenched itself into a fist and was shaking.
There was a hissing noise behind him. It broke the silence, and any hope he might have had of taking control. He turned. Evans was taking huge breaths and forcing them out through clenched teeth. The child’s arms were held up, as if pantomiming wings. There was laughter from the semi-circle of onlookers. Mr. Gunnerson closed his eyes, and opened them to find himself staring at a group of girls who were giggling and pointing. He hadn’t felt himself turn, but he knew he couldn’t stop what was going to happen next. His father’s voice burst from him like a beast uncaged.
“Every single one of you will be facing detention unless you go to your next class immediately!” he boomed. “Every last one of you, whether your parents like it or not. You will all go immediately!”
They were stunned, for a moment. Evans, on the other hand, was not.
“None of you knows what you’re dealing with!” Evans squeaked .“Well, you ASKED FOR IT!”
Mr. Gunnerson wanted to turn and tell Evans to be quiet, to verbally slap the child out of this silliness, but even as his muscles moved to enact the impulse there was sudden squall of wind and the children in front of him began to shriek and scatter. He completed his turn, registering belatedly how deep, how resonant that voice had suddenly become.
Something was there. Something black, sinuous, scaled. He got an impression of weight and power, lizard-like and yet not. He opened his mouth to snarl, but what came out was: “Oh.”
Then his world became impossibly bright and impossibly hot. It was over too soon for his nerves even to register what had happened. Tom Gunnerson ceased, and his ashes were scattered by the downbeat of impossible wings.
David Webb, who prefers to be called Dave, and prefers that sentence to start, “Would you like a cup of tea,” is a Brit. He lives in Leicester (pronounced “Less-tah”), where his day job constantly gets in the way of writing, but he’s willing to live with that since it means not being homeless. When not writing, he reads. When doing neither of those he can be found on twitter as @dococcupant. He has a fiction blog on that Internet thing, which you should absolutely read and tell your friends about.