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# Hashtag, Whatever

Approximate Read Length: 20 minutes

So, it’s totes a downer that we’re going back to school today. I mean, not that I’m a hater or anything, cos I understand that we gotta learn stuff, gotta get our ducks in order (quack, quack!) and all of that – but it’s just that, man, it’s like the first week of all right weather that we’ve had, so I’d rather have a few more days chillaxin’ with the fam before we’ve gotta trudge our sorry arses back to that place. Hinklewell Comprehensive – or Stinklewell as we call it. Mrs VS waiting by the front gate and telling us to roll our skirts down, tuck in our blouses. Shouting at us in her PE teacher voice – ‘Those aren’t regulation earrings!’ ‘Those aren’t regulation ankle socks!’ ‘That isn’t a regulation happy, happy smile!’ Hundo p, Gracie does a savage impression of her. And it’s so good that I’m still laughing as we mooch up to the entrance and the real Mrs VS starts the usual up and down inspection. ‘Georgina Hawkins! Bathroom now and wash that make-up off your face!’ ‘But, miss…’ ‘Rosie Goodwell, if I hear another word coming out of your mouth, it’ll be a lost break time before the term has even begun!’ I can’t even put into words how much Mrs VS needs to chill out. I mean, YOLO and all that. It’s the first freakin’ day of the new school year, so give it a break – all right?

It’s not all that bad, though. Yeah, legit, school sucks big time. Most of the teachers are blowhards or noobs, and they’re always getting right up in your grill about talking or backchat or chewing a bit of gum. But one thing I reckon is that year 9 is gonna be the best of a bad bunch. And it’s obvious when you think about it – the one sorry year of your whole school life where you haven’t got the teachers jabbering on about exams (just take a chill pill, already!) but when you’re also old enough to appreciate stuff like which of the boys is looking particularly bad or which of the girls has got her hair on fleek. Poppy Davis slaying it with her new quirky bangs, Jonny Hunter (OMG!) suddenly all buffed up and bronzed from a summer spent somewhere a long way from Walthamstow.

Another thing about the new school year is that there are always the newbies to look forward to. You can pick them out a mile away, just from the fact that they’re so completely awks as they stand about by themselves on the playground. Gracie and me make a game out of summing them up in just one word – tool, nerd, dork, noob, basic, lard-ass, spaz. It’s v much a line-up of social pariahs without so much as a hunky footballer to catch our attention, or anyone amongst the gaggle of goody two shoes girls who looks even close to challenging Gracie in her position as BFF, best friend forever.

There’s new teachers too, of course. Period 1, we’ve got English with Miss Kirby who looks like she might be a bit of a laugh. You can always tell when a teacher’s a bit fresh cos they don’t know whether they want to stay completely serious or whether they want to try and be your mate, so they end up somewhere in between. And Miss Kirby definitely has more than a whiff of that about her. In fact, I’d guess she’s a completely, just off the boat, doesn’t have a clue rookie. She’s young enough, that’s for sure. Mad pretty, as well, with glossy skin that’s totes lit, and a nice rack that’s got the boys leering and winking. Tommy Jones pronouncing in an elongated wolf-whistle that she’s well fit and then looking a bit extra as he mimics getting right down and involved with her double D jugs.

To start with, there’s always that initial stage where we test the waters to see how far we can go, how much we can get away with. So first off, everyone is all ‘yes, Miss’, ‘present, Miss’ as she takes the register. And we’re all, more or less, paying attention as she tells us that she wants to get to know us (yawn!), so could we write down three things that we just love (yeah, she really puts it like that!) about ourselves. ‘In silence,’ she adds, but, hey, she doesn’t tick off Jenny H for her catty whisper across at Ruby C, so I guess it’s all right to elbow Gracie and tell her to put down how much she just loves her ability to twist everything into a dirty joke, and she, in turn, tells me that I should claim how I just love using my lithe, limber, lissom tongue to lick the ice cream from the lid of a tub of Häagen-Dazs.

We leave the ‘but, other teachers…’ card until the end of the lesson. Just at the point when Miss Kirby’s looking pretty relieved that it’s all, more or less, gone off without a hitch, and telling us how much she has just loved getting to know us, we lay it down in a complete badass move with the whole class acting together. ‘Aren’t we gonna play a game, miss?’ ‘Not today, because I’d really like you to…’ ‘Mrs Francis always finished with a game, miss.’ ‘Well, you’re in year 9 now…’ ‘Mrs Francis always finished with a game for the year 9s, miss. My sister was in her class and she told me that she did.’ ‘As I said…’ ‘Mrs Francis said you could learn as much in a game as you could by writing stuff down.’ And so on so forth. Totally slaying it until Miss Kirby agrees that next lesson there’ll be plenty of games, and perhaps the lesson after that we can go to the IT room, and perhaps the lesson after that we can all hang out in the playground and pass around one of Sammy G’s special spliffs. OK, not that last part – but you get the picture. She’s a complete pushover, and so, as I said, I reckon that this year’s English lessons are gonna be a bit of a laugh.

One of the ways that year 9 is that little bit more boss than the years before it, is that at break-times we can hang out in our common room if we don’t fancy going outside. There’s a couple of sofas in there, one of those table football things to help the lads blow off their pent up aggression and a tacky old CD player that looks like it might be from the Victorian era, or something like that. And, TBH, that’s a pretty naff privilege to get all worked up about, but it’s the space that’s the thing – somewhere to share a bit of banter away from the year 11 prefects or the staff on duty or the year 7s with their gormless stares. And so, day one, even though it’s scorchio outside and we defo shouldn’t be wasting the good weather, loads of us are in there, checking out the gaff. There’s Jonny Hunter, Tommy Jones, Poppy Davis and the rest of the in-crowd. Me and Gracie are on the edge of their group, and joining in where we can; all of us with something to say about Miss Kirby, getting a bit boisterous and probs being a bit unfair on her since it’s her first day and all – but hey, when the teachers start cutting us a bit of slack, maybe we might do the same for them.

Other lessons are a bit of a downer. Mr Carver has gone all salty over the summer hols and doesn’t take kindly to my flouncing entrance after break. Mrs Crossley seems to have decided that year 9 is the time to shovel on the serious. And Miss Mackenzie manages to cram the same phrase about a gazillion times into one freakin’ lesson – ‘There’s no time to rest on your laurels,’ she says. ‘GCSE work starts straight away.’ I’m still puzzling what an effing laurel is when lunch comes around, and the shocker of shockers revelation that Tuesdays are no longer taco-filled in the canteen cos some douchebag governor’s decided that we’ve all gotta do healthy eating or some guff like that. Bristling on the walk home, Gracie cheers me up with a new impression – Miss Kirby (of course!) telling us how she just loved her first day at Stinklewell and how she can’t wait to come back for some more.

It’s funny how quickly routine kicks in again after the six week holiday, which already feels like a freakin’ lifetime ago by the third morning back. It’s all get up, trudge in, answer your name when the register’s called, doodle on the back cover of your exercise book during Mr Mosely’s maths class, and hang around with the fam at break and lunchtime. We’re like flipping robots on autopilot, or something like that. Although, I can’t even explain how much I want to take my phone and hurl it out the window when the alarm goes off to wake me up some mornings, and how much I want to shove my little bro down the stairs when he remarks, all sarcastic, that someone got up on the wrong side of bed again. Skipping breakfast is probs a bad idea (what with no pizza or turkey twizzlers to look forward to in the canteen) but Mr Kennard goes legit mental at us if we’re even half a second late, so it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other, or whatever that stupid expression is that Miss Yaxley is always using. And I think to myself – OMG! Hashtag, whatever!

Anyway, with routine kicking in, I find that English is the only lesson to look forward to in the whole half-assed week. It’s nothing to do with Miss Kirby being a particularly good teacher. In fact, if I was gonna rate her, I’d say that she was pretty shabby at best cos she has this habit of babbling on for about five minutes longer than she needs to, and it’s never totes clear what she actually wants us to do when she sets us some work. Instead, it’s the chance to talk and mess around at the back of the classroom that makes her lessons just fly by. And you can have a bit of fun with her, too, since she’s so much of a noob that she doesn’t quite know where the line is between fair question and something that’s outright rude. For example, Gracie asks her why (the actual heck) we need to learn English, anyway, since we can all speak it real good already. ‘Well, where to start…’ The key to a good lesson disruption, of course, is in never actually letting the teacher finish their sentence, so Tommy interrupts – ‘No one actually uses these fancy words that you make us learn, miss.’ ‘Actually, I think you’ll find…’ ‘But they don’t though, do they? Not like normal people on Love Island or Geordie Shore, miss.’ ‘No, I suppose that’s true…’ ‘And I don’t see the point in reading books cos they’ll just make it into a film eventually. Won’t they, miss?’ ‘Literature is a central…’ We can go on like that for half the lesson and Miss Kirby will declare at the end of it that she just loves how inquisitive we are, or some guff like that.

About three weeks in, however, she starts trying out new strategies in an attempt to make us toe the line. All of a sudden, we’ve gotta wait outside until she’s ready for us; trying to keep her voice calm as she asks us to quieten down and then telling us to arrange ourselves around the outside of the room so that she can put us into a new seating plan. Gracie at the front next to Helen G, Jenny H right by the teacher’s desk screwing up her nose cos she’s next to the BO blitz, pizza face of Jason D, and me shoved up on the far wall with just specky four eyes, Becky Bunter for company. It’s a car wreck, of course. Everyone is up in arms and refusing to pipe down about how they won’t be able to concentrate because they’re worried that they’ll catch nits from Mucky Mike or that Caitlin’s a repressed psycho just waiting to blow. And then there’s Tommy claiming how Dorky Dave has just let rip, and Ruby C piping up about how Tyler keeps touching her bum. Et cetera, et cetera until Miss Kirby looks like she’s thoroughly regretting her little experiment.

You see, her mistake was that you never split up the fam. Jenny H and Ruby C. Tommy, Jonny and Dan. Me and Gracie. Poppy Davis and Annabel G. Cos fam’s like your ultimate tight clique, you see. Those mates that are at the top of the pile – your besties, your BFFs, your soul sisters. The ones that know how to cheer you up when you’re in a stink. Or automatically throw shade in the direction of Jade effin’ Perkins when she starts going out with Farmyard Freddie, just because they know that you had a bit of a thing for him. They’re the ones that’ve got your back when someone’s whining down on you and saying you cut in front of them in the lunch queue. And they’re the ones that tell you you’re looking Gucci and persuade you to keep your head held high when it’s your time of the month and you just want to lock yourself in the girls’ bathroom.

Anyway, Miss Kirby’s strategies don’t stop there. She starts doing this stupid warning system where she’ll write your name on the board if she catches you with your mouth open and then underlines it when you tell her that it’s so not fair cos you were just telling Becky Bunter not to crowd your personal space. My final warning’s for getting up and asking Gracie if I can borrow her pencil sharpener. And then she tells me I’ve gotta stay in at lunchtime since she heard me whispering when her back was turned which is so vex cos I completely wasn’t. And when I explode with the totes justified question of ‘what the actual heck???’, she claims that I must’ve known that I had it coming. Really? – ‘It wasn’t just me, miss.’ ‘Well, you should concern yourself with your own behaviour rather than anyone else’s.’ ‘But that’s like complete trash, miss.’ ‘Chloe…’ ‘Yeah, well, sorry not sorry if I don’t agree.’ ‘Perhaps, you need to go and take a moment outside?’ Oh my days! I fling Becky Bunter’s glasses case on the ground as I strop on past.

OK, so it’s not like I’m a hundo p unacquainted with the idea of being in detention. I mean, in some weeks last year, I got to the point where I was like double booked with the choice between Mr Carver who gets you to copy out the dictionary and Miss Mackenzie who prefers the ‘get them doing something socially useful’ technique of sharpening colouring pencils or straightening out the display. And I suppose another break-time kept inside isn’t going to massively alter the trajectory of my life one way or the other. But it’s the double standards of it. I mean, is she for real, only punishing me when blatantly everyone else was acting up? And BT Dubs, that’s including Dorky Dave and Pizza Face Jason, for crying out loud! So when she reminds me, at the end of the lesson, about coming back at lunchtime, I screw up my face and tell her ‘yeah, whatever…’ And there’s no way I’m actually going through with it. Like, no way in hell.

The next day, Miss Kirby’s off sick and we’ve got the substitute, Miss Brierly, covering her lesson. Just for starters, we all know that Miss Brierly doesn’t take bunk from anyone. She’s got a face like a donkey’s slapped behind and her voice is all gravelly in a way that tells us straight away that they’ll be no mucking about – or else. It gets me thinking about the difference between Miss Kirby’s lame attempts at classroom management and those of the more stick-up-their-arse teachers – Miss Brierly, Mrs VS, Mr Kennard and all that lot. You see, they’ve got this way of seeing what you’re up to even when their head’s turned. They catch you if you try and pass a note across the classroom, and there’s no point in getting all emosh about the punishment that will inevitably come your way because the rules are pretty clear. Talk when you’re not supposed to, get a detention. Backchat when you think that they’re talking a load of bull, get a detention. Clobber Mucky Mike around the back of the head with an Osborne’s atlas, get a detention. You know exactly where you stand. But with Miss Kirby, it’s massively the opposite – like we’re supposed to guess what we can and can’t get away with. Or some vexing nonsense like that.

Her absence stretches out into a couple of weeks. ‘Lady’s problems…’ Jonny Hunter speculates with a half-raised eyebrow. ‘She’s got that swine flu, innit?’ suggests Jez in what is supposed to be a gansta accent. Ruby reckons it might be that thing where your hair starts falling out for no reason. And Jenny joins in with a story about her mum’s next-door neighbour who got the lurgy from an insect that crawled inside her ear. Tommy Jones, late to the party – ‘Nah,’ he says. ‘None of that. It’ll be that she’s gone completely cray-cray, won’t it?’ And, on the walk home, Gracie adds that to her repertoire – a badass impression of Miss Kirby flippin’ out and losin’ it completely, all schizo eyes and unsettling smile. When she does come back, though, she seems to have gone the other way. Chill like some sort of Caribbean surfer chick. Almost as if she wants to turn my ‘yeah, whatever…’ around on me. It seems that she’s got no recollection of the detention, at any rate, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna remind her that I’m owing one break-time writing a pathetic little poem about how I just love myself.

A couple of days after Miss Kirby comes back, we have a sleepover at Gracie’s house. There’s five of us all bundled up in Gracie’s bedroom. Me and Gracie, of course. And we’re pretty tight with Ruby and Jenny all of a sudden. Danielle P is there as well, just because it’s v much on point to have a fat friend these days and Danielle’s so hopelessly lame that she doesn’t mind that we completely rip into her about her dorky glasses and cringe granny hair. Anyway, the chat is all the usual. Who we’re fancying right now. Celebs that are hot enough to drool over. Which of the girls we want to slap just to wipe the smirk of their smug faces. Truth or dare. Internet roulette. Snog, marry, avoid. It’s all pretty much a blast until Danielle suddenly pops out a complete downer of a question. I mean, it’s a total stinker that hasn’t got any place on a Saturday night. Like one of those pickled gherkin things ruining a perfectly good Maccy D’s or a can of Coke that’s had all the sugar sucked out.

Cos what she asks is this – ‘I don’t know what you guys… I mean, I was just, you know, thinking about the other day, after Miss Kirby came back. And, well, like she seems pretty down and everything, and my cousin Angie was similar when she went through it – the morbs, she used to call it. And, um, I was, well, I wanted to ask you whether you think that maybe we should go easy on her for while? I mean, cos we just don’t want to push her over the edge, right?’

The rest of us just stare at her with our mouths hanging open. For starters, it’s the longest freakin’ thing that we’ve ever heard her say in about nine and half years since we all met on the first day of Primary School, and then, for an effin’ main course of fish fingers, chunky chips and spaghetti flippin’ hoops, what she’s asking us to contemplate is whether or not we have some moral obligation to (what?) make sure one of our teachers doesn’t wind herself into so much of a tizz that she goes home and tops herself. We’re thirteen years old, for flip’s sake. We shouldn’t be having to adult our arses off any time soon.

After that, I do look at her differently, though. I just can’t help it. When she’s standing up front at the beginning of our lessons, you can almost see her shaking like one of those old codgers with the dithery hands. There’s a note of panic in her voice when she asks us to quieten down. A look of fear in her pretty blue eyes. Generally, she doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort with her appearance any more. I mean, her hair totes needs a good condition and cut down at the freakin’ hairdressers and her blouse has got some sort of grim-looking stain on one of the sleeves. She looks tired, too. Exhausted, even. Like she hasn’t been able to sleep for about seventeen days kinda whacked. And you can tell that she’s putting on her smile; the sunny enthusiasm behind how she says that she’s just loved teaching us today.

Walking out the school gate one Friday afternoon, I realise that I’ve lost an earring. Normally, I’d probs not be arsed to go back in and look for it. But the earrings were a present from Gracie, so I turn around and head up to Miss Kirby’s room to see if it’s fallen on the ground or something during the usual last lesson of the week madness. School’s pretty empty by now, except for those basic individuals that stick around for choir practice or netball drills or play rehearsals (or whatever the geeks and gormless wonders get up to in their spare time). And even the teachers leave early on a Friday, so I’m surprised to find that Miss Kirby’s still sitting at her desk when I get there.

‘Hi, Miss K, can I just…?’ I start to ask, but it’s like the effin’ words kinda fizzle out in my throat. Cos, legit, I’m looking into the classroom and seeing the usual scene – desks in untidy rows, colourful display a bit bashed up, interactive whiteboard spluttering on the front wall – and on the outside, there’s nothing different about Miss Kirby either. Except, well, that she’s gone a bit grey, like one of those pot plant things that hasn’t been watered in about a month. And she doesn’t even move her head to acknowledge that I’m standing there, in the door, wanting to come in and look for my flippin’ earring.

I ask her if she’s ok – ‘You all right, miss?’ She blinks and mechanically shakes her head – ‘Yes, thank you, Chloe. Sorry, I was miles away.’ ‘You sure, miss?’ ‘Of course, why wouldn’t I be?’

She’s not all right, though. Even I can tell that, and I’m not exactly woke to other people’s feelings. Standing there, I’ve got Danielle in my ear saying that ‘we just don’t want to push her over the edge, right?’ But the thing is, I think she’s already jumped over that particular precipice, and I can’t even begin to think what I should be doing since I’m only thirteen and I’m well not ready to start adulting any time soon. So, I just go into the classroom, find my earring on the floor, and walk off, telling Miss Kirby to have a good weekend as I leave.

Monday morning, at assembly, Mrs VS has a catch in her throat as she tells us that she’s got some bad news. You can tell by the tone of her voice that it’s something serious. ‘I’m afraid it concerns Miss Kirby,’ she says. ‘We won’t be seeing her for a while, because… I’m afraid that she’s had an… accident. She’s been admitted to hospital and the doctors are taking good care of her but…’

So, what am I thinking in that precise moment as I sit cross-legged on the old gym floor? I mean, what the actual heck is going through that brain of mine when Mrs VS’s words start to seep in. Cos it sure as hell isn’t something that I’ve experienced before – this salty emptiness in my small intestines. And it’s like totes confusing. Almost, a guilty feeling. A little ashamed, perhaps. A little part of me wishing that I hadn’t contributed to making her do whatever it is that she’s done. And from the corner of my eye, I know that Gracie’s thinking the same. We never meant for any of this.

The few days after that, all of us are much more polite to the teachers, much more respectful. In a kind of ceasefire, a sort of truce (both words that I learnt whilst actually paying attention in Miss Mackenzie’s history lesson), we do what we’re supposed to be doing for a change. Writing, reading, analysing, questioning. But then, of course, the old ways slip back. Which is to be expected, right? I mean, let’s face it, you’re only young once or however that saying goes that Miss Yaxley always trundles out when she’s getting a bit nostalgic. And hundo p, honestly – hashtag, whatever!

PS. I really don’t think that Miss Kirby did just love Stinklewell after all. Let’s just hope that she prefers it on the funny farm…