by Waiata Dawn Davies
"Rejection is a stepping stone, not a stumbling block."
Barbara swore and threw her magazine at the wood box. It missed.
"Stepping stone!" she snorted, pushing essays into her satchel, "stumbling block!" She threw her lunch box on top of the essays. "More like a bloody great wall!" A wall of rejected novels and short stories, capped with unwanted haiku, sharp as shards of glass. Beyond that wall wealth and recognition waited, but every effort to launch herself into the literary landscape ended with the wall becoming higher and more impassable.
"No more," said Barbara, "no more aching fingers. No more being on the sidelines. It's time I got myself a real life."
At the bus stop a breeze blew soft on her cheek, bringing a hint of daphne and winter cheer. Thin sunshine highlighted grimy windows, reminding people that spring would be here soon and should they not get ready for it? A dilapidated truck passed. On the tray a drummer, a slap bass, a flute player, a pianist and a fiddler, all wearing pink velvet waistcoats and tight purple trousers, played Dixieland. The piano player raised his panama hat to Barbara.
"Go away," she told him. "I have given up writing." She stepped on to the bus, ignoring the musicians' reproachful stares. A beautiful blond in leotards and practice leggings was waiting for her.
"Look, I've got the new steps perfectly!" She executed a treble pirouette, a grande jete down the aisle, ending with a deep plie. The bus passengers clapped, shouted "Bravo".
"Very nice, but I'm not writing any more."
"But what shall I do?" asked the dancer.
"Frankly my dear," Barbara began. She was about to toss the ballerina a cheap, throw away line, but the desperate look on the ballerina's face stopped her. "It's time you stopped cluttering up my life and got one of your own,"
Barbara turned her attention to the street outside. Power walkers strode, fifth formers practised cool, juniors hop scotched. The ballerina joined the jazz group as they followed Barbara, trying to catch her eye. She ignored them. She ignored the bridge where last term year eight had helped Horatius hold the hordes of Clusium at bay. It was just a concrete bridge and she was Miss Barbara Highgate, teacher of English who kept enticing her pupils away from the curriculum into imagination and adventure. Her Head of Department had admonished her more than once.
Well from now on Barbara would ignore by-paths. James K, Katherine M. and William S. would be dished up without embellishments. If it put students off wanting to become writers so much the better!
But at school Barbara could not completely ignore James Brightair, hero of more than one of her romantic stories. He looked as though he wanted to share some magnificently funny secret with her. When he played cello Barbara and most of year nine, Home Technology imagined his incredibly long fingers moving down their spines.
"Enough of that," Barbara admonished herself. "James Brightair and Barbara
Highgate are professional colleagues. That's all."
In the staffroom James pranced up to her.
"Come to the Hall at lunch time? See what the kids have done with your poems." he invited.
"That would be nice," she accepted before she remembered she had done with all that.
"And on Friday we're going to video our entry for the Smoke Free."
"Can't be done," said the Deputy Principal, Head of Business Studies. "The Review Board will be here. They want to see results, and assessments. It's about time you Arts teachers remembered we're training children for life. They need business skills, not song and dance."
Barbara's first class that morning was year nine. They had recently discovered Jane Austin, a fact not unconnected with the screening of 'Pride and Prejudice' on Channel 3. Their assessments were about camera shots, scenery and their opinion that Mr D'Arcy closely resembled James Brightair. They were unrivetted by her prepared lesson on the subjunctive until Barbara challenged them to write a TV commercial using the word 'if' in ten different ways.
At lunch time James, Barbara, Amanda Royal, Art Teacher, and Suzee Strong, Phys Ed., ate their sandwiches in the music room while year twelve, Music Composition played and sang what had once been Barbara's poems. Now her sedate lines were endowed with new rhythms and repetitions, unsuspected interpretations.
"Wow!" enthused Suzee. "What about putting that last one into a cha cha beat?"
Jordan Bailey switched to a new key on the synthesiser. Patsy Cameron picked up a pair of maracas before she sang,
"I'm old enough to go and fight,
But I'm too young to go out at night
It's time you saw me as I am . . ."
David Taylor and Tomasi Vagana, on their way to rugby practice essayed a few steps in the corridor. Huria Martin forgot about Netball and joined them. By the time the bell rang the music room was full of dancing students, and teachers, all clapping and singing.
"We gotta put that one in the video!" exclaimed Patsy.
"Do you people know what time it is?" roared the Deputy Principal. "Miss Highgate I would appreciate your appearance in room 10 before year 7 pulls the place apart, and Miss Strong year 8 is practising kick boxing in your absence!" but he spoiled his effect of outraged discipline by executing a surreptitious pasa doble down the corridor.
At four o'clock the jazz band was waiting at the bus stop.
"Come on," protested the pianist, "We've been practising for months. You've got to give us a chance. Finish the book."
"But you'll only get rejected, like me," said Barbara.
"You call what those kids did to your poems rejection?"
The ballerina climbed on to on the truck roof to practise plies.
"I want a life of my own," said Barbara. "I want a real lover, romance, marriage, kids, a house in the suburbs."
James Brightair winked at her from behind the slap base.
"Come with us," he said, "Let us show you how a real life can be lived."
"That's the trouble with you characters. You always want to take over. I start you off, develop you, give you life and a career path. Then you march off down your own road. You think you're real but the publishers don't like the things you get up to. Go and find another writer to record your fantasies. I'm quitting."
But they would not leave. They clambered down from the truck and played the Muskrat Ramble all the way up Barbara's garden path. Her neighbour, Mrs Monica Prattskey, glowered over the fence. James waved to her and the ballerina blew a kiss.
Barbara refused to turn on her computer. She made tea and sat in pale sunlight to read her mail; a postcard from a former pupil backpacking in Mozambique, the Editor of the Glistener wrote that he loved her story but unfortunately had no available space in the near future. The Editor of WART said her story was not suitable for WART. His terse card gave Barbara the impression that she had been impertinent in submitting it. A brochure assured her that all she needed to become a great writer was a course, only $500, on easy terms and a discount if she enrolled NOW.
"Come on," said the piano player. "Turn on the computer. That's all you have to do, we'll do the rest."
"Travel, get the show on the road literally. Go back to Tara. Hurry up, I've got carnal designs on the ballerina."
"But I was planning for her to marry James Brightair - I mean the bass player."
"She won't. He's gay."
"That's the trouble with you lot. You're so busy making up your own stories you won't do what I say. No. My mind's made up." Barbara pulled open her filing cabinet and took out the manuscript of her first novel. "This is all going into the fire, and when I've burned everything perhaps I'll have my life back."
"But what will become of me?" asked the ballerina, stretching and limbering against the door post.
"Frankly my dear . . ."
"Don't call me 'your dear'. All you've ever let me do is practise, practise, practise, and now, just as I'm ready for my big chance, you decide to stop writing. Some people have no consideration."
"All right. You can marry James Brightair and live obscurely every after. Or go to bed with the piano player and he'll be your Svengali. Take your pick."
"I'm not really gay," said James, "but I'd rather not marry her."
Barbara opened the fire door.
"Don't burn that!" yelped the band. "You don't know what you're doing!"
"I know exactly what I'm doing. There are a thousand novelists who write better than me. Frank McCourt, Maeve Binchy. They show us what a horrible world this is, so I'm admitting my limitations and giving up."
"But you're not meant to be McCourt or Binchy." said the piano player, "They write about the way things are. You write about the way things could be."
"And that's important," said James Brightair. "In a hundred years people will read McCourt and say how awful we were, but right now people can read you and see possibilities."
The piano player and the flautist started carrying Barbara's manuscripts into the front garden. They built a little platform on the path.
"Come and have a look," James invited. He held her hand as she stepped up. From the top she saw the footpath, people waiting for buses, people walking home. Lights were on in front windows and children sprawled in front of fires. And every person Barbara could see was reading. Even Mrs Monica Prattskey who of everybody and everything was seated by her one bar electric heater, absorbed in a book.
"See?" said James.
"All right," said Barbara. "I'll have one more try. But not to-night. To-morrow. I promise."
"Fine," said the piano player. The band and the ballerina headed for the truck. "We'll be back. After all, to-morrow is another day."
Later, as Barbara marked year 9's essays, someone hesitant knocked at her door. The Vice Principal looked abashed.
"I wonder if I could have a word?" he asked.
Barbara invited him in, made coffee.
"I've been thinking about the review committee," said the vice principal. "We should show them what our kids are really good at. Let's go ahead with making that video on Friday. Show them what learning is really about. You've all got so much talent and enthusiasm." He stopped talking and blushed.
"But you're taking an enormous risk. The committee keeps going on about performance objectives and specified behaviours. What if they don't approve?" Barbara considered him across her table full of essays. He looked rather like the piano player, especially when he smiled.
"Well, frankly my dear, I don't give a damn! If they don't like it, too bad.! There are other schools."
"And their rejection would be a stepping stone, not a stumbling block!" said Barbara.
They sipped their coffee and smiled.
Story Copyright © 2008 by Waiata Dawn Davies. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Waiata Dawn Davies lives in New Zealand and, as well as being a retired teacher and seasoned traveller, writes lots of great poetry and short stories.