Chapter 12: Stayin’ Alive
from the 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever”, by the Bee Gees
posted 04:22, 15 February 2019
I’ve been kicked around since I was born
But now it’s alright, it’s okay…
His first mistake was to keep on walking. The logical thing to do, the smart thing to do, would have been to turn and walk the other way when he saw her, to find the nearest toilet and throw away the incriminating evidence.
But Harry was impulsive. The moment he saw the Grater standing in the hallway, her stony eyes cast in his general direction, he panicked. So while he debated on what to do, his legs kept moving towards her. It was only when he’d reached the classroom door, and she swing round to glare at him, that he realized he’d assumed too much, as always: she hadn’t been looking at him at all. “Shit,” he mumbled under his breath.
“Harry Cheung. What is that you have in your hand?” Mrs. Wong snapped. Deborah Wong never spoke. She snapped, in a voice that sounded like she was trying to use her voice to grind you for her coffee. Everyone in St. Ignatius Secondary cringed when she addressed them — even some younger teachers. And once you were in her line of firing, you would always come out in shreds. At best.
Harry’s second mistake was to fumble his response. If he had straight-up admitted that he’d gone down to buy a bottle of milk from the vending machine and offered to throw it away immediately, she probably would have let him go with a glare and a warning to not do it again. Instead — as was his norm — he couldn’t decide what to do.
“Well… this… nothing,” he gulped, trying to hide the bottle behind his back. “Nothing that’s against the rules…”
“Nothing against the rules, you say? Then why are you hiding it behind you? Let me have a look,” she said, raising her voice even further. A few teachers and students, passing by due to the change of class, snapped their heads round, trying to find the cause of Mrs. Wong’s latest outburst. Now he really was in trouble.
Harry was not a quick thinker, and he had either pushed away many of the defences he’d thought up in the meantime, or they had abandoned him. He now decided that honesty was the best policy, and offered her the bottle.
Honesty, as it turned out, was the absolute worst policy. “Oh, you’ve got a NERVE, haven’t you, Harry Cheung?” she snarled. Harry felt like a dagger was being plunged into his chest — and that it was staying there, a continuous stab of fear. It wasn’t the inevitable punishment he knew that was waiting for him. They always said that life at St. Ignatius was incomplete without a punishment or two from the Grater, and it was obvious that today was going to be his own bar mitzvah. It was the snark that came with those words. The way she enunciated the word “nerve”, as if this incident was the only thing he would be proving his manliness with. That feeling that he’d not only just let himself down, but all the teachers, all the people who’d tried to teach him good manners and to stay within the lines. That word might have been drawn out for less than a tenth of a second more, but to Harry it might as well have signalled the apocalypse.
She grabbed him by the sleeve just as the door opened, and Mr. Lee looked curiously out of the classroom door. “Deborah,” he said, nodding quickly. Before Harry could appeal to him for help, he had disappeared down the corridor without a second glance. Now he was being dragged into the small, cramped room, paraded in front of 33 other people. Some of them grinned when they saw him, a couple of them even cackled with enjoyment. Others averted their eyes: nobody likes to see a friend fall, even their closest ones. Harry’s jaw trembled. Everything that would come next was clear to him, and there was no escape. “Stand there,” she said, grinding to a halt right in front of the projector screen. He was now in the limelight — and not the limelight he had craved for.
She kept on holding his sleeve even when she lectured to the class on his wrongdoings. “Observe, class 5E, somebody who uses the trust of teachers for his own benefit,” she screeched, her words cleaving her way through the silence of the classroom. “Harry here thought it would be a good idea to go down while he was out for one of his toilet breaks and buy something — something that he could have easily bought during recess, or lunchtime! Why did you go and do this during class time, Harry?” she said, turning to him, glaring at him. He couldn’t even bear to look at her. “Did you worry that there would be a milk shortage? Did you fear that people would get your special bottle?” She snatched the offending bottle and slammed it on the table, the plastic giving a heart-stopping thud. “Don’t you think you’ve grown up enough already, man?” A titter ran through the classroom. Harry knew how merciless teenagers could be when it came to trampling on others, but this was worse. “But then again, if you think that you should be doing this during class, then I suppose you haven’t. So,” she said, rounding on him. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
The case looked bleak for him. He knew he had only promised to go to the toilet and back, and the bottle now sitting on the table was now basically his death sentence. Yes, not for a second did he believe that the other teachers hadn’t noticed when he came back with milk hidden behind his lowered hand: they knew, but they turned a blind eye. Yet Mrs. Deborah Wong was a stickler to the rules: one step out of line, and you would hear it from her till the rest of your life, and he should have known better than to risk it five minutes before she was due in class. He had undoubtedly brought this upon himself, and consequences were… inevitable, if slightly unfair.
Slightly unfair? He looked at Mrs. Wong, and at the expectant faces of his classmates waiting for his statement of complete defeat. And now he felt something rising within him. Half of them might have been his friends, but all of them now wanted him to capitulate, to have him complete his own humiliation. And he was damned if he was going to let that happen.
“I think I shouldn’t be punished for this,” he blurted out.
A breeze entered the classroom as the entire class drew breath. Contradicting the Grater was like signing an order for your own execution AND requesting extra torture on the side. This was going to be interesting.
“Not be punished?” said the Grater. Her voice got louder, the edge even sharper. “Why on Earth should I not punish you? Give me a reason why you shouldn’t stand here and say you’re sorry. And I should warn you that I have THIS,” she said, brandishing the milk in front of him.
For some reason, Harry’s mind, so previously congested, became a clear, bright avenue devoid of cars. He straightened up. “I know, and I’m sorry for going out of bounds during class time, Mrs. Wong. You’re right, I’ve made a mistake. But I know it’s wrong, and I’ve already made up my mind never to do it again. And that’s what punishment is all about, isn’t it? I give you my word, and everyone here can be my witness, that I’ll never do it again.”
“Your word,” seethed the Grater, red as a pomegranate, “is not believable to me, and I —”
“Well that’s the POINT, isn’t it, Mrs. Wong? It’s not your call.” A loud “WHOA” from the class, but Harry went on above the clamour. “This — this is a case of me breaking my word to Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee gave me permission to go off to the washroom, and I broke his trust. If you call him back, and if he decides to give me a dressing down, then fine.” He spread his arms wide. “It’s fine. I accept judgment from him, or the principal, even. But I didn’t break any of yours. You don’t have to pretend that you —” He paused. Thank heaven that the Grater was still stunned. “You don’t have to act on his behalf. I’m very sorry about it all, but at any rate, that’s for Mr. Lee to decide. THIS,” he said, picking up the bottle from the table, “is none of your business, and you needn’t trouble yourself with me — or my physical development.” And he swept past her, back to his seat by the windows, and sat there waiting for judgment to fall.
Everyone swivelled to look at Mrs. Wong. The most marvellous thing had happened. For once, she seemed incapable of speech, and her hand was gripping the chair. Her knuckles were white from all the effort of not exploding. It seemed like an eternity had gone by before she said, “If you like, Harry. I’ll now go get Mr. Lee, since you so demand it.” And she stormed out of the classroom.
The door had barely closed behind her when the whole class erupted around Harry. Some of them were laughing, jeering at him for choosing a messy and painful death. A couple of them were shouting, yelling at him for putting all of them in danger — who knew what kind of terrible revenge the Grater would dole out on the whole class because of him? But a lot of the others were laughing and cheering. Harry Cheung, who had never had a backbone in his life, had suddenly toughened up — and against the most feared teacher in the school too! They were now telling him to destroy the evidence, to pour the contents of the bottle down the sink. And as he did that, people slapped him on the back, and he felt as if he were flying, floating above the heads of his classmates. He had stared death in the face and won, and now he was —
“Well? What do you have to say for yourself?” Mrs. Wong snapped impatiently. Harry came to: he was still in front of his classmates, the harsh blue light of the projector beating down upon him.
He looked at his teacher. He longed to say the words that would end her control over him, once and for all. He opened his mouth — and at that moment, even worse-case scenarios came bubbling into his mind. Detention. A stern talking-to from other people, even to his parents, who would never let him live it down. People laughing at him for talking back at the wrong time. No. He did not know what would come. What he did know was that he didn’t want any of that to happen to him. Life was humiliating enough for him as it was.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. He kept his eyes low, unable to face the triumph in her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
I know I could have woken you up to say this, but you were sleeping so soundly downstairs that I thought I shouldn’t wake you. The truth is, well, I really am alone here. Yeah, sure, people drop by to visit me, like I said, but I just never feel at home when they show up and of course my hours are terrible for visitors… I know you try your best, Quentin, and you’re a nice person, but it still feels really empty down here most of the time even when I’m with a lot of people — especially with a lot of people.
Still, though. Appreciating you coming over tonight. Hope you had fun. Sorry about the kiss.