Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nature Vs. Nurture

Sasha reclined indolently in the chair opposite my desk, crackling gum and staring out the window. Never had a school uniform looked so disreputable. Her mother leaned forward to make sure she had my full attention. “I’m sure it was simply a mistake,” she said in that saccharine shade of politeness that went right out the other side to rude.
I managed to contain a sigh, and valiantly restrained myself from rubbing at my forehead. “I assure you,” I said in that strained tone that meant it was taking all my willpower to be polite, “there’s been no mistake. I’d be happy to provide you with copies of Sasha’s assessment tasks if you’d like to see them. The ones she handed in, anyway.”
Alison glared down her nose. “What do you mean, the ones she handed in?”
This time I did sigh. “Mrs Young, surely you received the—”numerous“—emails I send home, and the letters, about Sasha’s essay in first term and her creative just this month?”
“You should have kept her in,” Alison pronounced.
Oh, yes, because I have nothing better to do with my lunchtimes than babysit your brat while she does nothing. I smiled thinly. “We tried that. For a week. Nothing was forthcoming, if you recall.”
Further glares. “My Sasha is a good girl.” Alison put her hand on Sasha’s shoulder.
Sasha’s glance flicked ever so briefly to her mother’s hand, then to me. When she realised I was looking straight back at her, she held my gaze, as if daring me to comment.
I filed that one away for future examination. Sasha was usually the touch-me-and-die type, and she didn’t strike me as one to make allowances for her parents.
“I’m sure she is, Mrs Young.” Deep down. Way deep down. “Which is why I have no doubt that, if you wish to see her grade for this semester improved, she will hand in the two missing assignments.” I transferred my gaze back to Alison, who, apart from the second chin, could have stepped straight out of a magazine with a title like Country Vogue. “Usually the late penalties would mean that she would receive a zero for the tasks, but in this case I’m sure we could see our way to moving her up from a D to a C overall if the tasks were of sufficient quality.” Any second now, my brittle smile was going to crack.
“A C? A C! I didn’t pay for my daughter to get Cs!”
I opened my mouth for a cutting retort about school fees, but Alison continued.
“I can’t believe this.” Her diction had slipped and I got the impression she was no longer talking to me. “We paid a fortune for her and the Association promised us we’d got the best genes there were. Top of her year, they assured us, no problems. And instead we get this ridiculous nonsense—“ She broke off abruptly with a glance at Sasha, as though just remembering she was in the room.
Sasha maintained her bored stare out the window, but I thought I could see a tension in her jaw that hadn’t been there before.
If Alison meant what I thought she did, I didn’t blame Sasha one bit. I opened my mouth, considered my words, closed my mouth, and tried again. “Mrs Young,” I ventured. “Do you mean to say Sasha was—is—a PAM baby?”
Sasha flinched at the term, and I resolved not to use it again. It was a whole lot less direct than the other terms people used—designer babies, GMs, or if the speaker was feeling particularly cruel, Chihuahuas, after the dogs a certain type of women back in the early decades of the century carried around in their handbags—but while the acronym ‘PAM’ wasn’t so bad, it stood for Pick-And-Mix, and I guessed that wasn’t really a great phrase either.
Alison had the good grace to look flustered. “I thought you know. You should have known! We told the school when we enrolled her! I specifically asked for that information to be disseminated to her teachers.” Somewhere in her speech she’d gone from embarrassed to accusatory, and I bristled in response.
“No,” I said shortly. “I didn’t know.” I made a show of glancing at my watch. “I’m sorry but I have another meeting to get to. We’ll have to continue this conversation another time.”
I swept Alison up despite her protestations and escorted her out the door.


“Did you know?” I asked Sharryn, Sasha’s year coordinator.
She shrugged. “Of course. But admin thought she deserved the chance to go through school like a normal kid, so they didn’t tell anyone. I only knew because I was there for her interview.”
“Heh,” I said around a mouthful of sandwich. “That must have been a barrel of laughs.”
Sharryn gave me a dark look. “You have no idea.”
Actually, though, I kind of thought I did.


Sasha confronted me at the end of class the next day, waiting until the other students had filed out before hauling herself out of her seat and sauntering towards me. She stopped about half a foot closer than comfort and good manners allowed, and I breathed deeply, trying to remind myself that she had good reason to be belligerent about life.
“So, you gonna shut me in the back corner of the classroom now and let me do my own thing?”
I raised an eyebrow, pretty sure that I’d handled the lesson we’d just had the same way I always did. Then something clicked. “Do you want me to?”
She fidgeted—just a little, just a shifting on her feet, but it was enough to confirm my sudden suspicion.
I sighed heavily. “Look, Sasha, this isn’t going to work.” I sat on the edge of my desk, suddenly too tired to stand. “First of all, I’m not going to let you go do your own thing on my time just because you’ve decided to check out. Know what that means?” I waited for eye contact before I continued. “It means I’m not giving up on you. Sorry. And second of all, this is a crappy way to punish your mum.”
She startled visibly at that, eyes darting to mine, wary.
Teenagers. Always think they’re so subtle and no one understands them. Oy. I smiled wryly. “It wasn’t really hard to figure out, kid. She obviously treats you—“ I’d be going to say like a show dog, but that was probably a little harsh, even if it was true. I shook my head. “I get that you hold her responsible for your life and that there’s more than a little resentment there. But this isn’t the way to fix things. What are you going to do when you graduate with fail grades? Go cut grass for a living?”
She raised her chin. “There’s nothing wrong with cutting grass.”
“Yeah, and I hear it’s a super interesting and engaging profession, too.” I gave her a look.
Her lips twitched like maybe she’d once dreamt of a smile. It was about five times more positivity than I’d ever seen from her before; I’d take what I could get.

I handed her a copy of the creative task she was supposed to have handed in three weeks ago that I’d re-copied. “Don’t do it for her. Do it for you.”