As soon as the words had left his mouth, we knew they could not go unchallenged.
We knew somebody would have to do something and it would probably have to be us.
On that Tuesday afternoon, Mike Gilbert had made his entrance shortly after one o’clock. We rose to our feet and he nodded, “Good afternoon, class.”
“Good Afternoon, Sir!”
“Sit,” he motioned whilst speeding between the desks, distributing printed sheets of paper.
“Today we continue to look at the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The two poems in front of you were written by Kipling thirty years apart but display similar themes and imagery. Let's start by looking at “The Dykes”, which was written in 1902. Karen Braithwaite....I'm sure you can define the word “dyke” for us?” He leant over her desk, grinning and supporting himself on one arm so that she answered into the overhanging sleeve of his gown.
“I think it's a kind of ditch, sir.”
He spun around. “Class, the word “dyke” can be spelt with a “y” or an “i” and has multiple meanings, as I think you know, Braithwaite. In this case, Kipling is referring to a sea wall, an image which he uses to describe man's defences against the turning tide of history.”
He faced the class.
“Read through the poem and identify the themes. Turn your attention to line five “our foreshore stretches far through sea-gate, dyke and groin-“
“Before Braithwaite gets excited about the juxtaposition of the words “dyke” and “groin”, allow me to explain that here the groin, spelt with a “y” or an “i”, is a structure similar to a breakwater.”
Without speaking, Karen stood up and reached for her bag.
“Where the Hell do you think you are going?” he yelled.
She headed for the door and left the room.
The remainder of the lesson passed with few of us able to concentrate on Kipling.
At the bell, Mr. Gilbert said “Can someone tell Braithwaite to come and see me at the end of the day.”
“She's got a doctor's appointment, Sir, she'll be going home early.”
“Oh, has she?” he sighed as he swept out of the classroom.
Karen was my friend. She was everyone's friend and perpetual champion of the underdog. Slim and lithe, she had no time for bullies and could outsprint everyone, including the boys. She dreamed of playing competitive football, just as her gran had played whilst working in the munitions factory during the First World War. Twice Karen had tabled a motion to the School Council that football should be included in Physical Education classes, for both boys and girls. Twice it was rejected. Ours was a rugby school and football had no place in either curricular or extra-curricular provision. She was fierce on the hockey field where visiting teams referred to her as “The Great Barrier Reef,” as it was so difficult to get the ball past her playing at centre half. Whilst most of us hid behind our hippy-hair, Karen wore her fine, blonde hair short and feathered like the skinhead girls. As others listened to Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd and The Doors in dark, patchouli-scented rooms, Karen was in the park, heading and diving and taking penalty corners. She was the first David Bowie fan I ever knew.
Mr. Gilbert hurried towards his next class and we launched into frantic discussion. We agreed his treatment of Karen was vicious and unwarranted. We were clear that we wanted to support Karen and stand up to Mr. Gilbert but unsure of how to proceed. With little time to organise, we resolved to confront him the following day, at the beginning of double English. But who would speak for us all? I realised that thirty-one pairs of eyes were turned towards me.
“You're probably her best friend and you're really good at talking to people,” someone said.
“I think he would take it seriously coming from you,” said another.
A twisted knot formed in my stomach. It felt like someone wringing out their washing. I doubted my credentials for the job but knew that there could be no retreat. Later, as I sat in Karen's bedroom talking over the events of the day, I felt braver. It seemed Mr. Gilbert had not been in touch. She was still upset but willing to fall in with our hastily constructed plan. I slept very little that night.
As he entered the classroom on Wednesday morning, none of us rose to our feet.
“What is the meaning of this, class?”
The moment had come. I stood up.
I feared the words would not leave my mouth but then,
“Sir, we feel the way you spoke to Karen Braithwaite yesterday was unfair....”
“Really? And who put you up to this, Susan?”
Before I could reply, Denise Barron was at my shoulder, “Nobody, sir. We all feel the same way.”
“And what about our lily-livered boys? What do you think, lads?”
The whole back row stood up, “We all feel it was out of order, sir”
“I see. And where is Karen Braithwaite now?”
“She's in the library, sir.”
“So what do you propose should happen next?”
Now my voice was firm and clear, “We'd like you to apologise to Karen in front of the class, sir.”
“I suggest you go and fetch her then, Susan.”
I was still trembling as I returned with Karen. Mr. Gilbert urged us to sit down,
“Karen Braithwaite, it seems I owe you an apology. Your friends have told me that my gentle teasing upset you yesterday. I thought you were made of sterner stuff but I obviously misjudged you. I therefore apologise and hope that we can move on. Are you happy to accept my apology, Karen?”
After a long pause she replied “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Oh....and Braithwaite.....I'd advise you to forget about the football. It's for oiks.”