Mr. Darcy was trying to fire her.
More precisely, he was trying to not fire her. Hanna didn’t believe he was sadistic. Firing one of his young teachers would only make him disappointed in himself, for having to resort to such measures. Like most principals, he specialized in more diplomatic solutions.
He wanted her to quit. And he was gently leading her to form the conclusion that it was what she wanted, too.
Did he realize how easy it was going to be?
She’d given no indication that she was discontented with her position. Unless the weariness was evident in her face. When he’d asked if she was planning to return in September, to fulfill the second half of her two-year teaching contract, she’d answered in the affirmative. No complaints, no reservations. She gave him no reason to question her sincerity. If he’d wanted her to return, he would have left it at that.
She’d almost thought he was going to. He’d expressed satisfaction with her decision, and begun discussing her course schedule. A completely predictable interaction. But then, for no obvious reason, he’d leaned back in his chair, eyeing her closely.
“Do you enjoy working here, Miss Graham?”
She knew, then, that something was wrong. Why would he ask such a question, if not to provoke an admission of unhappiness? And that admission, once made, could have only one result. She could not tell her principal that she was unhappy in her job, and keep that job.
All this was going through her head, now, while she also searched for an acceptable answer to his question. It was an answer that didn’t come.
When she remained mute, he folded his hands. “How do you like living in Abu Dhabi?”
“It’s fine,” she said.
“You must find it lonely. Out in the middle of nowhere, away from your family and friends,” he pressed.
She thought of her spacious, air conditioned apartment, in the small building where most of the teachers were housed. The new suburb, a half hour outside of the city, was only half-built. A mixture of construction sites, and large compounds behind high, concrete walls. And everywhere, sand. Dry, gritty, and hot. The neighbours they did have were Arabic speaking, and kept to themselves.
But she wasn’t any worse off than the other teachers. She’d even found herself part of a small social circle, of five single teachers, all around her age. Just the bare minimum of participation in this group occupied most of her weekends, and many evenings during the week. Sometimes she had to fight for time to herself.
“I’m fine,” she insisted.
But the set of Mr. Darcy’s mouth conveyed doubt. “Somehow, Miss Graham, I think we could stick you in a cardboard box, in the middle of the desert, and you’d still maintain that you were just fine.” His fingers thrummed together, thoughtfully.
How did a man, whom she had maybe talked to three times during the entire year – and none of them particularly deep conversations – come out with something like that? And why was she suddenly fighting back tears?
He leaned forward now, resting his arms on his desk. “I don’t know why I care,” he continued, as though surprised at himself. “It wouldn’t bother me, with most of the other teachers. But you’re different.” He seemed to think those words over. It was uncharacteristic of the large, pleasant, but efficient man. As if he weren’t sure where the thought had come from. But the further contemplation seemed to solidify his opinion. He sat back, again, crossing his legs. “Yes. You’re different.”
The look he gave her was sincere. Too sincere. He was acting – manipulating her. There was no way Mr. Darcy, with his pretty, young, second wife, and his perfect little kindergarten-aged daughter, and an entire private international school to oversee, had noticed anything about Hanna.
She didn’t want to mistrust a man, who’d given her no reason to, before. It seemed unfair. But it was the likeliest explanation.
He was trying to get rid of her. To get her to go voluntarily, so he could hire a bitter teacher to replace her. She wasn’t a good teacher, she knew. She wasn’t a bad teacher – she cared, and that was more than a lot of her colleagues could say. But she wasn’t a good teacher, either. Mr. Darcy thought he could find someone better, and he was probably right.
So, why was her throat choked up? Why was her body reacting to his words as if they held genuine sympathy?
“You’re not happy here, are you?” There wasn’t much of a question in the words.
“No.” A gush of air left her lungs, as she spoke the word. Her brain was telling her it was a mistake, to admit that. It was exactly what he wanted. She was manoeuvring herself out of gainful employment.
But she didn’t seem to have a choice, in the matter. Pretending to be ok took so much energy. And she didn’t care enough to fight for this job. She barely managed to stay composed.
“Then why would you stay?” Mr. Darcy continued, squinting in confusion. “You’re young, smart. You could go anywhere you wanted. Why waste your life doing something that makes you miserable?”
They would be good questions, if they came from a source she could trust. As it was, all she heard was laughter. A voice in the back of her mind, mocking her.
It’s so sad. You want to believe him, don’t you? This obvious lie. That anyone could see something special in you. That you aren’t completely incompetent.
She looked at her principal through watery eyes. Why was she here? “I don’t know,” she whispered.
It was best not to drag this out.
She let him lead her. Followed his line of reasoning. Agreed with his arguments. Gave up the narrative that all was well, without speaking of details.
The voice continued to laugh at her, as she stepped out of Mr. Darcy’s office, and climbed the stairs to her classroom. The humiliation stung. The idea that she had been a disappointment – that she had failed – would continue to haunt her. All the way back to Canada.
But at least she wouldn’t have to come back here. She looked around the hated classroom. Even empty of students, she felt her soul recoil, as if the air itself was poisoned with memories. She would not miss any part of this place.
She should be happy. Mr. Darcy had helped her accomplish what she hadn’t had the courage to do, herself. She was free.
There was an undeniable sense of relief. But she knew that at the end of the day, when she was back in the confines of her apartment, she was going to need a good cry.
She didn’t know just how right she was.
Sometimes, life is very hard. Even for those who seem blessed. You might be born in a free country, grow up in a loving family, obtain higher education, join a coveted profession – and still end up in a place of despair.
That night, Hanna was there.
She knew it was inexcusable. Her life wasn’t that bad. She had no right to be this unhappy.
She held up for a while, after getting home. She resorted to turning on the TV, which she never did, to accomplish it. But eventually, she had to turn it off. Get ready for bed. Brush her teeth.
It started when she stepped into the shower. A broken, noisy kind of crying. She held her head under the stream of water, sending the evidence down the drain.
She stood there for a long time. Heedless of the water conservation practices that, until now, she had adhered to conscientiously.
Eventually, she had to get out. Wrap herself in a towel. But the tears didn’t stop.
She never did this. She had a good cry now and then, but it generally spent itself within a few minutes. It helped clear her mind. Relieve built up tension. It didn’t exactly feel good, but she felt better when it was over.
This was something different. A silent stream continued down her face, while she put on her pyjamas. And when she lay herself down on the bed, pulling the sheet up over herself, the sobs once again shook her body. They built, instead of dying out, the way sobs usually did. Because the relief that came from shedding these tears, did not come close to soothing the pain. It only allowed her to feel it – the more she cried, the more hurt it seemed to bring to the surface. So the tears kept coming. Hot, and fast, and angry. Until the pain became a fierce animal inside her chest. Tearing at her lungs.
Being alone, in an oil-rich desert, and feeling very out of place, might have justified some tears. But Hanna would not have cried over that. This was the fifth year in a row she had journeyed to strange, unfriendly climates, in order to obtain employment, and she was used to it.
She would never get used to failure.
The teachers in the novels that had inspired her career choice had travelled, too. They’d even had difficult pupils. But, unlike her, they had met those challenges, and left trails of conquests in their wake. None of them had ever failed. And Hanna had, long before she’d quit.
Her students hated her. They lied, and cheated. Their parents blamed her for their bad grades, and their bad behaviour – or rather, for the bad behaviour of everyone else’s offspring. And they were right. A good teacher could bring out the best in her students. She inspired creativity and devotion. She lifted them up, and showed them the world, and cultivated genius.
She – the good teacher, the one Hanna wanted to be – didn’t spend her school year engaged in a showdown of mutual loathing.
She told herself, repeatedly, that she did not hate her students. But after five years, she wasn’t sure if she believed that, any more. They drained so much from her; and she was so tired of dealing with them.
It hadn’t always been this bad. The first year, she had countered each day’s disappointment, by waking up the next morning determined to do better. To be better. With the enthusiasm of youth, she would throw herself back into the fight, armed with wonderful theories, and beautiful lesson plans, drawn up the night before.
But as the failures piled up, her optimistic approach turned into something that resembled grim determination – and then, even that began to chip away. Courage lost precious ground to fear. Slowly, reflexively, as the pile of strategies that hadn’t worked grew larger, and her reserve of new ideas dwindled, she had retreated into self protective numbness.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This wasn’t why she’d become a teacher. She didn’t want to be an emotionless zombie, or despise the children in her care. She wanted, so much, to be good at this – and she just wasn’t. She’d tried everything she could think of, and it wasn’t enough. She could no longer hide from it. She despised the school; and this spacious, air-conditioned, two-bedroom apartment – the most luxurious home she’d ever lived in – was nothing but a pretty cage.
She couldn’t do it any longer.
In the middle of a world-wide recession, with even Canada perched on the edge of financial ruin, she’d quit her job. Millions of children were starving. People were living through war and poverty. And Hanna had just quit a perfectly good job. So she could run home, like a spoiled child. Because she wasn’t happy.
Selfish. Selfish, selfish, selfish – the word went round in her head, relentless, without mercy. It wasn’t a new sensation. She’d been contemplating quitting for weeks, before today. And the arguments, back and forth, between the personalities in her own psyche, always involved the familiar accusation. Sometimes she fought against it, but other times, like now, she was too exhausted, and just let the guilt seep in. It was true, after all. So selfish. So weak. So wasteful. She had no defence. She was a fraud, dressed in the rags of what had once been beautiful ambitions.
But perhaps Hanna could have dealt with all of that. Maybe. Twenty eight would not have been such a terrible age at which to turn back and start again, if she were healthy in mind and body. She could have found a new ambition. But she couldn’t change who, or what, she was.
She was sick. Not the kind of sickness she could tell her family about. Not something a doctor could fix. And not a fatal illness that would end in a merciful death.
If only it could have been cancer.
It was a sickness she had to live with, alone. Because she would never, could never, tell anyone else. It was too stupid, too embarrassing. Too much like a made-up disease that people used to explain away their character flaws.
She had an eating disorder.
She couldn’t even think the words, without cringing in humiliation. Hadn’t admitted it, even to herself, until very recently. It was so sharply opposed to the person she wanted to be – the person she’d thought she was. Intelligent, reasonable, logical. Scientific, even. But she couldn’t deny the facts. She hadn’t eaten like a normal person since the age of 18; and now, at 28, she was officially obese.
It was a part of her she would never understand. It was illogical. It was sinful. It made her miserable. But she couldn’t get rid of it. Ten years of failed attempts had broken her down, little by little. And there was no fight left in her.
How did others manage to live, this way? They walked around with smiles on their faces, functioning in normal society, without suffering from spiritual and existential crises. She felt as if her real self were lost. Her body was a strange, alien thing; a leaden weight that dragged her down. Even her thoughts weren’t her own. They betrayed her, spoiling her best intentions, leading her to do things she didn’t want to. Yet, it was her. There was no one else to blame, for what she had become.
So she cried, wondering if even God could love something like her. Knowing that he did, and yet not really convinced. Wishing it could just end.
Quietly screaming into her pillow, so the neighbours wouldn’t hear.