by Noëlle Lague
(Freely based on "Maid in China" by Barefoot Servant)
I - The drop
“Hey, do you want to go to China with me this summer?”
The question caught Maddie Akers completely off-guard. It really probably shouldn’t have. Her friend Jenny Kim’s parents were from China after all, and Maddie knew they visited every summer. The girls were classmates, Jenny being the queen of their class, along with another girl, Skyler Branham. Both paraded with the best scores on tests, challenging each other in sports. When Skye, as she was called, got the gold medal, you could be sure to see Jenny take possession of the silver, and vice versa. In addition to their intellectual and athletic success they proved to be notorious heartbreakers, and in terms of overall popularity none of them ever lost an occasion to place themselves at the head of the pack.
Maddie was maybe not their absolute opposite in every respect, but still, she was a rather insignificant girl at school, the girls in her class thought she was buttoned up, if, at all, they noticed her. She did excel though, in some sense, those who ever had any contact with Maddie quickly noted her characteristics; docile, servile and helplessly gullible. Maddie´s grades were in the best case moderate, though in most subjects below average, and yet in some moving toward the intolerable, not the least in the eyes of her parents. Maddie´s mother Melanie was a snob, she had insisted on putting Maddie in a private school were most kids came from wealthy families. The Kim family was no exception, Jenny´s father was a successful businessman. The Akers, in glaring contrast, were constrained to spend a huge part of their modest salaries to be able to pay what it cost.
Melanie worked in a canteen - Maddie hadn´t ever understood exactly what she was doing, Melanie never said a word about her job - and Max was employed as a sales clerk. They both saw Maddie as talented, having a great intellectual potential. In their eyes she simply wasn´t diligent enough. Truth was that Maddie´s school records mercilessly revealed her shortcomings in fundamental skills; spelling, reading comprehension and understanding numbers. Her principal teacher, Mrs Sarah Bronstein, had recently contacted Melanie, making it clear that the school was concerned with Maddie´s schooling and that she was to receive a letter on the matter. Melanie expressed her stupefaction and disappointment, but that she of course would pay attention to the letter. Shortly thereafter, Melanie Akers sat at her kitchen table realizing that she was summoned to meet Mrs Bronstein at her office for a notification by reason of Maddie´s issues, as the letter said.
Mrs Bronstein - who was at least ten years younger than Melanie - was a most powerful woman. She knew what she wanted and had an extraordinary ability to see to that she got it. Her clothes were smart casual, fashionable with a personal touch. She wore her pret-a-porter as if they were tailored for her, which eventually sometimes could be the case. Sarah was a natural beauty and she knew it.
Mastering with elegance the balancing between deserved reward and justified reprimand she demonstrated an authority that immediately reduced an eventual opponent to that of a passive listener. Few could resist her commands or would ever cross the line to disobey her, not even her colleagues. The students adored her. Melanie on the other hand was susceptible, diffident and hypersensitive to hierarchy and authority. Her appearance gave an unsure and tense impression. She was an easy prey for Sarah who didn´t have to gain the upper hand, it was all naturally settled from the very first second of their appointment. Melanie felt like a child in front of her, and she certainly was treated like one.
”This way Melanie,” Sarah said directing Melanie into her office.
”Thank you,” Melanie answered politely and walked past her daughter´s teacher.
Sarah´s office had bookshelves all around the walls but was otherwise sparsely furnished. In front of the window was a large designer style executive desk in beautiful mahogany, behind it an impressive armchair. Melanie nervously shambled into the room while Sarah to the sound of her clacking heels, took position standing behind the desk. Melanie hesitantly moved toward the only other furniture to be found in the office, a small wooden chair, placed obliquely in front of the desk.
”Have a seat Melanie,” Sarah said before making herself comfortable in her armchair.
Melanie perceived the message as an order and quickly sat down on the chair, without changing it´s position, posing her hands neatly on her knees, exposing her to Sarah in a wry position, close to a profile but not quite. Melanie felt vulnerable and awkward. With a glance she noted that Sarah was constantly observing her. Sarah´s superior attitude toward Melanie was just as natural and irresistible as was Melanie´s overwhelming submissiveness. Sarah paused for a short moment before starting her lecture, mastering with elegance her verbal discourse.
”It is my conviction that the importance of taking adequate measures to help students break an on-going downward spiral and improve their study results, cannot be overestimated. There are different ways of achieving this goal. In a worst case scenario we would be constrained to place students in special schools, yet in other situations it would be enough to have them retake a year, eventually in conjunction with a placement, part time, in a Special Unit. Now, as I have been seriously struck and of course also concerned about your daughter´s increasingly poor performance in our school, and for a long time, I have finally come to a point where I have to divulge that her dropping grades call for immediate and firm action, which is the reason why you have been summoned to see me today.”
Sarah paused again and looked at Melanie who turned her head to meet Sarah´s eyes shortly before bringing her head back to a straight position, facing the door, petrified, her whole body steadily stiffening.
”In order to give you a precise picture of her alarming situation we will go through Maddie´s failures together.”
Confronting Melanie pitilessly with her daughter´s performances, going through her grades meticulously, scrutinizing her scores on recent tests noted by a number of teachers, Sarah studied Melanie´s fruitless attempts to mask her discomposure. Sarah looked at Melanie with feigned motherly concern.
”Melanie, I have, in interaction with the school´s principal, been looking at all possible solutions to enable Maddie to catch up with her fellow students, we have however, in common agreement, come to the conclusion that the best for her, in the arisen situation, is to have her retake a year.”
”Mrs Bronstein, I….”
Melanie was cut off.
”We are following all formal requirements that our educational establishment has to respect. Now, we all know that, as a rule, few parents want to see their kids retake a year, quite understandably, also, many parents see the Special Units as a kind of punishment, a humiliating one too. You´re seemingly no exception to the rule, Melanie. Now, the alternative - placement in a special school for children with special needs - I admit, would, in the eyes of Maddie´s peers, suggest an even more crucial loss of status for your daughter. But at the same time, leaving definitely our school would give Maddie protection from an undesirable exposure to contemptuous behavior. If I did consider…”
Melanie, blushing furiously and looking agape at Sarah, almost panting, fumbling with her hands, again tried to intervene.
”Mrs Bronstein, ….Maddie´s just..…”
Sarah resolutely cut her off again.
”… consider the possibility of placing Maddie in a special school - and I must say it still could be considered as an adequate and realistic option, Maddie´s overall performance being, according to the criteria in use at our establishment, simply too poor for an ordinary passage into her senior year - I nevertheless prefer her to remain in a context where she still has the opportunity to meet and socialize with her old classmates, despite her flagrant change of station. In view, once again, of your daughter´s obviously reduced learning skills, and in addition to the retake of the year, Maddie is to be put part time in the school´s Special Unit for students with special needs. The classrooms in the unit are typically staffed by specially trained teachers, who provide specific, individualized instruction to individuals and small groups of students with special needs. Maddie will get all the help she evidently needs and I´m sure you understand the advantages with this arrangement, Melanie?”
Melanie jerked her head toward the window with half open mouth. Desperate to escape the humiliation she was subjected to, she searched for words.
Sarah cut her off again.
”I want you to pay close attention to the fact that the Unit focuses not only on trying to improve the intellectual skills of the students but also, as a complement - in an attempt to adapt the education toward a more, I would say simple, alignment - offers a certain number of accessible activities destined to develop useful practical skills. Maddie and her fellow girls at the Unit will consequently practice household chores and service related duties. Apart from the three subjects that are emphasized - reading comprehension, correct spelling and simple mathematics - the unit makes use of traditional discipline methods that can be of value in case a student later is transferred to a special school, where a more systemized and strict discipline is maintained. I expect you to take in and fully understand all the regulations in force at the Unit. The staff will go through them from top to bottom with you and, of course, your daughter.”
Melanie was on the verge of crying.
”As you will understand from what I´m explaining to you, if Maddie´s learning disabilities persist the coming year, her placement in a special school will doubtlessly be reconsidered. Only Maddie´s future performance will reveal if it is necessary.”
Melanie winced, feeling a strong urge to give expression to her indignation, realizing the humiliation Maddie was going to suffer. She was sweating heavily.
”Mrs Bronstein, I don´t….”
She was cut off a third time by Maddie´s teacher, now raising her voice slightly.
”There are no buts Melanie, you will tell Maddie that, although you know as well as me that she nor you in fact, don´t have any say in the matter, you welcome the change of status I´m imposing on your daughter. Don´t you Melanie?”
”Yes, Mrs Bronstein,” Melanie answered quickly, her inward revolt fading away.
Melanie´s voice was weak, she felt scolded like a naughty child and again blushed furiously, squirming at her seat. Sarah was constantly repeating Melanie´s name without Melanie even noticing it, she was simply subjected to the effect of it; intense mortification. But Sarah´s lecture was far from being, in her eyes, sufficiently exhaustive.
”Good, Melanie, I can see we´re getting somewhere here, aren´t we?”
Melanie, tears welling up in her eyes, answered promptly.
”Yes, Mrs Bronstein.”
Melanie looked meekly at Sarah but quickly jerked her head away, as she got a glimpse of Sarah´s determined eyes.
”Your signature, here Melanie.”
Sarah pushed the paper closer to Melanie before carefully placing a pen in the middle of it. She had Maddie´s mother firmly secured under her thumb. Silenced by Sarah´s announcement, Melanie slowly lifted the pen and meekly signed, cringing.
Sarah took the paper and carefully put it in a folder. She relished the situation. Melanie, already defeated, was yet to be pushed through new showers of degradation by her posh tutor. The final sequence of abasements that Sarah - driven by a surprising pleasure in pulverizing the poor woman - had in store for her, would send poor Melanie down to unknown depths of humiliation. Sarah wasn´t going to let her go until she provided full evidence of her total submission; Sarah wanted her reduced to tears. And things she wanted was used to get.
”In Maddie´s age group this year, she is fortunately the only one in need of this attention, an argument for us to avoid losing time in correcting Maddie´s schooling. She will therefore immediately be put to work in the Special Unit. I´m saying immediately, which means tomorrow as a matter of fact, and, naturally, for the rest of what´s left of this year.”
Sarah paused, as if suddenly remembering something.
”Oh, by the way, I was told that the older of the two Kim girls has helped Maddie a lot this year, not the least to keep her from being bullied, I understand. Is that so Melanie?
”Yes, Mrs Bronstein”.
”Well, as I´m a personal friend of the Kim family through my husband, who is Mr Kim´s business partner, I happen to be perfectly aware of the fact that Maddie next year will find herself in the same class as the younger daughter, Heather. I´m told that she, if possible even more than her sister, is one of our school´s most successful students, in every respect, of course admired by all her classmates. Your husband - Max is it?”
Sarah continued without bothering to wait for the answer despite a tentative movement from Melanie, remaining silent though.
”- contacted me to express the suspicion that the girl, Heather, would be a bully, intimidating among others your daughter, an accusation I immediately found unjustified and therefore questioned. To get to the bottom of this I decided to get in touch with Mrs Kim, who calmly but firmly rejected the suggestion. I hope this dispute will not lead to any further trouble for Maddie next year, she will probably have enough problem trying to cope with her new station in our school and Heather will hopefully not let herself be influenced by the action taken by your husband, turning it against Maddie. Being popular and tough does´t mean your a bully, and accusations without foundation is not what we need in our school, I´m sure you share my opinion here Melanie?”
”Yes, Mrs Bronstein.”
Melanie felt helpless, she knew Max was right about Jenny´s sister - Maddie had in fact suffered countless intimidations by Jenny´s sister - but she didn´t have neither the courage nor the necessary verbal capacity to argue with Sarah. Her lecture kept going.
”Now, the D-Unit, as we sometimes call the Special Unit, is located in the low wooden building next to the main building. I have decided to introduce Maddie to the staff and to the students currently placed at the Unit early tomorrow morning shortly after 8.30 and you´re summoned to come with Maddie at 8 o´clock to my office, that is, you will wait for me to receive you, outside my office. Understood?”
”Yes, Mrs Bronstein.”
”I will make sure Maddie´s given enough time to get properly dressed in the regulation uniform she is expected to wear for her ordinary lessons at the Unit. For recess Maddie will wear the outerwear required at all times at the Unit. You will have no worries about her protection at recess in case of bad weather, as all students wear proper rainwear when they´re outside, which is very often the case.”
”I have to admit it, the rainwear is maybe not what an 18-year old student would chose, but it´s practical, and, as I said, it is the required outfit for recess at the Unit, whatever the weather. Most of the students there are quite a bit younger than Maddie, and at the moment the decision was taken to place Maddie at the Unit, I found out that there was neither uniform nor outerwear that would fit her size. I therefore personally made sure this was taken care of by ordering custom-made clothing for your daughter. She will have two sets she can combine herself, to a certain extent the way she prefers, as long as she mixes the colors, a hallmark for the Unit. There´s one pink and one light blue set, which means either blue coat and pink pants or the opposite.”
Sarah paused again.
”Stand up Melanie,” she suddenly commanded.
Melanie quickly complied and stood up.
”Your arms neatly by the side.”
Melanie obeyed submissively.
”Where was I……… right, it is a set, the raincoat goes with a matching bib pant to ensure a thorough protection. Maddie will have to wear rubber boots as well, I have all of the items ready for you here in my office and once dressed properly in her uniform we will, before joining the Unit, pass by her classroom , I want her classmates to be informed about Maddie´s new schooling. They will be waiting for us at 8.15 and I´ll make sure everybody is on time.”
Sarah stared with eyes widening and a beaming smile at Melanie.
”At 8.30 we will come back to my office to get Maddie dressed in her outerwear before we go to the Unit to get her introduced. Now if you´ll excuse me, I´m busy and I will have to ask you to leave.”
Melanie was in shock, she nervously motioned to leave but froze for a second in a awkward posture.
”Good luck Melanie, and goodbye. You too, you´ll be punctual tomorrow.”
Melanie hesitated with a pained expression before politely answering Sarah, her voice weak.
”Yes Mrs Bronstein, goodbye Mrs Bronstein”, Melanie said, with a discrete but noticeable curtsy, taking Sarah by surprise.
Sarah couldn´t hold back a snicker as Melanie leaft the office almost stumbling, devastated.
Melanie came home tears flowing down her cheeks. Tears of anger and humiliation. She told Max what had happened, before letting Maddie know. Maddie listened with big eyes, not only ashamed but also anxious. She knew very well what a retake of a year combined with constant visits to the Special Unit would do to her social status in her class. Everybody knew why certain kids were sent there. The unit was also called ”Disability Unit” and it´s location in a separate building, made it popularly known as the ”Dunce-house”. Maddie dreaded the coming day although her mother, despite the orders Sarah had given her, didn´t give any details about Maddie´s excruciating predicament.