By Ruth Dawkins
I stand in line at the bookstore. In one hand is Gould’s Book of Fish; in the other is The Sound of One Hand Clapping.
“Which would you recommend for someone who’s new to Flanagan?” I ask.
“I love Gould,” says the assistant. “It’s a really beautiful book, but not easy. Clapping is good too, it’s more accessible.”
I keep weighing the two books up in my palms; I’ve read neither of them, so have nothing to go on but the blurbs. Which one best encapsulates Tasmania? Perhaps I should buy Narrow Road to the Deep North instead, but it feels like a predictable choice and all the award publicity means there’s a stronger chance he’ll already have it.
“I’ll go with Gould,” I say eventually. “It’s for an English teacher, I’m sure he can handle it.”
Later that day I stand in line again. I’m at the post office this time, holding a brown cardboard box that contains the book, a bottle of whisky small enough to escape the attention of customs, and a short, handwritten note. At the last minute I almost throw in some kids’ candy, and add a line to the note saying my son helped me pack the box, but I decide not to. Making up a cute story about my five-year-old’s involvement will make the whole exercise feel more weird, not less.
I reach the counter, pay forty dollars to send the parcel to Scotland, and then I wait.
A month passes. There is nothing. Then it’s two months, and I try to stop thinking about it, but I can’t help myself. It’s possible that the parcel has gone astray, but it’s also possible that I’ve made a spectacular misjudgement. Perhaps he hates Richard Flanagan. Perhaps he’s a recovering alcoholic and sending whisky is the worst possible thing I could have done. Perhaps he just doesn’t like to hear from former pupils, especially those who used to be in love with him.
Fifteen years earlier, I had been a high school student in a small, Scottish market town. Stuck in that excruciating place between childhood and adulthood, I was a hot bundle of hormones and contradictions. I wore short leather skirts and an orthodontic brace on my teeth. I had soft, pixie-cropped hair, and purple Doc Martens that came up past my ankles.
Most of my friends were already in relationships, making their first fumbling attempts at sex. On Monday mornings the school corridors were full of whispers about what had taken place in car parks and shop doorways over the weekend.
I hadn’t even been kissed. Somehow, I knew that I wasn’t ready for a clumsy, messy, real relationship. Boys my own age terrified me. So my escape – from the town, from an unhappy home life, from the mundane realities of being a book-smart but painfully naïve sixteen year old – had to take place inside my head.
And so I fell in love with my English teacher.
In the back of my journal I kept a list of what I knew about him – the colour of his car, his timetable, his favourite book – as though the possession of such information would somehow bring us closer. One day in class he let slip that it was his birthday, and from then on when I read my horoscopes in glossy teen magazines I looked at his too. I searched for some sign from the cosmos that the next school disco would be the one where he asked me to dance, or that the next time I borrowed a dictionary from the book cupboard he would finally push me against the shelves and kiss me.
High school is a desperately physical place. I’m not sure if the background hum of sexual energy is as loud in the chemistry lab or gymnasium, but in an English class, poring over the details of literature’s great relationships, it is constant.
When we had class straight after recess I found excuses to stand close so I could smell the coffee on his breath and imagine how he might taste. When he leaned over the desk to mark my work, the hair on his arms occasionally brushed against the hair on mine, and something would catch in the back of my throat. I became obsessed with the two-inch strip of pale skin between the top of his sock and the bottom of his trousers that only appeared when he crossed his legs. I even loved the way he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Cute,” I would whisper to a friend, who looked at me as though I was crazy.
Romantically, the relationship only existed in my imagination. He would not – could not – respond to me in that way, and never gave any indication he’d noticed my attempts to get his attention. He ignored the school blouses undone just one button too far, and the suggestive stroking of my pinstripe tie. Occasionally I would fling a card across his desk – Merry Christmas, Happy Birthday, Welcome to Your New Home – before running out of the room, blushing and trembling. They all went unanswered.
But there was a kindness about him that I clung to; he showed a passion for the subject that made him generous with time and attention for those with an interest. When we studied a Scottish writer, Iain Crichton Smith, my teacher asked me to stand up and make a presentation to the class about the Highland background I shared with the poet. I stammered and cringed my way through it, but felt for the first time like maybe I had a perspective worth sharing.
Another semester we studied Norman Macaig’s poems. There is a sweet, tender one called ‘Incident’, in which Macaig writes about making a finger break into blossom for his loved one. Sitting in my English class, I believed it might just be possible to do that.
Everything worth learning in high school, I learned in Room 8. But the most important lessons were ones I didn’t even understand at the time. That I didn’t need to be invisible, but nor should I try too hard to stand out. That I had value beyond my body. That I was smart enough to speak up in a group setting. That I should always choose the more difficult book.
I thought at the time that loving a teacher was the most dangerous and daring thing I could do. In retrospect – because he was a good man – it was probably the safest ways to spend my teens.
Having reached that place of realisation, or appreciation, how could I say it out loud? Thank you for not taking advantage of me, for not making me feel foolish. Thank you for never allowing me to believe that my feelings were reciprocated. Thank you for teaching me that I could be alone with a man and not feel scared.
I couldn’t. Even when I had moved to a new town, and country, and continent, when I was in my thirties with a happy marriage and a young son, and I had finally been able to untangle all the difficult feelings of adolescence, those words were too hard to say. All I could do was buy a book and a bottle of whisky, and hope my small gesture was enough.
Almost three months after I stood in line at the post office, I receive an email, thanking me for the parcel. He is pleasant and polite. He makes a Dr Who reference about the strange ways in which time moves on, tells me he will be taking early retirement in just a few weeks. His plans for life after teaching include travel around Europe, running a half marathon, and learning to code. He’ll do some volunteer work, and is excited by the prospect of going out for dinner midweek.
I realise this is the most I will ever know about him. And also, that I still know nothing. The email offers little sense of who he is; it simply provides an update to the list of information I kept in my journal as a teenager. He remains kind but distant, and I understand that no matter how many years pass our relationship will never move beyond the basic dynamic of teacher and student.
Knowing that I will likely never see this man again – will never just bump into him in the street – makes me brave. I decide to reply to his email, to thank him properly, to say all the things I’ve only just realised need saying.
It takes a week to compose. There is one paragraph that I add and remove almost a dozen times, because I fear it will likely embarrass us both. I leave it out.
Eventually I feel like I have the right words in the right order. I’m nervous, like I’m sixteen again and submitting an essay for marking, but I take a deep breath and hit send.
I know that it will not get a reply. I do not need it to.
There is nothing more he can teach me.
Ruth Dawkins is a writer and Scottish mum of one, currently living in Hobart, Tasmania. She has been widely published on lifestyle and parenting sites in the UK, US and Australia, including the Guardian, Time Out, xoJane, and Scary Mommy.