Story: The Physics Class


This story was originally published in “Footprints for Mothers and Daughters” (HarperCollins) in May 2011.   Night school. The drone of a lecture in the darkness; students a little surly, a little soiled with the day’s dust and sweat; teachers a little grey, a little grim as they too hurriedly gulped at tuna sandwiches and warmed-over pasta at break-time. There was little pleasure in it for any of us, but that was night school. We all needed something. The teachers needed a little extra money; I needed one last high school credit to graduate on schedule.It was Dad who usually picked us up from night school. Outside it was dark and cold, and we would huddle in the narrow corridor and watch like owls for the yellow headlights of the old ’86 station wagon. There it is! The car! The car! we would yell, and madly clamber into it. Free for another week.

 

At home there was a warm kitchen, a hot dinner, and a bone-crushing hug from the cuddliest, most devoted mother in the world. There was dinner until homework and homework until bed-time, and that was life twice a week until the night that Mr. Heald, our night school teacher, made an announcement. “Guys, I know that this could be hard on some of you, but I think it’s fair to tell you that we might have to cancel physics this year,” he said.

My heart sank. I absolutely couldn’t lose this credit.

“But why?” asked my sister.

“I’m sorry guys,” said Mr. Heald mildly when he saw ten faces fall. “The powers that be don’t like the low enrollment in this course.”

Then he turned around and delivered a lecture on momentum to the wall. Physics was tough, and Mr. Heald didn’t help. He was a nice man with a head of snowy white waves, but his voice was the dull, neutral buzz of a fluorescent light-bulb. By break-time that night, two people were serenely asleep.

 

We were morose that night. “What’s wrong, darling?” said Mum.

We told her.

“But you were on schedule to graduate this year,” said Dad, frowning.

“I know that,” I said bleakly.

“They’ll cancel the class just like that?” asked Dad.

“How should I know?” I returned, a little grouchy. It had been a long night.

“Well,” said Mum, with her habitual good cheer. “Perhaps things will improve next week.”

I recalled Mr. Heald’s soporific classroom and shook my head. “I doubt it.”

And they didn’t. The following week, enrollment in Mr. Heald’s night physics class had dropped to six. Six! We sat in the classroom like a handful of peanuts in an enormous nutshell and listened glumly to a lecture about momentum. “This is it, guys,” said Mr. Heald at break-time. “Seven is the absolute bare-bones minimum. If we don’t get at least more person by next week, class is permanently dismissed. I’m really sorry.”

 

We were crestfallen. It seems funny now that I am so irreversibly ensconced in adulthood, but we were as sober as midnight when we broke the news to our parents.

“Don’t worry, sausage-mausage,” said Mum kindly, with her usual impeccable enunciation. “It’s not the end of the world.”

“Nothing ever works out,” I said. The grievances of a teenager are absolute. “Now I’ll never graduate on time. No one will ever sign up for physics, especially not night physics and especially not with Healdy teaching it.”

“Healdy?” queried Mum.

“Mr. Heald.” I mourned. “The boring physics teacher.”

“Right,” said Mum thoughtfully. “Mr. Heald.”

 

Next week, when Dad herded us into the car for night school, there was an unexpected passenger in the station wagon.

“Mum, what are you doing here?” I asked. “You never drive to night school with us.”

Mum grinned like a green-eyed Cheshire cat.

“I’ve enrolled in night school,” she announced.

“WHAT?” my sister and I chorused, in unison.

“Don’t worry, petals. Your father called the school’s night administration and they’ll register me tonight. I’ll just have to pop into the office for a minute. This should pick up the enrollment a bit, shouldn’t it?”

“This is unbelievable!” I exclaimed.

The car scraped into the school parking lot. “Bye kids.” said Dad cheerfully.

“Come along, petals,” bustled Mum, gathering up a clipboard and pen. “I don’t want to be late for class.”

 

Mr. Heald lingered for a moment over Mum’s registration form. “You’re not their mother, are you?” he asked her.

“I certainly am, Mr. Heald,” beamed Mum in her magnificent accent. “Isn’t it lovely – my girls can help me catch up with what I missed. And may I have last week’s homework assignment?”

“Of course,” he said, amused but not overly perturbed, and began to lecture about coefficients of friction.

At break-time we pestered him for a verdict.

“Sir! Sir! Do we stay or go?”

“Enrollment is up,” he said, as inscrutable as ever. “I’ll present the case to the administration as attractively as possible.”

“Clip a twenty-dollar bill to it, sir!” hooted someone.

“Do your homework,” he retorted, and ambled towards the office with his usual gentility.

I usually hid in the corridor during break-time, assiduously avoiding everybody but my sister, but Mum was unflappable. “Good evening,” she enunciated to whomever she met, “I’m Olga. And what’s your name?”

Her unaffected charm was irresistible. By the end of break, she was deep in confessional conversation with a young Portuguese boy named Hervoje who was troubled in love. By the end of class, she was peppering Mr. Heald with questions about gravity.

 

One week later, Mr. Heald announced, to considerable fanfare, that we would be allowed to finish the semester in peace. Mum joined us two or three more times after that, and then quietly dropped the course. She was a diligent and curious student of physics, but the reality of the matter was that she had a full-time job, a husband and two more children at home. Mr. Heald sincerely encouraged her to stay, but he was a wise old man and I think he knew the truth all along: that Mum’s enrollment in high-school physics was an act of courage and of some scholarship – but above all, it was an act of love.

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