The desk-mounted pencil sharpener made a scraping noise as I carefully turned the handle. I bit my lip as the lead filings and curly strips of shavings with their zigzag red edge piled up inside the plastic container.
Please don’t snap again, I silently pleaded, but a second later the handle went loose and whizzed around. My heart sank as I gazed at the short stub of pencil that was left. I flicked a glance over at Mr. Jay. He was just finishing writing on the blackboard, getting ready for our Maths lesson. I looked back down and started again, knowing for sure that I was in trouble. I’d been away from my desk for far too long, but I couldn’t sit back down without a pencil that worked either.
Mr. Jay banged the chalk down on the blackboard ledge. It made me jump.
“Right, 4B. Sit down, quiet down and pay attention. Today we’re learning long division,” he said in his loud, sharp voice.
There was the scraping of chairs and the background murmur of the classroom stopped. Panicking, I pulled the pencil out of the machine hopefully. It was just about sharp enough. Keeping my head down, I turned towards my desk.
“Jenny, why are you still standing there? How long does it take to sharpen a pencil?” My. Jay said. His face was impatient and bad-tempered, as usual.
I froze, hating that the whole class was now looking at me. “It kept breaking, Mr. Jay,” I explained. My voice came out all squeaky.
Mr. Jay strode over and grabbed the pencil. He towered over me, his arms and legs muscular in his navy blue tracksuit, like a boxer. One eyebrow went up, followed by the other as he brought the stub close to his face.
“This pencil was new on Monday, Jenny. How has it got into this state so quickly? Pencils aren’t cheap, you know.”
“I lost it, sir. That’s my old one,” I told him.
“Lost it, how?” he demanded. I gulped and glanced towards Becky Evans, who sat opposite me. I was scared to tell him that Becky had tricked me into showing it to her yesterday and then refused to give it back, but my parents had taught me that lying got you into even more trouble.
“Becky took it,” I said.
Mr. Jay sighed and turned to Becky. “Is this true, Becky?” he asked.
“No, sir. Here’s mine,” Becky lied, her dark eyes big and innocent. She held up a pencil that was half used, not nearly brand new like mine had been.
“Please, sir, it’s true,” I said desperately.
“Why would Becky take your pencil when she has a perfectly good one of her own?”
“I don’t know, sir,” I replied hopelessly. I didn’t know why Becky did these mean things; I couldn’t think what I’d done to deserve it. Last week she’d torn up her own rubber and put it in my ink well, then told Mr. Jay I’d done it.
“Jenny, I thought I made it clear last week that if you have trouble with your equipment you only have to ask me for help or a new one. There is no need to lie.” He threw my old stub across the room, where it landed in the bin with a clatter, then got a new pencil out of his desk drawer and handed it to me. “You can clean the blackboard again after class. Now go and sit down, you’ve wasted enough of the class’s time already.”
Trying not to cry, I hurried to my desk and sat down. Becky glared at me smugly. I couldn’t bear to look at the rest of the class although I knew that most of the faces would be sympathetic. The smooth paint of the new pencil felt comforting, but it didn’t help. I was confused. Mr. Jay had just said to ask for help, but also that pencils weren’t cheap, and when Tim Brown had needed two new pencils in two weeks, Mr. Jay had lectured him in front of the class about how his parents didn’t work hard to pay tax for his education just so he could waste the school’s resources.
“Similar to long multiplication, which some of you managed to grasp last term, long division is used to divide large numbers,” Mr. Jay said.
He picked up the chalk and pointed to the sum on the board. I recognised the lines going up and across with one number outside and one under the line, and felt hopeful. I’d found division hard but eventually understood it. Long division turned out to be much harder, though. You had to split the number inside up and then the sum went down the page, like in multiplication. The first example wasn’t complicated because it had round numbers in it, but after that I got lost.
Twenty minutes later so had most of the rest of the class.
“Come on, year 3 could do this,” Mr. Jay bellowed.
I knew that couldn’t be true. For the third time he rubbed out the whole sum with brisk strokes, banged the blackboard eraser down and wrote it out again, the chalk clicking and squeaking painfully. I wished that Mr. Jay would explain things better rather than just write it all out again. It was like he rubbed out the little bit I understood with it. 425 divided by 25. I stared at the large white numbers, desperately trying to make sense of them but too scared of being picked on to answer to be able to concentrate.
“Chloe Harper. What’s the next step?” Mr. Jay asked.
Chloe sat at a different group of desks to me. I looked across, feeling relieved and sorry at the same time. Chloe reminded me of a little mouse, with her long, light brown hair and big brown eyes. She pursed her mouth in concentration and frowned at the board.
“Is it 2 divided by 25?” she said in her soft, quiet voice.
“No,” Mr. Jay said shortly. “Maybe if you stopped playing with your hair, you’d pay enough attention to learn something.” Chloe dropped the strand of hair she was twirling and her face fell. I had to look away.
Mr. Jay looked at his watch in frustration. “Well, the lesson is nearly over. Becky, tell this lot what the next step is, please.”
“Yes, sir. You bring the two down and do 42 divided by 25,” Becky answered.
“Correct,” Mr. Jay said. Becky looked smug as he went through the rest of the steps, drawing a line under the answer with a flourish. “I can see we’ll have to do this again next time.”
I sighed gloomily. Chloe’s bottom lip was still wobbling. It was so unfair! If you were already good at Maths and PE, Mr. Jay liked you. People like Becky, who could also bend her body in gym in ways I could only dream of, and nice Nicky Brockhouse who played for the school football team.
I sneaked a glance out of the window and felt a spark of hope because the clouds that had been gathering all morning looked very grey. I hadn’t learned to tell the time properly yet, but I knew that when the long hand reached twelve it would be time for PE.
Please let it rain, I silently prayed.