Ms Whelan And The Line Of Shoes

When I was in grade ten, I had an algebra class in the afternoon housed in this dim little classroom that was hemmed in by grey-brown brick walls. The teacher, Ms Whelan1, was cursed with half of our small class being comprised of eleven of the worst boys who had grown up together through elementary school. They swore, taunted, threw erasers, and generally made it difficult for a Poindexter like myself to learn math. I had to start sitting at the back of the room just to avoid the experience of having chunks of chalk pinged off the back of my head.

I easily scored 90s in most subjects and was on the school honour roll that was posted in the hallway outside the principal's office, but algebra felt unnatural to me, and my brain railed against the seeming nonsense of imaginary numbers and negative exponents of variables. Ms Whelan was patient with me, though, and helped me navigate my way through formulae while Jason and Jason and Todd wrestled over stolen magazine porn and pencilled the word poontang along the pages edge of their textbooks.

Ms Whelan fascinated me. Whereas other teachers tried to be jocular with their students, like Mr. Wilson2, a science teacher who made six-shooters with his fingers and alluded to youthful indiscretions, Ms Whelan was reserved. She spoke of nothing but algebra, but something about her hyper-conservative appearance and how she held herself spoke of much more than differential equations. She wore her coarse, black hair parted in the middle and held together in a bun at the back. She wore only black or grey skirts, each of which came to below her knee, and each of her blouses had long sleeves and buttoned up the front to her neck. Each outfit was completed with a pair of black pumps.

It was rumoured that she had been a nun in Quebec before she left her order under mysterious circumstances. I wanted to know what would make her leave her old life thousands of miles behind her to pursue a career that involved this unruly group of teenagers corralled into a gloomy room. While we worked on equations, she stood off to the side, hands clasped behind her, toes inward, lips pursed. If there was a story to tell, she was keeping it to herself.

One day, I came to class several minutes early. The room was empty, so I let my curiosity get the better of me and wandered across the room to the green cupboards with sliding doors that lined one end of the room. I slid one of the doors back with my toe to reveal a pair of black pumps. I slid it a little further, and there was another set of pumps nearly identical to the first. I gave the door a quick kick, and it banged open along its rail to show a line of six or seven interchangeable pairs of black, low-heeled shoes. They were all just shy of brand new and perfectly perpendicular to the cupboard door's track. I noted that the spacing between each pair looked measured.

There was something wrong with Ms Whelan. I could not put my finger on it, but the creeping heat that spread up the back of my neck confirmed it. Until that moment, she had seemed fastidious. Now her wardrobe of identical somber outfits and nearly new shoes made her seem psychotic.

"Hello," Ms. Whelan said.

I jumped. She had entered the room without a sound and had watched me snooping through her cupboards. I don't know how long she had been standing there.

"Um, hi."

She walked the length of the room and gently slid the cupboard door closed.

"Did you find what you were looking for?"

"No," I said. "I was looking for extra paper."

"No you weren't," she said.

The bell rang, and Jason and Jason and Todd and everyone else filled the room. I expected her to pull me aside when class ended, but she did not. Then, I expected her to pull me aside before the next class began. She did not.

Instead, the odd teacher who had so patiently guided me through algebra now seemed menacing, which impression was fomented by the fact that she took to occasionally looming in an office doorway near my locker. Something about my finding her shoes had apparently sparked more interest in me. My fertile imagination and I began to suspect that she had left the nunnery for an unrequited lesbian love, which obsession she had transferred to me, thoroughly risking her mission as a spy for the Bavarian Illuminati, or maybe I was just paranoid. At any rate, I chose to skip every other algebra class and come late to those I did attend to avoid being in the room alone with her. Whatever was up with Ms Whelan, I was going to avoid it, Bavarian Illuminati or not.3

One day, she approached me in the hall between classes. "Do you smell gas?" she said.

"No," I said, absently flicking my lighter.

Then, we blew up.4

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1 Her actual name escapes me at the moment, which I'm kind of glad about, because otherwise I would have used her real name without thinking about it, and she would have googled herself, because we all do it, and for some reason I find my old attachment to my creepy algebra teacher embarrassing.

2 My science teacher's real name has also been lost to time. It's probably due to the post-traumatic stress I've suffered ever since he made me rub the fur from a skinned cat up and down a glass rod in order to demonstrate something about static electricity to Ming, a Vietnamese immigrant without a lick of English who just smirked through the whole thing. I felt like the punchline to a dirty joke.

3 Ms Whelan's strange looming was creepy, but that's about where the story ends. She stayed creepy, I passed algebra, and then I left that school at the end of grade ten, never to see her tidy, black pumps again. There's just not much to talk about when a stalker does little more than loom and give you polynomial equations homework.

4 I figured that this entry needed a stronger conclusion, but I felt like I'd hit a dead end, so the Palinode helped me out with the explosion bit. He says that blowing up all your main characters is a viable end to any story.