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I was never any good at biology. I thought I instinctively understood how the body worked and, come exam time, made up grandly narrated stories about red blood cells combining smoothly in the veins like ingredients in marinara pasta sauce. For the photosynthesis diagrams I drew a vase of big, sagging plants drinking up light from a smiling sun, all carefully sketched in with a bright yellow highlighter. It all made sense to me but, needless to say, I didn’t do very well and, after Christmas, I was moved to the front of the class to stop me from getting distracted. [private]
Our classroom was typical of science labs everywhere: grey, draughty, three rows and three columns of inexplicably high stools, a trolley of brightly coloured chemicals. Our teacher, Mrs Bevan, was one of those women who paint makeup around their features rather than on so she always resembled the colouring book of a toddler unable to stay within the lines. For the first time in my life I was with the bad children, the other boys – and they were mostly boys – who were also notorious for getting distracted.
And I was a welcome distraction for them. The whole hour and a half they would torment me, steal my notebooks and fill them with obscene doodles, poke me in the ribs with pencils, make crude references to the length of my skirt or the colour of my hair. One boy, Ben, had a particularly nasty habit of flicking my shirt up, exposing my back to the entire classroom behind us. I can’t say why this bothered me so much. It wouldn’t upset me now but at fourteen your skin crawls more easily.
Mrs Bevan never saw the act itself, only my reaction.
“Maia Jenkins,” she’d hiss. “Eyes to the front and stop squealing.”
Ben and the other boys would crouch behind the assembled wall of their open ring binders, collapsing in paroxysms of silent laughter as I pulled my shirt down and tried not to cry.
One afternoon, Mrs Bevan took one of the clear liquids from the trolley of lurid chemicals. “I’m going to place a small amount on your finger,” she announced, holding up a pipette. “Then you’re to rub your finger and thumb together. You will notice a powdery feeling. This is because the liquid is mildly corrosive.”
Mrs Bevan distributed the liquid. Ben gave me a horrible grin. I felt my skin lightly dissolving as I pressed my finger against my thumb.
Many years later, Ben and I became friends and, gradually, something a little more than that. His smile became kind; his laughter, gentle. The first time I let him pull up my shirt – all the way over my head this time – I couldn’t stop thinking about those difficult first biology lessons, that clear, mildly corrosive liquid, and how I’d shivered to think what a whole bottle could do. [/private]