Judgement-Free Zone

NoteThis is a first draft. I will continue to update the story on the site as I edit it!

“Napoleon’s final defeat. It came on June 18th, 1815. Now, who remembers how many troops Napoleon had amassed at that point?”

The beady eyes of Mr. Lucus Lafonteur scanned his tenth grade history class. Not a single one of his twenty students raised their hands. Not an uncommon occurrence, especially with only five minutes till the bell. Participation naturally declined toward the end of class, and just as he couldn’t stop the sun from rising, he couldn’t stop the time-induced apathy.

“Anyone?” he pressed with his soft voice. The heater rattled as it huffed burnt, musty air into the room. Only the smartest kids in the class seemed attentive----everyone else adopted a relaxed head-in-hands posture. Or head-on-desk, for some.

“Collin, why don’t you try?”

Collin snapped out of his stupor at the mention of his name. Mr. Lafonteur kept the room sweltering, which made him lethargic.

“Fifty thousand?” he guessed.

“Close, Collin. It was actually seventy-two thousand.” Mr. Lafonteur displayed his yellowed teeth as he grinned. They exactly matched the shade of light emanating from the sparse fixtures on the ceiling. The grey whiskers on Lafonteur’s cheeks parted as he smiled, highlighting the wrinkles and cracks in his skin. 

“Look here,” Lafonteur gushed as he trotted around from behind his large, book-riddled desk over to the wall. He flew by his Mercator and Stereographic world maps, and his poster of Hamilton and Washington wearing sunglasses captioned, “Too cool for British rule.” He halted in front of a map of Western Europe. Most of the students’ heads swiveled to follow their teacher as he ran to the map. Nineteen, in fact; all but one. 

The fixed head belonged to Grace Carzik, who preferred to keep it straight down, fixated on her lap. The desks in Lucus Lafonteur’s class were arranged in four columns and five rows. Each desk was its own little island, to increase focus and productivity, as Lafonteur claimed. Grace sat in the back row, second column from the left. Not only was Grace the only one not looking at Lucus, she was also the only student without books on her desk. The chubby girl’s brown hair was kept in an emo swoop, and her bangs hid her soft, dark-brown eyes when she looked down. She had tilted her azure beret to follow her teacher’s path until he stopped, so that he would notice her even less. After she did so, she returned her arms to their usual position. One locked downward, stiff as a board, with her other arm latched onto the elbow of the first. She rubbed firmly up and down along her stuff arm, abusing the fabric of her plaid shirt jacket.

“Just below Brussels, here, is where the Battle of Waterloo took place. 250,000 soldiers, he had, battling all along here,” Mr. Lafonteur exclaimed, as he scraped his finger along the top of the French boarder. “But! Napoleon had to keep 20,000 men back here to avoid an insurrection. Now, who knows what an insurrection is?”

This time, four students raised their hands, to which Lafonteur stood a little bit prouder. He neglected to pick a hand-raiser, though, opting again to scan the class and call on someone else. Hands on hips, the tall, skinny teacher flaunted his grey business attire and faint pit-stains. The overbearing smell of his cologne battled with the foul, musty smell that room 215 always seemed to carry. The result, unfortunately, was just a messy tangle of fragrances that were confusing and repulsive to students’ noses. Ten seconds into the scan, Lafonteur settled his eyes on the anxious, fair-skinned girl shifting around in her seat at the back of the class.

“Grace!” he called.

Grace snapped her head up and stared at her teacher, mouth slightly ajar. Her whole body tensed at the mention of her name.

“Why don’t you take a guess?”

Grace immediately shook her head in refusal of Lafonteur’s request. One she made her intentions clear, she went back to looking down at her lap.

Lafonteur sighed. “Grace,” he coaxed. He heard a snicker in his periphery. The source was Matthew DeMarco, a hooded boy with a buzz cut and an attitude problem. He was lazily slumped over his desk with a devilish smirk.

“Ah, she ain’t worth our time, Teach,” DeMarco jeered, “we all know she ain’t gonna answer.” 

The remark got a few laughs from some of the guys, and scowls from most of the girls. Lafonteur inhaled and exhaled slowly, refraining from addressing DeMarco. 

“Come on, Grace,” he pleaded. “Tell me, what’s an insurrection?”

Grace looked back up at her teacher. Her lip was quivering this time, causing her round cheeks to jiggle. She took a few quick breaths, then softly and politely stammered, “N- No, thank you.” There was fear in her trembling voice, magnified and mocked by the laughter that followed her response.

“Yep, waste of time.” Brian Kazrak, one of DeMarco’s friends, commented.

A redheaded girl the sat in the desk adjacent to Grace, Stella McCullen, huffed in protest at the mockery Grace was receiving. 

“All of you, shut up!” Stella demanded, crossing her arms over her large bosom and donning a grimace. She spoke with a high-pitched, airy voice, but her sheer volume made it fearsome. “Give her time to talk! Fat chance any of you  idiots know the answer, anyway! Grace is smarter than all of you; you have no right to speak.” Stella’s usually pale face was blood-red.

The laughing ceased, and the only other noise that followed was a quiet whisper from the front of the class: Oh shit, Stella’s mad! All the attention made Grace shrink further into her own body. She looked to be convulsing as she sniffled, fighting back the all-too-common flood of tears that was lapping furiously at her feeble walls. Stella reached over and gently placed a hand on Grace’s back, which made her lurch upward. 

Lafonteur stood silently as he watched his class bicker. He traced the length of the scar on the right side of his chin up and down while he figured out how to handle the situation. Stella shook her head back and forth in disgust as the class watched their teacher, more intently than any other point in the lecture, waiting for his reaction.

“Yes,” Lafonteur spoke, making his soft voice as forceful as he could, “nobody should be making rude comments. Just keep quiet and give Grace time to answer the question.” He turned his attention to Grace, knowing at that moment that she wouldn’t look up. But she was listening. “Now Grace, you really should try your best to contribute. Take as much time as you need, but you’re a smart cookie. I know you have the answer I’m looking for!”

Grace stayed firm in her cowered position.

“A violent uprising,” she mumbled, barely audible.

“I’m sorry, one more time, please,” Lafonteur asked.

Grace sniffled and then exhaled.

“A violent uprising against a government.”

“Superb! Great answer. Thank you, Grace.”

She didn’t acknowledge the praise. In fact, she didn’t even hear it. Grace was deeply entangled in the vines of fear and embarrassment. When the vines attacked, they nullified every sense, stopped all movement with insurmountable force, and lacerated Grace all over her body with their razor-sharp thorns. And the dam had officially broke----tears began to run down Grace’s face, though nobody else knew it, yet. Lafonteur strode back over behind his desk. He shoved a stack of assignments aside to make room for his hands, then leaned down atop the thick, vintage Leopold desk.

“Class, please, listen closely. We all, as a team, need to be more understanding and accepting of each others’ issues. Everybody has anxiety on some level. It’s perfectly normal. Some people have it worse than others. But guess what? The people who don’t have it as bad have a bunch of other problems they have to deal with.” Lafonteur sighed, and continued, trying to be as persuasive as possible: “We’re one big community, guys. We need to be committed to helping each other out. That’s the only way the human race can thrive. Otherwise, wars happen! We’ll be repeating the problems of history! And, as I’ve said, what is the second reason we study history?”

“To learn from our mistakes.” The class answered in a lazy unison.

“Stella,” Lafonteur addressed. The pert Irish girl brightened. “Thank you for your kindness and support of Grace. The world needs more girls like you. Class, please take a note from Stella. First, on how to practice respect and patience. Second, on stepping up in the face of malice.”

Stella tilted her head back and forth with a kind of haughty pride. All the while, Grace was pinned by her ever-tightening vines. She couldn’t fully comprehend what Lafonteur was saying, but she heard “anxiety” and her own name mentioned. Each of those brought a thorn-jab to the heart.

Lafonteur delivered the final five minutes of his lecture less enthusiastic than the rest, but the class payed closer attention than ever before. Grace managed to recover enough to return to reality, but movement was sore and strained, and she still shed the occasional tear. Even before the bell, she slipped her backpack around her shoulder and positioned herself on the side of her chair. She always did that at the end of Lafonteur’s class.

He was in the middle of a sentence when the school’s bell rang out in a cadence of major notes. Before he could finish, the class was noisily packing their supplies and rising from their seats. Grace scuttled along the outer wall of the classroom, focused intently on the door.

“Um, Grace!” Lafonteur called.

The girl froze. She turned her head toward her teacher slowly. As students walked though his eyeline, Lafonteur beheld red face and watering eyes of Grace Carzik. She was immobile and beginning to tremble, staring at him wide-eyed.

“I’d like you to stay behind for a few minutes so we can have a chat.”

Grace didn’t react, she just cringed in place as she began to let out more tears. Once the room had cleared out, Lafonteur walked over to the door and closed it. Then he sauntered to the front of his desk and rested on it. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked at Grace with a doleful expression, silent. Lafonteur watched her as she shifted along the wall the rest of the way toward the door, so she was standing right beside it. And, once she reached her destination, Lafonteur continued on watching her. His small chest calmly rose and fell as he stared at the mortified girl by his classroom door. As the silence progressed, Grace cried even more.

“Sit down here,” Lafonteur ordered. He pointed to a desk directly in front of him. His thin skin sagged on his hand, accentuating the bones of his fingers. 

Grace stayed in place Her breathing was rapid and shallow. Lafonteur gazed at her and kept his arm extended. Grace’s lips started quivering again, so she tucked them in atop her teeth in an effort to stop it. Her jaw still shook, though, and she accidentally bit down hard. Grace winced and exhaled, giving in to her teacher’s request to move. Her legs clattered as she slowly walked over to her destination desk. She held her arms firmly crossed over her chest as she moved. Once she got to the chair, she tried a couple times to position it without the use of her hands, preferring them in their current place. After some fumbling, she again gave in and used and arm, quickly taking a seat.

“Grace. I’d really like for you to start opening up and participating more in class. You’re a brilliant student, and you should let yourself shine!”

Lafonteur ended the sentence smiling. But Grace was still trembling, looking at him with fear. His smile dropped.

“I know it’s difficult to combat anxiety. It’s not something that can change overnight. Confidence is something that is slowly gained. But that’s the key. It needs to be constantly worked on, so it can be molded into a tool to build success for your future.”

Grace still wasn’t receptive; just trembling.

“When I was your age, I had to deal with anxiety too. Not just at school, but at my home, too.”

Grace raised her brows. For a moment, she stopped shaking. She met Lafonteur’s eyes and shared a wanton moment of compassion. There was pain in his eyes. Perhaps even… regret? But then, the situation slammed back into her, and she resumed her shaky tear production.

“I know what it’s like to be scared all the time. I had my bullies; I hated school. I would tell my teacher and the principal but they wouldn’t believe me. Then, one day, my bullies beat me up for the last time. Of course, I didn’t know it was the last time. I was still scared. I stayed away from them. Hell, I even slept with one eye open most nights, long after the last time they messed with me. And you know what the point was, Grace? It was the last time. And I should have gotten that through my thick skull a lot sooner.” Lafonteur let out the last sentence in a hiss.

At this point, Grace was sobbing, freely blubbering and letting tears stream out from here eyes. She changed her sitting position, too. She was slouched, arms dangling by her sides; her whole body was nearly limp. It was less defensive and more… submissive. Lafonteur didn’t care, though. He just went on talking.

“The anxiety isn’t worth it. The worrying isn’t worth it. Everyone knows that you’re intelligent and capable of great things, Grace. You just have to shove the problems to the back of your head and bury them there, where you won’t every worry about them again. Then, you can carry on with your life and focus on what’s important. Don’t you want that, honey?”

“Huh?” Lafonteur shouted. In an instant, his eyes became menacing and his jaw clenched. Grace yelped and jerked back in her chair. She shot her arms back up across her chest and pulled her legs up onto the chair. She curled up into a ball and buried her head between her knees.

“Now, you’ve been making some of the other students and teachers concerned with your behaviour. Neither of us want that, Grace. We’ve talked about this before, and I’m sure you remember why it would be a bad thing for both of us if other people got involved.”

Lafonteur stood from the desk and stepped forth to the desk Grace was curled behind. She was wailing into her jeans, but Lafonteur knew she was still listening. She had to listen. 

“So,” he continued, “I highly recommend you do some self-reflection over the next few days and start dealing with these issues as soon as possible. You can do it, Grace, I believe in you. But you need to smarten up and act accordingly. You remember why, yes?”

Again, Grace made no acknowledgment of the question. Lafonteur crossed his arms and shook his head. This girl will be the death of me, he thought. Again, he had to raise his voice. He hated doing it, but when he needed to, he could take his normally soothing, thick voice and turn it into something inhuman; something bloodcurdling.

“You remember why, yes?” he snapped.

Grace rapidly shook her head up and down from it’s cradle in her legs. But that wasn’t good enough for him.

“I want to hear it.”

Lafonteur heard some inaudible sound muffled through Grace’s crotch.

“Louder!” He shouted.

“YES!” Grace screamed. Although her head was still buried, the sheer volume of the word made it crystal-clear to hear. 

Lafonteur smiled. “Good,” he said, calmly. “All is well, you may move on your way. Although, I would highly recommend getting your crying under control first, whether here or in the bathroom across the hall. As usual, make up an excuse if anyone asks you about it. I trust you’re plenty skilled at that by now.” Lafonteur swiftly moved back behind his desk, rolled his brown leather chair up to him, and hopped into it. He began riffling through a stack of papers as he continued: “On second thought, you should probably head to the bathroom to take care of that. My next class starts in two minutes.”

“Well, get out of here!” 

Grace shot up out of the chair, slamming her knee into the desk in the process, and raced to the classroom door. Her path was a frantic, blurred mess, as she knocked aside a few desks and chairs just in the few meters she had to travel. Right before she turned the handle, Lafonteur interjected.

“Woah, woah!” 

Grace stopped, still facing the door, gripping the handle with white knuckles. But she was listening. Lafonteur turned away from his papers, still seated, and attempted to bore a hole in her back with his stare.

“I know I don’t need to say it again, but I feel a friendly reminder is in order at the end of a conversation like that. Just keep in mind, I’ll kill you and your entire family in the blink of an eye if you ever dare tell anybody what I did to you.”

Grace’s knees went week; her grip on the door handle was the only thing that prevented her from collapsing to the floor. Her sobbing became hysterical. Her vision was blurred by her tears, but she was completely blinded by the words that had just cascaded into her ear. The only message her brain was able to communicate to her body was the need to leave Lafonteur’s class and get to a bathroom stall----where she would be for the rest of the day, and a good few hours after school ended, too.

“Have a good day, Grace. See you tomorrow.”

Lafonteur’s farewell faded as Grace stumbled her way out of room 215.

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