Bertram’s eyelids began to droop. It was late afternoon and the warmth of the classroom was making him feel very sleepy. He always struggled in the lesson after eating his lunch and enjoying the fresh air of the playground. It didn’t matter what the subject was, he always felt sleepy in the afternoon.
Molly laughed at him a little as she tried hard to keep him awake, but Bertram’s body was leaning away from the desk and towards the empty space between the classroom tables.
Molly grabbed his arm, pulling him back to an upright position, concerned that the other students were starting to giggle at him, and she desperately didn’t want Miss Petrenko to catch him dozing. It couldn’t be easy for Bertram what with the new baby at home waking him up several times during the night.
‘Today class, we shall take a test, and the results will be added to your end of year grades’ announced Miss Petrenko.
As always, Miss Petrenko took great delight in springing such an important test upon them with no notice at all.
‘Anyone who FAILS the test, will have to re-sit the whole year. You will need to get EVERY SINGLE question right. Anyone who scores LESS than 100% will fail the test. Do you understand?’ Miss Petrenko smiled an evil smile, barely noticeable to anyone, apart from those who really knew her well, and how evil she could be.
The students looked at each other, eyes wide and jaws open. ‘Whaaatttt?’ they mouthed in silence. Surely, she couldn’t do that to them? Could she?
‘Don’t worry’. Exclaimed Angus the class bully, just loud enough so the class could hear him, but not Miss Petrenko. ‘My mum is on the school governors and she won’t let us be held back a year. Not when I tell her what Miss Petrenko says. You just wait and see’.
‘Oh yeah?’ replied a group of students sat on a nearby table. ‘Well if your mum is so powerful, then WHY is Miss Petrenko still teaching us? Everyone knows she isn’t qualified. She only got the job because the head mistress was afraid of her. Why doesn’t your mum tell the governors to give her the boot?’.
Angus’s face turned bright red, right to the tips of his ears. He didn’t like being made a fool of. But he had nothing to say, so he simply turned his back on the students and held his head high, crossing his arms in defiance.
Molly woke Bertram from his unscheduled nap, concerned that Miss Petrenko might catch him. Miss Petrenko would want Bertram to fail more than anyone else in the class. Miss Petrenko couldn’t stand Bertram, and Bertram wasn’t overly fond of her either. She would need very little excuse to fail him.
Bertram picked up his pen, and pulled out a sheet of paper, as Miss Petrenko gave the class instructions about the test. It was to be carried out in COMPLETE silence. There would be no cheating, and the students were required to move their chairs around the tables to ensure that each student was far enough away from their neighbour.
‘Question 1’ said Miss Petrenko. ‘What do we mean by TRANSPIRATION?’ Miss Petrenko rolled the r in the word ‘transpiration’ as she said it loudly and clearly. She knew full well that they had not yet covered this topic in class, and she hoped to punish the students for leaving her behind in the forest during their recent field trip to the River Thames.
The students hadn’t wanted to abandon her at all, but since Miss Petrenko refused to accept that they were walking in the WRONG direction and had decided of her own accord NOT to accompany them as they followed the correct route on the map, they had no choice but to leave her behind in the forest ON HER OWN.
Miss Petrenko was certainly getting her own back on the students now, and they all knew it. They had been waiting for her to get her revenge for a while, and the wait alone had been horrendous. Far better to get their punishment over and done with.
Luckily for the students, they had set up their own revision sessions for geography, teaching themselves in secret because they had been covering the same topics with Miss Petrenko for a full year and knew she would never teach them anything useful for their actual exams.
Miss Petrenko had a nasty habit of springing tests on them at the last minute, just as she was today, so they liked to make sure that they were always prepared for whatever she might throw at them next. It was important to remain one step ahead always, at least where Miss Petrenko was concerned.
Bertram thought back to his revision sessions with Molly. Now what was it about transpiration? He remembered it had something to do with plants, but what was it exactly?
Bertram had a clever little trick for remembering and working out answers when you weren’t exactly sure. A hack that Molly had taught him. When you were stuck on a word, the best thing to do was to think about similar sounding words. By being a word detective, you could often figure out the answer to any question at all.
Bertram thought hard about the word ‘transpiration’. It sounded a bit like the words ‘respiration’, and ‘perspiration’, and he knew that both words meant taking in or getting rid of something, a kind of transfer of moisture.
Bertram remembered it now. Transpiration was the transfer of water from plants, into vapour in the air. He scribbled the answer down on his paper, sure that he had got THAT question right. Phew, what a relief.
‘Question 2. What is a river basin?’. Miss Petrenko sat on the edge of her desk as she read the question out aloud from her clipboard. She looked around the room, raising an eyebrow in the hopes of putting students off as she stared at them intensively, as if she were somehow WILLING them to fail.
Molly breathed a sigh of relief. They had been studying river basins at the weekend and she was hopeful that both herself and Bertram would get this question right. A river basin was the area drained by a river, and it was higher at the edge and lower in the middle.
‘Question 3’. Miss Petrenko went deathly silent, leaving a long, dramatic pause. The students had barely seconds to write down the answer to question 2 and adding the time pressure was her equivalent of tightening the thumb screws as she tortured them with her test. ‘What do we call the large stones that get rolled along the river bed?’
Weirdly, as much as Bertram hated geography lessons with Miss Petrenko, he was starting to quite enjoy them lately and knowing the answers to the questions felt like he was finally starting to get his own back on Miss Petrenko and her bullying of students.
If he studied hard, he might JUST make it through the year, even with her attempts to get him expelled. He scribbled down the answer frantically, as his memory jumped back to walks along the dried-up bed of the River Thames with his aunty Hester, who was a witch of over 100 years old. She had taught him so much about the river lately and it was important that he should understand rivers as much as he could, what with it now being his job, as the last living norn (user of magic) to protect the River Thames from its death.
It was a big responsibility, especially for an 11-year-old boy, but he was turning out to be very good at protecting it from harm.
Bertram visualised the rocks in his mind, as he saw the energetic and powerful river water lift the big rocks and roll them along the river bed. The process he remembered, was called ‘traction’.
Bertram imagined a great big tractor rolling rocks along the ground. It was easy to remember things if you had a picture in your mind, even if the picture was a silly one or not actually true. Bertram chewed the plastic cap on the end of his blue biro, getting ink over himself without realising.
With all the students concentrating and sighing hard, it wasn’t long before the classroom heated up, making the students more irritable and longing for the end of lesson bell to ring.
It seemed like Miss Petrenko’s geography test would never end. She was evidently determined to make sure the students failed and had to stay back a year. Very few students were looking happy or relaxed now, and some seemed to have given up completely. One boy had his head on the table, and was making tiny paper balls from his exam paper, flicking them across the room with his thumb and finger. He looked thoroughly broken as the reality of another year with Miss Petrenko sank in.
‘Question 17. What is impermeable rock?’ Miss Petrenko was walking around the room, stopping from time to time, and turning students’ papers towards her, before giving a little snort and a look of disgust at the pathetic student whose paper it might be.
Usually the students knew the answer and were just about to write it down, but Miss Petrenko’s presence was enough to make them forget even their own name. Some students said that Miss Petrenko had evil powers and that she put a brain freeze curse on you as she walked by, wiping your mind completely so there was nothing left but white blankness.
Bertram wrote the answer on his paper as Miss Petrenko headed towards him. Lest he forget it. ‘Permeable and permeate’ were words that meant something was ‘porous’ that things could travel through it, and words that started with ‘im’ meant the opposite, so ‘IMpermeable’ meant that the rock did NOT let water through it.
Bertram remembered Hester’s explanation of flooding and how she had told him that one of the reasons why rivers flooded was because the rocks in them were impermeable so the water could not go through the rock, and just had to sit on top, and would get higher and higher if the water kept coming.
Hester told him that even though the source of the River Thames was difficult to find, because the water was underground, sometimes when there had been a lot of rain, the water would collect in a large puddle underneath the old ash tree. Once in the 1960s, it had rained so much, and for so long, that some children even managed to kayak across the field and towards the tree.
‘And finally, Question 100. What is a long-term response to flooding?’ Miss Petrenko looked rather pleased with herself.
This question would catch them out for sure. She felt confident they must have all failed the test by now. Her revenge had been served to them, all wrapped up in a neat little bow. That would teach them a lesson! No one messed with Miss Petrenko and came off lightly.
Only a couple of students were still scribbling down answers, as most had asked to be excused from the lesson, suddenly feeling unwell, and others were sat with heads resting on their desks, feeling thoroughly miserable. What was the point in even trying, they had surely failed already. The thought of another year with Miss Petrenko was mortifying.
Only Molly and Bertram still looked calm and happy with their progress. The answer to the final question was easy enough, it was a dam, and Bertram and Molly felt confident that they had gotten all 100 questions correct.
At last, the end of lesson bell rang, and the students hurriedly packed up their things, stuffing them into their school bags as fast as they could. No one wanted to be the last one out of Miss Petrenko’s classroom. No one wanted to be alone with her, not even for a millisecond.
At the end of the school day, Molly and Bertram left the school by the main entrance and waved at Molly’s mum, who was waiting in the car for them outside the front of the school. She didn’t like them to walk home on their own after a long day, and she always enjoyed spending time with them and hearing about their news. Molly smiled and waved at her mum.
‘Hi mum’ said Molly, opening the passenger door and sliding into her seat. ‘Ooh, it’s roasting’. Molly was careful not to burn herself on the faux leather seat covers and metal buckle on her seatbelt against her bare skin. Even with all the car windows wound down it was still hot. Molly wiped the sweat from her forehead.
‘Hi Bertram, how’s your mum getting on with the baby? I bet your all exhausted with the little fella crying all the time?’ Molly’s mum smiled at Bertram as he told her about his new baby brother ‘Clarence’, or ‘Lar’ as Bertram had named him for short.
‘How was geography with Miss Petrenko?’ Molly’s mum asked, pulling a funny face as she did an impression of Miss Petrenko.
Bertram and Molly giggled. It didn’t matter how good or bad their school day had been, life was always perfect as soon as they got into the car with Molly’s mum. She had the power to make them feel that everything was right in the world, even if school had been awful. Molly’s mum looked in her wing mirror, and released the hand brake as she pulled away from the school and drove along the road.
‘I don’t know about you, but I fancy an ice cream, what do you reckon?’ Bertram and Molly couldn’t agree more. It was the perfect plan on such a hot day.