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The Empty Chair

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All the other kids love Cecil and he will always find time to learn with them, spend playtime with them or even just be there when they need him at school.

Fantasy / Humor
Jeremy Garner
Age Rating:

The 'New' Kid

“Mr Freeman! Do you have a minute?” Miss Bridge called down the corridor as the more experienced teacher was heading into the staffroom at breaktime. Her tightly pulled blonde ponytail swung behind her as she jogged athletically to catch him up.

“Ah, Miss Bridge. How are things with you and the little monsters in 3G?” He smiled with mirth at the description - truth be told, 3G were one of the best behaved classes the school had at present.

“They are a genuine delight to teach,” she spoke proudly, like a parent might, “but I’m a bit worried about them.”

“Oh. How so?”

“I read recently about a phenomenon called ‘collective imagination’, have you heard of it?” She spoke earnestly and Mr Freeman could tell she was expressing genuine.

“I seem to recall a paragraph on it, in amongst last month’s EJM.” Mr Freeman didn’t find much in Educator’s Journal Monthly to give much credence to, but the headmistress put pressure on them to read it. “Why do you ask?”

“The children have been speaking lately of a boy that I can’t seem to find a record of in the registers. I’ve checked all the year groups so I know he’s not currently enrolled. But they are fixated with this boy’s presence - he plays with them, he sits with them in class and helps them when they get stuck and just last week Timmy came back from one of his crying fits saying that this boy had sat with him and just listened to all his worries. Timmy’s like a changed lad!”

Mr Freeman scratched at his chin thoughtfully and pondered the situation carefully. “And this is coming from just two or three children, including young Timmy?” Mr Freeman had taught 3G the previous year and was hoping to teach them again in a couple of years time - he knew Timmy could be delicate at times.

“No,” she shook her head as she spoke, “it’s all of them.”

“All of them?” Mr Freeman couldn’t contain his surprise, but he always composed himself quickly. “And you’re wondering if it’s this ‘collective imagination’?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Mr Freeman struggled to recall the details behind the theory. “Refresh me of the concept please.”

“Two child psychologists believe that children around the beginning of Key Stage 2 have developed enough social skills to make friendship groups effectively but sometimes, in the process of normal joint play, they may invent or imagine an extra child to be part of their group. They go on to suggest that the imaginary child will be superior to them all, but help them both collectively as a group and as individuals.”

Mr Freeman did his best not to roll his eyes - nonsense like this came round every few years or so and the younger teachers always bought into it much easier than the seasoned ones. “I’ve been teaching for almost 15 years, in 3 different schools, to different years groups and in more than one part of the country. This is not something that I have witnessed in my time.”

Miss Bridge put her hands on her hips and failed to contain most of her indignance. “How can you explain almost 30 children all having the same imaginary friend...” Her voice tailed off as the deputy head, who was also Key Stage 2 Coordinator, strode into the room and purposefully made her way to the kettle.

“Ah, Mrs Travis,” began Mr Freeman, “perhaps you may like to offer an opinion for Miss Bridge.”

Mrs Travis spoke at her rapidly filling coffee mug, but her voice carried well over her shoulder. “I’ll help if I can.” She replaced the kettle and turned to face the two younger teachers.

Mr Freeman continued, “Miss Bridge is concerned that her entire class of 29 children are suffering from...”

“Collective imagination,” Miss Bridge interjected with the correct terminology to ensure it was clear.

“Yes, that’s right.” As Miss Bridge was looking at Mrs Travis, Mr Freeman took the opportunity to utilise that eye roll of his and shake he head slightly as he went on, “She believes that they all have the same imaginary friend.”

Mrs Travis’ eyes brightened and she beamed with excitement. “Oh, is Cecil back?” she enquired.

There was an uncomfortably long silence while neither of them answered the question.

Miss Bridge spoke first, “Now you mention it, that is the name I’ve heard a few of them mention. Some of the parents had asked about this ‘Cecil’ too, after their children had referred to him at home, helping them in different ways.”

Mr Freeman remained silent - it was clear he was unsure what either of them was talking about.

“Mr Freeman,” asked Mrs Travis, “you’ve been with us for around 6 years now?”

“Will be six years when next July rolls round, yes.”

“I think it has been around 7 or 8 years since I last heard of Cecil.” Mrs Travis took a long drink of coffee as Miss Bridge’s look became more exasperated.

“But,” Miss Bridge gathered herself and her thoughts, “who is Cecil?”

“Cecil used to go to school here.” Mrs Travis was clearly very happy about the situation, “Lovely boy, great friend to the students.”

“Did he leave and then come back? How old is he?” Miss Bridge was talking a little faster now in her impatience to understand that which she did not know.

“He’s 7 years old. That’s why he always comes back to Class 3G.” Mrs Travis doing her best not to smile behind her coffee mug.

“He always comes back to 3G?” Miss Bridge spluttered the question, “But he’s not on my, or anyone else’s, register?”

Mrs Travis now took her own moment before she spoke carefully and slowly. “Now I want you to stay calm,” she began, “Cecil...is the Class 3G ghost.”

Mr Freeman’s jaw dropped, pretty much in time with his half full coffee cup, which summarily smashed on the tiled floor. Miss Bridge went very pale and put her hand out to ensure she sat, rather than collapsed, onto the staff room sofa.

“There’s a gh...gh...gh...ghost in my class??!!”

Mrs Travis had witnessed these reactions before and possibly enjoyed the moment of realisation a bit too much. She sat slowly down next to Miss Bridge and gestured for Mr Freeman to occupy one of the armchairs opposite.

“Now, now.” Mrs Travis started to comfort the much younger educator, “Cecil is not one of those spooky, ‘scare-the-heck-out-of-you’ ghosts. He’s a friendly ghost, which should be confirmed by all the positive things the children say about him.”

“How did you know that the children get on with him?” None of this was making sense to Miss Bridge. Mr Freeman remained silent.

Timing is everything, as they say, and there was suddenly a heavy shuffling noise as a deeply hunched stout lady passed the staffroom door.

“Ooh, perfect timing!” Mrs Travis squeaked animatedly and called out the passing staff member, “Mrs Perry! Could we borrow you for a moment?”

It took more than a moment for Mrs Perry to shuffle back into the room, to join the others.

“Mrs Travis? You called?” The newcomer’s voice was deep and she looked all of her 60-plus years - she was almost an honorary staff member these days and taught very little. Mr Freeman himself couldn’t figure why the old teacher hadn’t yet taken retirement.

“Yes, Mrs Perry. Thank you for coming back.” Mrs Travis was getting excitable again, “Miss Bridge has just brought it to my attention that young Cecil has joined her class this year.”

It was like a switch was thrown in in Mrs Perry - her posture improved markedly, she smiled a smile that spoke of happier times and her voice gained three octaves. “Really? That’s excellent news!” She gestured to Miss Bridge, “You are a very lucky girl. Cecil is a lovely boy”

“That’s what I was just telling her,” confirmed Mrs Travis.

Miss Bridge was gradually regaining some composure, although she wasn’t quite ready to stand up yet. “Cecil helped the pupils when you taught Class 3G too?“, she enquired.

“My dear, Cecil was in Class 3G when I was a pupil!” It was clear that Mrs Perry quite enjoyed the revelations that followed Cecil’s presence too.

Even Mr Freeman gasped at this latest news. “He used to sit with different pupils every day,” Mrs Perry elaborated, “although it wasn’t a routine or anything. He was such a bright boy, brilliant at drawing and he never fell out with anyone.”

Mrs Perry looked off into the distance, casting her mind back almost 60 years, “He used to draw the most magnificent things on the playground with chalk.” Her voice was wistful at the memory, “He said he used to take chalk from the classroom, out into the playground. If he couldn’t get that, he would find a piece of limestone in amongst the stony area at the bottom of the field and use that instead. Even when I was a girl and he was here but not here, he would still produce drawings that us kids could see.”

Miss Bridge had questions. “Do any of the teachers see him?“, she asked, “Do you still see him?” She gestured at Mrs Perry and hung on every word of her reply.

“Oh, no dear,” a hint of sadness crept into her voice, but her smiled stayed on her face, “It’s only ever the children of Class 3G that see Cecil. No other class in the third year and no other year group will see him. I was in Class 3G back in the early 60′s - with everything that was going on the world at that time, Cecil was the perfect distraction.”

Miss Bridge turned to Mrs Travis, “Have you seen him?” She suspected the answer that came.

“I didn’t go to school here, so I’ve only heard about Cecil.” It was her turn to gesture at Mrs Perry, “Like Mrs Perry says, nobody ever has a bad word to say about him. We have lost teachers who’ve been unable to understand or cope with the situation though.”

“I can’t imagine why,” muttered Mr Freeman, perhaps somewhat sceptically.

“How long has been been here as a...that is to say, in his...er...spiritual form?” Miss Bridge seemed to coming around to the concept at least.

Mrs Travis indicated for Mrs Perry to take up the story, “The school has been around for about 130 years, opening just before the turn of the 20th Century,” she began, “Cecil was a student within those first 10 years, although obviously he passed away whilst he was still here.” She paused, “At the age of 7, in the third year, if that wasn’t totally clear.”

Miss Bridge put her hand to her mouth and gasped, “Oh goodness, poor child!“, she stifled a sob as she asked the most obvious next question, “What did he die of?”

Mrs Travis looked to Mrs Perry as she spoke, “Polio, I believe? Is that correct?”

Mrs Perry nodded sadly, “That’s right. Lot of it around back then, and well into the century too. He was a fighter to the end, never lost his bright spirit - I think that’s why he makes such a delightful ghost.”

That word again had a similar effect as previously and Miss Bridge swallowed hard before she spoke again. “Whatever am I to do? How can I shape a class of young minds knowing full well that a ghost I can’t see is sat in the room?” Hysteria could be right around the corner if the reply wasn’t spot on.

Mrs Perry and Mrs Travis both took on soft expressions, as the elder of the two spoke calmly, “Ask yourself what has changed with this news? He isn’t disruptive, he is one of the most positive influences these students will ever have, and you may find that you can use knowing he is there to really liven up your teaching!” She hesitated before adding, “If you’ll pardon the pun.”

Mrs Travis put her own spin onto the situation, “The fact that Cecil has joined your class is something special - he may be here for the students, but he’s not in every Class 3G.”

“How often does he come back?” It was clear that Miss Bridge was starting to accept things as they were.

Mrs Perry had seen more of it than most and continued with the soft tone, “It varies. Usually three or four Class 3G’s out of every ten will have Cecil join them. That said, it’s been almost a decade since he was last here and some of the staff in the know are worried that soon enough he may never come back.”

“What can I do to help prevent him disappearing forever?” Now Miss Bridge was getting it; Mrs Perry and Mrs Travis smiled at each other. The vision of Miss Bridge’s locker standing empty at the end of the day and scratching around for a supply teacher were looking less likely.

“Embrace the situation. Use it in your teaching, let the children know that you know, and include him when you can.”

Miss Bridge nodded, thinking it through, calculating out how it could work. “Okay.” Inside her head, she calmly said the words ‘I can do this. I can teach an invisible child.’

That afternoon, the children of Class 3G filed back into their classroom, tired but happy after a sunny breaktime. They chatted amongst themselves and Miss Bridge let them as they wended their way to their seats, a wry smile turning the edges of her mouth up in prospect of the afternoon lesson. Once they were all seated, she gestured for hush.

“Now children, this afternoon’s lesson will go a little differently than usual - we are going to practice our spelling.” Murmurs greeted the announcement, but only one child was brave enough to speak out loud.

“But Miss,” complained a freckled child sat towards the back of the room, “we did spellings yesterday and we are supposed to do them tomorrow!”

“I know, Ralph,” Miss Bridge identified the boy as one of the less confident pupils when it came to words and spelling, “but I want to try something different, to make sure that every one of you is included in all the lessons going forwards.” She smiled again in anticipation.

“Take out your spelling books please and turn to a fresh page.” The children acquiesced and the scraping of trays drowned out any further grumbling. Miss Bridge glanced at the fresh book upon her desk, set aside for her newest student.

“Okay,” she began, “I want you to write today’s date at the top of the page and then set your pens down. I also want to hear no talking as the lesson begins.”

Class 3G did what was asked of them and sat quietly awaiting the next instruction. Miss Bridge took a moment to appreciate the silence. Let’s just hope this works, she thought.

“Hands up if you can spell the word ‘see’?“, she asked, “As in ’I can see the whiteboard’.” Every hand went up, no hesitation.

“Okay. Very good.” She smiled again and moved on, “Hands up all those who can spell the word ‘view’? As in ’there is a good view from the window’.” A couple of hands went down and Miss Bridge made a note to spend some time with those pupils.

“Excellent. Now, hands up if you know the word ‘vision’? Think about people who wear glasses, they struggle with their vision." She gestured with her hand around her eye to enunciate her point. More hands went down - that word was a bit trickier but still quite a few remained who were confident.

“Fantastic!” She paused again for effect and launched into the next question, “What about ‘ghost’? Who can spell the word ‘ghost’?” There was a very hushed murmur near the back of the class. “Ah, no talking remember. The word ‘ghost’, as in ′ghosts can be very friendly’.” All but six hands went down.

“Ralph,” addressed Miss Bridge, ” how many hands remain please?” She watched him scan the room for raised hands, noticing him stop briefly at an empty seat.

“Seven, miss.” Miss Bridge smiled again, glad that her idea was working.

“Ralph,” she began, “I can see that your hand isn’t raised. Nor yours, Janey.” She gestured to a girl on the other side of the classroom, “Perhaps the two of you could come up to the board and help me please?”

Both children looked nervously at each other, but did what was asked of them. Walking to the front of the class, they both accepted a whiteboard marker each from Miss Bridge and stood expectantly by the board.

“Now, I chose you both because I needed to know that you couldn’t influence another’s answer.” This was it, she thought, and breathed in before continuing, “I’m going to ask a very particular pupil to spell the word aloud and I want both of you to write what he says, letter for letter, without looking across at each other. Can you do that for me please?”

“Yes, miss.” They replied in unison and removed the caps from their pens, ready to write.

“Good. Now, please can Cecil spell the word ‘ghost’ out loud for me?” There were audible gasps from some children and big smiles from others. Miss Bridge watched both Ralph and Janey as they listened to a voice she could not hear and keep turning round to look at a child she could not see. She didn’t doubt that he was very real to them and she wanted to reinforce that secure feeling Cecil gave the students.

Once they had both finished, they returned the lids to the pens and faced Miss Bridge. “Excellent work, both of you.” She gestured to the class and brought her hands together, “Gold stars for both of you.” She took the gold stars off her desk and handed them one each to keep in their books. She then opened the new book on her desk and placed an additional star a few lines from the top of the first page.

“Matthew,” she addressed a different child this time, “perhaps you’d like to copy Cecil’s spelling from the board and support him with his work for the rest of the day.” She breathed an audible sigh of relief and took out her list of spellings for the lesson, as Matthew came and collected Cecil’s spelling book from her desk. There was no fuss from anyone as children shuffled about so Matthew could sit next to the supposed empty chair - a smattering of jealousy perhaps, but no fuss.

“You’ll each get a chance to work with Cecil over the coming weeks,” she reassured them, “I’ll need your help to understand what he does and doesn’t know.” She beamed at the children and every one of them smiled back at her - she had to assume that Cecil was smiling too.

“Now then class, your first spelling for today is...”

Outside Class 3G, close enough to hear but not near enough to be seen, Mrs Travis and Mrs Perry looked at each other and shared the broad smile Miss Bridge was giving her class at that very moment.

“Think she’ll be okay, Mrs Perry?“, asked Mrs Travis, nodding to her aged colleague.

“I think she will be just fine, Mrs Travis.” Mrs Perry was still carrying herself straighter than before and her voice hadn’t fully returned to the baritone the students were used to.

They turned and headed back to the school office together. Mrs Perry stole a very quick glance over her shoulder one more time as she shuffled away from Class 3G.

“It is so very nice to have Cecil back again.” Such a handsome boy, she thought as she smiled inwardly and added to herself, can’t let on that I can still see him though.

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