I dangled the necklace from my finger; a hideous tangle of metal and beads, shells and ribbons. “This,” I told the class, “Is your creative-writing assignment. I want a 500 word story that explains why it ended up looking like this.”
“Can we have a closer look, Mrs Williams?”
I handed the necklace to James. It was fun throwing challenges out to these teenagers. They were a bright lot and came up with some crazy answers to my assignments.
“I’d like the essays on my desk first thing Monday and the best one will receive a voucher for the mall.”
The bell rang and they gathered their books, laughing and jostling as they migrated to their next class. Ellie was last one out and I wondered what her story would be about. She was a shadow that wafted around the fringes of the class; easy to overlook and a little different. I wasn’t really surprised when I thought about it. Her mother had been to a couple of parent’s evenings and was decidedly odd.
I was packing away my files when she came back into the classroom. “Would it be alright if I photograph the necklace, Mrs Williams?” I lifted it out of my bag and lay it in a jumbled loop on my desk. Ellie tucked wispy hair behind her ears before snapping a couple of shots with her cell phone. She reminded me of a baby bird with her translucent skin and big eyes.
My thoughts turned again to her mother. The staff discussed her from time to time and words like strange, eccentric, and unbalanced were tossed around.
“I reckon she hits the bottle.”
“Maybe she’s just a bit simple.”
“And have you heard the way she speaks? So pedantic and toneless.”
The teens had their opinion too:
“Ellie’s mom dresses so weird.”
“She doesn’t look at me when I talk to her.”
On Monday evening, I sat down to read the pile of stories the class had presented me with. They were exceptionally creative and the smile on my face grew as wild fantasies intermingled with science fiction, and love stories blossomed into intrigue. And then I read Ellie’s.
“We have a winner!” I announced. “Ellie, would you come up and read your story for us?” I’d called her the night before and she’d agreed to my suggestion.
“I have two photos that go with my essay,” she announced, holding them up. One was of the tangled necklace and the other was a fine gold chain. “As I tell my story, you’ll understand why.” She pushed her hair back and began to read.
“My mother’s name is Jayne and she’s raised me alone since my dad died ten years ago. Mom is a good woman and loves orange juice, pancakes and the colour blue. She’s excellent with computers and writes programs for an educational company. I know she’s not like most mothers but I love her anyway.”
She pointed to the photo of the tangled necklace. “If you look carefully, you’ll see there’s a fine gold chain inside all that mess. My mom is that chain. She’s precious and valuable but the people around her wrap her up in lies and stories. They talk about her behind her back and spread cruel rumors. They say she’s simple and stupid and shouldn’t be allowed to look after me.”
I felt my eyes dampen just as they had when I’d first read Ellie’s words. For a teenager, she had incredible perception.
“The thing is Mom isn’t stupid or slow. She has Asperger’s syndrome which means she has problems with communicating. She can’t handle crowds and small talk doesn’t make sense to her.” Ellie’s eyes seemed to grow bigger and more vulnerable as she looked around the classroom. “My mom is really clever. Her IQ is over 150 and I get so mad when people gossip about her. I just want it to stop.”
The room was absolutely still when she finished. Then I took the tangled necklace out of my pocket and laid it on my desk. “So how do we fix this, class?”
After a long pause, James came forward and touched Ellie on the arm. “I’ve added to the gossip and I’m truly sorry.” He picked up some scissors and snipped a strand of knotted ribbon from the necklace. “It won’t happen again.”
By the end of class, the desk was littered with debris, and a pure gold chain lay shining in Ellie’s hand.
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