Angel Cake

You don't really get miracles at St Peter and Paul's, just grey-faced teachers and chaotic kids and lessons that make no sense at all.
It's not so much a school as a zoo. The pupils are like wild animals, pushing, shoving, yelling, squealing. They stared at me with curiosity those first few days, like I was a new exhibit, and I guess that's just what I was.
I thought I was good at English, but I was wrong. At first I knew nothing, understood nothing. Words swirled around me like a snowstorm, numbing my head and making my ears ache.
I've tuned in to the accent now, but it's too late. The kids have lost interest, moved on. They leave me alone, mostly. I've given up on trying to communicate - staying silent is safer. Pity I can't be invisible too. I am tired of teachers who sigh and shake their heads, of kids who wave their hands about in frantic sign language or turn up the volume and yell when I don't understand them the first time.
It's better to keep my mouth shut. The teachers forget about me and the kids talk about me as if I am deaf as well as silent. Sometimes, I wish I was.
'It must be tough, coming to a new country where you don't understand the language. I feel sorry for her . . .'
'You'd think she'd try, though. What's she doing here if she doesn't even want to learn the language? My dad says these Eastern Europeans come over here and take all the best jobs and houses . . .'
'Most of them are on benefits. They don't want to work . . .'
'She looks terrified. Does she think we're going to eat her?'
'Well, she looks good enough to eat . . . hey, Blondie, sit by me, I'll give you some English lessons!'
I think it was better when I didn't understand.

In PSE, the kids chuck paper planes about when the teacher's back is turned. PSE is short for Personal & Social Education. At first I didn't understand why anyone would need lessons in how to be a balanced and sociable person, but after two weeks at St Peter and Paul's I am beginning to see. The kids here need all the help they can get.
They roll their eyes and pass notes to each other while the teacher talks about coping with difficult feelings. Nobody is listening.
Miss Matthews is young, keen, smiley. In Krakow, the kids would have loved her, but here they read magazines beneath the desk and whisper about last night's episode of Hollyoaks. Lily Caldwell is painting her nails under the desk, a glittery purple colour that matches her eyeshadow.
Miss Matthews writes up a title on the whiteboard: The Worst Day of My Life. She asks us to draw on our emotions and experiences, to write from the heart.
I could choose any day from the last two weeks, any day at all.
So far, I haven't even tried to take part in the lessons. There is a support teacher in some classes, but she doesn't speak Polish so she's not much help. She gives me worksheets with line drawings of farmyard animals and food and clothes, along with the words in English. You have to match the words with the pictures. Fun, right?
Mostly, I sit silently, dreaming of Krakow summer skies. At the end of each lesson, I copy down the homework, close my book and forget it. How can I learn chemistry and history when I barely know the language? Why attempt French when I can't even work out English? I have tried a little in Maths and art, where words don't matter as much, but even there I haven't a clue if I'm doing the right thing.
Trying to take part in PSE would be just plain crazy - my vocabulary is small, my grammar worse than useless. It would be asking for trouble. The Worst Day of my Life . . . .
Somehow my exercise book is open. My pen moves over a clean, white page. Words pour out, words about my first day here, about hopes and dreams turning to dust in the grey corridors, about cold-eyed teachers, kids circling round like packs of wild dogs who might tear you apart at any minute . . .
Miss Matthews raps on the desk to catch our attention, and I snap my exercise book shut.
'Thank you, 8x,' she says brightly. 'Is there anyone who would like to share their work with the class?'
The silence is deafening. I could have told her that - write from the heart and then read it out loud? Er, no. Most kids would rather have their teeth pulled, without anaesthetic.
'Let's not be shy. Who'll go first?'
Lily Caldwell yawns and closes her exercise book.
Miss Matthews looks nervous. 'Frances? Kurt?' she asks hopefully. 'Chantel?'
Silence.
She won't ask me, I know - teachers never ask me anything. If they see me writing, they assume I am filling out my language worksheets or doodling in the margins. Just as well. How would the kids here feel if they know I have described them as wild animals?
'Dan, perhaps?'
Dan is a tall, mixed-race boy sitting across the aisle from me. He has melted chocolate eyes and slanting cheekbones and skin the colour of caramel. He has ink-black hair twisted into tiny braids that stick up from his head and droop over his forehead. Just one thing stops Dan from being cute - his mouth, which is curled into a scowl.
'No chance,' Dan says.
Miss Matthews looks desperate. 'Someone has to start, Dan,' she says. 'Please? I noticed that you wrote quite a lot . . .'
Dan sighs. He picks up his exercise book and tears it in half, then in half again, and again, until he has a heap of confetti on the desk in front of him.
I'd say it's pretty clear that he does not want to read out loud.
'Daniel!' Miss Matthews yelps. 'You can't - you mustn't - that book is school property!'
Dan raises an eyebrow. He doesn't seem too worried. I watch, horrified, as Lily leans across and passes him a plastic lighter under the desk. Dan flicks the lighter a few times, then touches the flame to the little pile of exercise-book confetti. With one curl of smoke, it becomes a desktop bonfire.
Dan pulls on his rucksack and saunters out of the door without a backward glance.
The class is in uproar. Girls are screaming, boys are laughing, and everyone is on their feet, trying to get a safe distance from the flames. Miss Matthews looks as if she might cry. She wrenches a fire extinguisher off the wall and sprays the mini bonfire with a mountain of white foam.
Maybe I was wrong with the whole wild animals thing. This is not a zoo, it's more of a prison riot.
'I think it's out!' Miss Matthews announces, peering at the foam-soaked desk. 'Panic over, children. You can all go back to your seats!'
That's when the fire alarm starts to screech.
Worst day ever? For Miss Matthews, this is probably it.

Cathycassidy_angel_cake_book