School & Education

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Good Girls
Excerpt

Anna was just about to go home for the night when she heard someone knocking aggressively at her door.

"Come in," Anna called, feeling a bit nervous about who might appear, and what they might want. Anna was supposed to be meeting up with some friends from grad school at a pub in Cambridge that evening. She had been looking forward to seeing their reassuring faces all week, and she definitely did not want to be late. The weekend had finally arrived and Anna wanted a glass of red wine. As a teacher, wasn't this Friday night libation her God-given right?

Anna's door opened to reveal none other than Octavia Irving. Octavia, with her history of spotty grades and her fondness for violating rules about the uniform, was what most people would have referred to as a "problem student." Anna, however, saw potential.

Octavia was smart. She was analytical and well spoken, but unfortunately for everyone who tried to teach her, Octavia also did not seem to care much about anything other people told her was important. It almost seemed to be on principle that Octavia Irving hated all things adults tried to convince her were priorities. Still, Anna believed if she could just find a way to deal with the girl's attitude problem, Octavia could become almost anything she wanted to be.

"I don't want to do debating anymore," gasped Octavia before she'd even closed the door. Anna was surprised to see her normally insouciant student blinking back tears.

Anna motioned for Octavia to sit down. "What happened?"

"Allie is too intense for me. She's mad at me for not knowing anything about Turkey. Why does she care? It's my life! If I don't care about foreign politics, who is she to judge me for it?" spat a fuming Octavia.

Anna thought for a second about how to respond. She did not want to alienate Octavia, and yet she suspected Allie might not have been completely in the wrong. Of course, Anna assumed Allie had probably said something uncalled for in the heat of the moment. At the same time, Octavia was Allie's partner, so of course she had every right to care if Octavia knew about Turkey. This was especially true when the two of them would have to debate together on whether the country should be admitted to the EU.

"Octavia, you're right that Allie should not judge you so harshly. It's not nice to feel judged like that."

Octavia gave a half-smile in response, thinking Anna's words meant she had gotten the guidance counsellor firmly on her side.

"Having said that, debating is a competitive activity and it's done in pairs. If you choose not to hand in a history assignment, you are only screwing yourself over, but if you don't do the work here, you're screwing Allie over too. Is that fair?"

Octavia desperately did not want to concede that Ms. Knole might have a point, so she said nothing at all.

"Octavia, why don't you want to do the research for this debate? Do you find it boring?"

"No," admitted Octavia. The few facts she had gleaned in the prep session with Allie admittedly were pretty fascinating. Octavia had no idea there were so many military coups (and coup attempts) in recent Turkish history. She was curious about how those all played out.

"Okay then, so did you have somewhere else you urgently needed to be?" continued Anna.

Octavia decided not to mention Marcus. Instead, she conceded, "Not really. I have at most one friend in Boston. It's an exceptional day when I have a social engagement. Plus, I'm not an old lady with blue hair who lives in West Palm Beach, so my parties don't usually start in the late afternoon."

"Well, then, why didn't you want to do research for the debate this afternoon?" Anna felt on the verge of a breakthrough.

"I don't know," answered Octavia. It was an honest answer. Truth be told, she knew Marcus likely would have been too busy to talk to her even if she had called. He had been blowing their phone calls off a lot lately. He had never really been a fan of in-person calls, preferring to send Octavia Snapchats from bars or from his Crossfit classes.

Anna took a deep breath before speaking again. "Octavia, do you think sometimes you sabotage yourself because you're secretly afraid that, even if you try your best, you won't be good enough?"

Octavia was stunned. What was there to say in response? Was that true? She honestly didn't know. Of course, Octavia knew her father would be pleased if she could be the kind of kid who did well in school and excelled at extra-curricular pursuits, like his sons with Shira. He liked bragging about his kids. Shira's strict parenting style also ensured Octavia's younger brothers had a lot to brag about. They were classical violinists who were always at the top of their classes at Toronto's Upper Canada College. Octavia knew her father. When he could be bothered, he probably compared her younger half-brothers to her. Octavia also knew the comparisons were likely not so favourable, as she was the family's far less accomplished offspring.

Neither Mordecai nor Octavia's free spirit mother ever seemed to put much effort into motivating her to be anything other than a disappointment. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been chided for a poor grade or encouraged to try just a little bit harder at tennis.

Octavia had always assumed her lack of effort at the things adults valued was something she couldn't help. Her apathy had been there for so long, it seemed inevitable. Octavia had always assumed it was a natural aspect of her being until meeting Ms. Knole. Suddenly, however, her indifference to school no longer seemed like so much of a given. Still, she wasn't necessarily prepared to admit that.

Octavia eventually broke the silence saying, "I don't know if my distaste for the excessive debating research sessions required by Allie Denning means I have a secret fear of failure."

"You're right," responded Anna in an even tone. "I could just be over-analyzing everything. Even so, I want you to know that you really shouldn't be afraid of failing. I have a feeling that if you worked harder, you could totally win that debate tournament."

"I don't think I have what Allie has," blurted out Octavia unexpectedly, surprising even herself. "She knows things and she gets what they mean. She's always going on about the different kinds of secularism and the differences between political parties in countries I've never even thought about. I don't know if I can learn all that."

"Well, I know you can," Anna told her student with the utmost confidence.

Octavia sat for a moment, speechless. No one had ever had such an unwavering belief in her abilities before. Anna's faith in Octavia was purely contagious, making Octavia herself think that perhaps she could accomplish great things. It was an intoxicating feeling, this sense of possibility. Octavia felt like she had just come in from a long, cold night to have a kind soul wrap her in a layer of cozy blankets, and seat her by a roaring fireplace. For the first time in a long time, Octavia Irving felt like going home and doing some work.

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“I became what you wanted. What everyone wanted. A fighter. Not fighting for anything. Just fighting everything.”

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