The teacher scanned the classroom calmly and took a deep breath, her apprehension invisible to the children. The changes in the curriculum had shocked most of the faculty and this was to be her first attempt at teaching evolution, a subject that had been banned by the authorities for over a century. Creationism, which had been the accepted standard during that time, was slowly losing popularity amongst the ruling elite and political pressure had led the matriculation boards to introduce the new subject in a handful of schools across the country. West County High had been one of the more controversial choices to pilot the scheme, situated as it was in the heart of the religiously zealous mid-west states. She could still hear the voices of the irate parents as they had argued against the ruling at the last PTA meeting of the previous academic year.
Stepping away from her desk, she welcomed the children in a quiet but calm voice, making a note of the higher-than-usual number of empty desks; fully two-thirds of the students had been withheld from the class already and she fully expected that figure to rise before the end of the semester, especially when the children started to question the teachings of the Holy Book. As the class settled into their seats she smiled at them warmly and waited for the last of the lunchtime excitement to ebb away. Only when she had their complete attention did she begin to pass around the hastily written worksheets.
“As most of you are probably already aware,” she said, her voice echoing around the almost empty room, “today’s lesson is going to be a little different to normal. Can anybody tell me why?”
The students looked everywhere but at her. A few stared at the worksheets, while the rest glanced at each other for an answer. Only one of the fourteen children dared to raise a hand but she still waited a few moments before nodding for him to speak.
“It’s because you’re going to lie to us,” Billy told the rest of the class, his face echoing the betrayal and anger in his voice. The teacher tried to ignore the fear that leapt momentarily to her throat.
“No Billy, that’s not strictly correct, is it?” she asked him, silently daring him to rise to her challenge. She could understand his reaction but would have preferred to have him on her side; it would be hard enough to teach the new curriculum without having to compete against one of the brighter pupils in the group.
Billy shrugged. “We all know that the Book is the only truth,” he said, slouching casually back in his chair. “Nothing that you can show us will change that.”
The rest of the class looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to concede the point. If they thought that she would back down then they were heading for disappointment.
“That may be the case,” she admitted, her own belief in the Book giving her the strength to face up to him, “but it’s my job to show you the alternatives so that you can decide for yourself. Isn’t that why God gave us minds?”
The others nodded sagely, impressed by the wisdom of their teacher. Isolated and alone once more, Billy feigned nonchalance as he turned to stare out of the window. Only the teacher had seen the flash of resentment at his defeat.
“I’ve been told that I have to teach you about evolution,” she said once she was sure there would be no more objections. The word itself was alien to many of the students and seeing their confused eyes staring back at her she caught herself questioning the intelligence of any school system that would willingly pollute the minds of the young with falsehood. To even suggest that the Book could be wrong filled her with dread.
Turning away from the class, she bit back the desire to tell them all that Billy was right; that the new theories were nothing more than lies propagated by heretical scientists. How could she teach them something that she couldn’t believe herself? It wouldn’t have surprised her if the ground opened up and swallowed her whole for her blasphemy and the thought of such divine retribution sent a shock of fear through her body. Carefully, she reached out for her chair and sat down, turning her attention once more to the children. They all stared back, her own fear reflected and magnified a thousand times over by each little face.
“I know that in the Book it tells us that God created everything in just six days,” she said, trying desperately to calm them with her words, “but not everybody follows the teachings of faith. By learning about other belief systems, you’ll find it easier to understand other cultures.”
The children looked back at her in amazement; all except Billy, who once more thrust a hand into the air. She signalled for him to speak.
“Why should we need to understand those cultures?” he asked carefully, his tone interrogative. “They’re based on false beliefs, and the Book itself tells us that it’s wrong to worship false beliefs.” The rest of the children were hooked now, their attention switching from her to Billy and back again.
“Idols, Billy,” she said, hearing the frustration in her voice as she answered his argument. “It says not to worship false idols, as you are well aware. But to answer your question; how else are we to lead the Godless to salvation if we don’t understand their heresies?”
Almost without pause Billy responded. “Maybe they don’t deserve to be saved,” he suggested. “Or maybe by learning their heretical belief systems, we lead ourselves down a path to damnation.”
His accusation sent a sliver of ice into the teacher’s heart. She’d reached a similar conclusion herself when she’d first read the material for the class; the arguments made by the scientists for the truth of evolution were frighteningly convincing, even to somebody as pious as her. To hear those fears being spoken aloud by a fourteen year old was almost unbearable.
“It would only lead to damnation if you believed it,” she told him in a hollow voice, repeating the reassuring words of the priest when she’d confessed her own doubts. It wasn’t enough.
“Do you believe it?” he asked, his eyes filled with most intense consideration she had ever seen.
She stared back at him, self-doubt and confusion boiling through her mind as she tried to answer his question. When the faculty had chosen her to lead the new lesson she’d tried to object, begging the dean to pick somebody else, to pass the responsibility over to another more qualified teacher. She’d never doubted the teachings of the Book in her life but for some reason the concepts and theories put forward by the scientists had changed that. Looking into the eyes of the boy before her she could feel the doubt growing, forcing her to turn away from his scrutiny.
“Of course I don’t,” she whispered hoarsely, not really sure what it was she was denying.
Silence drifted through the classroom as she waited for her stomach to stop rolling. In the corner, Billy’s attention remained fixed firmly on her when she finally regained her composure he listened without interruption, barely acknowledging the contents of the worksheet on his desk. She could feel his vehemence pushing against her, an unseen hand pressing her into her seat, forcing her to remain sitting. Only once did she look in his direction and immediately regretted it, unable to meet the accusation in his eyes. When the school bell rang at the end of the lesson she wondered whether the students were as glad to hear it as she was.
Children filtered out of the classroom quietly, their heads full of questions they were too afraid to ask. Billy was the last to stand and as he walked past her desk he stopped, looking down at her in silence. She tried to smile but couldn’t, the ball of fear and guilt in her stomach making her feel physically ill.
“You should go to your next class,” she said, wanting him out of her sight.
He shrugged. “I won’t miss much,” he admitted, adjusting the bag on his shoulder. There was a long pause before he finally said what was on his mind.
“I just wanted you to know that you’re not on your own,” he told her.
The teacher looked up in confusion. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” she admitted, her voice devoid of any of its previous authority. Billy looked around the class, taking in the religious imagery that adorned every available surface.
“I’m saying you’re not the first person to question the teachings of the Book,” he finally said, a wry smile spreading across his face. “There’s more of us than you’d think.”
She felt her mouth fall open in shock. He’d always presented himself as a true believer, never questioning the sermons or the parables. As he walked away from her she called his name, wanting him to tell her more. He paused in the doorway, glancing at her over his shoulder.
“How did you know?” she asked him, aware of the irony in the role reversal between them. Again, he shrugged.
“I didn’t,” he admitted with a grin. “Not until just now.” Without another word he left her sitting there alone, his wings held high and proud as he strolled off down the corridor.
S. Naomi Scott (c) 2005