Matilda was sitting outside her office again.
Jenny sighed. ‘You’d better come in,’ she said.
Matilda entered and sat down in front of the desk. Jenny took off her glasses and cleaned them on the corner of her cardigan and waited.
‘It’s passive resistance,’ Matilda began, and then stopped.
‘What is?’ Jenny prompted.
She looked at Matilda, tall now at thirteen, long-limbed and big-eyed like a lot of the other girls her age. She was peering at Jenny through her artfully long fringe with a vaguely mutinous air.
‘My boycott of the A-Level history curriculum,’ Matilda muttered.
‘Should I ask why you’re boycotting the A-Level history curriculum?’ Jenny asked.
‘It’s racist, sexist and imperialist,’ Matilda said. ‘I don’t think it’s appropriate for impressionable young minds.’
Jenny smothered a grin. ‘And by that you mean, the 16- and 17-year-olds in your class?’
‘Yes,’ Matilda said, and looked at Jenny like she was daring her to make something of it.
‘Look,’ said Jenny, ‘it’s not that I don’t think you have a point - I’m sure you do. But it’s not Mrs Walker’s fault. She doesn’t set the curriculum. Neither do I. It’s decided on a national level.’
‘That’s even worse!’ said Matilda. ‘Kids all over the country are learning this stuff! How are we ever going to make any progress if this is the kind of material we get shoved down our throats at school? No offense.’
‘None taken,’ said Jenny wryly. ‘Look… you’re right. This is a problem. But it’s not one we can solve overnight. So why don’t you… why don’t you go back to class and carry on, and take notes of exactly which bits of the syllabus you object to and why, and we’ll talk about this properly at home. OK? Poor Mrs Walker hasn’t done anything to deserve this.’
Matilda scowled a little. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘I’ll do it, but I won’t be happy about it.’
Jenny rolled her eyes. Matilda rolled hers right back.
* * *
Once Matilda was gone, Jenny allowed herself a smile. Things like this happened, every now and then. Matilda wanted to fix every problem, take every wrong thing and shout about it until she figured out a way to make it better. Jenny indulged it. More than that, she loved it. Matilda thought she could change the world, believed it so hard that she made Jenny believe it too.
Jenny had gone into teaching mostly because she’d wanted to help protect small children from the crushing disappointment of life for as long as possible. Until Matilda, she’d never thought that perhaps she could actually change things. She still didn’t think she could, a lot of the time. But when Matilda took up a cause, she pulled everyone along with her somehow, Jenny included.
Matilda would have finished her A-Levels years ago, been finishing her first degree by now, if she’d had nothing to think about but her school work. At ten, she’d been so focused on her petition to save the local community centre that she’d agreed to push her Key Stage 3 SATs back a year so as to not divide her attention. They’d delayed her GCSEs six months so that she could concentrate on fundraising for global literacy. (Mrs Phelps had put her onto that one.) Jenny had been wondering for a while what the next big thing might be, and perhaps it was this.
She picked up the phone to call Mrs Phelps.
* * *
Jenny picked Matilda up from the library, where she still went almost every day after school. Mrs Phelps had been busy. Matilda staggered under the weight of books - the sight of just her eyes peeking over the tower of reading material in her arms catapulted Jenny back in time for a moment, tugged at her heart.
She didn’t say anything, though. She opened the boot of the car and helped Matilda to transfer the books inside. Mrs Phelps came trailing out too with some others Matilda had forgotten. Technically you couldn’t remove reference books from the library, and technically you couldn’t have more than a dozen at a time, but people made exceptions for Matilda, and Mrs Phelps in particular would have done anything for her.
‘Have fun!’ Mrs Phelps called as she went back inside.
Jenny made cheese toasties for dinner and she and Matilda ate them surrounded by stacks of books, from the library and from their own laden shelves. Matilda, true to her word, had made lots of notes about exactly which bits of the history curriculum needed improvement, and she’d chosen her reading material with that in mind - biographies of famous women, histories of the world, a sourcebook about working class activism, a guide to teaching history to teenagers.
‘Mrs Phelps is ordering a few more things in for me,’ she told Jenny, between bites of toastie. ‘But this is probably enough to get started.’
‘Probably,’ agreed Jenny wryly.
The sun began to set, and they kept reading, mostly quietly, stopping now and then to read aloud to each other when they found something interesting. Jenny got as excited as Matilda - even after seven years of comfort and safety and happiness, it made her warm inside to be able to do this. To sit in her own house that was decorated to her own tastes, reading any books she liked, any time she liked, in companionable quiet with someone who loved the same things.
She reached out and ruffled Matilda’s hair. Matilda, engrossed, smiled without looking up.
The sun finished setting. The clock ticked on. Matilda’s bedtime came and went. It was probably bad parenting, Jenny thought, but it surely wouldn’t do her any harm to be sleepy and slow at school once in a while.
Matilda fell asleep in a book. Not that long ago, Jenny could still have carried her to bed. Instead she nudged her gently and they headed upstairs together, and shared a goodnight hug on the landing. The top of Matilda’s head reached Jenny’s chin.
* * *
They started with a letter to the examination board - a long, detailed one with suggestions. It was ignored. They wrote again. Then there was a petition. Phone calls - people were often thrown by such a young-sounding voice sternly explaining things to them.
Meanwhile, Jenny, Matilda and Mrs Walker the history teacher went through all the notes Matilda and Jenny had made and worked on incorporating some more perspectives into the existing history lessons. Matilda organised a series of lunchtime history lectures for her fellow students and - this was the thing that got Jenny - people actually went. The lectures were so popular that Jenny agreed to give the A-Level history class some funds to start a school history newsletter, and suddenly she was hearing ten-year-olds at break time debating the impact of the industrial revolution or picking their favourite suffragettes.
The exam board were unmoved by Matilda’s arguments, but she wasn’t daunted by failure.
‘Well, at least at our school people are learning better,’ she told Jenny, on a Saturday afternoon walk in the park. ‘It’s a start. We can do more. Maybe when I’m older I’ll be in charge of the Department of Education.’
‘Maybe you will,’ said Jenny.
It didn’t seem at all unlikely.