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Autonomy and High School Are Mutually Exclusive

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His usually spiky hair was slicked back, and water dripped from it onto his dark blue hoodie. The reflection of the lighter flame flickered in his dark eyes as he held a 16G hollow needle above it. When the metal turned a luminous shade of orange, he dipped it in a nearby bottle of Bass Ale where it sizzled and bubbled before he brought it back up and lined it up to his helix. In a sharp jerk of motion, Tom forced the needle through the layer of cartilage. He repressed his voice to a small grunt, unable to tell if the burning was from the pierce wound or actual residual heat from the needle. The blood from the needle entry point, as well as the skin of his head adjacent to his ear where he’d pricked it, slid down to mix with the water that’d dripped from his hair.

His forearm and hands enlarged and darkened in complexion, but nonetheless he held the needle steady. His ear phased changed sporadically, resealing each time it turned to mist only to be re-pierced by the bloodied needle. Again and again and again his cartilage was shattered until his pounding heart slowed in beat to a diminuendo. Still, he waited until the acute agony dulled to a throb, by which time the last rays of sunlight had been snuffed out by the coming of night.

-

“Thomas, you’re 20 minutes late of being marked present on the roll. Go to reception.”

Tom didn’t pause in doing a 180 straight back out of his forum room, his blank expression remaining unchanged. His footsteps echoed in the empty hallways, interrupted only by the beeping of his Doro phone as he looked through his old files for the photo of his locker code. He headed to the locker with gum wrappers, crumpled worksheets and other trash sticking out of the edges. It took a couple of tries to unlock his lock (0, anti-clockwise to 18, full circle clockwise then to 23, then anti-clockwise again 32) and even more to pry it to release.

The locker door squealed on its hinges as Tom pulled it open, not bothering to pick up the bits of rubbish that tumbled out from its sides - maybe the sods who’d stuffed it there in the first place would have an environmentalist streak. He didn’t have much of a purpose for visiting his locker since he barely ever used it, retrieving a decrepit Marlboro’s pack and tossing in a couple of notebooks that he likely wouldn’t need for the heck of it.

Tom cringed when the raucous ring of the school bell sounded throughout the halls and swung his locker door shut, ignoring the concerned glances and disapproving stares of students bustling to their first class as he repeatedly kicked in his lock until it finally clicked secure. By then, the hall was teeming with students and his frayed, faded shirt and ripped jeans were in stark contrast to those around him, like a sun-starved stem amongst a vibrant container garden.

Math passed in a blur, and at break he went out to grab some food, only to get lectured by his Ancient History teacher when he arrived midway through the lesson. Tom spent the rest of the lackluster lesson with his AGPTEK blasting Dookie to drown out his Ancient teacher while he worked on his composition for Music extension. Translating his hasty scribbles (amongst doodles that left the page more inked than not) and transcribing them onto Sibelius--a software that took up far too much CPU for the early fourth generation laptops the school coughed up for key stage 4 students--helped the minutes flow by faster.

The movement of the students around him gathering their belongings signalled to Tom it was the end of the lesson. As they started to file out, Tom glared at one that knocked his backpack off his desk, but they only spared him a glance in return as they exited. Tom decided to call it when the Spinning Wheel of Death graced Sibelius, by which time Tom’s Ancient teacher had singled him out and was fast approaching, so Tom wasted no time in lazily stacking his own belongings, backpack included, into a pile and carrying them as he strode past his teacher. He could just faintly hear the stern ‘Thomas’ of his Ancient teacher calling after him as he began the journey to his next class on the other side of campus. The noise of the crowded hall was drowned out by the chorus of Burnout.

Tom managed to slip his books and laptop back into his backpack just as he approached his level in S block. As he filed into the classroom, he felt someone press against his arm. He took out an earbud and turned to face whoever it was that lacked a sense of personal space, unsurprised but not disappointed at the gleeful face that greeted him.

“Hey Tom! Keen for some Chemistry?” Matt said as he steered Tom toward their seats. Matt was a good couple of centimeters taller than Tom which was only accentuated by his red hair that he styled up. Tom took out his other earbud and sat down before lamely replying,

“Was that rhetorical?”

Matt’s smile widened, but he didn’t get to respond before the teacher called for their attention to start the lesson. Tom laid out his notes neatly like a journal article: complete with headings, subheadings, detailed explanations of the content and structured in clear steps simplified with diagrams. He was pretty proficient at Chemistry, gaining the tolerance of his relatively strict teacher, and could ace the subject just by paying some attention in class as well as a night or two of studying the textbook before the exam alone.

Throughout the lesson, whenever Matt asked ‘wait, what?’, or ‘are you sure he’s still speaking English?’, or clearly didn’t copy the down the information before Mr Macintosh prematurely flipped to the next slide, Tom would start highlighting the relevant parts on his own notebook for Matt to silently follow. At some point during the lesson Matt hit his mental limit and only revived with the ring of the school bell indicating the start of break. Tom passively listened as he trudged out of the classroom alongside Matt who maintained a one-sided conversation with him. His eyes gravitated to the forest green clothing of an old friend who approached their classroom.

Edd sent Tom a warm smile when they made eye contact and Tom relied on the obscurity of his eyes to justify why he turned away seemingly without acknowledging Edd. He made his way through the halls, hearing Matt’s quick goodbye to him and hello to Edd and focusing on Matt’s voice as he excitedly continued his previous tangent to Edd. He continued to focus in on Matt’s voice until he exited the building. What he didn’t notice was the concerned glance of Edd that followed him until he too turned away to go his own way with Matt.

Tom’s lungs stuttered as he breathed in ice cold air. Most students retreated to the relative warmth of the school canteen during breaks which left the outer areas of the school more or less deserted. Tom passed by a group of mostly seniors kickin it with nicotine and experimental ICE in the alley between the pothole ridden staff carpark and the gymnasium, returning the nod of greeting as he went past. He camped at a secluded spot underneath the back stairs of H block, fishing out his own cigarette pack and lighter. The temperature juxtaposition burned his throat, but not as much as the nasty taste and pungent stench of the stale cigarettes.

Getting his fix curbed Tom’s agitation as he tried to recover his Sibelius file from earlier, finishing what was in the pack by the time break ended. He watched the last sparks be snuffed out by the cold, his eyes following the ashes as they sunk gracefully but inevitably to join the filthy cement below, before he stuffed what was left of the filter back into the pack with the others and tossed the lot in the bin by the door of his next class.

Mr Ceeow, a teacher that had no worthy competition when it came to raw enthusiasm for teaching, couldn’t stop himself from pausing a documentary about American conflicts in the late 20th century every 5 minutes to interject. Tom had his head resting on his arms which spread out across a whole desk since, despite Mr Ceeow’s best efforts of promoting a tight-knit learning environment by taking away extra seats beforehand, groups clumped together regardless.

Before too long it was Music Extension and Tom went to retrieve Susan from the back room in A block exclusive to Music Extension students. She’d been there since he dropped her off before going to forum that morning, secured to the railing with a bike lock on a top-back shelf. His fingers cracked as he jammed the key into a second lock that locked Susan’s case. Tom relished having the period to experiment for his piece in one of the soundproof stall-like rooms.

Before he knew it, the lesson was coming to an end all too soon, so he reluctantly packed up early. He made his way back to the secluded back-room of A block to re-secure Susan. Satisfied with his work, he went to head to his locker before the end of school stampede. His fingers, aching from finger picking, throbbed as he inputted his locker code. He zipped up his backpack and grabbed Susan ready to go but paused. He wasn’t in the habit of going to his locker, and knew it was likely to happen again, but nonetheless collected and disposed of the trash that’d fallen from his locker door that morning.

The exit sign flickered in sync with the ringing of the final school bell. He was well past the school gates before the ringing ended.

-

The music blasting through Tom’s earbuds drowned out his parent’s shouting match as he made his way up the narrow stairs of the rinky-dink RTB-bought council house. His door was distinguished by a large ‘Do Not Enter’ sign along with a myriad of 90’s Britpop and punk rock themed posters that littered its surface.

He closed his eye holes. It was the end of another normal weekday for Tom.