"Where do you want to be put?" The teacher fussed about a pile of plastic chairs to the side of the stage before registering the girl's silence and stopped shuffling for a moment to look at her. "Are you sure you're okay to do this?"
"Yes." The girl replied, perhaps a little too confidently. "Um. I don't really mind where. Just maybe not on the stage..."
She looked doubtfully around the large auditorium. All those blue flip seats seemed to rise for miles. She felt a knot tighten in her stomach at the thought that in just twenty minutes, all those seats would be filled with hundreds of faces just like her own.
She'd only been back from school a couple of weeks. She had mentally prepared herself before taking the ten minute walk down the road under the horse chestnut trees to school on her first day back. It had been raining and she'd taken extra care not to slip on the the few autumnal leaves that had fallen on the pavement. Gripping the strap on her bag for support, she approached the ramp that lead down to the school nervously, a smile fixed firmly on her face. Girls were squealing, laughing and all proudly displaying brand new navy duffel coats done right up to the top, careful to avoid scuffing their shiny new shoes as they hugged one another after six long weeks of summer holiday.
She'd arrived early on purpose, not wanting to suffer the stares if she'd turned up late. The common room was empty, apart from a few tiny year seven's sitting nervously on bean bags, their over sized skirts covering polished shoes. She found the year ten seating area, and went to the noticeboard where her class timetable had been neatly pinned and highlighted. A quick glance told her she'd kept her favourite English teacher, and Art had been kindly put on a Friday afternoon. Gym had to be her worst class of the week. And there it was, lurking after double maths on a Tuesday afternoon. Last term had seen her humiliated in front of the whole year, being forced to run around the field twice in her gym knickers. She hadn't thought it entirely fair. She was the only one caught hiding behind that bush in cross country, although not the only one waiting until the mass of runners came around the course for the second time, before subtly sneaking out and joining in at the front.
This time, though, it was different. She'd stand out for other reasons. She carefully folded her new timetable, tucked it into her blazer pocket and sighed.
The hall had been laid out in the same old fashion as last year. The head teacher's chair was to the right of the wide wooden stage, and three other chairs for the heads of the school houses were just next to that. Her table was now placed central in the hall, and as per her wishes; not on the stage, but just below on the floor. She placed the large brown envelope that contained her x-rays on the table, eyed the plastic bag on the floor with suspicion and clutched the slightly crumpled handwritten notes tightly in her right hand.
"Why don't you take a seat on the front row, dear. Then Mrs Shaw can call you up when it's time for you to speak." The teacher said, lining up the chairs.
She did as she was told. The butterflies were still jolting around furiously in her stomach. She took a seat and waited.
The school changing rooms always smelt like wet socks. Wet, festering socks. Dumping her gym bag on the slatted wooden benches, the girl looked around the open room, trying to figure out where would be the most private place to change into her gym clothes. This school didn't believe in privacy, she was sure of it. Firstly, the showers were communal with no curtains or doors; and secondly, even if someone was crazy enough to take a naked shower after gym class, there was the fact that Miss Evans would run into the changing rooms far too frequently to 'check on things'. What 'things' she was checking on, was hardly worth thinking about.
The girls from her year began to stream into the changing rooms as the bell rang. The clatter of studded lacrosse boots on the concrete floor amongst forty gossipy conversations grew louder. She shuffled her things along the bench, began to unzip her bag and hoped they were too busy getting lost in conversation to notice her change. Her friend, Tamsin, a popular girl who had strong legs and was mean with her lacrosse stick, came bolting through the main door, late as usual.
"Hi! Bloody late... Bloody couldn't find my trainers." She said, puffing as she threw her stuff down on the bench next to the girl, and started ripping her clothes off. She glanced up at the girl for a moment. "You'd better get a shift on, Lizzie, or you'll be later than I am!"
She was quite pleased that Tamsin had parked up next to her, creating a sort of flustering curtain between her and the girls. Suddenly worried she might be late, the girl gingerly began to unbutton her shirt. Turning to face the wall, she shuffled one arm out of it's sleeve, keeping the shirt balanced precariously on her shoulders. Then the other arm wiggled out. She tried to slouch as far forward as she could, sticking her bottom out and holding the collar with her chin, whilst reaching around to the left to unbutton her kilt; it was a fine balancing act.
Then she heard a whisper, and it was only then that she noticed that the room had gone somewhat unusually quiet.
Someone stifled a laugh. The girl paused, suddenly very self-conscious.
She turned around quickly and in doing so suddenly lost her grip on the white shirt. She watched on horrified as it swooped gently to the floor in a sort of slow motion and just lay there.
Most of them had stopped tying their shoe laces, rummaging in canvas bags for spare socks and tightening the strings on their lacrosse sticks, to turn and stare at her. All had the same questioning expression. A few looked horrified even. All were wondering what had happened over the Summer holidays to make her look like that.
She began to mumble an explanation, her eyes flickering between the limp shirt lying useless on the floor, and Tamsin's boots.
Say something. Say anything. Just give them a few words to stop the quiet.
Then the most wondrous sound suddenly echoed across the changing room, saving her. Those thunderous footsteps pounding down the corridor, and Miss Evans' hand slapping the swing door open wide.
"Get a move on girls! Or I'll have you all lap the lacrosse pitch at least three times before I throw in a ball!"
At home, the kitchen was the family room; the heart of the house. It was kept warm from the ever glowing Rayburn that could made even the cool Victorian floor tiles feel as if they had under floor heating. Her Maths homework was always done at the kitchen table. It was the only way she could ever do it, with someone there to make sure her mind didn't wander onto more creative things. Her sister was sat with her knees up, curled in the big wooden chair watching the little box television in the corner of the kitchen.
"How was school then?" Their Mum asked, stirring a large saucepan of mince meat on the hot plate.
"It was OK." The girl replied monotonously. She was stuck on expanding the brackets of her algebra problem, and had rubbed out so many mistakes she was in danger of going through the page, so was getting more and more irate.
"What about you, Caroline? Anything fun happen?" Her Mum added a large tin of chopped tomatoes to the mix and looked over at her sister, who had been uncharacteristically quiet since she'd got home from school at 5:30pm, after her Tuesday netball practice.
Her sister took a long time to speak. She kept her eyes fixed upon the cartoons dancing across the television screen, her face lacking expression. Caroline was very sociable and chatty. She loved sport, especially netball and following her after school practises, she would usually dump her kit on the kitchen floor and endlessly discuss the tactics, the goals and who out of her friends played the best until they were all sick of hearing about it.
"No. Not really." She spoke quietly.
"What's up Loolie?" Her Mum asked gently.
Her sister looked away, letting her head drop. A tear roll slowly down her cheek and dropped onto her lap. She wiped it away quickly.
"It was just some girls in my year. They were being really nasty." She said, her voice wavering. Her Mum walked forward to give her a hug, but Caroline put her hand out to stop her. "It was about you, Lizzie. They were picking on me, laughing about your brace."
As the 8:30am bell rang, she could hear them piling into the hall's foyer entrance. Hundreds of footsteps pattered up the stairs. The door at the very top of the auditorium creaked open, allowing hushed voices to bounce and echo all across the great hall around her. She sat on her blue shiny flip seat on the front row, and listened to the four school houses pile in year by year, then fill up the auditorium row by row. The teachers had taken their seats at the front. The organ played classical music behind the stage out of sight, and just slightly out of tune. The sharp, fast notes shot through her nerves, until suddenly they stopped. Only a few whispers were left and the flutter of hymn book pages.
The Head teacher, Mrs Shaw strode up to the very centre of the stage. She was a small, grey-suited woman with long pointed-toe kitten heels, that clacked and slapped the back of her heel as she took a step. The girl remembered what it felt like in those couple of seconds, when she would sit in the auditorium with the rest of year ten, as Mrs Shaw took in the entire school, absorbing the attention of each single girl before she spoke. The Head pursed her lips tightly, and blinked. She liked to remind you that it was her time to speak.
"Good morning, girls. Instead of having a reading this morning, we are going to hear a short talk from one of our own pupils. As some of you may already know, Lizzie has recently been diagnosed with a condition called Scoliosis. She has bravely decided to stand up in front of you all this morning to explain a little bit about it."
Mrs Shaw's stern face switched suddenly as she turned to look at the girl sitting on the front row. Her eyes softened uncharacteristically and she nodded at her to come up.
There had been nothing quite so scary that the girl had ever had to do. She slid off the blue seat, picking up the large carrier bag she'd brought in earlier and held the paper in her left hand tightly. She didn't dare look behind her until she'd reached the wooden table. She kept reminding herself that she loved drama and had been put as the lead role in all the school plays (which meant she must be quite good at speaking out loud) and that really, speaking up in assembly now, was absolutely no different. As she turned around to face her peers, she tried to find her sister sitting in the audience. She had always been taught by her drama teacher to focus on something when you spoke in public and not to think of all the people. But her sister was lost in a sea of blue blazers and blank expressions so she decided to tell the green Fire Exit sign at the top of the stairs all about her Scoliosis.
She explained how her spine had suddenly grown crooked, and was shaped more like an 'S' than an 'I'. That she was an 'idiopathic' case (which didn't in fact mean she was an idiot or a psychopath - just to make that clear), but that the reason she had got it had been completely random. The girl reached into the large brown envelope on the table and pulled out her full skeletal x-ray and held it up to the light, showing the whole school her bones. Someone whispered 'cool', and she beamed inside, suddenly gaining confidence and pointing out that she had a thirty two degree angle at the bottom and a twenty four degree angle just above it- her eyes flickering away from the x-rays for a moment to see if her maths teacher looked impressed. The girl then remembered the bag on the floor. She took a breath.
"In about a year I'm going to have to have a big operation to straighten my spine. My consultant told me that until the time is ready to operate, I'm going to have to wear a back brace all the time." She swallowed, and reached inside the bag, pulling out the large plastic body brace for the hundreds of girls to see.
"It's a little bit like a corset they used to wear in the olden days- although not as pretty. This is the first one I'll have, and I've heard you can get brightly coloured ones, like when you break your arm, so I might choose a pink one next." She was quite enjoying it now, and dared to talk away from the fire exit sign for a moment to focus on their faces. No one was laughing at her. They looked interested, and even sort of impressed. She felt the colour flood to her cheeks.
"I had to sit for ages whilst they bandaged me up like a Mummy and wrapped me in orthopedic plaster to make a cast of my back. Then, after it was made, they placed these soft padded bits on the inside which will help straighten my spine as I grow taller. It's very clever." She was coming to the end of her notes and as per the last line of her handwritten squiggles she looked up directly at her school, smiled and asked if they had any questions (like she'd seen important speakers do on the television).
The place promptly erupted with chatter and around fifty hands shot up to the ceiling. Mrs Shaw clucked like a hen and stood up, her hands clapping for silence amongst the babble and indicated everyone should remain quiet with one stern look.
The head teacher thanked her and quickly ushered her back to her seat, stating loudly that there would be 'all the time in the world to answer questions after assembly'. The girl beamed both inside and out. She still felt sick with nerves, but the adrenaline was pumping through her body, creating little warm spots that made her glow. Walking back to her seat clutching the ugly plastic back brace, she quickly scanned the hundreds of faces, and found one that looked more settled than the rest. Her little sister was grinning at her. She slid back onto her blue flip seat and felt an unusual rush of pride at what she'd achieved.
Mum had been right, people are afraid of what they don't understand.
To learn more about Scoliosis; visit SAUK The Scoliosis Association (UK)'s website.