Current Occupation: Teacher, adult education
Former Occupation: Teacher, adult education
Contact Information: Aileen Hunt is an Irish writer with a particular interest in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, and the Lindenwood Review. Additional essays are forthcoming from Creative Nonfiction and the Eastern Iowa Review. She is currently working on a collection of flash nonfiction pieces based on the lives of pioneering women. You can find her at Aileen-Hunt.com where she blogs regularly and indulges her passion for photography.
When I return from the break, Dave is slumped in Peter’s chair, his head resting on the table. “O good. You’re here, Dave,” I say, my heart sinking. “How are you today?”
He mutters something into the wood (good? fine? terrible?) and pulls his phone from his pocket, begins jabbing at the keyboard. His cuticles are red and swollen.
Peter bounds into the classroom, stops short. He takes a seat opposite Dave, reaches across the table to retrieve his pen and paper. He smiles his big Peter smile. Jesus Dave, I think. Every bloody week.
The new guy, John, comes in. He seems nice. But you never know.
Michael is last back. He’s wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, even though the weather’s turned. Last week he forgot the code to get in and stood outside for half an hour. This week, he got lost on the way to the centre. “I know how to get here,” he told me. “I just can’t remember.”
I’ve been teaching this group since September, although I doubt I’ve ‘taught’ anyone anything. The students are dealing with addiction or mental health issues; that’s as much as I’ve been told. I’m dealing with my own inadequacies. Lack of skills, lack of training; for the first time in my teaching life, I’m out of my depth.
I pull out some photocopies: a newspaper report about technology use among adults. It’s a topic they know about. A part of me begins to feel hopeful. Maybe we’ll get a debate going.
I ask Dave to read first, immediately regret it. He mumbles through the paragraph, but the others don’t seem to mind. Peter jumps in as soon as Dave stops. “Windows 7 is the best,” he says, and I scan the paragraph to see if I’ve missed where it mentions Windows. “Windows XP was good too,” Peter continues. “Windows 8.1 and 8.2 are no good. They’re skipping Windows 9. Windows 10 will be the next.”
John announces his phone is broken. He speaks loudly, just this side of shouting. Hearing loss? Anger? He seems nice, but you never know.
I took this job because I thought I could learn to do it well. Now, I don’t want to learn it at all. I’m counting the weeks down until the end of term.
Michael picks up the reading. He bends his head to the page, uses a magnifying glass. Dave takes a long slurp from a bottle of Yazoo, twirls a pencil in his hand.
“Are you surprised to read that adults spend more time using technology than sleeping?” I ask. Peter announces that he’s going to get his new computer at the weekend. Michael says people don’t talk to each other anymore. John says you don’t have to remember phone numbers these days. Dave says nothing.
I repeat the question, emphasise the key words. I can feel the tension in my neck, the tight knot forming.
“Dave,” I say. “Do you stay up all night playing video games?”
“Only at the weekend,” Dave answers. “If I stay up during the week, I can’t stay awake in class.” He says this without irony, stretches his legs and slumps further in his chair.
His inertia infuriates me. I imagine him sprawled in a therapist’s office or a courtroom, staring into space while strangers decide the direction of his life. He’s in his early twenties, the same age as my son.
I want to shake him. “Ok,” I say instead. “Ok.”
John reads the next paragraph in a loud, staccato voice. He was a student here twelve years ago. I’m not sure why he’s back.
“Is technology changing the way we communicate?” I ask, and Michael looks up. “Nobody talks anymore,” he says.
A few weeks ago, he moved into a new hostel. The lads he’s sharing with are nice, he says, but it’s a long way from Leixlip, where he used to live. He has his new address written down on a piece of paper. Just in case.
Peter says the new iPhone bends. The Galaxy Note is better. So is the HTC1.
Dave says nothing. He lifts his head for a second, lets it snap back onto his chest. He looks better than he did last week. Not as pale, maybe.
He taps his pencil on the table, shifts a little in his seat. Peter is humming to himself. John is doodling. Michael is looking at the ceiling. I take a breath and smile at them in turn, give it one last shot.
“Do you prefer communicating online or in person?” I ask, and Michael responds immediately. “In person,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about spelling or reading.”
“In person,” says Peter. “You can tell if people like you when you can see their face.”
“In person,” says John. “If you hook up with someone online, they mightn’t look like they say they do in real life. They might be an ugly bitch”
Jesus, I think. I’m too old for this. Nothing could bring me back for another year.
“Dave?” I prompt. “Dave?”
He lifts his head slowly, looks at me for a second.
“Online,” he says.
And then, in a rush: “People can’t hurt you online. They can’t find you and they can’t beat you up. They can say they will, but it’s only talk. They can’t really do it. Not like in real life.”
“You’re safe online,” he says, and stabs his pencil through the page.