In the sixth chapter of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a new person arrives and drastically complicates things. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Trigger Warning: One of the people in the story I tell is a MEGA HUGE RACIST, so be warned.
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
Eddie stood defiantly in front of his desk when she walked in and wrote her name on the blackboard. When she turned back to the class, she smiled, but it felt fake. It felt manufactured, like she had practiced it in the mirror for hours before sharing it with us. “Mrs. Gull is gone for now,” she replied. “She’s on maternity leave, and I’ll be taking over.”
There were a few groans and a silent wave of disappointment rolled through the room. We always started our days with a game. A miniature spelling bee. A competition to find a country on the map. A round of trivia.
“What game are we starting with today?” one of the students asked.
“We don’t play games in class. You can all wait until recess.”
“But Mrs. Gull always –” someone else began
“Mrs. Gull is not here,” the substitute teacher said, “so I don’t want to hear about her.”
Well, okay, I thought. This is off to a good start. My brother a few rows back said something to another Eddie in the class we called Eddie G, and mid-sentence, they both stopped right when we all heard thwack, followed by a collective gasp.
“No talking while I am,” the teacher said. I’d missed what happened, and every one started looking towards Eddie G. and my brother. What had made that sound?
Eddie G., with the most complete look of ire and hatred that a fourth grader could possibly give, raised a single pink eraser in the air with a mixture of reverence and disbelief. “Did you throw this at me?”
“I don’t care about what Mrs. Gull –” she said the name with disgust – “did in this class. It’s my job to keep you hooligans and thugs in line. So shut up and do what I say.”
When you’re ten years old, you don’t exactly have the most perfect grasp of racial microaggressions. You don’t know critical race theory, you don’t have a full understanding of power dynamics, and you don’t always recognize when an adult is doing something wrong. On top of that, the school I went to was filled mostly with other kids with the same jet black hair and brown skin as I was. Most of our teachers were people of color. That’s not to say that discrimination didn’t exist, but again, I was ten. It’s not like I could have been able to name all the ways that structural oppression was limiting my choices and opportunities at that age.
And yet, when this teacher referred to most of the class of (admittedly rowdy) fourth graders as “hooligans and thugs,” my heart dropped to my feet, and then it began pumping furiously, and I felt nervous, an electric energy charging through me. It felt wrong. She shouldn’t have said anything. But what was I supposed to say? I was near the front of the class, and if she was willing to turn school supplies into projectiles within the first few minutes of her first day as our substitute, surely her aim would be better if she threw anything at me. But as I looked around the class, I watched the students around me settle into an awkward energy as well. They shuffled in their seats; they sought out affirming and validating looks in one another, as if to assure each other that yes, this is bad. And while we weren’t a particularly awful group of kids – mostly just eager and easily excitable – the behavior shifted almost immediately.
Everyone answered with a curt “Here” when their name was called for attendance. We quietly completed our spelling exam. We left and returned for recess without much noise or enthusiasm. We were reading Island of the Blue Dolphins at the time, trying to devour a chapter a day (OMG LIKE ME L O L), and as we settled in, the substitute asked someone to start reading. The first Eddie volunteered and slowly worked his way for a few paragraphs before shouting “Popcorn!” and calling on someone else.
(A brief aside, as I learned earlier this year on tour that there are people who NEVER EVER USED POPCORN READING IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. So, let me explain, my friends. Popcorn reading was great because it meant you could read as much as you wanted – as long as it was one paragraph – and then vindictively call on anyone to read at least a paragraph. People always chose me for the long passages because I was a fast reader, and I always used Popcorn to get back at my bullies by calling on them when they were trying to nap or not pay attention. But strangely, it actually worked as it was intended because we always had so much fun trying to keep everyone on their toes. You could also pass the popcorn back to someone who just read, too, so it became a game, and then the teacher sat there, glowing with victory, because we all just got tricked into reading.)
“Excuse me,” the substitute said, walking over to Eddie’s desk. “I didn’t say you could stop reading.”
Eddie gaped at her. “Ma’am, we’re Popcorn reading. I called on someone else.”
“I didn’t say you could do that.”
Eddie silently looked down at his, then back up at the teacher, then at all of us. And bless that kid’s heart: I have never seen someone express such a complex version of confusion in his life. He literally didn’t understand what to do. The teacher walked over to his book and gingerly laid a finger on the book. “You will keep reading.”
Eddie gulped and began to read, much slower than before, and his voice wavered more and more with each sentence he completed. He finally stopped, just a few paragraphs later, looking up at the teacher. She still stood in front of him, and the class had fell into an eerie silence. “Ma’am, may I please have a some water?” Eddie asked, and his voice squeaked on the final word from the dryness. “Ma’am, my throat is dry.”
“No,” she replied. “You little thugs in training need to learn to be disciplined. No water until the chapter is done.”
Another “thug” comment. This time, the word brought about a muted shuffle throughout the class as we all collectively felt so wrong about what she was saying.
And yet, Eddie kept reading. He started to stutter, and someone raised their hand offering to read for him. The teacher ignored them and remained standing in front of the desk.
My memory wants to recall what happened next in slow motion, and I think it’s because it all actually happened so quickly that it’s the only way my brain can process it. Perhaps this also due to the fact that aside from the bizarrely racist things my mother said when I was growing up, this teacher was the first violently racist person I had ever seen in my life. But it’s one of those crystal clear memories regardless, something that was never hard for me to bring back into my thoughts.
Eddie stopped reading. He took a deep breath, closed his book, stood up, and, with his hands placed on the back of his chair, said, “Ma’am, I really need to get some water.” He stepped away from his chair, and began to walk with purpose towards the door.
In the span of a blink, the substitute stormed up to Eddie, picked up him up with both hands, spun to her left, and slammed him down into a lone chair sitting by the door. When he hit that chair, we all heard the air whoosh right out of him. She had knocked the breath right out of him, and as she did so, she shouted, “I know you’re used to running the streets without your parents caring about you, but you will not disobey me!”
At the exact moment Eddie hit that chair, though, you could also hear the scoot of chairs on tile as half the class defiantly stood up themselves, because in that moment, we stopped doubting ourselves. We stopped assuming that the invisible, unspoken rule that we should defer to all adults and authority figures needed to be obeyed any further. We stopped ignoring that feeling inside of us that what this woman was doing was unacceptable in every universe ever. And that’s when we started yelling. Some of it was incoherent, but I heard my brother shout, “You can’t do that!” while someone else shrieked, “You can’t touch him.”
And when Eddie slumped over in the chair, that’s when my brother, myself, and Eddie G. all bolted for the door, which the substitute stood in front of, and she raised a hand to grab my brother. “I wouldn’t do that,” Eddie G. said. “You need to let us out right now. You can’t keep us here.”
“You will sit down, right now!”
“If you don’t let us go right now,” my brother said, “you’re going to hear from my mother.”
The room gasped. Silently, it was the first moment that I was proud that my mom’s reputation for causing a scene at school preceded her. The teacher didn’t understand, though, and she refused to move. At first.
“You haven’t met my mother,” I said. I leaned in closer. “She is really scary.”
To this day, I have no idea who said it, but someone in the back of the class then said, “She’s basically Satan.”
The teacher looked at us, and quietly stepped out of the way. We ran for the principal’s office, nearly falling down the giant set of stairs the led to the back entrance of the office. I swear to y’all, that teacher was gone before the end of the school day. You better believe my mom was there in less than 20 minutes.
She used to be scary as hell.
- This chapter is relentlessly creepy for a number of reasons, one I’ll touch on in a bit, but what I immediately latched onto – and what inspired me to relate the story of the most horrifying substitute teacher I ever had – was the way that Gaiman made his narrator in touch with his instinct. I think we don’t give credit to younger kids for recognizing when something is wrong or, at the very least, doesn’t feel right.
- Ursula Monkton makes the narrator feel wrong. One of the things that’s so unnerving about her is how she slowly wins over the narrator’s sister and father, doing things to make them trust her while outwardly demonstrating to the narrator that she’s here to make things worse for him.
- AND WE DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY. God, I think that is the most disturbing part of this. What is Ursula doing? We know she came through to this world when Lettie and the narrator traveled over to the orange-sky place, but her motivations are still ambiguous. I don’t understand her desire to give people money. Is she a demon of sorts?
- It’s interesting how Ursula feels like a standard trope in one sense, when you think about evil babysitters and such in the horror genre, but she is wholly unique in the context of this book. She is so much more sinister in how direct she is, you know? I mean, she hits on the narrator’s father fairly openly, and it’s just so wrong.
- What does she want???? I DON’T GET IT.
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