The Working Memory Test
It was the first time Tim had been sent to the cold, musty resource room. He knew it was for the weird or stupid kids. He felt a chill, his stomach tighten, his breaths shallow. Mme. Tremblay, the French teacher, had a little office in the corner. On her way out the door she told Tim to have a seat at the front that someone would be in shortly to do a screening test.
Scratching the gum under his desk, Tim rolled some gum shavings back and forth between his thumb and index finger. The condensation on the window beside him, framed by thick layers of paint and carved names, sparkled and invited him to gaze out into the parking lot in front of the school.
What he first noticed in the glass was the faint outline of his spiky hair, his big ears, and his long,skinny neck. He then studied the clouds, light wisps over a billowing stampede. Swirling and spiralling above the cars, a herring gull lifted Tim’s gaze. The rays of sunshine shone around the borders of rapidly retreating clouds and through the primaries and secondaries of the gull’s wings and shimmered on the windowsill.
The special assignment teacher, a large woman dressed in Lululemon, opened the door and glowered at her desk, and then forced a thin, tight smile in Tim’s general direction. She sat down, stiffly, and picked her tablet off her clean desk, nothing but a slim, sleek computer, a small stack of papers, a pink Starbucks mug, and a small black picture frame. She was careful to emphasize to Tim, while maintaining cold, professional eye contact, this wasn’t a test and he wasn’t being marked. She flashed random numbers on the screen at the front of the room and told Tim to pay attention to them.
Tim’s sightline gradually pulled toward the corner of the ceiling where an amazingly fine and intricate mesh of spider’s web fluttered.
‘The number sequence, Tim—whatever you’re looking at on the ceiling, it’s not important—now, what strategies are you using to remember these numbers?’
Laughing before he even processed what he was looking at, Tim saw a border terrier chasing a squirrel up the maple tree behind the parking lot. The dog, barking, scurried sideways and, ploughing up a pile of leaves, stopped its momentum and stalled on its front legs at the base of the tree.
‘Tim, that dog outside isn’t what you should be focusing on right now—you need to concentrate on these letters’
When she picked up her phone, Tim walked over to the window, picked up a piece of yellow tissue paper and pressed it against the glass. He just stared at it. His dirty fingers and chewed up nails blurred. Closing his eyes, his lips trembling, he felt washed in the filtered light. He melted, almost out cold. The tall grass bent and sprung back and he heard the comforting sounds of the turn signal and the car slowing down off the highway and the moon followed him in the backseat and he felt his Lab’s hair graze his arm and he tasted gingerbread.
‘Can you tell me what those letters were in reverse?’
Bass notes reverberated in Tim’s ribcage, a white Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows and after-market rims in the parking lot. He picked up a pen off a desk beside him and pretended to load it with bullets, pointing the pen at the Escalade.
‘I can wait, Tim—you need to get through this test before you can go out for recess. I’m not on duty.’ Her strident voice tore into his dream, snapped him back into the room, and snapped his head around too.
He returned to his seat with his shoes dragging and his hands balling up the front of his shirt.
‘I’m going to show you the letters one more time—you’re almost done’
The whistle of a train in the distance made him think of the winter night when he saw a train garlanded with multicoloured Christmas lights pass behind his house, and he imagined it took him to a far, far place where polar bears wiped their bloodied snouts and rested in the snow and purple and gold fish swam under his feet.
He grabbed a picture on her desk after he messed the sequence up again. She told him in the same practised slow, firm voice to put it down and look up and focus on the projected sequence.
He didn’t respond this time, though; the old picture in the new frame transfixed him—it called him.
His brows tensed, his nose twitched, and he stuck his jaw out. She swiped at the picture, but he pulled it back and jumped on his chair and then jumped off when she got up out of her chair. He instinctively ran into Mme. Tremblay’s office, and then dodged the special assignment teacher and ran down the hall, exhilarated, light on his feet, like he just got out of a fight in a bathroom stall or like a dog when his owner turns on the ignition and he feels the wind in his face. The principal collared Tim as he turned the corner, pulling the picture out of Tim’s grip and then handing it back to the special assignment teacher. She told Tim, curtly, that he could go back to class, and she returned, less stiffly, to the resource room.
Walking backwards, he turned away from his classroom when the principal turned the corner. He peered in through the blinds on the resource room door, looking at the spot where the picture stood on the desk before he fled with it. The report template on the computer was open and blank. He noticed her head was down and then he saw the picture in her hands. There she sat, staring at the old picture, her young face and her sister’s young face and the sunshine on their cheeks. The bell rang and the ragged, charmed sounds of children echoed down the halls.