Shieldbug in a Colony of Ants
Shieldbug in a Colony of Ants
The new girl’s eyes were on her twirling hands.
As Naima shuffled into the classroom, she saw the new girl at the back. She perched stiffly on her chair, as if its plastic back was as sharp and stabbing as a needle. Her legs were raised a little above the floor, held rigidly in mid air. The girl had two beautiful plaits of auburn hair, but they were screwed into tight knots all the way down her back, so that any loose strand couldn’t stray far. Her eyes were lowered, darting from one hand to the next, and Naima caught a glimpse of a well-beaten fidget spinner, being whirled between the girl’s fingers at lightning speed.
That was the first new thing Naima noticed. The second thing was the strange adult sitting next to the new girl. Red lanyard around her neck, the woman was thin and kept her eyes fixed upon the new girl. This halted Naima in her tracks; the unexplained presence of a grown-up who wasn’t Mrs Haywood was confusing in itself.
Taking a breath, Naima was about to approach them, when a whirlwind of arms, noise and red hair slammed into her.
“HOW WAS YOUR HALF TERM?” Ruby bellowed through an enormous hug. Her new puffer jacket squeaked awkwardly against Naima’s arms. Naima returned the hug dutifully.
“It was fine, we went up to Scotland and Jacob says he saw the Loch Ness monster but he didn’t. How was yours?”
Ruby told her about the beach, trying to get a tan and her ‘hot’ surfing instructor, but before she could help it, Naima’s eyes were already back on the new girl. She hoped Mrs Haywood would hurry up.
Finally, the teacher strode in and the noise dropped. Everyone had noticed the two new additions by now. Naima felt sorry for them – there were eyebrows raised in their direction and whispers from all around the room.
“Good morning Year Seven! I hope you have all had a nice break. As you may have seen, we have a new member of the class joining us today…this is Lauren.”
Now all eyes really were on the new girl. Naima expected her to blush or smile awkwardly, but she kept her gaze focussed steadily on her spinning hands. The woman beside her spoke up. “I’m Lauren’s teaching assistant, my name is Miss Andrews!” she announced a little too cheerily “Lauren is quite shy so I’m here to do the talking sometimes. But during break I’ll be in the staffroom, so could someone show her to the art room please?”
No one volunteered. It was obvious why. Naima had never met someone with their own personal ‘teaching assistant’. The silence slid by and the room prickled.
“I’ll do it.”
She’d said it more to end the silence than anything else, but the woman beamed and Mrs Haywood said “Thank you Naima, that’s very kind.” Naima blushed and caught Ruby’s eye. She looked confused.
It was almost break time and Ruby had already grilled Naima about volunteering. “Someone had to do it” Naima whispered in explanation, “all I need to do is show her down the corridor.”
Lauren hadn’t said a word all lesson, and Mrs Haywood didn’t seem bothered by another teacher sitting in front of her like another student. But as soon as the bell rang, the girl stood up abruptly and walked over to Naima, pink backpack in hand.
“Hi!” Naima responded, seeing Ruby edge away out of the corner of her eye. Her friend clearly didn’t rate the new girl at all.
Lauren glanced up, and Naima was surprised by how piercing her green eyes were. She mumbled “hello”, and looked back down.
“By the way, my name’s Naima. It’s great you’ve joined our class!”
“Yeah. This is my fifth school.”
The conversation slammed to a halt. Naima headed stiffly for the door. They wound their way down through the swiftly filling corridor, Naima keeping a fair distance from a gang of rowdy Year Eights. Lauren followed silently.
“This is the art room. I have art class with you too, so you can always come and sit with me and Ruby?”
Their teacher walked in. This term they would be looking at insects. Lauren perched on a stool and took out a very short pencil from her bag. Everyone else chose one of the printed pictures of insects to copy, but Naima saw Lauren begin drawing with barely a glance at the pile of photographs.
Ruby rushed in late, and, seeing her friend sitting with the new girl, furrowed her eyebrows.
“You said you’d just be showing her to the classroom?” she muttered close to Naima’s ear. Naima could feel Ruby’s annoyance radiating like a hot stove.
The lesson continued. Their teacher gave the usual advice: “five seconds looking up, one second looking down”… “less talking please Danielle”… “is that a rubber in your hand, Jude?”
At the end of the class, Naima lent over and looked at Lauren’s page. It was full of not one, but hundreds of beautiful insects. They filled the page in bursts of movement and each kept a few millimetres distance from the others. Naima could hardly believe they weren’t real.
“That’s amazing!” she exclaimed, and Lauren blinked.
“The shield bug doesn’t have the right shell pattern. And the ladybird’s head is too big. They’re not amazing.”
Naima was taken aback. But when she looked at Lauren, she glimpsed the flicker of a smile twitching the edges of her mouth. The compliment hadn’t gone unappreciated.
Ruby wasn’t in. According to Mrs Haywood, she was ill with a cold and wouldn’t be well enough for school today. Naima knew the real reason was because Ruby hadn’t done her maths homework.
As the lesson started, she tried to ignore the growing knot in her stomach at not having her friend to sit with at lunch. Would the others talk to her? Would they make space on their table? Would she have to sit alone?
Overwhelmed, Naima barely noticed as the morning slipped by. Too soon she was being jostled and shoved into the dining hall. She clutched her packed lunch and tried to make herself like an anchor, but she couldn’t stay steady and had to keep moving.
Then she saw Lauren. Sitting alone at a table by the window, she was already tucking into her sandwich without a hint of embarrassment. Naima approached her and sat opposite.
“Hi,” Lauren paused and lowered her sandwich. A thought occurred to Naima: maybe she wanted to be alone.
“Can I sit here?”
Lauren nodded through another bite.
Afters they’d devoured their lunches in silence, Naima decided to try again.
“How did you draw those insects without even looking at one?”
Lauren looked up again. This time, she didn’t look away.
“They were easy to draw because I’ve seen them before. Some many times, but I’ve only seen a grasshopper twice.”
“Do you like animals then?”
“No, dogs are too loud and cats are too furry. I like insects because they are quiet and clean and beautiful. Did you know that insects breath through their sides using holes called spiracles? That means they never get out of breath, because their whole body does the breathing for them!”
Lauren’s eyes were gleaming and her face looked lighter somehow. Naima was surprised to see that she held her gaze, unlike Lauren had yesterday.
“You really like bugs then?” she replied through a grin.
“Bugs and insects are not the same thing at all. And yes, I am going to become an entomologist so that I can discover a new species of insect and name it myself.”
Naima laughed, “that would be so exciting!”.
Lauren smiled and nodded wisely. “Yes I know, Naima. That is why I’m going to do it”.
More than heights, exams or dentists, more than eating celery or not being able to fall asleep, more than even fighting with Ruby, Naima hated PE.
Mr Hixen was the kind of teacher who didn’t believe in teaching ‘by halves’. He expected each student to commit fully to whichever team they were put on, and to make victory their only objective. Those ‘sofa slobs’ who didn’t put in ‘one hundred and ten percent energy’ were publicly scolded. Naima dreaded each lesson.
But by a stroke of luck, Mr Hixen did not appear. The Year Sevens waited half-heartedly on the court. After a while, a short, bespectacled woman Naima didn’t know scurried across the court and announced “I’m covering your lesson while Mr Hixen is away. Please divide into teams and start a netball match.”
Ruby and the others took charge. Naima edged towards the back, and managed to land herself a position too insignificant to take notice of. The game began.
Naima spotted Lauren opposite her across the court, fidget spinner in hand and looking equally awkward. Slowly, Naima shuffled around the edge of the court, trying to appear engaged in the game. She reached Lauren, who glanced up. There was a definite prick of appreciation in the way she asked: “Does sport make your eyes go blurry too?”
Naima smiled, “Sometimes, but normally I get a stomach ache. You’re lucky Mr Hixen isn’t here. He’s the worst!”
Lauren frowned and started whirling her fidget spinner.
“Don’t worry,” Naima added quickly, “Hopefully he’s moved houses or something and won’t come back!”
The raucous shouting and bouncing of dropped balls echoed across the court, but Lauren seemed to be able not to even hear it.
“Last night,” she said, “I read a book that said that snails can live for five years, because of their strong calcium carbonate shells. They only get one shell though.”
Naima was amazed, “Five years! I thought they lived only a few weeks.”
“Nope!” Lauren insisted gleefully, “And some of the bigger ones can live up to twenty-five.”
“Imagine having one shell on your back for twenty-five years!”
“It’s cosy. I would like to have only one bedroom all my life.”
Naima chuckled, “but think how messy their shell must get!”
Lauren grinned and made a squelching noise in her throat “I didn’t think of that. Their floors must be covered in rubbish, and they only move slowly so it would take a REA-L-LY long time to tidy!”
Naima’s giggles were drowned out by now by Lauren’s hooting peels of laughter. A couple of people turned their heads to see who was making the noise, and Ruby shot Naima a dirty glare that threw the smile off her face.
The lesson finished and Ruby charged over to her friend.
“She’s so weird,” she muttered, gesturing to Lauren as she left the court ahead of them, “did you hear those noises she was making? What’s wrong with her?” Naima didn’t reply.
“You’re too good for her,” Ruby insisted across the table, “Lauren is really odd, Naima.”
They were finishing lunch together next to a couple of other girls, who were nodding enthusiastically at everything Ruby said. Naima wanted to remind them that her friend was not an empress. Yet.
Ruby continued determinedly, “She probably has strange parents who never taught her how to act her age. She’s like a baby with that ridiculous fidget spinner. None of us get to play with toys in lessons!”
Emily, who sat beside Ruby, joined in, “None of us have a personal babysitter in lessons either!” She laughed.
“Seriously though, you need to stop hanging out with that baby,” Ruby’s tone had turned cold. Naima’s lunch sat uncomfortably in her stomach.
Emily nodded, “I’d love to see her face if someone took her precious fidget spinner.”
Ruby’s eyes narrowed, “You should hide it Naima, it would do her some good. She might even realise she needs to grow up.”
Naima could feel herself tensing, as if she was about to be punched.
“I don’t want to upset her.”
“You’ll be doing her good!”
Ruby rose to her feet. “Come on, let’s go look in her draw.”
Naima followed the others as they charged out of the dining hall. Ruby must be right. As Lauren’s friend, perhaps she should try and help her?
The fidget spinner wasn’t hard to find. Lauren must be outside studying insects alone.
“Take it!” Ruby hissed. Naima pulled out the toy and studied it. Its tangerine coloured plastic was battered and faded.
“So pathetic,” Emily rolled her eyes.
Ruby nudged Naima hard.
“Break it. You’ll be doing her a favour.”
Naima looked at her friend in disbelief, “I can’t do that!”
“Do you really think she’ll ever make friends if she’s always obsessed with that thing?”
“It’s not mine.” The classroom lights were suddenly too glaring.
“Just do it already!”
Naima closed her eyes and pulled.
A snap wrenched the numb air apart. Cracks ripped through the toy. Shards of plastic scattered.
Naima felt like she’d been stung.
“Quickly!” Emily’s urgency jolted her back, “Someone’s coming. Put it back!”
Naima poured the broken pieces back into Lauren’s locker. The girls scuttled to their seats as the bell rang and their class crowded into the room. Naima looked desperately around for Lauren.
She came in last, and seeing Naima, gave her a wave. Naima felt her stomach lurch.
Lauren headed straight for her locker.
“Registration!” Mrs Haywood began. “Danielle?”
Lauren was peering inside…
Her hands lifted out one broken piece…
Lauren examined another piece, her face a closed book.
A low gurgling noice was coming from her mouth…
The sound grew louder. People were turning around, watching Lauren from their seats…
There was an excruciating pause.
Then Lauren erupted.
From her place across the classroom, Naima could see her crouched on the floor, rocking herself back and forth while terrible wails exploded from her mouth. Her eyes were trapped birds, flitting from one startled face to another. She clutched one broken piece in her trembling hand.
Mrs Haywood rushed over.
“Someone get Miss Andrews!” she yelled. Her hand reached for Lauren’s shoulder but the girl flinched as if it was a knife edge. The class surrounded Lauren, confused, wary and curious all at once. Naima wanted to run from the room.
Lauren’s wails intensified. There were no tears, but her voice sliced through the air in an anguished deluge.
Then Miss Andrews was by Lauren’s side. Her gentle fingers negotiated the shards of fidget spinner from Lauren’s clenched fists. She murmured inaudible words into her ear. The wailing slowed. But Lauren’s eyes stayed plastered open.
Later, Miss Andrews told the class that Lauren been taken home. Mrs Haywood stood behind the teaching assistant, looking sternly around the room of bewildered Year Sevens.
“Lauren was extremely distressed because she found that someone had broken her fidget spinner,” Mrs Haywood told the class slowly, “And I would like to know who it was.”
Naima’s skin prickled.
“You don’t have to own up in front of everyone”, their teacher continued, “but I want whoever is responsible to come and see me before the end of the day.”
As the last lesson finished, Naima headed quickly towards the school gates. Her stomach was a web of knots, and the thought of talking to anyone made her mind foggy. Quietly, she headed home.
Naima hadn’t slept a wink.
All night, images of Lauren had burrowed into her thoughts. Lauren’s wide eyes, unable to make sense of the broken toy. Her distraught wails. Her desperate rocking.
Somehow, she found herself at school the next morning. Ruby met her at the gates.
“You didn’t snitch on us to Mrs Haywood did you?” she whispered fiercely.
Naima shook her head and Ruby smiled. Naima followed her into the classroom.
“Good, just checking you weren’t a traitor or something!” she continued,
“Emily’s coming round to mine tonight, we’re going to watch a movie and do makeovers. Wanna come?”
Naima was about to reply when she saw Miss Andrews walk in, followed by Lauren. She seemed like a shadow, Naima noticed, and her gaze clung to the teaching assistant as if she was a lifeline.
“I didn’t like what we did yesterday and I don’t want to come round tonight,” Naima paused, then added, “sorry.”
“Sorry?” Ruby flicked her hair, “That’s pathetic, we didn’t do anything wrong!”
“But Lauren was-”
Ruby had already turned away.
Her friend ignored Naima all morning, and Naima’s greatest company was her own stomach knot. During lunch, she sat outside, trying to focus on the damp sunlight on her face, instead of on Ruby’s scowl of disapproval.
Naima’s eyes flickered open; Lauren was standing in front of her.
“Were you asleep?” she enquired curiously.
“No, just thinking.”
“Well I have been doing some thinking too,” Lauren didn’t pause for validation, “what I was thinking is this. Maybe there are insects under the lunch benches.”
Naima stood up and studied Lauren. She didn’t look upset any more, but her eyes had heavy bags underneath. Maybe Lauren hadn’t slept much last night either.
Naima nodded, “only one way to find out.”
The benches weren’t used much except in summer, and Lauren was on her hands and knees before Naima had even reached them.
“Look!” Lauren shouted, “a woodlouse family!”
Naima squatted down beside her. The woodlice were weaving between the cracks in the wood, their smooth shell coats glinting a short indigo in the shade.
She looked over at Lauren. Her fingers were tracing the woodlouse paths, carefully avoiding the insects themselves. Naima smiled. Now was as good a time as any.
“I found something for you,” Naima dug her hand into her pocket and drew out a colourful fidget spinner. It was faded and scratched but covered in a bright polkadot pattern. “I know your other one got broken, so I thought you’d like to have mine?”
Lauren took the fidget spinner and studied it. She held it up to her eyes, to the sun and twirled it experimentally between her fingers.
Naima broke the silence, “if you don’t want it, that’s fine too!”
Lauren looked at Naima, and for the first time it was as if she was seeing her in broad daylight. Naima felt a little like the woodlice, being examined under the weight of Lauren’s full attention.
“It is not as fast as mine, but I like it,” Lauren paused, then added, “Are we friends now?”
Naima’s tense lips broke into a smile. Lauren returned it, then leaned over and continued her study of the insects once more.
EPQ Artefact 2o20