Mother rang me before the next lesson. She was worried. Her daughter refused to write. Writing is part of the 11+. She’d bought a notebook, she said, for homework essays. She thought her daughter would write them. Perhaps the girl liked me or seemed to. I offered to set a question on the phone. Mother said no; she wanted me to do it face to face. If teacher said: “Write!” a girl would have to.
The notebook had a hard cover, with hundreds of pages – quality A4, thick and shiny. It would last a long time and hold lots of writing. Best of all, it would impress her daughter. The writing would be quality too.
When I arrived, I gave an extract from The Secret Garden. The child read for a moment.
“I know this!”
She’d seen a film version, then borrowed the book from her school library. It was upstairs. She asked if she could get it. When she returned, she held it out proudly. I began to like her.
“You need a pet name,” I said. Her name had four syllables. Nu was the second. “I’m going to call you Nunu.”
“No, you’re not. People call me Femi or (a name I don’t recall).”
“In the first lesson, you said you didn’t have a pet name. You lied.” Her face soured, like the first lesson. “It’s either Sweetie or Nunu. Which do you like better?”
“Nunu,” she said, quickly. I'd picked the right moment. She wasn’t cross. She may have been pleased. I had bothered about her, and the pet name was clever, or I thought it was. She relaxed. She even burped.
“Have you been watching boy cartoons?”
No answer. She didn’t look like a boy. As if to prove it, she had worn a tight top. She hadn’t done that before. She eyed the extract I’d given. It was a comprehension. There were several pages. She discovered the answer sheet at the end. I reached for it. She wrestled it away. She hadn’t done that, either.
“You shouldn’t have stapled the answers at the back.” Her first criticism. “It’s not professional."
I won’t say her real name. She wouldn’t like it, considering what I have to tell you.
I asked her to write a book review. I said I wanted her opinion; she shouldn’t just retell the story. She chose a book about ponies. There’s a cartoon series on TV. That’s why she had the book. They’re girl ponies, mainly; of school age, who visit libraries and fly. They know magic. Without it, how could a pony turn pages? They read and write, but they don’t have to do the 11+. One is a princess with a long-winded name, like a royal family. Nunu showed me a portrait on her phone, repeating the name aloud, adoring each syllable. She wanted to be the princess, and the pony. As for boy ponies, they exist – you can’t ignore them completely – but you don’t have to like them. In the cartoon, as in life, they’re plodders and bullies.
I’d got to know her better. I liked the enthusiasm for pink ponies. All the same, it didn’t square with the tight top. I asked about her birthday.
“It’s in November. You can give me a present.”
“A hug and a kiss.”
“That’s your opinion.”
She never read The Secret Garden. It was an audiobook, for a start. There were no annoying pages. Even then, she returned it to the library. I asked why.
“It was boring.”
She did review the ponies for homework, in her new notebook. It was the only decent homework she wrote, though she gave no opinion; she just retold the story. Nonetheless, mother was delighted. Nunu had shown an interest in books, if only two, one which she didn’t have to read and one which was full of pictures.
Not everything is magic, with pink ponies. I shouldn’t have called her Nunu. I looked it up the other day in the slang dictionary.