Mr Casa recognised Mihlali immediately. He didn’t even seem surprised to see her.
“Mihlali Soci,” he said loudly, and as he called out her name Mihlali was forced to respond.
Mihlali looked up and braced herself to meet Mr Casa’s eyes. He was smiling at her.
“Welcome to high school, my girl,” he said, his smiling lingering on his lips. “Welcome.”
Mr Casa was going to be Mihlali’s register class teacher. That meant that she would see him every day, first thing.
“I am the teacher that you all need to bring your troubles to,” he said to the class, sweeping his heavy-lidded eyes over them all. It felt to Mihlali that when his eyes passed over her it was like a grey cloud blotting out the sun.
She shifted in her desk and looked about her. The boys and girls in her class slumped in their desks like wilted plants thirsting for water. The day was getting hotter by the minute, and yet Mihlali felt herself shiver. She crossed her arms over her chest and hugged herself.
The wide-eyed exuberance of her fellow Grade 8 students had fled the classroom, and been replaced by angry, simmering boredom. Each child had donned a mask of emptiness, with only their eyes flickering to the windows, suddenly longing for the freedom outside, beyond the burglar bars.
Mihlali heard Mr Casa speaking, it seemed to her, from a long way off, as he told them he would also be teaching them Maths. It had been her favourite subject at the farm primary school and one in which she had excelled. Now the thought of it was already filling her with dread.
At the end of the class Mihlali packed her books into her backpack and moved as quickly as she could to the door. But before she could escape, Mr Casa called her back to his desk. She turned and approached, trembling, clutching the strap of her bag.
“Well now, Mihlali,” said Mr Casa, and Mihlali could feel the class emptying behind her, like water draining down a sink, leaving her alone with him. “I’m sure you are going to do very well here. Do you know that it was Abram who helped the farmer to make the choice to send you here? I gave him all the help I could. I gave this school my recommendation,” Mr Casa said, and paused to laugh softly. “Naturally.”
Mihlali felt his hand touch hers, and linger for a second.
“He might even send your cousin Senazo here as well, Mihlali,” continued Mr Casa. “I will do my best to persuade him. You can help me to do that.”
Mihlali felt Mr Casa squeeze her hand. She pulled her hand away, just a little. Mr Casa frowned.
“You can help me to persuade him, Mihlali. Wouldn’t that be nice? You could be together. You and Senazo at the same school, both with a bright future.”
Mr Casa leaned forward and smiled. Mihlali could smell his breath close to her face. Brandy and cigarettes.
“I told him, the farmer, that I would help you settle in, Mihlali. The farmer really cares about you, you know. We all do.” Mihlali nodded and began to move away. Mr Casa tightened his grip on Mihlali’s hand.
“Here we all help each other you know, Mihlali. You help me and I help you and then I help Senazo, and then the farmer helps you both. That way we all keep him happy. That way the farmer will keep on paying for you to study here. And maybe pay for Senazo too.”
Mihlali was looking down at her shiny black shoes. They were the only brand new shoes that Mihlali had ever owned. She shifted her feet, muttered, and shuffled.
“Look at me Mihlali,” said Mr Casa. “A pretty girl like you should always get good marks shouldn’t she? I can help you do that.” Suddenly Mr Casa released her hand, and Mihlali felt relief flooding her.
“Come to my class at break,” he told her.
Mihlali looked away toward the door and nodded. Mr Casa’s hand was holding hers again. She could not meet his eyes. He released her hand and then Mihlali began to run. She ran out of the classroom and blindly up some stairs. Then along a passage and down some other stairs. Only then did she stop, and when she did, Mihlali realised that she was completely lost. She had no idea how to find the classroom where she was meant to be.
After running up and down the corridors and searching frantically, she eventually found the class. The teacher was angry with her because she was late.
“If you can’t find where the class is, I doubt if you will ever find the locations in your map work,” said the teacher, and all the children laughed loud and long, relieved to have Mihlali there to laugh at.
Mihlali found a desk, and the world of the classroom blurred into watery shapes around her, before she managed to sit up straight, and swallow hard.
Tell us what you think: How is Mr Casa going to influence Mihlali’s time at the school? Will Senazo be able to join her, and would it be a good thing if she did?