Camouflage

Jake slipped into Biology class, head down, eyes up, heading for his usual seat near the window, close to the front of the room. The teacher wheeled a trolley out from the Prep Store. Lifting a large fish tank she placed it in the middle of the teacher’s desk, inviting the students to come forward.

The class crowded around the teacher’s desk staring into the large fish tank jostling for best viewing rights. It was converted into a terrarium, the top covered with thin wire gauze, filled with twigs of eucalyptus leaves. Jake found himself nearest one end of the fish tank with two girls peering around his shoulders. Heads swayed backwards and forwards, peering in, hoping to spot something.

Finally a curious student asked, “Miss, what’s in there? Apart from leaves and stuff.”

“Look closer. Look for shapes that look like sticks but perhaps are not.”

The class reconvened their search.

“Oh, look. There.” Jake pointed, his finger close enough to the glass of the fish tank to form condensation. He wiped it clean and pointed again before withdrawing.

“Where?” someone asked. “I can’t see anything.”

“Hang on, I can see it,” said the girl behind him. “It looks like a stick is hanging upside down.”

With the puzzle solved, exclamations of discovery sounded around the desk.

“Found one here.”

“There’s another on this side of the tank and it’s different again.”

The teacher began writing on the whiteboard, telling the class the scientific names of the occupants of the fish tank.

“What you see are phasmids, or more commonly known as stick insects. To be more precise, they are of the class Insecta and the family Phasmatidae.
The teacher removed the wire gauze and reached into the leaves. Drawing her hand out, a stick insect spanned the length of her hand, its legs dancing an insect version of The Robot.

“This little beauty is ctenomorpha chronus.”

“It’s like a pencil on steroids,” said one lad, causing laughter to erupt.

Jake laughed too, taking note of its pencil-like body shape, angular legs and looking for all intents and purposes, like a stick.

A few students recoiled, uttering shrieks and expressing shivers as the alien insect began to move along her hand.

“Can I hold it, Miss?” asked Jake in a bold show of visibility.

The teacher extended her arm towards Jake who offered his open palm to the insect.

Jake mimicked the stick insect’s movement with his head, rocking backwards and forwards, swaying like there was a breeze. He wished it was a fire-breathing dragon.

It had been hidden away in shape and hue. The camouflaged shades of green and brown and angular lines of legs shielded it from spying students. Outside the safety of leaf and twig the insect was vulnerable; Jake felt an affinity with the creature.

“Oi, dancing boy. Give us a go,” said one boy.

Unaware he had continued to mimic the insect’s actions ever so slightly, Jake’s face flushed. Extending his hand he watched the stick insect traverse the fleshy terrain.

The array of school uniform framing the edge of the teacher’s desk caught Jake’s attention. They looked like the leaves on a branch in their uniformity: white shirts and grey shorts for the boys and white shirts and blue skirts for the girls. A navy tie completed the camouflage.

Around the edges subtle differences emerged. Shirts tucked in and shirts tucked out. Ties adjusted to the top button, also done up, to ties flying at half-mast. Skirts exposing more thigh than covering it or knee length decorum. Blouses framed cleavage and an array of coloured bras, signals of defiance or signs of invitation. Hair was spiked, straightened, teased, gelled and preened while metal fragments adorned ears, eyebrows, lips and noses.
Jake loosened his tie slightly, fingering the top button until he felt the pressure of the collar release.

Returning the insect to its environment was a signal for the students to return to their desks. Jake retreated to his seat, blending in again as the lesson continued.

At the conclusion of the lesson Jake slipstreamed from the classroom to the corridor in the wake of the student body as it ebbed and flowed from one class to the next, pushed and pulled by the phases of the bell, disappearing from sight in a whitewash of uniforms.

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19 responses to “Camouflage

  1. Perfectly captures the awkwardness of school. Wonderful juxtaposition of the boy and the stick insect.

  2. The poignancy and acute observations of all your works (this one being no exception) makes me wonder how auto-biographical of your own teaching experience (and/or own youth) these slices of life are?

    • Teaching provides a good vantage point to observe human behaviour at its best and worst. For example, a student in Year 11 lost everything in a house fire a few weeks back. Two lads from Year 11, off their own initiative, did the whip around, raised more than $1K from their year group and organised a whole stack of goodies from an X-box to undies. And no one knew a thing until the presents were delivered, not even staff. Makes me proud to know kids who will embrace their community so whole-heartedly.
      As to auto-biographical material, I’ll keep my cards close to my chest.

  3. This is my first time reading one of your pieces and the quality of your writing is really excellent, beautiful phrases, the interest of the species references. We get the analogy but you don’t hammer it home. Your observations are sensitive, making us identify and sympathise with Jake. A real achievement to have so much of a story in such a short piece. Really well done and I look forward to reading more of your work. BTW if you do read my flash (no pressure, honest!) I apologise for the clichéd scenario I put the teacher in!

  4. My favorite line: “Can I hold it, Miss?” asked Jake in a bold show of visibility.

    It captures perfectly that adolescent unease of being in the spotlight. Even without school uniforms, teens find a way to camouflage with the group of their choice. Another great piece, Adam.

  5. Lovely analogy and a nice job of capturing the behavior of students though I suspect some of them would not care for being compared to insects. [We just won’t tell them.]

  6. I liked this line, “a stick insect spanned the length of her hand, its legs dancing an insect version of The Robot.”

    Jake learned an interesting lesson in how people will assert their individuality even in uniform, but can still blend into the crowd. I wonder how he’ll use it.

  7. Excellent story. I love the mimicry of the stick insect, even when it’s back in it’s tank. Speaks so much of real life.

  8. Oh, memories of school come back. As Jason Coggins said, it’s interesting to see real life experience emerge in fiction like this. And I very much relate to Jake.

  9. Deanna Schrayer

    Wonderful story Adam, you captured the awkwardness of that time in our lives perfectly.

    And what a great story of the real kids who raised money to help another, (in your comment), that must make you feel proud, to know you had a part in teaching them such generosity.

  10. How awkward. This reminded me of junior high. 🙂 Great job capturing that stage of development and when someone is just a little (or a lot) different.

  11. I love the comparison you draw of the camouflage, what a powerful image – the blending in among the students and never being seen. Excellent story this week, Adam

  12. Really liked the comparison to the stick insect. The story educated as well as entertained. A quiet end to match the re-immersion back into the slipstream. Well done Adam.

  13. Very nicely done. A memorable trip back to a time I wouldn’t care to repeat. 🙂

  14. Very nice! I used to do the same reflection when at school. No stick insect tho. Uh

  15. The final paragraph was downright surreal to me, Adam. Especially in the use of “slipstream” as a verb – I wondered if it was typical hullabaloo, or if I’d missed the cultural period. The awkwardness of the entire piece reminded me of your old comic fans. How are those characters holding up?

    • Hey there, John and thanks for the comment. I used slipstream as a way of suggesting the character being caught up in the crowd of students. The Comic Superhero characters went on hiatus when school returned in January. They are being very patient because I haven’t continued their story. I will get back to them, eventually.

  16. great story, very thoughtful. Great to read

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