The box hung on the noticeboard at the back of the classroom. Hilde shuddered inside. It was that awful Gilbert’s idea, but why did their teacher allow it? A complaints’ box. They’d all start ratting on one another. That was what he wanted. What could Hilde do? She chewed the end of her pencil until she got an idea.
The next day their teacher emptied the box.
‘Let me see.’ Miss Jensen frowned as she spread the notes out on her desk. ‘Here we go. “Mette is ugly and should cover her mouth when she chews”. This hasn’t been signed.’
The children laughed. Mette wasn’t in school that day. The teacher put the slip of paper to the side.
‘Surely, this isn’t what we had in mind. We’ll forget this and continue. I won’t allow comments.’
She chose another slip and unfolded it.
‘Let me see.’ She shook her head. ‘This isn’t much better: “Mette took my apple and threw it at me.” No signature. Oh well, nothing much to do about that.’
Miss Jensen sighed as she rummaged through the notes.
‘Let me see what we have here.’ She unfolded the paper and her eyes widened. ‘“I want to complain about the complaints’ box. It would be much better to have a cookie jar”. Signed Hilde. Well, Hilde, you may be right, but we’ll keep it as agreed, for now.’
Out in the playground, Gilbert pushed Hilde up against the outer wall of the toilet shed.
‘Stop writing against our box, or else.’
His face was livid. Hilde saw that the teacher on duty was headed in their direction. If she kept still, maybe he’d catch Gilbert this time.
‘Why don’t you say something? Promise. Stupid cow!’
Gilbert let her go and rushed to the toilet. He had to have a radar of sorts. Well, she wouldn’t promise, not even if he killed her.
A few weeks passed. The kids in Hilde’s class were busy thinking up complaints. She heard their whispered conversations but didn’t join in. The tiny hairs on her neck rose whenever Gilbert came close.
Back in the classroom for the last lesson of the week, their teacher went to the back wall and emptied the complaints box.
‘I hope that we have some sensible offers this time. If not, I agree with Hilde that it would be better to stop this.’
She returned to her desk at the front of the class and spread the notes in front of her. After a moment she pushed them together and sighed.
‘Children, I don’t think you’re mature enough to have this opportunity. As of today, this complaints’ box is terminated.’
The next year, a new teacher arrived. He was lanky, wore glasses, and spoke deliberately. On the third school day, Gilbert lifted his hand. The teacher nodded.
‘Yes, Gilbert, what is it?’
Gilbert rose and smirked.
‘Mr Hansen, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a complaints box? I’ve heard that it is useful to help keep discipline.’
Mr Hansen nodded slowly. Hilde lifted her hand before he could say anything.
‘We had such a box last year, and it did us no good.’
‘It did!’ Gilbert waved his hand in the air as he spoke. ‘You just didn’t like it. You’re childish.’
Mr Hansen raised both hands.
‘I think Gilbert might have a point. Anyway, I need to get to know all of you better. We’ll hang up a message box and see what comes of it.’
Hilde bristled, but there was nothing to be done. Gilbert would show his true colours soon enough. She knew what he was up to, but it would do no good to fight. For now, it was her word against Gilbert’s.
During the first weeks, nothing happened. Like last year, the complaints were absurd and sometimes hurtful. Hilde wondered if Mr Hansen had taken the measure of Gilbert. If he had, he didn’t show it. When would be the right time to act? Should she write another note? Would it be better to wait? No, it was time to stand up to this. This wasn’t the moment to write about cookie jars though. That was cute but, against Gilbert, stronger measures were necessary.
At the end of the week, Mr Hansen read the messages aloud as usual. Hilde kept her temper with difficulty. Then Mr Hansen opened the last paper.
‘What is this?’
Hilde looked up, this had to be her note.
‘This is signed. For once.’ Mr Hansen sighed. ‘Oh. “To my knowledge, the stocks were abandoned as a punishment, centuries ago. Isn’t it time we practised the same courtesy here? Stop the Complaints’ Box and help us learn to live as human beings instead of as savages.” Signed, Hilde.’
There was silence. Mr Hansen leaned back in his chair and locked eyes with Hilde. She got up and took a deep breath.
‘Don’t you see, Mr Hansen, this box spreads conflict. Last year, Mette left. She couldn’t bear it, and her parents teach her at home.’
‘That is a grave allegation, Hilde.’ Mr Hansen replaced the box on its hook. ‘Don’t let us lose our heads now. I’ll keep the trial going a few weeks longer.’
Nobody talked as Mr Hansen fetched the box. He took his time opening it and spreading the notes on his desk. Then he picked one and cleared his voice.
‘This is strange. “Pete and Maren are repugnant and stupid.” Signed Hilde.’
Mr Hansen swept the class with his eyes. Hilde jumped up.
‘I never wrote that. I haven’t even been near the noticeboard this week.’
‘I saw you!’ Gilbert gloated. ‘You put that note in the box this morning.’
‘You’re lying.’ Hilde felt her cheeks burn as she rose. ‘I know what you’re trying to do. May I see that note?’
She went up to Mr Hansen’s desk and held out her hand. Mr Hansen shrugged and handed the note over.
‘This isn’t my handwriting. I can spell repugnant.’
‘I saw you put that note in the box.’ Gilbert’s voice became ugly. ‘You’re a lying bitch.’
‘I don’t lie.’ Hilde turned her head. ‘You didn’t see me. Also, it’s your handwriting.’
‘I’ve got the picture.’ Mr Hansen rose. ‘Gilbert, come with me to the principal’s office. This has gone on for long enough. Now.’
© HMH, 2022