Original story in Chinese by Prof. Lee Chack-fan; retold by Raymond Lam
No student in their right mind wanted to have to see Mr. Tao at lunchtime.
The uniformed boy shuffled his leather shoes nervously in the principal’s office, the clock’s arms inching right at a tortuously slow pace. There was a small chair, but he was too skittish to plant himself on it, preferring to stand at attention, to be ready to respond to anything Mr. Tao had to throw at him. He felt sick, panicked. He was so going to get expelled, or at least suspended. He wasn’t a great student, but he’d never been busted committing such a misdemeanor before. He’d never done something as terrible as hitting a fellow student, but around half an hour ago he’d seen red and the moments after he attacked James were all a blur. Now James was in the ward with the school nurse, bleeding and crying and cursing Terry’s name. And everyone knew about it – his friends, his teachers… and soon, both boys’ parents.
The old oak door creaked open and in strode the principal. Mr. Tao was a robust, sinewy man, with a thin smile and a soulful gaze that seemed to search for the thoughts behind other people’s eyes. He had only been at the school for a semester and a bit, but talk went around among students and teachers alike that he could straighten out anyone he came across. No one was safe – not the jocks, not the nerds, not the skivers and bludgers, not even the teacher’s pets. Mr. Tao sat behind his table, and Terry involuntarily moved to stand in the middle of the room, his still, edgy form being scrutinized in silence by Mr. Tao’s attentive gaze. On the table was a small rock, stained in vermillion. The blood of Terry’s classmate.
Mr. Tao suddenly shifted, lifting into view a large jar of candy and chocolates. “I didn’t expect you to be here so early, Terry,” said the principal. “Thank you for making the effort to be on time. Consider your conscientiousness appreciated. Grab one.” When Terry just blinked in wordless surprise and didn’t move, Mr. Tao said, “Go on. These are Lindt chocolates. They’re really nice.”
The bell rang. Lunchtime was already over but Terry wasn’t about to be allowed to flee to his next class.
Cautiously, Terry reached over and plunged his hand inside the jar, fumbling around for a foil-wrapped chocolate. He’d barely put the Lindt in the right pocket of his grey shorts when Mr. Tao suddenly spoke again. “I’m really pleased with how much you respect teachers. Or at least, how much you respect me.”
“I don’t understand, sir,” said Terry slowly.
“Well, you desisted from bashing James with this rock when I shouted at you to stop, didn’t I? As you seem to have forgotten, you actually showed yourself to my office pretty quickly when I asked you to.” Terry wasn’t sure. It was probably because Mr. Tao had a terrifying angry voice, but despite his inability to relax Terry did feel somewhat comforted by his words. It didn’t stop there. “I think you deserve one more chocolate. Care for another?” Terry stared at Mr. Tao, wondering what he was playing at. He wasn’t going to reach over and smack him round the head if he took one more candy, was he? He evidently didn’t, as Terry reached in and grabbed his unexpected prize.
Mr. Tao put his hands on the table, the candy jar still open. “Terry. I heard what happened. You were fighting James because he was bullying Prudence and Nigella.”
How did he know? It didn’t really matter. “Yes,” muttered Terry, his head bowed.
The expected rebuke never came. “You need one last chocolate,” said the principal, taking a Lindt out and offering it to Terry. “I just have to acknowledge you for one more thing.”
Was he joking? “I really don’t understand, sir. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
“Nothing,” said Mr. Tao, holding up his hands innocently. “All I’m saying is that you saw two girls being bullied and you couldn’t stand it. You stood up to James and when he insulted you along with the girls, you and he began to brawl. It takes a strong sense of right and wrong – and bravery – to stand up to bullies, no matter how mistaken you are in the way you do it.”
“I hit James in the head with a rock,” blurted Terry, his voice shaking.
“We can certainly overreact when we see something that makes us very angry,” admitted Mr. Tao softly.
“I hit him. Aren’t you mad?” burst out Terry, losing all composure.
“Concerned,” said Mr. Tao calmly.
“I should never have hit him. I couldn’t control myself,” sobbed Terry, unable to control the tears. Now he had two chocolates in his pocket and one on the table, but his back was heaving and his words crushed by regret. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to send him to the ward. He was just being stupid, I didn’t want to hurt him for real. I mean, maybe I did, but I hate myself now. I want to go apologize to him.”
Mr. Tao’s eyes shone with kindness as he slowly pushed the third candy in Terry’s direction. “Then we’re done here.”
Terry blinked, his eyes still watery. “Huh?” he rasped.
“That’s a great idea! You should see James right now. I’ll let Mr. Davis know you’ll be late for physics. You mustered a great deal of courage when you tried to stop James from bullying the girls. But making amends with him is going to need even more courage. Can you do it?”
Terry finally understood. He still felt disconcerted at how Mr. Tao treated him. And he still felt scared that James might hate him, or that he’d spit in his face, or was already scheming his revenge. But Terry had one thing in his control, and that was to go apologize to the boy he’d hurt. He stood up. “I’m headed to the ward, sir,” he declared, his voice no longer quivering and the gossip of the school echoing in his head.
“Mr. Tao can straighten out anyone he comes across.”
“Well, off you go, then,” said the principal, his lips curled upwards in a great big beam. Terry turned his back on him and rushed out. Mr. Tao glanced at the forgotten third chocolate that Terry had left behind in his haste to leave. “Aren’t you having that?” he called, but already Terry’s rapid footsteps were receding down the corridor.
Mr. Tao shrugged and took the candy, licking his lips and unwrapping it to reward himself for a job well done.