At the end of their next science lesson Martin was waiting around Chris' desk and obviously wanted to speak in private.
"Did you want to see me about something, Martin?" Chris continued tidying up the papers and books on his desk, but noticed that Martin was careful to be certain that all the other children had left the classroom completely before he spoke.
Martin sniffed and wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve. "Sirrr!" He drawled, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "How old do you have to be to leave home?"
This was not the sort of question he was expecting at all. Martin tended to ask which was the last day for handing in homework, usually on the day that it was due. Chris cleared his throat, looked thoughtfully at his paperwork and at Martin and asked, "How old are you now, Martin? 12? 13?"
"Do I have to hand my book in today?" He was looking, apprehensively, at the pile of exercise books that had been collected in at the end of the lesson and seemed to ignoring Chris's reply. Before Chris could say anything Martin said, "Germs are too small to see aren't they, Sir? Do you think there are many on those books?" Now he was rubbing the palms of his hands together and down the sides of his hips over and over. It gave Chris a chance to observe the boy before him. He had only been teaching Martin for a few weeks but had noticed that he was usually as untidy as his written work; tousled hair, tie at half-mast, at least one shirt tail visible on the outside of his trousers. So, Chris was a little puzzled about Martin's concern about germs. Now he also noticed Martin's very grubby hands and dirty finger nails. His face was grimy and there were lots of oily blackheads across his nose and cheeks. Martin's hair did not look as if it had been washed for weeks. Some of this grubbiness might be explained by his being a 'typical teenager' just entering adolescence, Chris thought. But what about his first question? "How old do you have to be to leave home?"
Pointing to one of the lab stools he said, "Sit down, Martin. Before you ask me any more questions answer two questions for me. How old are you and why are you worried about germs?"
Chris noticed that Martin had casually wiped the stool before he sat on it. And he also noticed that Martin used the same sleeve for the stool that he had used minutes before for his nose.
"If I hand my book in it'll get all the germs on it from the other books and I'll have to touch them won't I? Thirteen."
To Chris's amazement he realized that Martin was now crying. Not blubbing and as dramatically as in a tragedy. But tears were falling down his cheeks creating irregular less-dirty paths on his face as he spoke. It was as if Martin had not noticed. In fact Chris became sure that Martin was not aware at all that he was upset. And this upset Chris. What on earth was going on?