Phil was on the edge of his seat in the front row of the auditorium, hoping to hear the principal call two names. Two of his students who had struggled through their eighth-grade year. The award didn’t matter. He just wanted them to have a reason to give next year a shot.
This past year, he had worked with them one-on-one, given them extra work for extra credit, spent time shooting hoops and tossing footballs. They were in his third-hour PE class and fifth-hour Biology class, and he recognized their potential, even if they didn’t. He only hoped they had the desire to reach for it. The boys, twins, stuck together after school, picked up odd jobs, and generally did everything together. Their school records revealed the challenges. Their dad had never been in their lives, and their mom had died about a year ago. They had been in foster care and had been moved several times, always together. He knew as a teacher he was limited in his influence, but their story touched him. Deeply.
The last move had brought them to Wilton Jr. High, an upper-middle-class school. Their challenges separated them from most of the other students, the status quo. They hadn’t made friends, many of the students ignoring them or looking at them as “different.” He felt if he took a personal interest in them, showed them they were important, that someone cared, provided a good role model, maybe it would make a difference. If it hadn’t been for a teacher taking him under his wing, there’s no telling where he might be today.
He felt a tap on his shoulder, scooting over to make room for Jody. He and Jody had been dating since the beginning of the school year. She had come to Wilton fresh out of college, her approach to teaching textbook perfect. He had tried to influence her through that first year to focus more on the student’s personal learning styles rather than following curriculum meticulously. She just hadn’t grasped it. But she was rather cute. He slipped his hand over hers and she smiled at him, her eyes bright with end-of-the-year excitement.
Suddenly, the Principal’s voice broke through, and he heard the names he was listening for. He squeezed Jody’s hand as Joey and Juan walked up to take their awards, looking nonchalant and cool. He didn’t miss the pride in their eyes, though. He was proud of each of his students, but the others had people cheering and clapping for them, and these two didn’t. He wanted them to know, when they laid their heads down tonight, someone was cheering for them. He was on his feet, clapping and giving the air high fives. He even whistled, getting “the look” from the Principal. Jody gripped his hand, trying to pull him back down. He sat down reluctantly but felt a sense of pride swelling his heart. They were going to high school next year! And maybe, if he could continue to have input during the summer, they might keep on until they graduated.
After the assembly, Jody left to close out her classroom, and he went in search of the boys. Giving them both a slap on the back and a hug, he reached in his pocket and got his phone. “Here,” he said, “I want a selfie with each of you with your award.” He would print them out and frame them. Maybe he would throw an end of year party and give it to them then.
After high fives, he said, “Catch ya later, guys. I have some business to take care of right now.” The guys laughing and joking, letting him know they knew his girl was involved in what he needed to do.
He found Jody still cleaning out her room, ready to put this school year behind her. He tapped on her door.
“Hey, Phil.” She motioned him in. “Just in time to help move some boxes to my car!” She gave him a flirty smile. He wasn’t at all surprised she was ready to lock up this afternoon, and be out of here. On the other hand, he would set a time with Joey and Juan to help him clean out his room on Monday.
He looked around the room, “Which ones?”
She pointed to a cart by the door, “You could start there. I should have this group ready when you get back.” Looking up, she said, “Oh, wait, here are my car keys.”
He rolled the cart with the boxes out to the staff parking lot and put them in her back seat. It took a couple trips, but they finally had everything packed up and cleared.
He leaned over to open her door, brushing her arm. He wanted to spend some time with her. “Jody,” he said with a smile, “Would you like to grab a burger and coke for an early supper?” He stepped back so she could get in. “Maybe we could take a walk after when it’s a little cooler.”
Looking up from beneath her dark brown lashes, she said, “Sure, sounds like fun.” Putting the key in the ignition she started the car. “Why don’t you follow me to the house and then we can ride together?”
He nodded, smiling. “Sure. See you there.”
The Burger Palace was alive with celebrations. Several of their teacher friends were there and some students sat in a corner booth playing music on their phones and joking around. A slight shadow crossed his face, a bit of sadness as he wondered how the boys were celebrating the end of school.
Jody reached across the table and gave his hand a squeeze. Softly, she said, “We’re having a good time, remember? Just look around, even some of the students are here, having fun.”
Phil smiled slightly. “Sorry, the group of kids over there is what I was thinking about.” She had a questioning look on her face. He didn’t want to spoil their time. “Maybe we can talk about it later.” She nodded and began eating. As they finished their burgers, he said, “What about a milkshake while we’re walking? We’re celebrating tonight, right?”
Jody’s face brightened. “Make mine Strawberry, with whipped cream and a cherry on top.”
The Spring air cooled the evening, and a few stars twinkled in the sky. He slipped his hand into hers. She looked up and asked, “Have you thought about what you want to do this summer?”
He thought a minute and said, “No, not really.” He laughed. “School just ended today.”
She cut her eyes at him as they turned a corner, and said, “I was thinking maybe we…”
“Hey, Coach!” Juan trotted over to the fence, dribbling the ball, his eyes excited. “We were wondering if you’d be here. I told Joey you’d come.” He looked down, and said, “Thanks for being at the program today. We almost didn’t go, you know. I mean, we thought who would even notice if we skipped.”
Juan dropped his eyes, and Phil felt the disappointment. He had felt it before, himself. He slapped Juan playfully on the arm and said, “Hey, it would have been pretty boring if you guys hadn’t shown up. I would have sat through that boring program for nothing.” Joey ran over, and they all gave each other that half lean in hug, the way guys do. Phil stepped back, putting his arm around Jody. “Guys, this Ms. King. I’m sure you know her from school. She teaches English.”
They nodded but didn’t seem to know what to say. Jody smiled and said sweetly, “Nice to meet you. Phil…I mean Mr. Jones… has told me about you.”
Phil looked at Jody, then back at the guys. “What about the three of us meet here around ten in the morning? Maybe we can set up a schedule so we can get time on the court.” They were smiling, seemingly pleased he would spend time with them. This was his summer vacation, too, and he wasn’t really their teacher anymore, but it felt like the right thing to do.
As he and Jody turned and walked down the street, her voice was edgy. “Well, that was convenient. Did you know they would be there?” She let go of his hand, nonchalantly crossing her arms, her eyebrows rising. “It seemed like they were expecting you.”
He walked in silence for a few minutes, then said, “No, I had no idea they would be there.” He paused, deciding to get it out. “That’s what I was thinking about while I watched those kids in the restaurant.” He glanced at her in the dimness of the street light. “It would have been nice to see the guys in that group. They shared class experiences together all year.” He shrugged. “Seemed they got along.”
Jody looked at him, bewildered. “Why would they do that, Phil? They don’t have anything in common with them.” She sounded shocked. “No one even knows where they came from or why they were at Wilton.” Shaking her head, she continued in a quiet voice, “Kids talk, you know.” She glanced at him. “Besides, those boys are just different.”
Phil looked straight ahead, gritting his teeth. With a disappointed sigh, he said, “Obviously teachers do too.” They didn’t say any more for a couple blocks, though there was a lot he wanted to say. “Look, Jody, they have school in common, being teenagers in common, celebrating the beginning of summer in common, going to high school in common.” He stopped, turning her around to face him. “Is that what you believe about them?”
She started walking again, letting out a frustrated sigh. “Never mind, Phil. If you don’t see it, I can’t explain it.”
“Jody, this is very important, to me. These kids have been here a whole year. Lots of students transferred in at the same time. They’re all equal. All students of Wilton Junior High.”
She thought for a moment. “I admire your ability to step out of the box, so to speak, accept – anyone. I can’t imagine doing it myself.” She sighed again, “That’s just not how I was raised. I don’t like bucking the system.” Pleading, she said, “Why would you want to bring work into our summer?” She put her hand on his arm, “We don’t even have to think about school, or teachers, or students. For three glorious months!”
They were back at Burger Palace and his truck. He opened her door and helped her slide in, then went around and got behind the wheel. Starting the truck and turning toward her house, he said quietly, “Let’s talk about this another time.” They certainly weren’t connecting tonight. “I’m tired and—and I have a lot to think about.”
As they walked up the sidewalk, Jody asked, “Come in for a cup of coffee? Can we talk about it?”
He stood there, looking down into her deep brown eyes, wondering how to resolve their differences. “Not tonight,” he said quietly. “Maybe tomorrow afternoon you can come for a swim?” He brushed her cheek with a light kiss and they said goodnight.
Walking into his kitchen, he reached into the fridge for a cold soda and walked out to sit on the deck. Lightning bugs twinkled, the sound of crickets the only sound disturbing the dark, cool evening. The moon made the water in the pool shimmer like diamonds. This was all so out of reach for his guys. His mind drifted back to the time Jody came to Wilton, just a couple years ago. He smiled as he remembered thinking it was so cute how her tiny nose turned up at the end, giving the impression she might drown if she looked up in the shower. But ‘cute’ was not all there was to a relationship. He wished they had more time to cement their relationship. He shook his head. It was all a lot to juggle.
The next morning, Phil was at the court a little before ten waiting for the guys to show up. It was already getting warm and he wondered if they would show when he heard voices and laughter coming around the corner.
“Hey, Coach!” They sounded winded. “Sorry we’re late. We had a little job this morning and it took longer than we thought.” They were leaning over, hands on knees, breathing hard.
Juan asked, “Where’s your wife? We didn’t know you were married. She must be pretty cool to let you play after school.” They all laughed.
Why did it rankle so when they referred to Jody as his wife? The thought hit him hard. They knew how she felt about him. Was she the right fit for him? He told them, “She isn’t Mrs. Jones, she’s just a friend who went for a burger with me.”
They had a good work out and set tentative days for the rest of the summer. He ran a few errands and went by the grocery store to pick up a few things. There were pictures and ads all around suggesting family cookouts, or homemade ice cream, or just eating watermelon under a cool tree. An idea struck and he knew what he would do this weekend. They’d shoot some hoops, and come back to his place. Take a dip in the pool and fire up the grill for hamburgers and chips for dinner. He tossed a watermelon in the basket at the last minute and went to the checkout, smiling.
That afternoon, he called Jody. “You coming over for a swim?” He had another plan forming in the back of his mind. If it worked, he might invite the other coach and his wife to the weekend cookout.
Jody sounded a little surprised, but said, “Sure, sounds good. What time?”
Before he realized it, the doorbell rang. He called out for her to come in. She came into the kitchen, barefoot, a towel wrapped around her. He motioned to the island, “I’ve put out sandwich makings if you’re hungry. I haven’t eaten all day.” They took their food outside on the deck, with a glass of iced tea. Their conversation was not about anything specific, but it was enjoyable and relaxed, the perfect lead-in.
As soon as he described what he had in mind, she pursed her lips and blew out a breath. “I’ve told you how I feel about this. I don’t know why you keep pushing it. I really like being with you, but this thing with those guys is getting in the way. Why can’t you just drop it?”
Her words cut deep, but instead of feeling hurt, he wanted her to understand. “You want to know why I can’t just drop it?” He took a deep breath and continued, “I can’t drop it because those boys remind me of myself at that age.” He looked away, into a distant and painful past. “When I was nine, my Mom passed away. She had leukemia, but I didn’t know it then. I only knew my mom was gone.” He stood at the rail of the deck, watching the sun reflecting on the pool. Turning, he said, “Nine years old, Jody. I was only nine.”
She joined him at the rail and reached out to put her hand on his arm. “What about your dad? You still had him, right?” Her voice cracked.
He turned to face her, wanting her to feel his grief, and the grief of his young friends. “It was just Dad and me, and neither of us knew how to do life without her. She was the diamond in our lives, and without her, the sparkle was gone. He stayed around, trying to be both parents to me, but finally the bottle was easier than a nine-year-old kid. It made his days pass without pain and his nights weren’t tormented with dreams of her.”
“Oh, Phil,” She started to say more, but stopped, watching him, tears welling up in her eyes.
He continued as if a crack had broken in the dam. “I kept trying to go to school, keeping up appearances, but soon it became apparent I wasn’t doing such a good job. CPS was called and I went into the system, going from home to home, not fitting anywhere. I ran away over and over. Then one day a teacher at one of the endless stream of junior high schools took an interest in me and offered me part of himself and his family. It took awhile, but finally I started to trust again, finished high school. I decided teaching must be the best profession anyone could have.” He stopped talking and lifted his head, tears flowing down his face. “And that, Jody, is why I can’t just drop it.”
She stood, looking into his eyes, tears streaming down her own face. “I’m sorry.” She sat back down, slumping. “I was raised with privilege. My parents were well off, and I really didn’t even know what I wanted to do with my life. Teaching just seemed to be the right thing to do, you know?” She looked at him, her eyes pleading. “It was never supposed to be about anything but a paycheck. It’s so much more for you, but I don’t know if I can do what you do.”
“You don’t have to do what I do. Just believe in me, and let me work with the boys.”
She stood up and wrapped her arms around him, suddenly sobbing. “I do believe in you. I trust you. It’s me I don’t trust. I’m the one without purpose.”
“Our reason for teaching doesn’t happen the same for all of us. But it is the way it works for me.” He looked into her eyes. “And I would love for you to be with me, and support me.” He paused. “If you think you could.”
She looked up at him, still crying softly. “Can you live with such a shallow person?”
“I don’t think you’re a shallow person. I think you’ve got a depth of character you just haven’t found yet.”
That Saturday, the boys came over, along with Jody, another coach and his wife, and even a few of the boy’s classmates. Jody still appeared awkward around the boys, and they were watching her with a tinge of suspicion, too. He chuckled, wondering what might have happened with the boys in her English classes. As the evening progressed, Jody made an effort to talk with them, and Phil caught snatches of their conversation, seeing them warming up to each other.
As the boys were getting ready to go home, Juan walked over to him and Jody. “Um, Ms. King, can I ask you something?”
“Yes?” She looked at him, expectantly.
He hesitated, then blurted out, “I don’t think I’m ready for high school. I mean, I’m ready to go, but I don’t think I’m ‘ready.’ You know what I mean?”
“I think I do,” Jody answered.
He looked at Phil. “Joey and I need to learn how to learn, well, I mean, … study. So we can graduate.”
“Yes?” Jody prodded, as Joey walked over to join them.
“We want to use some of our court time to…catch up on our learning, you know? If that would be okay?”
“Absolutely!” Phil said, looking at Jody. She was beaming.
“I would love to!” She said.
After everyone left, Jody talked non-stop as she helped him clean the deck and the kitchen, talking about her ideas to help the boys. After they finished, he made coffee, and they sat out on the deck enjoying the stillness of the night. Jody’s change of attitude was amazing to see, and he couldn’t contain the smile that stayed on his face through the evening, as she continued to chatter.
“What?!” She stopped, realizing he was smiling, watching her.
He scooted off his chair and knelt in front of her. Her hand was over her mouth as he pulled a small box from his pocket.
So many good teachers affected our lives. Did you have a teacher-mentor who positively impacted your life? Leave a comment about what they did. Or, if you are a teacher, share with us an instance when a special student touched you deeply.
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