When the classroom door clicked open, Miss Rhoades hardly reacted, hardly even seemed to notice. She sat there at the fourth-grader’s desk, her eyes glued to the slouchy, older black couple across from her. The young teacher was still stupefied by what the old lady had just told her. “When our grandson’s at school, he’s your problem.” Finally Miss Rhoades blinked and snapped her head toward the white guy peeking in at her with his scruffy face and brown UPS cap, and she popped out from behind the desk. The older couple didn’t budge.
Miss Rhoades wiped a lock of her sunny blonde hair away from her face and waved both hands at the guy in the cap, as if she were trying to stop traffic.
“We’re running a little late here,” she said. “I’m so sorry. Can you wait just another five minutes?”
“Yep, sure,” the guy said, slowly stepping back into the hallway.
Miss Rhoades grabbed the open door with one hand and kept waving at him with the other. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s Mr. Murphy, right?”
“Yeah, uh, Murph.”
“Feel free to read the things we posted on the wall for you. Every child made a list of their favorite things just for you parents tonight.”
She stopped waving, leaned into the hallway and pointed at the walls.
“See, they’re so cute,” she said.
“I’ll check them out,” Murph said.
Miss Rhoades gave another quick wave, a wave that said “I’m sorry” for the last time, and she gently closed the door. As it swung shut, Murph nodded dutifully, and gave his own little wave, a wave that said “No problem.” And then he stuck both hands in his pockets, as if he had nothing else to do.
So he killed the time by reading the lists of My Favorite Things. Favorite hobby, sport, color, place to visit and occasion. Some in scraggly handwriting, some pretty clean. Among the boys, there was little variation—baseball, football, black and gold, the beach, birthdays and Christmas. But when he spotted his son Derek’s, his gut wrenched.
“Favorite occasion: When my mom and dad are together.”
Not happening anymore, he thought.
He quit reading, leaned against the white-tiled wall and checked his watch. Four thirty-five. A minute later, he heard the click-click of heels around the corner, and he knew it was his ex-wife, rushing to get there after another day of answering phones and complaining to her co-workers about the customers at the Ford dealership.
“Whooh,” she said, plopping her fat black purse on the floor. “Sorry I’m late, and I know what you’re thinking.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything. The teacher’s running late, too. She wants us to wait.”
She wore thick eyeliner and an orange pant suit with dark-brown dress boots, and she looked tired—and pregnant. Just starting to show. He hadn’t seen her in a month, so this was his first indication. She’d been napping the past few Saturdays when he stopped at the house to pick up Derek, and her fiancé, the Ford salesman, had been holding down the fort, watching Derek and his own two kids.
“You expecting, Paula?”
“I guess it’s obvious, huh? Yes, Brody and I decided to have a baby. I’m at four-and-a-half months.”
She picked up the purse, slung the strap over her shoulder and pressed it against her belly. She held it there like a shield. She knew she was twisting the truth when she said they’d decided to have the baby, but that was her line and she was sticking with it. If you got right down to it, they had decided to have the baby after learning she was pregnant, so there.
“Oh, lookie,” she said. “Every kid wrote about his favorite things. How cute.”
“Don’t bother looking for Derek’s. Trust me.”
“Of course I’m going to look for Derek’s,” she said, turning her head with a jerk.
Miss Rhoades, a thin and attractive woman with two lower teeth bent forward, opened the door and stuck her hind end in front of it, holding it open for the older couple. The old lady wore jeans and a yellow Steelers sweatshirt, the old man jeans and workboots. They both had streaks of silver in their hair, too much bulk around their waists, and moved slowly.
“Again,” Miss Rhoades said as the couple passed her in the doorway. “I’m sure everything will work out.”
“I suppose we’ll see,” the man said, and they wobbled off down the hall.
“Next up?” Miss Rhoades said, and she forced a smile at Murph and Paula, then gave an inviting wave toward the empty classroom.
Marybeth Rhoades, at age 23, had just finished her first conference on her first night of parent conferences in her first year of teaching. And none of it had been going well. The older couple was practically raising their grandson, Tyrone, whose dad was locked up for his role in a Youngstown drug ring and whose mom needed help with the boy—a lot of it. In class, Tyrone had been shouting out and throwing tantrums, and had knocked his desk over one day and locked himself in the storage room. The grandparents were helping out at home, but they obviously didn’t care to do it all.
It was a bad class in a year when all the fourth-grade teachers at North Aliquippa Elementary were complaining about their class. One of them dubbed the whole fourth-grade as “the rough bunch.” Miss Rhoades had tried two reward systems, the All-Stars Board (for one week of good behavior) and the Friday Fun System (an hour of art and music for those who earned it) but neither made much difference. She’d just started the Green-Yellow-Red System (cards for good behavior, warnings and bad behavior) and designated a Think Seat (for kids who needed time to think about what they’d just done wrong) but they weren’t working either.
And here were Derek’s parents. Derek wasn’t a rough kid, but oh boy, he had issues.
“You have such a sweet boy,” Miss Rhoades said as they took their seats at the little desks. “But I’m glad you came in, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy. There’s a lot we should talk about.”
“No, please. I’m not Mrs. Murphy,” Paula said. “Well, technically, that’s still my name. But I’m getting remarried. Just call me Paula.”
“Okay, Paula,” Miss Rhoades said, and she turned to Murph. “But you’re Mr. Murphy, right?”
“Right. Derek’s dad.”
“Yes. Got it.”
As she handed them copies of Derek’s first-term report card, Miss Rhoades thought, Good God, another kid with big problems at home. It’s no wonder Derek has issues. His dad looks like a mountain man dressed up in a UPS uniform, and his mom’s on her second man and looks pregnant to boot. Then she said, “You can take a minute to look over his report card, if you like.”
Miss Rhoades hadn’t even landed her first man—not quite. She’d just learned a week ago that she was pregnant, too, and hadn’t mustered the nerve to tell Tony, her boyfriend. She hadn’t started showing—not even close. Who knows how he’d react? They’d only been dating a year, never even discussed children. But they had a pretty serious relationship. Well, she liked to think so. Tony was 23 too, working the night maintenance shift at the Comfort Inn, which wasn’t too bad, because he got every other weekend off. But he kept talking about going up to Alaska during the winter to be an Ice Roadtrucker, which he knew about from the History Channel, and figured he could make a ton of money in just a few months. She doubted he was ready to settle down.
It had been one hell of a week. The pregnancy stuff; preparing for her first night of parent conferences; long days with the rough bunch. She wouldn’t wish all these headaches on anyone.
“As you can see,” Miss Rhoades said, “science is Derek’s strength, and he really seems to enjoy it, too.”
“Science is very hands-on at this level,” Miss Rhoades continued. “We just finished a unit on electricity, and we made circuits, and he really seemed to like that.”
They nodded again.
“Now,” Miss Rhoades said, and she took a deep breath. “He’s struggling in reading and math. As you know, from the letter you should have received, he’s getting extra help, Title I help, but it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference.”
Paula shot Murph a look, as if it was his fault the boy didn’t read or crunch numbers well. Murph just sat there, taking in the bad news as if he expected it.
“How much do you work with him at home?” Miss Rhoades asked, knowing her voice had a fake polite tone, but she couldn’t help it and hoped they didn’t recognize it. She glanced back and forth between the parents, not knowing which one had him at home.
“Well,” Paula started. “We try to do the fifteen minutes thing, you know, the fifteen minutes he’s supposed to do each night, but it’s hard.”
“Why is it hard?”
“It’s just hard to find the time.”
Murph twisted in his seat. His mouth tightened as if he had something to say but didn’t want to spit it out. Nope, he thought, it’s better to keep your mouth shut than start trouble. He wanted to say this: They can’t handle three kids, and now it’s going to be four? Like to go back to Family Court and tell that to the judge. He scratched the middle of his forehead with his middle finger.
“For a boy like Derek,” Miss Rhoades continued, “and I know this is hard, but he should really be practicing reading more than 15 minutes a night.”
And because no one said anything, she added, “If at all possible.”
“I know, I know,” Paula said.
“He gets very frustrated in class. Sometimes when I’m working with him he just yells, ‘I can’t! I can’t!’ Sometimes before I even start to explain something.”
“He’s very sensitive,” Paula said.
Paula dropped her head and let out a little snort, then glared at Murph again. She’d seen him twisting in his seat, and just look at him now. Nothing to say, no help at all. Scratching his head like a monkey. He’d never been any help. Sure, he took Derek to his baseball games, even coached his T-Ball team when he was six, but what else? Out the door for work at 6 a.m., then home to tinker with the car or his ATV, then gone on the weekends to ride trails or hunt. He’d hunt anything—deer, pheasants, squirrels, you name it. Now this is his son we’re talking about, and his mind’s probably lost in the woods somewhere.
“So,” Miss Rhoades said, “I’d like to recommend Derek for our IST. It’s an Instructional Support Team. We’ll pull in our guidance counselor and principal, and sit down and come up with a special plan for him. I really think it’s worth it.”
Miss Rhoades folded her hands on the desk and waited for a response. She’d seen the looks, both of them, and she wondered: How does this happen? How do two people get to a place like this? Get married, have a baby, and before long you’re fed up, split up and firing dirty looks at each other across a desk in front of your kid’s teacher. And so soon—they barely looked older than her.
Twenty three years old. The number had bounced around in her head for the past week. Not too young to start a family, was it? But what choice did she have—abortion? She’d thought about it.
Her parents were only twenty two when they got married, but those were different times, or maybe they just seemed like it. Her dad, such a stubborn old Catholic, a longtime Democrat who’d voted for pro-life Republicans lately, even George W. Bush, would never stand for an abortion. Her mom? Maybe she’d understand. Her mom was a loyal Catholic too, but she also had a practical side. She still voted Democrat, because she couldn’t back the party of the rich and didn’t understand the hubbub over gay marriage—let those men do what they want. Her mom wouldn’t like an abortion, but maybe she’d at least understand. Then again, maybe not. Oh God, who knows?
“What is it again—an ITV?” Paula asked. “Whatever it is, this special team, it sounds good to me.”
“Instructional Support Team.”
Murph nodded, one of those nods that says something makes sense, and finally he said, “Okay.”
“Good,” Miss Rhoades said. “I’ll get the ball rolling on that.”
She tucked her copy of Derek’s report card into a folder and made her hands into a ball. Then she pressed her fingers together tightly, her knuckles white and fingertips red.
“Now,” Miss Rhoades said, “I also want to talk about the bullying issue that came up a few weeks ago.”
“What bullying issue?” Murph asked, fidgeting in his seat again.
“There have been some incidents. I understand our principal talked to your wife—oops, I mean ex-wife, or I mean Paula—about them.”
“What happened?” Murph asked Paula. Just as Paula opened her mouth to speak, Miss Rhoades jumped in.
“A few incidents on the playground, and one in the bathroom,” she said. “They involved two other boys, and we’re addressing them. The school has a fantastic bullying policy.”
“But what happened?” Murph persisted.
“We took care of it,” Paula said quickly.
“On the playground, it was pulling his jacket over his head, things like that.”
“What happened in the bathroom?”
“That was more serious, and both boys were disciplined,” Miss Rhoades said, and she covered her mouth, holding back a sneeze. She didn’t like to sneeze right in front of people, especially strangers, and so she kept her mouth covered and said, “Ahh….ahh.” But the sneeze never came, and she knew it was time to answer his question directly, but she didn’t know exactly how to say it, so she just blurted it out.
“Two boys stuck his head in the bowl.”
“Jesus,” Murph spat out, and slapped both hands on the little desk. “Why didn’t you tell me?” His eyes shot back and forth, and Miss Rhoades wasn’t sure if the question was directed at her or Paula.
“As I said—”
“No,” Murph said sharply, a finger pointed at Paula. “I mean you. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t see you. This is the first I’ve seen you.”
“You could have called.”
“I told you, we took care of it.”
“Who are the boys? Is one named Tyrone? He told me stuff about Tyrone, but he didn’t tell me this.”
Miss Rhoades stopped to think it over. This was her first situation, and she wasn’t sure if she should disclose their names. What was the school policy? Then she decided the parents of the bullied should know the name of the bullies, no matter the policy.
“Yes, Tyrone. And Hunter.”
Murph shook his head and huffed. “I can’t believe this,” he said. “Aren’t there bathroom monitors or something? No wonder Derek’s been such a mess.”
“I know that we try to check on the bathrooms regularly.”
“This kind of thing shouldn’t happen. No way,” Murph said, and he looked at Paula. “I’ll bet we got a lawsuit over this.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Paula said.
Miss Rhoades was stunned. Now they were allies, briefly perhaps, but still allies.
“Where were you when that happened in the bathroom?” Murph asked Miss Rhoades.
“I—uh—I don’t—well, I’m sure I was in class. It happened several weeks ago, but I’m sure I was in class.”
She almost said, This wasn’t my fault! But she stopped herself. Good thing—it would have been unprofessional. But it wasn’t her fault. She couldn’t have, shouldn’t have, been in the boys’ bathroom anyway, but maybe she should have seen it coming, should have been tougher about bathroom rules, or something. God, it was horrible, what happened to Derek, that poor boy.
Murph folded his arms and shook his head, a disgusted look on his scruffy face. Paula lifted her chin, a look of redemption lighting up her weary features, as if she finally had proof that nothing was her fault—dissolving a marriage, shutting out her ex-husband, forgetting to read with her son—none of it. It was all the school’s fault, yes, of course. Always the school’s fault.
Miss Rhoades knew her hands were shaking, and she didn’t want the parents to see it, but she couldn’t stop them. Did they notice? How could they not? She folded her hands into a ball again, but still couldn’t keep them completely steady.
“Listen,” Miss Rhoades said, trying to keep her voice from quivering. “If you still have concerns over the bathroom incident, or anything else, I’ll be happy to set up a meeting with the principal.”
They looked at each other but neither said anything. Murph curled his lip and kept his arms folded.
“If you like, then, you can let me know about that later,” Miss Rhoades said. “And if there’s nothing else, I just want to remind you about the IST, and I’ll be getting started on that.”
“There’s nothing else,” Murph muttered.
“No, nothing,” Paula echoed.
“Well, like I said, Derek is such a sweet boy,” Miss Rhoades said. “And I hope everything works out. I’m sure everything will work out.”
Miss Rhoades stood, one arm pressing a pack of folders to her chest, and held out her other hand for Murph, who shook it, a limp handshake. She turned to Paula, who shook her hand without looking her in the eye. Murph rolled his copy of Derek’s report card in one hand, and Paula folded her copy and jammed it in her purse, and they all started toward the door. Miss Rhoades opened the door and held it open with her skinny backside, then watched Murph and Paula shuffle out and turn down the empty hallway together.
She checked her watch.Four fifty. Someone’s parents should have been here for the four forty five, but they were five minutes late. Hunter’s parents. No wonder he was such trouble. She still hadn’t met his parents, wouldn’t recognize them if she tripped over them, knew almost nothing about them. She knew only that his dad had no job, because when they’d talked about occupations in class one day Hunter said his dad’s job was “laid off.”
She peered down the hallway, both ways. No sign of them. Only Murph and Paula, huddled at the far end of the hallway, whispering and nodding to each other, newly allied against their son’s school and teacher, probably discussing that damned lawsuit.
Behind them, through the glass front doors of the school, the November sky cast a gray tint on the hallway. It had started out as a sunny day, but it was the time of year when darkness creeps in early and the maintenance crew hasn’t reset the timers on the lights yet. The whole front hallway was swarmed in an eerie haze.
Murph waved a finger in Paula’s face, and then he started pointing down the hall, toward the principal’s office. He saw the door was open and a light was on.
“I don’t care if you come with me or not, but I’m going to see him right now,” Murph said.
“What good will that do? I already talked to him. He’s just going to tell you what he thinks you want to hear.”
“I want to know what he has to say,” Murph said. “And I’m telling you, we should call a lawyer.”
“Call a lawyer if you want, but how are we going to pay for it? I’m not paying for it.”
“I’ll figure that out later,” Murph said. “Meantime, I want you to give me Derek a couple days during the week. I can read fifteen minutes with him, stuff like that.”
“I’m telling you—no,” she said sternly.
“How are you going to handle four kids?”
“Don’t even go there.”
Murph snorted and shook his head.
“I’m going to see the principal,” he said, disgusted. “Tell Derek I love him.”
“I will. Goodbye,” Paula said, digging through her fat black purse for her keys.
As Murph turned toward the principal’s office he noticed Miss Rhoades was still standing outside her classroom door. They seemed to make eye contact and she instantly turned toward the wall, as if she were studying the lists of My Favorite Things, instead of watching them. She licked the tip of her finger and traced it along a sheet on the wall.
Miss Rhoades had heard the older teachers talk about parents like this, the type who threaten to sue over just about anything. Most didn’t follow through, but when they did—oh, look out. Doesn’t matter if it’s frivolous, because their lawyers can be wolves. They get you in a deposition or on the witness stand, and they tear you to shreds, and maybe there’s a local newspaper reporter in the front row, furiously taking notes on all of it, ready to put your name in the paper the next day and make you look like the worst person in the world.
She pretended to read the lists for another moment, then looked down the hallway from the corner of her eye. Murph and Paula were gone, and there was no one else. Hunter’s parents would be a no-show. She closed the classroom door behind her, and as soon as she heard the click of the latch, she let the pack of folders fall on the floor and began bawling.
It was a loud, blubbery cry, the kind people let out at funeral homes and crime scenes. She didn’t want to let it all out like that, not in school, not where someone might hear her in a nearby classroom, but she couldn’t help it. For a couple of minutes, she had to let it all out.
She let out all the frustration over her first year with the rough bunch, and the parents or grandparents whose families were a mess but didn’t want to be bothered, or wanted to take her to court. All her empathy for the sweet little boy from a broken home who had his head jammed in the toilet on her watch. All her anxiety over her twenty three-year-old boyfriend who kept talking about being an Ice Road trucker and wasn’t ready to commit, and might not commit even if she told him she was pregnant with his child; and her parents, so set in their ways, who might never understand what she’d been going through. All the anguish over what to do with this baby, a baby she knew she couldn’t handle on her own. And now, on top of everything else, her fear that she’d end up just like the fractured couple who’d just left her classroom.
When her crying slowed to a faint sob, she knelt down and scraped the folders off the floor. Then she went to her desk, dropped the folders on the corner and dug into her bottom drawer for the phone book.
She looked up Planned Parenthood.
There was one nearby in Moon Township, another in Youngtown, two in Pittsburgh. Yes, Pittsburgh. Perfect. Close enough to make the drive alone, far enough away that she wouldn’t have to worry about seeing someone she knew. Yes, that’s it.
She turned to the phone on the wall behind her desk and checked her watch again. Four fifty nine. They’ll still be open, she thought. As she lifted the receiver, she took a deep breath and realized she’d stopped crying completely. She wiped underneath her eyes with her free hand, then began dialing the number, and noticed her hands were no longer shaking.
Photo Source: 123RF