Quiet hung in the air inside the one-room schoolhouse as the children waited on Lena’s next action. The curiosity she loved to stir in her scholars now filled their minds in ways she wished she could erase. The hush wasn’t out of respect or desk work or learning.
Staring into defiant eyes, she stood. “Return to your seat, Peter.” With his back to the other students, he leaned across her oak desk. “Make me.” The threat in his voice was undeniable. She’d spoken to his parents about his behavior, but they’d believed that their son was only kidding and that she was taking his words and actions all wrong.
Nothing about the conduct of this six-foot man-child hinted at humor. He wasn’t teasing, but he was toying with her—like her barn cats did with field mice before killing their prey. Feeling as unsightly as a wounded rodent was part of daily life for her. It even slipped into her dreams on a regular basis. But Lena was no mouse. When dealing with Peter, her will battled with her emotions. The teacher in her wanted to find a way to reach inside him, to get beyond the prejudices and surliness and find something of value. The rest of her simply wished he’d never moved to Dry Lake.
Still, she believed that most people had hidden wealth, good things within that made them more worthy than they appeared on the outside. For reasons that had nothing to do with Peter, she had to hold on to that belief. She offered a teacher-friendly smile. “The assignment stands, and it’s due tomorrow. Take your seat, please.”
He slid her well-organized papers onto the floor and crawled onto her desk and sat. At fifteen he was the oldest student she’d ever taught—or tried to teach. He should have graduated sixteen months ago from an Amish school in Ohio, where he’d lived before moving to Dry Lake. Although she had no idea what happened to put him so far behind in his studies, he seemed to think she was the problem.
It would be easier to tap into his better self, or at least better behavior, if there was someone to send him to when he got this bad. During her rumschpringe, her running-around years, she’d used her freedoms to attend public high school. When her public school teachers faced a difficult student like Peter, they sent him to another teacher, a counselor, or a principal. If there was another adult nearby, Peter probably wouldn’t consider it a game to try to take control of her class. Maybe she needed to talk about this situation with her Englischer friend Samantha. Surely with her degree in psychology and her working this year as a school counselor, she would know some helpful tips.
“At your desk, Peter.”
“I’m not doing the work, and I better not get a zero.”
She swallowed and drew a breath, refusing the temptation to scream at him. “You have the right to decide your actions, or maybe a better word is inactions, but you do not have the right to insist on what grade I can give.” Hoping to continue with class, Lena walked around the desk and settled her attention on the first-grade students.
“Who has their penmanship papers done?” Her three first-grade scholars raised their hands. “Good.”
She could feel Peter behind her, seething with anger that had little to do with her. Wondering if she should face him or keep her focus on teaching, she took Marilyn’s spiral-bound notebook in hand and began looking over the young girl’s work. “To your desk, Peter,” she repeated as she made a smiley face at the top of Marilyn’s page. His breath was hot on the back of her neck as he whispered, “You won’t win, so don’t even try.”
The threat unleashed her anger, and suddenly she became its slave. Even while telling herself to ignore him as he was finally making his way toward his desk, she spun around. “You’re a bully, Peter. Do you understand that about yourself ?”
His face and eyes became like stone. “I’ll convince the school board you’re the problem. They’re already whispering behind your back about how to get rid of you. I bet they only hired you because they felt sorry for you. I mean, what else would someone like you do, marry?”
His personal attack caused a storm of insecurities about her looks to rise within. But that aside, she was sure he was wrong about the school board wanting to get rid of her. She’d made one good-sized error they’d not been pleased with, but surely…
He slapped the side of his face really hard and laughed. “Look, I’m making my face blotchy like Teacher Lena’s.” The younger students looked horrified as he mocked her. Some of the older boys laughed, but most were clearly embarrassed for her. Peter kept smacking the side of his face, egging on the class to laugh at his antics.
“Mandy and Rachel,”—Lena looked to the oldest girls in the class— “please take everyone outside for a brief recess.” Peter sat on her desk again, but at least he’d hushed. Smirking, but silent. The room filled with the sounds of desks shifting slightly and the rustle of clothing and soft, padded shoes as her scholars went outside. Willing her irritation to calm, she took several deep breaths and focused her thoughts on what could be accomplished with patience and effort. Good memories of teaching moved into her mind. At twenty-three years old, she’d been teaching for five years, and with only a few exceptions, she’d basked in the fulfillment of it.
Soon her scholars were outside, and the room was quiet. “I don’t want to embarrass you in front of the class, Peter. I only wish you’d show that same respect to me. If you want to color the side of your face to match mine, there are still a few blueberries on the vine out back, but nothing you do to your face will alter the real problem, will it?”
“Not unless you quit.”
“How will getting a new teacher solve anything? Why don’t you try fighting against the part of you that has no regard for your future.”
“I hate this place.” He picked up a book and hurled it across the room. Lena flinched as the text hit the ground, but she forced her voice to remain calm. “I understand that learning doesn’t come easy for you, but I can help you overcome—”
“Learning comes plenty easy,” Peter interrupted. “I just ain’t interested.” She knew he struggled to learn, and maybe Samantha would have some suggestions about this too, but Lena’s best chance of reaching him wouldn’t be found in trying to make him admit to his difficulties. “Why not?”
“What do you care?”
“If I knew why, maybe I could help change how you feel.”
He rolled his eyes. “I don’t want your help. Mamm says I can’t stop coming to school just because of my age, so I just want to pass the eighth grade this time and get out of here.”
“Then do your work. If you’re struggling, I’ll help you.”
“You teachers are all alike. You say that, but…”
Piercing screams of young girls vibrated the room, and Lena moved to the window. Aaron Blank’s mean spirited bull stood mere feet from the ragged fence that separated the pasture from the playground. Elmer, a third-grade student, seemed to be harassing the animal with two eighth grade students egging him on. She hurried past desks and ran outside. The older students banged on the metal gate with their hands while cheering for Elmer. The third grader poked a stick against the angry creature’s face and nose while the younger girls squealed with fear and excitement. Enraged, the Holstein tossed his head back and forth, slinging spit and mucus as it stormed at the stick, coming closer to the fence with each move.
“Boys, stop that right now.” While Lena hurried toward the boys, the older girls left the first and second graders at the swing set and ran toward them as well. Clearly the girls hadn’t been watching this group. Aaron had promised her that he’d fix the fence and keep this bull out of the pasture that bordered the school. Moving to a spot between the angry bull and the students, Lena took the stick from Elmer. She gestured for the children to back up. “Everyone return to the classroom. We’ll discuss this inside.”
As Mandy and Rachel encouraged the others to go inside, Lena turned to look at the bull. The massive creature could easily plow through the pitiful wire fence.
“One would think they’d know better,” she mumbled quietly, taking a few moments of serenity to gather herself. “Why would they do such a thing?” She glanced up to see Peter standing in the doorway, watching her.
He was probably hoping the bull would come through the fence and destroy her. She sighed. I think I’m looking at the source of influence over those other boys. After a quick, silent prayer of thanks for everyone’s safety, she tossed the stick onto the woodpile and headed inside. Her students often hit a baseball or sometimes even a volleyball into this field and went after it. What if someone had done so today while others had that bull riled?
It was time for a lesson in using good sense. Surely even Peter couldn’t keep them from seeing the wisdom of not provoking the bull. But Peter had many of them viewing her with as much disrespect as he did. How she looked had nothing to do with the job in front of her—arming her scholars with skills that would serve them all their lives and keeping them safe while they were in her care.
After school she’d drop off a few of the children at their homes and then do something refreshing before going to see Aaron about keeping that bull away from the schoolhouse.
As Grey left his barn and crossed the driveway, he smelled supper cooking— probably fried chicken by the aroma of it. Pieces of freshly mowed grass that were almost too small to see were scattered throughout the lawn. The porch and walkways were spotless, and the windows sparkled as the sun moved low on the horizon. A familiar, tainted feeling rose within him as he opened the screen door to his home.
His wife stood beside the oven, scouring a nearby countertop. She glanced at the clock and then to him. “Hey.” Her eyes moved over his clothing, and he knew the quick study of his outfit was to assess just how dirty he was today. She returned to the task in front of her. “Hi.” He set his lunchpail in the sink. “Where’s Ivan?”
“At your Mamm’s.”
He nodded. The light in their five-year-old son’s eyes strengthened Grey. After he removed the plastic containers from his lunchpail, he rinsed them. “Been there all day?”
“Just since he got up from his nap. Supper will be ready by the time you’re showered.” Inside her softly spoken sentence, he’d been dismissed and given respectful instructions to come to the table clean. He needed to bathe and change clothes before the school board meeting anyway, so he went to his bedroom. While working in the cabinetry shop, he’d seen Lena Kauffman drop children off at the Mast house. He’d considered stepping out and speaking to her for a minute to try to get a feel for her side of the complaints the Benders were lodging against her. But if she knew the board was meeting to discuss those criticisms, she’d want to attend. Michael Blank, his father-in-law and the chairman of the school board, had said earlier this week that he intended to discover if the Benders had any real justification for their grumbling before he was willing to share any of the negative talk with Lena. Grey appreciated Michael’s reasoning, but he doubted that Lena would. As a kid she’d had a fierce temper when pushed. It’d been many a year since Grey had seen it, so he was confident that hadn’t played into Michael’s decision.
The memory of Lena’s brother provoking her beyond her control probably still stood out in a lot of people’s memories. Her temper made her an easy target and caused her brother to declare war, so the harassment of Lennie became a full-time game as she was growing up. One time her brother had brought Grey and a group of friends with him on a romp through the woods. Soon enough they’d taken over an abandoned tree house. They were teens, around sixteen years old, and wanted a private place to get away from their parents, a place to talk freely and smoke a cigarette. But the playhouse was Lennie’s, complete with books, papers, and a diary.
She must have heard their voices because she called out to them. When her brother realized she was climbing up the rope ladder, he’d shaken her loose, causing her to fall. Rather than going home, she raged at them while trying to climb the ladder again. Once she’d been dumped again, some of the guys pulled the ladder inside the tree house and dangled her diary and books over the sides. She’d thrown rocks at them, calling out the worst things her ten-year-old mind knew to say—that they all stunk and they looked like old mares. One of the guys began reading from her journal. Lennie’s eyes filled with tears as she screamed for him to stop. Feeling sorry for her, Grey had freed her diary from the tormentors. He tossed it to her, but she kept throwing rocks through the oversized window frames until she pinged her brother a good one.
“Rumschpringe teens.” Grey sighed. It was amazing the Amish community hadn’t imploded from the turmoil they caused.
The dimness of the fading day settled over the quiet space as he entered the bedroom. Beige sheers fluttered gently in the late September breeze. The bedspread was tucked crisp and perfect with the pillows adjusted just so, and not one item sat on the top of his dresser. He moved into the bathroom and turned on the shower. His razors. His toothbrush. His shaving cream. His combs. All lined up perfectly on a rectangularpiece of white linen. Plush, clean towels were stacked neatly on a shelf. He grabbed one, hung it on the peg near the shower stall and peeled out of his clothes. Feeling tempted for a moment to leave his stuff on the floor, he mumbled to himself to grow up. Elsie wouldn’t say a word. Conversations didn’t pass the threshold of the bedroom. Ever.
As the hot water and soap rinsed the day’s grime from his body, he wondered if she ever missed him. The discomfort of the thought drained his energy. For too long he’d searched his mind and heart for answers. At twenty-eight he no longer had much youthful nonsense in him. He tried to think and act like a considerate man, but whatever was wrong lay outside his grasp to understand. Was it his fault? Was it hers? He didn’t know, and sometimes he was so weary he didn’t care. But giving up would only break them worse.
Sing for me, Grey.
The memory haunted him. How long had it been since she’d wanted him to sing for her? He turned off the shower and grabbed his towel. He knew of only one possible answer for their marriage—an avenue that might bring relief—but he’d have to be willing to publicly embarrass her and himself to pursue it. There had to be another way to find answers.