The last day before school let out for the holiday.
Dana might just make it, though she was more than ready for a break. Teaching eighteen rambunctious Kindergarteners was a mixed blessing. Some years were amazing, others challenging. This year, with five summer birthday students making her class very young for grade level, was challenging. The break would give her time to catch up and rejuvenate.
As well as the holidays, this was the time of year she always planned her summer trip. Where would she go this year? Brazil? The Galapagos Islands? The Highlands in Scotland? Just thinking about a new adventure had excitement bubbling in her stomach.
She finger-combed her short red hair and then walked down the hallway of Brook Haven Elementary on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona, and made her way to the principal’s office, steeling herself for her annual review. Why her palms were damp, she had no idea. Mr. Walker had never been anything less than pleased with her teaching.
The receptionist, Mrs. Clark, was tied up, reprimanding two upper-grade students for being late to class. She nodded to Dana without breaking her stride. “Mr. Walker will be with you in just a second, Dr. Perkins.”
Dana sat down to wait.
Minutes later, the kids were sufficiently chastised and left to return to class.
Another minute or two and Mr. Walker, a man in his late fifties with graying hair at his temples and serious black-framed glasses, smiled and ushered Dana into his office. “Sit, Dr. Perkins. Sit.”
“Thank you.” She smoothed her peacock-blue skirt over her knees.
A solid twenty pounds overweight, he returned to his chair behind his desk and sat down with a hefty grunt. His chair springs groaned. “How are you?”
“Great.” She hated this small talk. Just give her the review and let her return to her classroom. “I promised the sub I’d be back before the kids go to lunch—in fifteen minutes. Sorry, but she has an appointment and can’t be late.” He should be well aware of that since the appointment was with him—an interview, actually.
His thick glasses distorted his eyes, but he smiled. “Well, I expect we should get to it then.” Reaching over, he tugged a file onto his blotter and opened it, letting his gaze slide down the page. “Exemplary, as always.” He removed his glasses, parked them atop the open file. “May I ask why you refuse to teach anything other than Kindergarten? With your dual Ph.D.s in education and psychology, Dr. Perkins, you would be an asset to any of our students, particularly to those soon to move on to middle school. You know this as well as I do, of course, yet you’ve consistently refused to even consider moving to another grade-level. Are you still of that mindset?”
He waited for her to continue and when she didn’t, he nudged. “I’m curious as to why.”
Dana could simply brush by the answer as she had in the previous four times he had asked. But if she did, he would just revisit it again in her review next year. She might as well put the matter to rest. “If I start them out right, they’ll love school their whole lives. I want that for the children.” The majority of her students were from low-income families. They, and their parents, had plenty of struggles already. If she could spare them this one, and gift their kids with a love for learning, then she needed to do it.
“Because you had a teacher who started you out right?” he asked, then shrugged. “I’m guessing that teacher inspired you and that motivated you to get advanced degrees at nineteen.”
“I’ve always had a love for learning.”
He parked his chin on his folded hand. “So your Kindergarten teacher did inspire you, then?”
There it was. She could refuse to answer or lie and spare that teacher, but she couldn’t do both.
“By your silence, I’m guessing she didn’t inspire you.”
“No,” Dana opted for the truth. “I’m sorry to say, she did not.“
“Ah, so you’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen to other children.”
Dana smiled, and held her tongue.
“Do you have any recommendations for us this year?”
“Only one, beyond the list I sent to the grade-level chair two weeks ago.” Mrs. Gray had managed to accept the recommendations without a moan or an eye-roll, at least where Dana could see her. She checked her watch. Seven minutes to get back to her class. The walk would take three of them. “Liz Talbot is hands-down the best teacher being interviewed to replace Meg Brennan.” She was going out on maternity leave starting today and wouldn’t be back for several months.
“Under consideration.” He tapped her file. “Everything looks good, then. As always, we’re thrilled with your methods and results and we’re glad you stay with us. I personally appreciate your dedication to Brook Haven, Dana.” He seated his glasses back at the bridge of his nose. “I know Titan Park Elementary has been trying to lure you to teach over there for a few years now.”
“I’ve consistently refused.”
He didn’t seem to understand why. Many would prefer teaching the upper-crust students at Titan Park. “It’s a much newer facility in the best neighborhood in the district,” he reminded her. “Their heating system always works.”
“I’m aware of that, Mr. Walker,” Dana said, then stood up. “Titan Park gets more money, has smaller class sizes, more parental involvement, and more of the incoming students have been enrolled in two years of early childhood education before coming to us. They have educational advantages.”
“Those advantages would make your job easier.”
Dana barely withheld a frown. “Are you trying to get me to leave?”
“Of course not.” He lost his smile. “You’re an enigma, Dr. Perkins. I can’t figure out why, when you could have an easier job with better conditions, you choose to work here, for me, where half the time to get heat or air-conditioning, we must bang on the pipes with a wrench.”
“I have sweaters.”
“You’re deliberately avoiding answering the question.”
She was, and he’d wearied of it. “It’s no great mystery, Mr. Walker. I’m not seeking easy. I’m hoping to make a difference.” She should stop there, but she didn’t. “Those kids don’t need me.” She hiked a shoulder. “These kids do.”
“That is a fact.” He noted her checking her watch again, but asked anyway, “Do you still have a perfect record?”
He teased her about this in each of the four reviews she’d had since starting at Brook Haven. The first year, when she told him her goal was that every student in her class would leave it reading, he’d laughed at her, and reminded her seven of her students couldn’t yet identify their letters. But at the end of the school year, when her students had achieved that goal, he hadn’t laughed, and he hadn’t failed since to ask her if she still had a perfect record. Her answer was always the same. “So far.” Her students worked very hard.
“Excellent.” He clapped his palms. “Inspiring. Truly inspiring.”
Her face heated. “Thank you.”
The wrinkled skin between his eyebrows bunched. “I also wanted to ask if you’d be interested in taking the grade-level chair position next year.”
“No.” Again, she glanced at her watch. “But thank you for the offer.”
“Very well. Maybe we’ll revisit that after winter break.” He waved a hand, making circles in the air. “Hurry on, then, or you’ll be late…and so will Miss Talbot.”
Dana smiled. “Thanks, Mr. Walker.” She rushed out of his office.
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