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Hey, Miss Robinson, want to know how to figure out your porn-star name?" asked Russell Clark, bouncing on the balls of his feet toward the school bus.
"I think I'll make it through the day without that." Lily Robinson put a hand on the boy's shoulder to keep him from bouncing off the covered sidewalk and into the driving rain.
"Aw, come on, it's easy. You just say the name of your street and—"
"No, thank you, Russell," Lily said in her "enough's enough" tone. She hoped he didn't really know what a porn star was. "That's inappropriate, and you're supposed to be line leader this afternoon."
"Oops." Reminded of the privilege, Russell stiffened his spine and marched in a straight line, dutifully leading twenty-three third-graders to the area under the awning by the parking lot. "I'm going to Echo Ridge today," he said, heading for Bus Number Four. "I have a golf lesson."
"In this rain?"
"It'll clear up, I bet. See you, Miss Robinson." Russell went bounding toward the bus, hopscotching around puddles in the parking lot.
Lily doled out goodbyes and have-a-good-days to the rest of her students, watching them scatter like a flock of startled ducklings to buses and carpools. Charlie Hol-loway and her best friend, Lindsey Davenport, were last in line, holding hands and chattering together while they waited for Mrs. Davenport's car to pull forward.
When Charlie caught Lily's eye, she ducked her head and looked away. Lily felt a beat of sympathy for the little girl, who was painfully aware that her parents were coming in for a conference after school. The child looked small and fragile, trying to disappear into her yellow rain slicker. Lily wanted to reassure her, to tell her not to worry.
Charlie didn't give her a chance. "There's your mom," she said, giving Lindsey's hand a tug. "'Bye, have a good weekend," she called to Lily, and the girls dashed for the blue Volvo station wagon.
Lily smiled and waved, making an effort not to appear troubled, but seeing them like that, best friends skipping off together, reminded her of her own childhood best friend—Charlie's mother, Crystal. This was not going to be an easy conference.
"Hey, what's the matter?" asked Greg Duncan, the PE teacher. After school, he coached the high-school golf team, though he was known to be a full-time flirt.
"You're not supposed to notice that anything's the matter," Lily told him.
He grinned and loped to her side, a big, friendly Saint Bernard of a guy, all velvet brown eyes, giant paws, a silver whistle on a lanyard around his neck. "I know exactly what's wrong," he said. "You don't have a date tonight."
Here we go again, thought Lily. She liked Greg a lot, she really did, but he exhausted her with his need for attention. He was too much guy, the way a Saint Bernard is too much dog. Twice divorced, he had dated most of the women she knew and had recently set his sights on her. "Wrong," she said, grinning back. "I've got plans."
"Liar. You're just trying to spare my feelings."
Guilty as charged, Lily thought.
"Is he hitting on you again?" Edna Klein, the school principal, joined them under the awning. In her sixties, with waist-length silver hair and intense blue eyes, Edna resembled a Woodstock grandmother. She wore Birken-stocks with socks and turquoise-and-silver jewelry, and she lived at a commune called Cloud Mountain. Yet no one failed to take her seriously. Along with her earth-mother looks, she possessed a Ph.D. from Berkeley, three ex-husbands, four grown children and ten years of sobriety in AA. When it came to running a school, she was a consummate professional, supportive of teachers, encouraging to students, inspiring confidence in parents.
"Harassment in the workplace," Lily stated. "I'm thinking of filing a complaint."
"I'm the one with the complaint," Greg said. "I've been hitting on this woman since Valentine's Day, and all I get from her is a movie once a month."
"At least I let you pick the movie. Hell on Earth was a real high point for me."
"You're a heartless wench, Lily Robinson," he said, heading for the gym. "Have a nice weekend, ladies."
"He's barking up the wrong tree," Lily said to Edna.
"Are you this negative about all men or just Coach Duncan?"
Lily laughed. "What is it about turning thirty? Suddenly my love life is everyone's business."
"Of course it is, hon. Because we all want you to have one."
People were always asking Lily if she was seeing anyone special or if she intended to have children. Everyone seemed to want to know when she was going to settle down. They didn't understand. She was settled. Her life was exactly the way she wanted it. Relationships were scary things to Lily. Getting into an emotional relationship was like getting into a car with a drunk driver. You were in for a wild ride, and it was bound to end with someone getting hurt.
"I'm meddling, aren't I?" Edna admitted.
"I can't help myself. I'd love to see you with someone special, Lily."
Lily took off her glasses and polished the lenses on a corner of her sweater. The world turned to a smear of rain-soaked gray and green, the principal palette of an Oregon spring. "Why won't anyone believe that I'm satisfied with things just the way they are?"
"Satisfaction and happiness are two different matters."
Lily put her glasses on and the world came back into focus. "Feeling satisfied makes me happy."
"One of these days, my friend, you'll find yourself wanting more," said Edna.
"Not today," Lily said, thinking of the upcoming conference.
A group of students clustered around to tell her goodbye. Edna took the time to speak to each child personally, and each turned away with a big smile on his or her face.
Lily felt a small nudge of discontent. Satisfaction and happiness are two different matters. It was hard enough to make herself happy, let alone another person, she thought. Yet when she looked around, she had to admit that she saw people do it every day. A mother coaxed laughter from her baby, a man brought flowers to his wife, a child opened a school lunch box to find a love note from home.
But the happiness never lasted. Lily knew that.
She lingered for a few minutes more while the children were set free for the weekend. They ran to their mothers, getting hugs, showing off papers or artwork, their happy chatter earning fond smiles. Watching them, Lily felt like a tourist observing a different culture. These people weren't like her. They knew what it was like to be connected. By contrast, Lily felt curiously distant and unencumbered, so light she could float away.
While waiting for the Holloways to arrive, Lily checked the conference table, low and round and gleaming, surrounded by pint-size chairs.
The desks were aligned in neat rows, the chairs put up so the night crew could vacuum. The smells of chalk dust, cleaning fluid and the dry aroma of oft-used books mingled with the ineffable burnt-sugar smell of small children.
She set out two things on the table—a manila folder, thick with samples of Charlie's work, and the requisite box of tissues, Puffs with lotion, which Lily bought by the case at Costco. A roomful of eight- and nine-year-olds tended to go through them fast.
She moved along the bank of windows, adjusting the shades so they were all even at half mast. The glass panes were decorated with the children's cutout ducks in galoshes, each bearing the day's penmanship practice: "April showers bring May flowers." Outside, a jagged bolt of lightning raked across the sky, punctuating the old adage.
With a grimace, she turned to the calendar display on the bulletin board and silently counted down the column of Fridays. Nine weeks left until the end of school. Nine weeks to go, and then it would be sunshine and blue skies and the trip she'd been planning for months. Going to Europe had always seemed such a lofty, barely reasonable goal for a schoolteacher in a small Oregon town, but maybe that was what made it so appealing. Each year, Lily saved her money and headed off to a new land, and this would be her most ambitious trip yet.
She tugged her mind away from thoughts of summer and concentrated instead on preparing for a difficult meeting. She inspected the classroom as she always did before conferences. Lily believed it was important for people to see that their children spent the day in a neat, organized, attractive environment.
At the center of the front of the room was a dark slate blackboard. She'd been offered a whiteboard but declined. She preferred the crisp, controlled quality of her Palmer-method script on the smooth, timeless surface. She liked the coolness of the slate against her hand when she touched it, and the way her fingertips left a moist impression, before evaporating into nothingness. The sound of chalk on an old-fashioned blackboard always reminded her of the one place she had always felt safe as a child—in a schoolroom.
This was her world, the place she best belonged. She couldn't imagine another life for herself.
Glancing at the clock, she went to the door and opened it. Her nameplate read "Ms. Robinson—Room 105" and was surrounded by each child's name, neatly printed with a photo on a yellow tagboard star.
Lily adored children—other people's children. For one special year of their lives, they were hers to care for and nurture, and she put all of her heart into it. Thanks to her job, she was able to tell people she did have children, twenty-four of them. And in the fall, she would get twenty-four different ones. They gave her everything she could ever want from a family of her own—joy and laughter, pathos and tears, triumph and pride. Sometimes they broke her heart, but most of the time, they gave her a reason for living.
She loved her students from September to June, and when school ended, she sent them out the door, giving them back to their families, pounds heavier, inches taller, drilled in their multiplication and division tables, reading at grade level or better. In the fall, she shifted her attention to the next crop of students. And so it went, year after year. It was the most satisfying feeling in the world, and best of all, it was safe.
Having children of your own—now, that was not so safe. Kids were part of you forever, subjecting you to crazed heights of joy and bitter depths of sorrow. Some people were cut out for that, others weren't. A good number weren't cut out for it but fell in love and had kids, anyway. Then they usually fell out of love and everyone within shouting distance got hurt. Charlie Hol-loway's parents were a case in point, Lily reflected.
"My Favorite Things" had been today's creative writing lesson. The children had three minutes to write down as many of their favorite things as possible. Lily always did the exercises right alongside her students, and she always took them seriously. The kids stayed more interested and involved that way. Her list, written hastily but neatly on a large flip chart, included:
the sound of kids singing
first day of school
stories that end happily ever after
She ripped down the chart and crumpled it into a ball. It was a little too revealing. Not that her list would surprise Crystal Holloway. They'd known each other since Lily was Charlie's age, maybe younger, and Crystal had been a gum-popping preteen babysitter.
What a long way we've come together, thought Lily. This was a new one for them both, though. Telling parents their child was failing third grade was hard enough. The fact that Lily and Crystal were best friends only made it worse. In doing what was best for Charlie, Lily was going to have to say some difficult things to her dearest friend. And on top of that, the divorced Holloways couldn't stand each other.