The Bridge of Peace
- Thursday, September 02, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Bridge of Peace, a novel by Cindy Woodsmall (Multnomah).
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.
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