Outside the window, the children had gone back to class. The only sounds in Campbell’s office were the faint whisper of voices coming from the office beyond. Neil had run down like a wind-up toy before his story was finished.
Campbell was leaning back in his chair with his eyes half closed. He had hardly moved for ten minutes, and his face remained neutral. When it became apparent that Neil could say no more, Campbell said, “That is when Dr. Watkins called me, and asked me to take you on for a year?”
“Why didn’t you just quit? Move somewhere else permanently?”
“Who would hire me now? I have to stay there or give up teaching altogether. But as long as I am visible, there are those who will keep the community stirred up against me. Dr. Watkins suggested that the only solution was for me to take a leave of absence, teach in another state for a year, and then come back after passions have cooled down.”
Campbell scowled, “So I am elected. Jim Watkins is asking a lot of an old friendship. What would he have done if you had decided to stick it out?”
Neil answered miserably, “He was going to hire another teacher to take my classes and let me sit for a year, drawing pay and doing make-work around the office.”
“And you couldn’t accept that?”
“The humiliation would have killed me.”
Campbell sat upright and ran his hands through his hair. “All right,” he said, “here is my answer. You say this Alice Hamilton was never a victim. Maybe. I am inclined to believe you because Dr. Watkins vouches for you. But I also have a responsibility, so I am going to ask some questions of my own.
“When you were tutoring this girl, did you smile too often? Did you sit too close? Did you pat her innocently on the arm, and did you hands linger just a little too long?”
“No!” Neil snapped.
Campbell raised his hand. “Of course your answer is ‘no’. But can I believe you? Did you lead that girl on? You’re a good looking young man, and a fifteen year old girl is five gallons of hormones in a short dress. Are you completely innocent?”
Neil sat for a long time, staring at his hands. Finally he said, “I tried to keep a completely professional relationship between us. It is possible that she misunderstood me. I can’t be sure. I have never been able to read minds, especially the minds of fifteen year old girls. But I didn’t do anything that seemed wrong at the time; and no matter how hard I look back at my actions, I see nothing I am ashamed of, and nothing I would change. Except that I was a fool to have tutored her in the first place.”
Campbell seemed to consider Neil’s answer, nodding slowly in the quiet of his office. Finally, he said, “I will recommend that the board hire you for one year. We have a teacher who is going to have a baby about July, and wants a year off to spend with it. You would be teaching English to sixth graders. But — and hear me well on this — I intend to tell your whole story to our school board, and I will be watching you every minute. You don’t have tenure here. I don’t have to show cause before I can fire you. If you mess up even once, you will be out of here before you know what hit you. Can you live with that?”
“I don’t like it, but I can live with it,” Neil replied. “I’ve had to live with a lot of things I don’t like recently.”
“Remember this,” Campbell went on. “I am not Jim Watkins. I am not your friend. I won’t go out on a limb for you. I won’t do anything for you but give you a chance. Just one chance! Screw up, and you are gone.”
# # #
Ten minutes later, Neil drove away from the school, heading east on Kiernan, then turned off the main road. He parked beneath the afternoon shade that stretched out from an orchard. He got out, took off his tie and jacket and threw them into the back seat. He loosened his collar and plucked the sweat soaked shirt away from his back.
As he leaned against the fender, he said to himself, “I don’t ever want to go through that again.” more tomorrow