The morning after back to school night dawned cloudy and cool. The hot season had passed nearly a week earlier. As Neil walked to his car, he almost wished for a jacket. He also realized that his attitude toward Modesto and the Central Valley had changed. His hatred for it had been three-quarters self pity, anyway. It was flat, and he didn’t like that, but the town itself was full of trees and green grass, and for the most part clean and pleasant. The countryside around the city was interesting, if different than he would have chosen. He had become accustomed to both in the two months he had been there.
He had also become accustomed to his students. He still found them frustrating, but it was not their fault they couldn’t understand Shakespeare, or that they were unable to deal with sophisticated thoughts. They were eleven years old; they were just exactly where they needed to be. He was the one out of synch.
Over the weeks he had begun to understand how to deal with them. At first, he had had to stop a dozen times a day when the confusion on their faces told him that they were not understanding him. That only happened a dozen times a week now, which was progress of a sort.
As Neil drove westward on Kiernan, he passed the Oaks and Johnson apartments. There was a cluster of Hispanic children waiting for the school bus. Some of them recognized him and waved. He waved back, and realized that after his first day’s reconnaissance, he had driven past this complex every day without investigating further. He would have to visit it eventually.
He parked his car and went to his room, dropped off the papers he had graded the night before, and picked up his textbooks. He signed in at seven-thirty in the teachers’ lounge and found that someone had made coffee. He settled in with a cup and began to review what he would teach that day.
Pearl was the next teacher in. She was heavy and always walked a little stiffly. “‘Morning, Pearl,” he said, “How did it go last night?”
“Fine. I had a fairly good crowd, and I got a chance to see some of the parents I had been wanting to talk to.”
Glen Ulrich came in and Pearl greeted him heartily; Neil tried to match her enthusiasm, but Glen’s attitude did not encourage any intimacy. Neil had discovered that he was a bitter, ingrown individual. He was the only teacher at Keirnan who did not visibly love the kids.
Tom and Fiona came in together. She waved at Neil. Their one-kiss romance had not blossomed, but at least Fiona had decided that she liked him. She had drawn him out and made him part of the group. He was profoundly grateful for her efforts; because of her, there were moments like this when his loneliness almost disappeared and his displacement did not trouble him.
At ten minutes until eight o’clock, by unspoken common consent, the teacher’s lounge emptied as they all went off to their rooms to let in the early arriving students.
As Neil approached, a small knot of girls were giggling together. Their faces came up an they piped good-mornings in their liquid, bird-like voices, smiling and brimming with life. “Good morning, girls,” Neil replied, then added, “Good morning, Rosa,” for the benefit of the round faced, solemn one who stood a little away from her companions. She rewarded him with a brief, shy smile, and a murmured greeting.
Neil unlocked the door and propped it back. They flowed around him like water, never thinking to let him in first. All the formal politeness that had characterized their first few days with him was gone now. They had accepted him completely, like family, and his room had become their second home. more tomorrow