Symphony 43

Like a flock of starlings, they went to earth momentarily, tossing books into their desks, and then they were gone in a body, out the door and out across the playground.

Neil sat down at his desk. Rosa Alvarez had remained behind when the other girls ran out; she stood near him, waiting to catch his attention. He said, “Hi,” and she launched into her morning story.

“Guess what happened last night.”

“What?”

“My cat had kittens. After we got home after back to school night she acted all funny, so my mother made her a box on the back porch. When I got up this morning, she had five kittens. One of them was black and white, one of them was all colors . . .” Rosa paused, searching for the right word, and twisting her shoulders from side to side as she always did when she was excited.

“Calico?” Neil prompted.

“Right. One was calico, and the others were all gray. They’re so cute!”

“What’s cute?” That was Linda Muir, who had come in for the last part of the conversation.

Rosa turned to face her new audience and said, “My new kittens.”

“You’ve got new kittens! How neat.”

“Who has new kittens?” Bob Thorkelson wanted to know, and the conversation drifted away from Neil’s desk. More students were streaming in now; the buses had arrived.

“Mr. McCrae, we won last night,” Casey Kruger announced.

Neil looked up in mock indifference and said, “Don’t you always?” Then he grinned and Casey danced around the room making batting motions. He was heavily involved in Little League. His father was a coach; supposedly Casey was good, although Neil had not yet made it to a ball game to see for himself. Neil was responsible for the boy’s nickname. Casey’s real name was Kenneth Charles — K. C. — and Neil had started calling him Casey-at-the-bat. Now he wouldn’t answer to anything but Casey.

When the warning bell rang, there were about twenty students in the room. Half of them ran out, heading for their first hour classes, and they met an incoming stream of those students who preferred to be elsewhere before school started. You could find similar groups in every room just before school; sometimes they chose their morning place because of a favorite teacher, or because their friends were there, or perhaps because of some feature of the room itself. Elanor Romero was always in Neil’s room because she loved the idea of travel and he had an extensive display of maps and pictures cut out of National Geographic. Lauren Turner always spent her mornings with Carmen, even though Carmen did not teach sixth grade, because Carmen kept games out for the children to play before school.

When the second bell rang, all the children were either in their seats, or rushing toward them. That was Neil’s rule; if you were not in your seat when he called your name, you were tardy and had to go to the office for an excuse slip. After the first week the children had gotten used to it, and it started the morning off right.

The bell rang. All the students were sitting in their places; most of them had their books ready and the rest were quietly sneaking them out of their desks. But, because Neil had taught them his rules with a balance of seriousness and gentle teasing, they were happily ready. Smiling. Not solemn, but whispering to one another at a level that did not disturb the roll call.

“Rosa Alvarez?”

“Here.”

“Tony Caraveli?”

“Here.”

“Martin Christoffersen?”

“Martin isn’t here today,” someone said.

“Flavio Dias, Laura Diaz, Greg Ellis, Raul Fuentes, Tim Galloway?”

All answered yes. Then there was a disturbance that rippled through the room like a sigh of suppressed laughter and Neil glanced up to see Richard Lujan sneaking toward his seat. Without seeming to notice, he shifted out of alphabetical order and called, “Richard Lujan?”

“Here,” came the sheepish reply, and everyone laughed. more Monday

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