Symphony 44

“Stephanie Hagstrom, Cruz Jiminez?”

“Cruz’s gone.”

“He went back to Mexico.”

“He did not!”

“Well, he said he was going to.”

“That’s next month, you i— . . .” Stephanie, who was speaking, suddenly covered her mouth. She knew she wasn’t allowed to call anyone an idiot in class, but she was so used to calling her three brothers idiots that it was hard to remember.

Neil just smiled and continued. “Sean Kelly, Casey Kruger, Tasmeen Kumar, Tanya Michelson?”

They were all present. Rita Morales was absent.

“Linda Muir, Rafael Ortiz, Sabrina Palmer, Delores Perez, David Peterson, Olivia Pinero, Elanor Romero, Lydia Ruiz, Carlos Ruiz, Brandy Runyon?”

“Oscar Teixeira?”

“Here.” Oscar was leaning back in his chair, looking indifferent. He was the picture of a student of small intelligence.

“Bob Thorkelson. Dixie Margaret Trujillo, Lauren Turner, Larry Whitlock, Pedro Velasquez, Duarte Zavala?”

Neil closed his roll book and said, “That’s pretty good.  Only three absent today.” There was just a touch of sarcasm in his voice, but the children were unaware of it. He had been utterly unable to convince them that there was anything wrong with being absent from school.

He lost their attention momentarily as Bill Campbell went by the windows guiding a youngster by the shoulder. Bill remained so busy with discipline and paperwork that the children rarely saw him. He was the unapproachable authority figure and his rare appearances always demanded their attention. Now as he came into Neil’s room, they all fell silent.

Bill was smiling though. He said, “I’ve brought you a new student. New to you, that is; the children all know him. This is Juan Rogers. He has been in Mexico.”

The name Juan Rogers had been on Neil’s original class list the first day of school. The children had told him then that he was in Mexico, but that he would be back eventually. This transience was a thing they accepted; they had known nothing else. They would have been insulted to know how wrong it seemed to Neil.

Neil gave Juan an empty seat. He would have introduced him around the room, but it was clear that everyone knew him already. Neil got him a set of textbooks and took a moment to show him the parts they had already covered and to show him where they would begin today.

Neil had discovered early that they could understand and appreciate far more than they could read for themselves, so he always began the day by reading to them. He opened to the seventh chapter of Kidnapped and read the opening sentences:

I came to my senses in darkness, in great pain, bound hand and foot, and deafened by many unfamiliar noises. There sounded in my ears a roaring of water, the thundering of the sails, and the shrill cries of seamen. The whole world seemed now to go up and now down. So sick and hurt was I and so confused, that it took me a long while to realize that I must be lying bound somewhere in the belly of that ship, and that the wind must have strengthened to a gale . . .

A few of the students were restive, and once Neil had to pause with a hard eye turned toward Rafael until he stopped whispering to Casey; but for the most part, the story of David Balfour had them captivated. It helped that Neil had been to Scotland to see the land of his own ancestors. He did not hesitate to embellish Stevenson’s descriptions with his own experience and with explanations in terms the students could better understand. He had made a collage of pictures from a National Geographic article on Scotland for the students to study on their own time.

The students listened raptly, suffering seasickness and a head wound with David Balfour, making the acquaintance of the drunken first mate Mr. Riach, and learning that David was fated to be sold into slavery in America. more tomorrow


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