Symphony 82

Now Neil’s face was hard. “Mr. Burke,” he said, “I did not mention responsibility. I am not responsible for the way Jesse acts. I feel no guilt whatsoever. I just want to give him another chance. Not because I have done anything to feel bad about, and not because Jesse has done anything to deserve it. I just am not ready to give up on him yet.”

Alan Burke frowned and said, “Mr. Campbell, do you feel that way too?”

“Personally, yes. I always feel that way when a student is expelled. But professionally, it is my opinion that his expulsion is overdue. He is wasting his teachers’ time, my time, his own time, and he is destroying the atmosphere of his whole class. For the sake of his classmates, I still recommend expulsion.”

“Is there any teacher who wants to give him another chance?”

Tom Wright said nothing. Glen Ulrich said, “He is too much disruption in my class.” Fiona shook her head.

Then Neil found support from an unexpected quarter. Donna Clementi said softly, “I don’t want him back in my classroom unless he learns to behave himself, but if Neil is willing to take him on, I say let him. Who knows what will happen if someone believes in Jesse that much.”

The teachers left before the vote was taken. The bell for the beginning of school sounded before the school board emerged, so Neil did not hear until morning recess that they had agreed to let Jesse return after Christmas. He would come to school in the afternoon, attend Neil’s class only, and then go home.

But if he got into trouble one more time, he was out.

By noon, everyone in the school knew of the decision. As Carmen sat next to Neil and opened her lunch bag, she said, “You really know how to take on the world, don’t you?”

“You don’t approve?”

“I approve very much, but I have real doubts of whether it will work. I wouldn’t have taken him on.”

Neil shrugged. After a few bites, he said, “I don’t know if it will work, either, but I felt I had to try.”

# # #

There was a letter in Neil’s mailbox when he got home that night. It was from Dr. James Watkins at his old school. It was on plain paper and the typographic errors made it obvious that Dr. Watkins had typed it himself, probably at home.

Dear Neil,

I know that Tom Lewis intends to visit you. If he has, then you know already that Alice Hamilton is going to have a baby. Her father has resigned from the school board and I have spoken with David Hawkens, his replacement as chairman. Hawkens was reluctant to consider your return after your leave of absence ends, but I showed him that he had no legal recourse. He would like to speak to you personally and hear your assurances that your behavior was without blemish. I told him that his request was insulting, but he was adamant. If you are willing to comply, and I suggest that you do, he will be available during the Christmas holidays. You will be spending the holidays with your mother and grandfather, won’t you?

Whatever you decide, come and see me. We miss you here.

Sincerely,

James Watkins

Neil lay back on his couch and read the letter twice more, trying to untangle its mixed messages. “Come home, Son, all is forgiven,” would be a welcome message if he had done anything to be for which to be forgiven. Six months ago he would have jumped at a chance to meet Hawkens, but time and experience — and pain — had stiffened his backbone. more tomorrow

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