Symphony 90

Oscar took the sheet and hesitated. Laura leaned over and whispered, “You can do it.”

Oscar stood up and tried the first sentence. Those who spoke Spanish looked puzzled, then amused. He stumbled on, his voice breaking, and once he had to stop to wipe his face with the back of his hand. But he kept his jaw set firmly and forged ahead, mispronouncing every other word, and understanding nothing of what went before his eyes.

Neil hurt for him, and wondered if he had pushed him too far. Oscar cast him an angry glance from his set face.

Brandy Runyon snickered. Neil’s snapped, “Brandy!” She stopped instantly. 

Oscar finished, and sat down, looking at the desk to in front of him, humiliated. Neil said, “Thank you, Oscar.”

Flavio looked at his teammate, feeling his embarrassment, but unsure of what had happened out on the playground. He looked at Neil and asked, “What grade do we get?”

“You get the very best grade I have to give,” Neil replied. “I am very proud of Oscar.”

He heard Tony whisper, “But he read it all wrong.” And he heard Lauren silence him fiercely, saying, “Shut up! Don’t you understand anything?”

# # #

Jesse Herrera had returned to Neil’s afternoon class with the rest of the children after Christmas vacation was over. He was very subdued. He was surly, angry, and withdrawn, but he didn’t get into trouble. Neil remained friendly to him, but carefully kept a certain distance between them. The boy was in serious trouble, and there was no point in fawning on him and pretending that he was not.

Neil had a meeting with Mrs. Herrera on the first Friday they were back. It was the first time he had met with her since Jesse’s hearing, and she was full of thanks because Neil had championed her son.

Neil said, “How are things going in counseling?”

“Really well. I think Jesus is doing much better.”

“He had been quiet in school and hasn’t bothered anybody,” Neil replied. He was skeptical of Jesse’s sudden change, but he didn’t say so to his mother.”Can you tell me anything you’ve found out that might be helpful to me?”

“No, not really.”

“Mrs. Herrera, I don’t mean to pry into your personal business. I just want to help Jesse — Jesus. I’m only asking for information so I know best how to handle him.” 

Mrs. Herrera looked trapped and uncomfortable. She said, “Well, the counselor said that I had to set limits and strictly enforce them. I have to say what I am going to do and then do it.”

“And have you been able to do that?”

“I’ve been trying. Just last night, Jesus was bugging me about wanting to watch a program on TV that I didn’t want him to watch. I told him he couldn’t watch it, and when he kept bugging me I made him go to bed an hour early.”

This was apparently her idea of stricter discipline. Neil said, “What would you normally have done?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I would have given in and let him watch it.”

“Well, that’s progress,” Neil said. Privately, it made him wonder if the boy had any chance at all.

# # #

Neil’s meeting with Mrs. Herrera was followed by the three day weekend of Martin Luther King Day. The Tuesday afterward was like any other day at Kiernan, but thirty miles north events were taking place which would shake their school, and other schools across the nation, to their foundations. more tomorrow

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