Toni Boyd said, “Last Thursday I got a call from my sis . . . from someone in Oregon who had heard that Mr. McCrae was teaching here. She told me what I said in that petition, that he had been fired for seducing one of his students. Now I don’t have anything against Mr. McCrae personally. I only met him once before all this started, and he was helpful even though I didn’t really approve of his teaching methods. And my son hasn’t had any complaints. But we can’t have someone in this school that we don’t trust.”
The wind was shifting. Neil’s quietly threatening presence had made the school board members think twice about their legal position. So far, they had made no accusations. Neil could sue those who had signed the petition, but not them. They had this firmly in mind, so it was less courage than self-preservation that made Alan Burke say, “Mrs. Boyd, we knew about the accusations against Mr. McCrae when we hired him. They were never substantiated. He was never brought to trial, even though the local police investigated the matter. The school board in his last school found him innocent of any wrong doing.”
Here Burke was stretching the truth in Neil’s favor, for they had simply failed to find him guilty. What Burke did not say was how much he regretted hiring Neil.
Toni Boyd felt the ground crumbling beneath her feet; she looked embarrassed, angry, and betrayed.
So far it had been easy. Yet if Neil had learned anything, he had learned that a legal victory was useless if it resulted in a community that was poisoned against him.
Neil had used his anger to attack their positions. Now he had an infinitely harder task before him. He had to harness that anger, that basically destructive energy, transmute it, and use it to win them over. He would never have another chance. He would never have this audience again.
“Mr. Burke,” Neil said again, “may I speak?”
“I have been accused of a crime which, if it were true, I myself would find repulsive. You know that I am innocent of sexual wrongdoing. You all knew that, or you would never have hired me.”
Even while smoothing things over, he managed to throw the board off balance and force them to take his side to save themselves. He was learning.
“You know the whole story, but these people do not. Now that the matter has come up, it can never be put down again with less than full information.”
“You want to tell everything in an open meeting?” Burke asked in surprise.
“No,” Neil replied softly. “I am a private person, but I don’t seem to have any choice.”
That put Burke in a terrible bind. If Neil could persuade the parents, all would be well; but if he failed to convince them, they would ask why Burke and his fellow board members had been persuaded. Worst of all, Burke had no choice. If he said no, he would be saying that the parents did not have a right to the information. That would be suicide.
Neil turned and moved to the center of the room. There was great anger in him, and fear as well. He was risking all on his oratory, and he did not trust his ability to persuade them.
He let his eyes wander about the room until the settled on Maria Alvarez. Neil, who did not let himself show favoritism, had a favorite in Rosa; sweet, gentle, shy Rosa who had come so far in so few months. In Maria Alvarez’s eyes, he saw his own feelings mirrored. If he loved Rosa greatly, her mother loved her with an all encompassing love — a love that would destroy him if necessary, for Rosa’s sake.
With no sense of melodrama he touched Maria Alvarez on the shoulder. He said, “Mrs. Alvarez, there is nothing in the world I would ever do to hurt Rosa. If I thought it was the right thing to do for her, I would walk out that door right now and never come back.” more tomorrow