Their eyes held until Maria’s softened and she blinked away tears. No rhetoric could have melted her, but Neil had spoken to her from heart to heart.
He let his eyes travel over the room again. So many of them he did not know. Nor did they know him, yet they had given him their children. Not of choice, but of necessity. It was a precious trust. He knew that; he had always known that.
He raised his voice and said, “I know how much you love your children and how vulnerable they are. I know how you must sometimes wonder when they leave you in the morning if they will ever come back to you. Or if they will come back battered in mind, or body, or soul. I understand that, to you, it would be better to overreact and be sure. To drive away anyone who even seems to be a threat. I understand that.
“But you can’t give in to fear. I know. I have faced the other side of your dilemma; the side you don’t even know exists. If you give in to fear — if you act on rumors — then those who spread rumors will control your lives. Those who wish your children well, those who work hardest for their welfare, will be the first targets if you give in to rule by rumor. I know. It happened to me.
“There was a girl named Alice Hamilton . . .”
# # #
Neil stood in the front of the room as one naked, with his hands in his pockets and only his soft voice to carry his message. He told them everything, even his weaknesses. He told them of his foolishness in tutoring the girl. He told them of his weakness in leaving when he was faced with a fight. He told them what had happened to Alice and her father afterward. He told them that he still felt for her, and admitted that his anger was nearly as great as his pity.
He held back nothing. He hid neither his strengths nor his weaknesses. If he had been cowardly in leaving Oregon, he was no longer the same man he had been. Time and pain had strengthened him. This time he told everything and silently challenged them: Accept me if you will; damn me if you think you can; but here I stand. I will not run again.
# # #
The parents filed out. One or two stopped to speak, but most moved quickly away. Perhaps they were ashamed of the whole affair; perhaps they were unconvinced and only wanted privacy to plot further against him; perhaps — most likely — they needed time alone to think about what he had said.
Bill Campbell slipped away with no word, but that was all right. They would talk later, privately. His friendship was like Tom Lewis’; it was based on trust. As long as Bill believed in Neil, he would do everything he could for him.
The school board members also slipped out in quiet neutrality.
Now that his anger had begun to ebb, Neil could admit that he did not envy them their job. Poised between school and community, they did a constant juggling act to please as many as they could while getting the best education for their children that limited resources could provide. It could not be easy.
Carmen was waiting for him in the shadows outside the room. As he emerged she caught his arm and drew him close to her; her arm went around his waist with a strong, possessive grip and she guided him away into the darkness. There she held him hard against her and kissed him passionately.
“Neil,” she whispered, “I have never been so proud in my life. You were magnificent.”
He could not answer, except by holding her closer. more tomorrow