Category Archives: Serial

Symphony 107


The next ten days were the happiest of Neil’s life. He and Carmen spent every night together, at her apartment or his, and there was no end to her variety, her passion, or her joy of life. For ten glorious days and nights, it was as it the affair of Alice Hamilton had never happened.

Even school was better. Neil had always noted the difference between his two classes. The morning class was calm and easily managed, attentive and easy to teach. The afternoon class was none of those things. He had attributed it to a different mix of students and the fact that they were tired when they came to him in the afternoon. Yet as soon as Jesse was permanently gone, a change came over his afternoon class. Neil could not believe what a difference the boy’s absence made.

He did not know what other events were taking place at the same time.

Lee Boyd had a cousin in Oregon to whom he wrote occasionally. By sad coincidence, that cousin lived in the same town Neil had come from. The excitement of a Valentine’s Day party ending in a bar-room brawl prompted Lee to send a letter, and for the first time he mentioned his teacher’s name. The cousin laughed at Lee’s story, and read the letter to his older sister. She recognized the name McCrae and mentioned it to her mother. Her mother called Toni Boyd to make sure it wasn’t the same person.

Toni Boyd came to see Neil. She was waiting outside his classroom door when the students ran to catch their busses. Neil had only seen her once before, when she had come in to see why Neil was giving group grades. She had told him then how difficult it was for her to get off work, so Neil knew that something unusual was up.

She gave her son a hug and said, “Go on and ride the bus. I am going to stay here and talk to Mr. McCrae.”

“What’s the matter, Mom? I’m not in any trouble.”

“I know. Just go on.”

Toni was wearing a long navy blue dress of conservative cut and her short, black hair was flawless. She looked like an expensive lawyer’s secretary, which was exactly what she was. Neil ushered her in and they sat. She came right to the point. “Mr. McCrae, where did you work last year?”

“Why do you ask?”

Her eye sharpened and she pursed her mouth. “Please just tell me.”


“Where in Oregon?”

Sooner or later this had to happen. He told her.

Her face grew even more severe. “Why did you leave there?”

“Mrs. Boyd, I may not work for a lawyer like you do, but I do recognize cross examination when I hear it. What is on your mind?”

“Why did you leave Oregon?”

“You sound like a person who already knows, or thinks she knows.”

“I do, now. I couldn’t believe it at first, because Lee really likes you and thinks you are a good teacher. I got a phone call today from my sister-in-law warning me about a Neil McCrae who was dismissed from their school for forcing a student to have sexual relations with him. There can’t be two teachers named Neil McCrae from the same town. You can either tell me if it is true, or I will find out for myself. Without even trying, I can think of ten ways to find out, and the lawyer I work for would think of twenty more.”

Neil sighed and said, “I am the person you are asking about, but you don’t have your facts straight.” more Monday


Symphony 106

He whispered, “No,” as he withdrew. Yet she did not let him withdraw altogether. She caught his hand as he sat up and gripped it like a lifeline.

He rolled over and sat back, feeling his heart booming in his chest. “Too fast?” he asked, and his voice cracked with the urgency of his need.

Carmen shook her head. “I have to talk to you first,” she said.

“I’m not really in the mood to talk right now,” he answered, and bit his lip to control the shaking of his voice.

She took both his hands in hers and said, “I’ve been holding something back from you. You have to hear it now, before we go any further.”

He shook his head in pain. Not again. It wasn’t fair. How much could one man take?

“Neil,” she cried, shaking him. “Please.”

“Tell me,” he said through set teeth.

“Neil, I love you. I’m not going to tell you that I don’t. Just listen, please.”

The world turned over for him in that moment; she had never told him that she loved him before.

Now she released his hands and sat back. She said, “Neil, when you first came here, you must have noticed that I acted badly toward you.”

“You froze me out. You were the only one who did.”

“I was the only one who knew about Alice Hamilton.”

“How did you know?”

“Bill told me. I was the only one he told.”


She moved about uncomfortably on the couch. “Bill is an old and dear friend. He probably trusts me more than anyone else in the school because he has known me longer. And I trust him. You see, he was my teacher in high school; he arranged for me to get a scholarship when I graduated. If it weren’t for Bill Campbell, I would be an ignorant housewife with ten kids and no education. So when he asked a favor of me, I had to say yes.”

“And the favor was . . . ?”

“To watch you. To make sure that you were as innocent as James Watkins said you were.”

Neil sighed and shook his head. “That is one hell of a job to take on.”

“I didn’t want it, but I couldn’t refuse. If you had been an abuser, we had to know it.”

Neil said, “I understand. But do you know what? I’m sick and tired of understanding. I never did anything to deserve all this, and I’m just about ready to pack it in. It isn’t worth it. It just isn’t worth it.”

She reached for his hand again, and said, “Neil, I’m sorry.”

“You did a lousy job, you know. If you were going to spy on me, you shouldn’t have acted like I had the plague.”

“I couldn’t help that. I have never been able to conceal my feelings. With me, what you see is what you get.”

She had taken both his hands and moved in close again. He looked at her, wondering how she had meant that last phrase, when she took away any doubt.

“Neil, if you want me, I am yours. I love you. I began to love you even when I didn’t trust you, and now I love you without reservation. I would never have agreed to spy on you if I had known what you were like. If you can forget that — if you still mean what you said when you said you love me . . .”

Neil stood up. He raised Carmen up and drew her into his arms again. Then, with their arms around each other, they walked to her bedroom. more tomorrow — and check out today’s short post in A Writing Life for a take on Neil and Carmen.

Symphony 105

Bill nodded in satisfaction. “In other words,” he said, “you made the mistake that I refused to make with Hector.”

“No. Well, practically, yes; but morally, no. The essential difference is that Hector was innocent and Jesse was not.”

“You still can’t see it my way?”


Surprisingly, Bill laughed. The sound seemed to sweep away the gloom that had gathered around them. He said, “You’re young, and the young have to fight a few battles to know when to fight and when to step aside. There are some students you should go out on a limb for, and some students you can’t save. Ten years from now, Jesse Herrera may come back and thank me for sending a clear message that he can’t get away with murder. Or not. Who knows? We just do the best we can.”

Bill came around the desk and led Neil out with an arm on his shoulder. He said, “You struck out this time. But you can never make a home run unless you swing at the ball. Don’t give up.”

# # #

During the months of winter, the Central Valley of California fills up with fog. It is a time of grey mornings and coldly steaming nights. While mid-western schools are closing because of snow, California schools are delaying their mornings until the fog clears enough for busses to safely run.

Here, at the change of the seasons, daytime belonged to spring and the nights still belonged to winter. Fog came rolling in from the orchards to curl its ghostly hands about Neil’s knees as he walked to his car. He started the engine and slid out onto Kiernan, driving automatically. When he reached Carmen’s apartment, he was a little surprised to see where his unconscious mind had brought him.

She met him at the door with a kiss and asked, “How badly did it go?”

Neil told her the whole story. She sat very close, holding his hand in hers with her hip against his. When he had finished, she said, “I was worried for you.”

Then she was in his arms, her mouth was on his, and for a long striving time they forgot everything but the urgency of the moment. When the first passion had spent itself, they leaned hard against the back of the couch, so tangled together that there was only the space of a hand’s thickness between their faces.

She moved her hand to brush back his hair and her fingers lingered on his cheek. There was a fire in his loins and she could not be unaware of the urgent hardness pressing against her, but she did not move away. Then she kissed him again. He drew her deeper into his arms until he must have hurt her, but her groans were not of pain. They fell back on the couch and he moved above her, settled his weight upon her, settled his mouth on hers again, and slid his hand up to cup her breast. Their tongues touched and wrapped about one another. She locked her arms hard about him, and all outer realities slid away into unimportance.

Finally he raised his head to catch his breath. Carmen’s eyes were shining and she was breathing hard. He leaned above her, memorizing the lines of her face, and feeling a warmth of love as great as his passion. It was a moment to be treasured, and a moment to be repeated. A lifetime would not be time enough to exhaust its joy.

Then a shadow crossed her face. It crept in from the edges of her eyes, crept between them, and shut him out. more tomorrow


Symphony 104

“Evelyn saw him run by, and Glen heard you chewing him out beforehand. I heard from both of them before the hour was over. They weren’t spying. Its just that we help each other here, and we share information so everyone knows all about every student. It is the one advantage a small school has that offsets our lack of funds and personnel.

“When you didn’t come to me, I knew that you were trying to go it alone. I called Mrs. Herrera and asked how Jesse was doing. She told me about your midnight visit, and never knew that I hadn’t known of it.”

“You are one sneaky bastard,” Neil accused, with left-handed admiration.

“Only because you made me be. Why didn’t you come to me? And be straight with me; your career is riding on your answer.”

Once again, Neil caught a glimpse of the iron hand beneath the velvet glove. He was reminded of Dr. Watkins, only Bill Campbell was more straightforward about it.

Neil said, “I knew that you would have expelled him.”

“Yes, I would have. Are you telling me your motives were completely impersonal?”

“No. I was also afraid you would be angry because I sent him home instead of sending him to you. But that was a secondary consideration. My real reason was to keep him from being expelled.”

Bill nodded and sighed. He said, “Yes, I believe that.”

“May I ask why you believe me? I’m not sure I would.”

“I believe you because I seldom see people doing things that are out of character. It is your character, as I see it, to champion your students to the point of foolishness. Like you did when you tutored Alice Hamilton against your better judgement. And like you did here not an hour ago when you argued with me about Hector Van Vliet. It is a noble trait, and someday it is going to destroy you!”

“Hector didn’t even deserve the punishment he got.”

Bill slammed his hand down on the desk top in anger. “Damn it, Neil, do you think I don’t know that? So what? It won’t hurt him, and he will always remember it. The next time he starts to lose his temper, he will think twice. The real point is, what would have happened if I had let him go? These are just kids. They can’t weigh the fine points of justice like you and I do. They would just know that Hector got away with murder, and we would have a rash of misbehavior like you have never seen. If I had let him go unpunished, I would eventually have had to suspend twenty other students that I won’t have to suspend now.”

There was another period of silence, while Bill sat brooding.

Neil said, “If you follow that thinking to its logical conclusion, you have to punish me as well.”

“Don’t push your luck, Son. You are in the same position Jesse Herrera was in. The only thing I can do to you is fire you, and I don’t want to do that.”

“I was aware of the similarity of our positions.”

“Is that why you went out on a limb for him?”


Bill Campbell made up his mind. He said, “Neil, if you know what you did wrong, tell me.”

“Of course, I know,” Neil replied bitterly. “It wasn’t because I endangered your authority. I kept you out of the line of fire by not telling you. I was wrong because if I had not championed Jesse Herrera, my classroom would have been more calm, my students would have learned more during these last weeks, and four innocent students would not have been suspended for attacking a devil I kept in their midst.” more tomorrow


Symphony 103

Seventh period was Carmen’s period for preparation. Neil dragged Joaquin and Jesse by the arm to her door and knocked by kicking the door frame. She came quickly, irritated, and instantly took in the gravity of the situation. She took over his class while Neil marched the combatants up to the office.

It was a long afternoon. Hector was called in. He was in tears, now that his anger had faded. All he could say, over and over, was how sorry he was to have hit Neil. He seemed completely unaware of having fought with Jesse; that had faded into insignificance in his mind beside the mortal sin of striking a teacher. Nothing Neil could say to him would ease his guilt.

Humberto and Aaron were called in and put to one side to sweat it out. The busses came and went, and phone calls went out to all the parents whose children were involved so that they would not panic when their children did not get off the bus.

Mrs. Herrera was the first to arrive. She had just walked in the door from work when the phone call came. Mr. Navarro came in next, yelled at Humberto for five minutes, then went out to sit in his truck and await the verdict.

Neil met Mrs. Herrera’s eyes as she came into Bill’s office. They were wet with tears and empty of hope. Bill Campbell was short and to the point. “We gave you and your son more chances than any child deserves, and after that Mr. McCrae took it on himself to give him still more chances. If this is the way Jesse repays us, we have nothing further to say to each other. Take you child and leave. Don’t bother bringing him back next year. You have the legal right of appeal, but I assure you now that appeal will be denied. Just take him and get out.”

Then Bill took a deep breath and relented enough to say, “When you get Jesse enrolled in another school, remember this incident. Get some help at once before he repeats it.”

Mrs. Herrera walked out of Neil’s life dragging Jesse behind her. He never saw either of them again.

# # #

Joaquin, Aaron, and Humberto were suspended for a week. Bill wanted to call a board meeting to consider the fact that Hector had struck a teacher, and it took Neil ten minutes of pleading to get his punishment reduced to a week’s suspension.

When the last student had left in the hands of his angry parents, it was nearly seven o’clock. The late winter sun was down and it was growing dark outside. Bill Campbell looked gray and haggard. Neil realized that he must be close to retirement age. The buoyancy and good humor which made him look younger had deserted him now and he looked old.

He got up and drew two cups of coffee from the unit on a cabinet behind his desk. Neil felt a moment of deja vu; Bill had done exactly the same thing in the middle of his employment interview. Only this time the coffee was stale and bitter. It matched their mood.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Bill said, “You really screwed up this time.”

“I know.”

“Didn’t you learn anything from your sex scandal?”

“I learned a lot; a whole bitter great deal.”

“You apparently didn’t learn when to go to someone for advice. You went into this whole Jesse Herrera matter with your eyes closed and you made a bad situation worse. Then you compounded your error by trying to hide things from me.”

Here it comes.

“The day Jesse Herrera ran home right after he came, did you think that would go unnoticed?”

Neil shrugged. “I guess I did.” more Monday


Symphony 102

“She wears too much make-up though.”

Neil had thought so himself; it was thick enough to make Neil suspect that she had some facial disfiguration she was trying to cover up. Still, this seemed a strange observation for her daughter to make.

“She didn’t used to wear so much, until her latest boyfriend came to live with us.” Lisa’s voice was shocking in its bitterness; then she bolted away, touching her mother on the shoulder as she came up to help her.

Another brick fell into place, and Neil’s edifice of speculation came into tighter focus. The stories Lisa had written suddenly made more sense.

Had Jesse Herrera’s mother worn too much make-up during those last years when her beloved Miguel turned abusive?

Did Judith Cobb’s boyfriend hit Lisa as well as her mother? 

Neil felt his heart as a cold lump in his chest.  It was the cold of helplessness.

The children returned with the last bell. Heather Sanchez reached for a cookie and Judith fended her off with a laugh. She gave the girl a hug in passing, and three other children made mock passes at the refreshments, then drew back laughing.

Jesse’s attempt was real; he caught up two cookies, and dodged Mrs. Cobb as he made his way back to his seat. Neil barked at him and he shot Neil a dirty look. Black helplessness spread through Neil; all he had tried to do was coming to nothing!

Rabindranath snapped, “Jesse, stay out of the cookies.”

“Make me!”

Lorraine Dixon added, “Oh, stop being a jerk, Jesse.”

“Who are you calling a jerk?” Jesse stepped forward, scowling.

“You, Jerk. She’s calling you a jerk, ’cause you are one.” This was Hector Van Vliet, who hadn’t volunteered twenty words all year. A hulking thirteen year old who had been kept back twice, he was also a shy, gentle child whom the other children did not fear even though he towered over them.

In that instant, the slow building anger of the whole class came to a head. They had had enough of Jesse Herrera. Every child’s eye turned on him with brimming hatred.

Before Neil could intervene, Jesse stepped right up to Hector and spat in his face. Hector went pale. He drew back one massive fist and swung at Jesse.

Neil caught his fist in mid-air and spun him around, but Hector was fully inflamed now and continued to struggle; he struck at Neil with his fists, connecting twice. It was all Neil could do to handle him.

Jesse had cowered when Hector swung; now he rose up and punched him in the back while he was struggling with Neil.

Joaquin Velasquez cursed in Spanish and tackled Jesse. As they went down, Humberto and Aaron joined him, kicking and punching at Jesse as he and Joaquin rolled on the floor.

Neil shoved Hector back and shouted, “Stop it!” at the top of his lungs. The room reverberated, but the boys struggling on the floor were too far gone to stop. Neil grabbed Humberto and then Aaron and tossed them back, then dragged Jesse and Joaquin up and held them both at arm’s length.

Slowly the class grew silent. Judith Cobb stood wide eyed with shock. The children’s eyes were steady and flinty hard; the eyes of a lynch mob; and they were all directed at Jesse Herrera.  more tomorrow


I promised an honest novel, and this post may seem excessively melodramatic. I have never had a free-for-all in my classroom, although I’ve broken up plenty of fights on the playground. I also spent several months teaching my class while listening with one ear for problems in the special needs classroom through a connecting door. There was a child in that classroom whom we knew to be violent. He eventually exploded and I had to go in and pull him off his teacher. I was young and male; his teacher was old and female. He was expelled.

Nothing in this post is unrealistic for thirty-plus young mammals jammed into a tiny classroom for months on end.


Symphony 101

Mrs. Herrera promised to institute the punishment they had discussed, and to keep him home until after the weekend. But she was crying again when Neil left, and he knew she did not have the strength to follow through.

# # #

Jesse’s blowup and informal suspension came on Wednesday. That night Neil and Carmen went out to dinner. They no longer went on formal dates. Their relationship had progressed beyond that, and now they spent all their spare time together. That night, she asked him if he had given any thought to Valentine’s Day. He had not. She said that the sixth graders were still young enough that they would miss having a holiday celebration, and since he was their main teacher, it would be up to him to provide one.

Neil shook his head. “Carmen, if there is anything high school did not teach me, its how to give a Valentine’s Day party for little kids.”

“So don’t give one,” Carmen laughed. “Get Stephanie Hagstrom and Lisa Cobb and their mothers to head a committees for your two classes, then stand back. You won’t have to do a thing.”

For the next two days, Neil’s afternoon class moved as smoothly as a well oiled bearing. It was amazing what the absence of one child could do. When Saturday rolled around, Carmen took Neil for a ride without giving him a hint of their destination. She had packed a picnic basket, and she set a course that circled northward across the river, then eastward toward Riverbank.

It was February eleventh. In the midwest, there was a foot of new snow on the ground, but spring had come to California. Almost overnight, the almond orchards had come to full blossom. Everywhere Carmen took him, the trees were covered with pure white flowers, and already the wind was shaking the first of them free to cover the ground like a fragrant snowfall.

They stopped half a mile up a dirt orchard road. Carmen spread a blanket under the trees, in a patch of sunlight. It was just too chilly to be quite comfortable, so after they ate they put the food away and wrapped the blanket around them as they waited out the day, encircled by ten thousand acres of flowers.

# # #

On Valentine’s Day, things started out as smoothly as Carmen had predicted. Janice Hagstrom had things completely under control. She gave him the first two periods for regular work and took over the last period completely. She even had games to keep the children busy after the cards had been exchanged, the cookies and ice cream had been demolished, and they were flying around the ceiling with their veins a-clog with sugar.

At noon, Jesse Herrera came back, quiet again. Neil hoped that his mother had kept her end of the bargain, and that her efforts would be rewarded. He had his doubts about both, but the two work periods went well enough.

Judith Cobb came in as the children were streaming out for their last break of the day, and snagged Ramon, Mickey, and Jason to carry in refreshments. Lisa slipped into her mother’s arms briefly, then led her up to Neil. She introduced her politely, with a formality that has to be taught, and Neil shook hands. Then Mrs. Cobb set about arranging the party and Lisa stayed by Neil’s side for a moment. “She’s pretty, isn’t she,” Lisa said.

“Yes, quite.”

“She wears too much make-up though.” more tomorrow