Matt & zoe, p.20
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       Matt & Zoe, p.20

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 
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  When we get into Amherst we sit in traffic for a while, mostly cars stuck around the common, and we have to park a few blocks away. I’m a little startled when Jasmine slips in between me and Matt and takes each of our hands. I glance over at Matt and our eyes meet. I feel heat on my cheeks, and look away. The three of us walk up the street to the common.

  A flash of memory takes me back to Dad talking to me about Amherst and the Common. It’s a large green area with old trees. On one side, Amherst College, on the other side the town. The Lord Jeffrey Inn and the town hall are in between the college and the rest of downtown. Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson lived here, and Dickinson is buried a few blocks away. For a literature professor like Dad, this was very near the center of the universe.

  Today, however, there’s no rarefied poetry in the air. Instead, the common is permeated with the smell of cooking hamburger meat, fried dough, and cotton candy. Tents cover the common with vendors selling everything from Chinese food to knock-off handbags. Jasmine has no interest in any of that, though I’m sure she’ll want the food later. For now, she starts to jump up and down in excitement when she sees the tiny roller coaster. It’s a bite-sized coaster, the cars just big enough to hold two children. The line of cars is shaped like a snake, and colored bright green with big eyes on the front car.

  “Zoe! Zoe! Can I ride it? Please? Please?”

  Matt chuckles. I say, “Let me get some tickets, and we’ll take you around to the rides.”

  For the next two hours, we move from ride to ride, attraction to attraction. Matt stops at the ring toss game, his eyes scanning everything … the bottles, the stuffed animals, the none-too-clean barker. The grand prize is a three-foot-tall panda bear. Matt looks at the panda, then takes out a five-dollar bill and passes it to the guy behind the counter.

  I shake my head. “I never do these, they’re rigged.”

  He looks at me and winks. Then he turns back and lands a ring on the very first try. Jasmine claps with excitement, jumping up and down. That was uncanny.

  He takes the second ring, studies the scene for just a moment, then tosses it. It lands on the bottle right next to the first. This time I clap with Jasmine, stunned.

  There’s no way Jasmine can realize just how difficult a feat that was.

  From the sour look the carny is giving Matt, he certainly realizes it. Matt ignores him, instead staring at the bottles, his face screwed up in tight concentration. Several people are standing around us now watching, and they’ve hushed, realizing that someone is about to win the grand prize.

  Matt tosses the ring.

  I suck in a breath, then exhale as the ring lands on the third bottle right next to the other two. We break into applause, and the barker shakes his head, a wry smile on his face. He turns and takes down the huge stuffed panda, and hands it to Matt. Immediately several children begin to shout at their mothers, demanding a chance to try themselves.

  Matt kneels down, and hands the giant bear to Jasmine. “For you,” he says. She staggers back a little as she wraps her arms around it. It’s taller than she is.

  “Really?” Jasmine asks, her eyes wide.

  “Of course,” he says. Then he shrugs, and says, “I’ve already got a stuffed bear.” As he stands up, I feel an unusual wash of emotion, and my eyes begin to water. She’s had such a hard time, she deserves some good in her life.

  Matt meets my eyes, and I smile, feeling electric tension between us. It’s so intense I have to look away.

  Please watch yourself (Matt)

  The first week back at school is a small triumph. I’m greeted on the first day with congratulations and handshakes and smiles from everyone on the staff—the union won the contract negotiations and major concessions from the administration. That happened because everybody in the union worked together; but I was getting a lot of attention because I’d been one of the negotiators.

  In the classroom none of that is an issue. My goal is to usher the kids back into complete normality as quickly as possible—we begin our first day back as if it’s only been a weekend in between. The kids are ready to go—they’ve had a brief unexpected vacation. For the parents it’s not quite so easy—child care, jobs and the sudden strike were not a good combination.

  Jasmine is doing better. Of course she’s still grieving and missing her parents, but the worst signs of that are fading. She isn’t stuttering as much, she laughs in class, she plays with the other girls. I can’t ask for more than that.

  I didn’t see Zoe on Monday evening—she was working on a paper for one of her classes, and I had a massive amount of paperwork to do related to the end of the strike. On Tuesday morning, as the kids are streaming into the class, Jasmine walks in, her eyes to the floor. She carries a small painted box filled with wildflowers of various colors. She sets it on the edge of the desk, and stammers out, “Fr–fr– from Zoe… and me.” Then she blushes a bright red, turns and runs to her seat.

  A smile spreads across my face. On closer examination, I see that the box is a small rectangular planter, painted on the outside in bright blue and green pastels. On one side in neat, feminine letters—probably applied with a Sharpie—are the words, “For our favorite teacher.” Next to that, in Jasmine’s large and shaky handwriting, “Mr. P.” The rest of the planter is covered in hand drawn stars and flowers. What looks like glitter glue is smeared on the other side. The flowers are a mix of dandelions and some little blue flowers I didn’t know the names of.

  I look up at Jasmine. She stares at the desk, her face still red. “Thank you, Jasmine.”

  On Wednesday morning, I find a letter in my inbox in the main office. It’s sealed… the return address is from the office of the superintendent. I tear it open, puzzled.

  This is … odd. The letter says, Please report to the office of the assistant superintendent at 2 p.m., Wednesday, October 1. The letter is signed by the assistant superintendent of schools.

  I walk over to the front desk. Sarah Higgins, the school secretary, usually has a pulse on everything that’s going on in the district. “Do you know anything about this? They want me down at the superintendent’s office this afternoon.”

  She shakes her head. “It came in with the other papers from the office this morning.”

  “Thanks,” I say. The strange part about the letter is that class is still in session at 2 p.m.. It’s not that we don’t have meetings during the day—we do all the time. Typically, for an appointment at the school department, they’ll schedule it outside of class hours. I shrug. I’ll know in a few hours what it’s about. I go to see the principal to arrange for coverage in my classroom, then head back to class.

  ***

  I arrive at the town hall at five minutes before two. The school administration offices are small—after all, South Hadley has two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. There’s little need for the bloated bureaucracy that you might see in a large city school system. On the flip side, sometimes I feel as if I’m an outsider at the country club. Everyone knows everyone, and they’ve all known each other for their entire lives. As someone who’s been in town just a couple of years, I’m often intimidated by that. Times like this more than any other. I knock on the door, catching the attention of the administrative assistant just inside.

  “Oh, Mr. Paladino. Come in, the Superintendent is expecting you.” I step into the crowded office, and try not to fidget while she picks up a phone and calls the superintendent.

  A moment later, Michael Barrington opens his office door and bustles out. As always, he looks a little fussy, wearing a nice suit, which appears to be both new and expensive, but his tie is slightly off center and a tiny stain mars the collar of his shirt. He’s clean-shaven, but has a visible shaving cut on his chin.

  “Matt,” he says. “Come in, come in.” We shake hands and I follow him into the office.

  Something feels off. I don’t know Barrington well, but every time I’ve seen him, he has seemed both stressed and very serious. He f
rowns a lot, and his eyes often appear distant, as if he’s worried about some indefinable future.

  Today, however, his mouth carries the hint of a smile. His eyes are shifting everywhere. He sits down behind the desk and gestures to the seats in front of it. I take a seat.

  “I suppose you are wondering why I called this meeting,” he says.

  I nod. “I am, actually. What can I do for you?”

  “Matt… What can you tell me about Jasmine Welch?”

  That’s odd. “Well, sir, her parents were killed a few weeks ago in an accident. Her sister Zoe has custody of her. She’s doing as well as can be expected.”

  “Is she receiving special education services?”

  This is puzzling. It would be a trivial matter for him to look Jasmine up in the computer, to find out whether or not she is receiving any accommodations. There’s no need to call me to the school system offices to answer these questions. I proceed slowly and carefully, mindful of Barrington reputation. “No, sir.”

  “She doesn’t have an IEP?”

  An IEP, or individualized education plan, is put in place to modify the curriculum to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities. I shake my head. “No, she doesn’t have an IEP.”

  He frowns, deepening the crevices at the corners of his mouth. “I don’t understand, Matt. Her curriculum was modified.”

  I shake my head. “Not really. She’s been learning the same things, we just changed the order of some things and added some additional drawing components. She’s been struggling with grief, so I’ve been trying to work with her in areas where I could reach her more effectively.”

  “Matt, I completely understand that your motives are… well intended. But you cannot just go around modifying the curriculum anytime you feel like it.”

  I stiffen, and feel my face heat up. “With all due respect Mr. Barrington, I made no modifications to the curriculum. And she’s doing much better than she was, she needed help. That’s my job.”

  “And the fact that you are dating her sister has no bearing on any of this?”

  “Of course not.” I feel anger rising, a tightness in my chest… “First, that’s none of your business. Who I date is not the concern of the school system. And second, our job is to teach those students. I’ve done the most effective job I could with Jasmine.”

  The corner of Barrington’s mouth jerks up. A smirk. “At the expense of the other children in your class. There’s a reason we have specialists in special education, to help deal with these situations.”

  I’m furious now. This is bullshit. This has nothing to do with Jasmine or the other students at all—it’s all about Barrington paying me back. The question is, what can I do about it?

  “The students in my class have lost nothing, Mr. Barrington.”

  “Mr. Paladino, I’m afraid I’ll have to be the judge of that.”

  I feel my pulse in my ears, my hands are twitching and I’m having difficulty not thinking of the thousand things I want to say. It leaves me paralyzed. We sit there in silence for a while… fifteen seconds? A minute? It seems like a very long time. Eventually, however, he breaks the impasse.

  “I recognize, Mr. Paladino, that you are a gifted teacher, if a little unseasoned. For that reason, I’ve decided you won’t be officially reprimanded. We’ll simply include a brief note in your file about the discussion today, and your agreement that you will no longer modify the curriculum on your own.”

  My mouth runs ahead of me. “I’ll agree to no such thing.”

  He raises an eyebrow. Naturally, I’d walked right into his trap. Technically I’m not authorized to make any changes to the curriculum. But the fact was, having Jasmine do the extra drawing didn’t constitute a change. We may not have much leeway, but we do have some. This is utter nonsense. It has nothing to do with the curriculum. It has everything to do with my representing the union during the contract negotiations.

  “Mr. Barrington, rest assured I won’t be running around making changes to the school’s curriculum. I’m not going to agree to sign off on any kind of official or unofficial notes or memo or anything else going in my personnel file.” I plunge my index finger down against his desk. “This is nothing more than retaliation. It’s inexcusable.”

  Barrington’s face jerks into the barest of smirks; then he wipes it away. He’s enjoying this. I should have realized… In the eighteen months or so since he became superintendent, Michael Barrington has already received a strong reputation for exacting personal retribution for even the slightest of offenses. It’s highly unlikely that the union would’ve gone on strike if it hadn’t been for that… but there is more to the process than dollars and cents and benefits and contracts. There is also the overall work environment, the tone of which has been extremely negative and is getting worse.

  “If there’s nothing else, I’ll be going.” I stand as I say the words.

  “No, there will be nothing else.” Barrington looks mildly amused as he says the words.

  I turn to walk to the door, feeling my skin crawl a little at his attitude. I open the door to the office, and start to step outside, when I hear his voice again.

  “Mr. Paladino… please… watch yourself.”

  Ass.

  Secrets (Zoe)

  “Are you going to burn dinner again?” I put my hands on my hips and turn around. Jasmine is in the doorway, surveying the scene. She’s been out riding Mono for the last hour. Now she’s in, presumably to get a bath and get ready for homework. The last couple of weeks have been very good for her, and I’m grateful that she has Matt as her teacher because he manages to draw her out in ways that I haven’t figured out how to do.

  Despite that gratitude, it's hard for me to push away a tendril of… anxiety? Concern? Matt was very evasive about Saturday. It’s not that it’s any of my business—it’s not like we’re even really dating. Or are we? We don’t own each other. The opaqueness of his past, with his refusal to talk about his family, childhood, or anything prior to becoming a teacher in South Hadley, is disturbing. Who does that? People have lives. They have friends and family and experiences and just… life… that they talk about and share.

  For Matt, that life appears to have begun three years ago when he arrived in South Hadley. Outside of that, I only know tidbits. He grew up somewhere in Central Florida. His father is dead. I don’t know where the rest of his family is, or why he doesn’t talk about them.

  Right now I have other things to worry about. He’ll be here in another twenty minutes, and I need to get dinner on the table. I turn around, and for a second I see the kitchen through Jasmine’s eyes. To the left of the stove, the countertop is covered in a mess of flour and God only knows what else. I breaded chicken over there, and you can tell. It looks as if the Tasmanian Devil decided to fry the chicken, splattering salt and flour and chicken juices everywhere. I think the deep frying pan on the stove may be too hot, because the oil is giving off smoke. It’s no wonder Jasmine asked if I was going to set dinner on fire again. I refuse to let domestic life defeat me. I’m acting in loco parentis to Jasmine, and I’m going to do the best job I can.

  To the right of the stove, an open calculus textbook sits in front of my laptop. A YouTube video titled Introduction to Calculus Lesson Six plays on the screen. The narrator has an interesting voice and does her best to make it both interesting and theatrical. Unfortunately, I’m clearly not the target audience for this topic.

  Here goes nothing. One at a time, I pick up the chicken with my metal spatula and gently lower it into the hot oil. Oil splashes everywhere and it begins to sizzle loudly. I feel a couple of pinpricks of heat along my forearm, tiny splatters of oil that hit me. I drop two more pieces of chicken in and look on, satisfied, as they begin to fry.

  While the chicken fries, I turn my attention to the mashed potatoes which I load with cream and garlic. This dinner won’t win any awards from the National Heart Association. Though it does have broccoli, so that’s something. I take the bowl of v
egetables—swimming in cheese sauce—and put them on the table. Two long stemmed candles sit in the center of the table, not lit, and three place settings are arrayed around them. It’s almost ready.

  The front door bell rings. “I’ll get it!” Jasmine shouts unnecessarily as she runs down the hallway. I shrug, and continue cooking.

  A minute later, Matt walks in the door. He looks tired, a little strained. He stops in the doorway, smiles, and says “That smells delicious. Kind of like home.”

  So fried chicken smells like home. Another tiny little factoid to place in my paltry Matt dossier. As he approaches he presents me with a bottle of wine—a Pinot Noir. I smile and point to one of the cabinets. “Glasses are up there. Do we need to chill it?”

  “Already cold.” Matt busies himself with pouring glasses of wine, as I get the rest of the food on the table. A second later, Jasmine comes into the room clutching a rolled up sheet of yellow construction paper. Her eyes drop to the floor, then jerk back up.

  “I made this for you,” she says, and hands it to Matt. I suck in a short breath, then catch myself and relax.

  “Thank you very much,” Matt says, as he unrolls the paper.

  I pour a glass of milk for Jasmine, and bring it over to the table.

  It’s a crayon drawing, and a remarkably good one for a third grader. Mono, huge as ever, is on the left side of the paper. But there’s something unusual. Jasmine always draws herself riding the horse. In this picture, she’s not riding Mono. She’s standing between a woman and a man. At first it looks like Mom and Dad, but then I realize it can’t be. She’s drawn a black beard on the man—it's Matt. The woman on the other side is me—yellow shoulder length hair, and the shirt even says Army. Jasmine stands between us in the picture holding both of our hands.

 
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