Authors: Christine Bush
How did she do it? Ben followed the uncharacteristically quiet group down to the cafeteria, watched them grab their
lunches; sit at their usual table, but with unusual grace. They were actually quiet. Daisy waved at them as they settled, and they actually waved back. Then he watched her pick up a sandwich from the lunch cart, and head back toward the stairway, where he was standing.
sure get established with speed,” he said, out of one side of his mouth.
Daisy grinned, her face lighting up with humor. “One of my many talents, I guess. I’m a fast establisher?”
He smiled back, all of a sudden not trusting his voice.
Did someone turn the temperature up? Why was there an indescribable warmth racing through his veins? Did a smile do that? Man, he was a goner.
Your office?” she said matter of factly, already taking a bite of her sandwich, standing in the hallway. “Sorry,” she said after a big mouthful. “Hungry. Another of my many attributes. I eat like a rhinoceros.”
His voice came back, and he laughed out loud.
“No problem. Eat away. And yes, we’ll head to the office.”
And so it went. Within hours, it was as if Daisy had been present at New Horizons forever.
Within days, Ben had the illogical fear they could never function without her.
Every student in the building responded to her, and she had time and interest in them all. She truly operated from a “family” perspective
, crossing all the lines, even breaking all the rules. And it just didn’t matter.
The first day he had found her si
tting on the desk. That was strange enough. The next day, when stopping by her room, he found the teenagers sprawled all over the floor, sitting on the window sills, or sitting on the carpet, back against the wall. He almost panicked. But what were they doing? They were all READING. With large text books propped at every angle, they were taking turns reading a biology lesson out loud.
“Got to be comfortable to think,” she’d told the usually combative teens. So they got comfortable, and they began to think. And read. And learn.
The second week, they each selected a “tiny buddy” in the primary class, and a “junior buddy” in the middle school class, who was their special friend. The teens would visit occasionally to tutor, to read together, and would sent motivating notes. They did science projects with their junior buddies, and the resulting posters and displays sat in the corner of each hall. Art work began cropping up all over the building.
Discipline problems had virtually disappeared.
Only “trustworthy” kids could be trusted to do their extra projects. It made sense to even the most challenging kids. One morning, Ben had found the teens scattered along the first floor hallway, surrounded by paint cans, brushes, and their primary buddies. They were painting a twelve foot mural on the bare wall. HIS freshly painted bare wall.
“Hi, Doctor Ben,” Maria
had called out. “We’re painting a picture from a great book called “Old Yeller” that we just read with the little kids. It’s got a farmhouse, and horses, and even Old Yeller himself. Wanna help?”
When his shock
had dissolved, he praised them, even through his shock, and picked up a brush and added some foliage to a tree that had been sketched on his originally sparkling wall.
“So you liked the b
ook,” he asked between strokes
“We loved it,” called voices from both age groups. “That dog was awes
ome,” said Jimmy, eyes bright and excited. “Do you think we could get a dog like that for the school? But it oughta be one without hydrophobia.”
“Yeah!” a chorus of voices echoed as they painted.
“Um, we’ll see,” he stammered. He had never seen Jimmy smile before. “We’ll see.” He finished his tree, turned over his brush, as one of the girl’s watch alarms beeped.
“OK, clean up,” said Maria
with authority. “Back to class in five minutes, or we’re not trustworthy.”
They grumbled, but they agreed.
Ben watched the clean up process with pride, and then went back to his office. It was like they had grown up in the space of two weeks. It was as if his school had finally jelled to a supportive family environment, where cooperation and a feeling of responsibility had exploded.
And it was because of Daisy Donovan. She was unorthodox, she was stubborn, and she was the best teacher he had ever seen. Her methods often set him off
balance; her plans disrupted his schedules and his sense of order. And they absolutely worked.
But it wasn’t just that. There was an “aliveness” about the tiny blond woman
who he had hired by mistake. There was a glow, a charm, an appeal that had captured his heart in a much more personal way than he would ever want to admit. Especially to her.
Because as much as he fo
und Daisy Donovan attractive, as much as she was friendly and open in her position as teacher and in her immediate concern for all of her students, she had made it quite clear her personal life was off bounds. He knew nothing about her, except for the sketchy details that had been given to him when he had hired her. While they had spent hours together, planning, brainstorming, and discussing the students and their programs, she was as much an enigma as ever. But he cherished the time.
Back at his desk, he waded through a stack of papers awaiting his attention. As the morning passed, he glanced at the clock on the wall, and felt a surge of anticipation. He passed his hands through his curly hair, one eye on the door awaiting her arrival for their midday staff meeting.
Get a grip on yourself,
his mind reprimanded.
Stop being like one of the teenagers with an elusive crush.
He sighed. If only he could. No one ha
d ever affected him the way Daisy had. Was it love? He had never been in love before.
The three teachers arrived
for the meeting, Daisy last. Each had brought their lunch to eat during their meeting. He pulled his out of the drawer, a boring ham and cheese sandwich. Miss Gracie had brought tuna. Mr. Andy had an Italian hoagie. Daisy opened a thermos, filled with some strange concoction of soup, a combination of vegetables, beans, spices and a zillion herbs. The aroma of the soup quickly filled the small office.
“Anybody want some?” she offered, holding the large thermos out to the group, as she did ever day. Once they had succumbed and tried it. No one had taken up
her offer again. The taste of the overly spicy stuff still lingered in his memory.
“No thanks,” they said in unison, s
ettling for their usual, if boring, lunches.
“The mural painting went so well this morning,”
said Miss Gracie. My students get their seat work done in half the time, knowing they have to be on target to get to spend time with their “Big Buddies”.”
“The mural isn’t half bad,” offered Mr. Andy with a mouthful of hoagie. “Better than graffiti or tagging on the walls.
My class wants to know what they are going to do next. Are we painting something? I don’t know how to paint.”
laughed the sound like music. “We’ll see. Glad we have so many artists around here. Projects are good. Gives them a sense of ownership.”
“I’m so pleased with how everything is
flowing here these past weeks,” said Miss Gracie. “Can you feel it? There is such a good feeling. Makes me happy to come to work.”
Andy grinned, raising a hand into the air. “I vote for the good feeling too. And all the new ideas. I have absolutely no new ideas, but I can sure help implement other people’s brainstorms! And all the kids are doing well.”
Daisy frowned, listening to his comment. “I’m glad things are good. But in my case, it’s not ALL the students. My student, Alexandra, has yet to say a word. I’m not giving up on her.”
nodded, running a hand through his hair. “I know you’ve wanted to hold back on reading the students’ files until you’ve gotten to know them, and I respect that. But maybe in this case, you need to know her history.”
Daisy looked deep in thought, staring at the wall across the room. “We all have history, all have experiences that shape us. I think it’s so much more important where we go next, than it is where we’ve come from. But maybe you’re right. I’ll take the file.”
Ben slid open his desk drawer silently, and handed her a pale blue file folder. With a nod, Daisy took it and slid it into her backpack. She’s read it later, and see if it gave insights to tiny, shy , Alexandra, helped her come up with ideas to bring some joy to her sad little face. Sometimes the past was so dramatic, it turned a person’s world upside down, changed a person’s perspective and path. And she ought to know. Daisy took a deep breath, willing away feelings that threatened to emerge, feelings she kept deep, deep down inside. In a few long seconds, her world righted again. Today was fine. All was well in this day, in this place. She turned her attention back to the meeting.
“Well, I hope you’ll all like the next project
we’re committed to?” Ben began, pulling out a flyer from the pile on his desk. “This will be a new event for New Horizons, but one I hope can be a tradition. This has been an exciting fall, and winter and the holidays are here! “
up the flyer. On paper decorated with red and green Christmas bows, he had printed a message, and read it out loud. “You are cordially invited to the New Horizons School Christmas Pageant, December 18
at six PM in the evening, at our school hall, Lower Level.”
“A Christmas Pageant!” exclaimed
Miss Gracie, clapping her plump pink hands together. “How wonderful! Yes, we can do it.”
With your piano p
laying, we’ll have all the music we need to make it a great success. And the children will love it. There’s nothing like the Christmas spirit,” Ben said, rubbing his hands together.
“No talent at all here,” chuckled Andy. “But I can do scenery and props. O
r be a gofer. Count me in. Where are we distributing the flyer? Is this thing going to be for the public?”
Ben nodded, glad for Gracie’s and Andy’s enthusiasm, but astutely aware that the color had drained from Daisy’s face, and that her normally animated features were frozen in place. What had caused this reaction?
“Yes,” he answered Andy, not taking his eyes from Daisy’s face. “I thought we’d invite the neighborhood, start to be a positive and contributing part of the community. The kids are all showing great behavior, we’re thriving, it’s about time we introduced ourselves in the area. And Christmas spirit is great.”
Esmerelda spoke up. “I’ll do some posters, and
the programs, and help get the word around. That is, if we’re all committed to this?” She too was looking at Daisy, who still hadn’t uttered a word.
“Daisy, you haven’t said what you think about this project. Are you in? Ready for some Christmas cheer? We sure need you
r creative help.” Ben asked in an even voice, though he knew his heart was racing in his chest. Something was wrong. Daisy’s stillness was just not right.
There was a long moment of silence. The Daisy stood up, slowly putting on the lid to her thermos
, not meeting Ben’s eyes. Or anyone else’s, for that matter.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said, her voice coming out only a little more than a whisper. “I think I need to skip this one. Count me in for anything else. But not Christmas. I just don’t do Christmas.”
And without another word, she slipped out the door, the only sound the soft padding of her footsteps as she ran up the steps toward her empty classroom.
A Christmas Pageant. Tears swirled in Daisy’s eyes, threatening to fall. Her breathing was shallow and felt almost painful, as if her lungs were pressing against her ribs. She could feel her pulse throbbing, feel the blood racing through her veins. “Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out,” she chanted to herself. “This will pass. Just breathe. Just breathe.”
She almost fell into her classroom, grateful for the emptiness of the room, the cherished minutes she had before her students came back upstairs from their lunch break. She needed to calm down. Her ability to breathe would come back. And hopefully, the flashes of memory would go away.
It had been over five years, and still, the moments like this would come. Grief was a tricky thing. Would it ever pass? Would Christmas ever mean what it had before? Or would she ever be able to bear the thought of it? Christmas carols.. She glanced across the room at her guitar standing in its corner, as if calling her. She knew them all. She had loved them all. But now? She hadn’t sung a single one since that fateful day.
She and her parents had been heading to church, Christmas eve, and filled with the usual excitement of being part of the Christmas Choir. They had been singing together in the car as they drove along. Did the singing detract from her father’s concentration? If they had not been preoccupied with their songs and laughter, would he have seen the truck that bore down on them? Would either she or her mother have called out a warning?
Her teeth were chattering now, and she felt cold and clammy. The memories flooded over her. The bright lights, the horrible crash, the car flipping over, the screams. And then the blackness.
She had lost the things that had
mattered the most in the world to her on that night.When she awoke in the hospital the next day, she learned she was lucky to be alive. But she had lost both her mother and her father. And with that loss, she had lost the ability to even tolerate the idea of Christmas, let alone celebrate it.
She wrapped her arms around herself, forcing herself to breath
e evenly, counting to distract herself, to still the shivering. Daisy had trained herself to do it. And it passed, feelings and memories, as they usually did, in a few minutes, tucked back away in her mind. The students would be arriving in a minute, and they would find her calm, happy, and ready for a good afternoon.
Like usual, her students, and her mission to teach would restore her equilibrium. Daisy was full of resolve. She’d have to make Ben understand, no matter how disappointed he was in her. She didn’t want to dull the wonderful sparkle in his eyes as he spoke of his project. She wanted to make him smile. But she didn’t have a choice. Daisy
would do just about anything, within reason, for this new school and the students she had already come to love. But not Christmas. She wouldn’t do Christmas.
Ben followed Daisy up the steps, the meeting coming to an abrupt ending with her unexpected reaction. He’d left Andy, Gracie and Esmerelda
whispering together. Nothing else mattered to him at the moment. He wished he could go back in time, take back the simple words that had stolen the smile from her face and the light from her eyes. But he had a feeling that option was not possible. He had seen that bleak look, and it had come from somewhere deep inside.
His heart was hammering as he reached the top step, not from exertion, but from anxiety. He stood for a moment outside her door, listening. There was no sound, no hint that Daisy was inside, even though he was sure she was. Did he barge in, ask his questions, try to make things right?
With hurricane force, the feelings that had been building for her in the past weeks swept over him. He’d been pushing those emotions away, knowing she wouldn’t welcome them. And who wouldn’t love her, this flash of light and love and energy that brought joy into every room she entered?
Yet his words and plans had squashed that enthusiasm. He had caused her such pain, and he had no clue as to why.
While every fiber of his being wanted to fix it, to take her in his arms and promise her all would be ok, he knew it would be a mistake. Her reaction had been so different from anything any of them had seen. His instincts told him it was better if she had the time to calm and settle herself.
So he turned away, even though he didn’t want to. In the short time he had known her, he knew she was a teacher
, through and through. By the time the students returned, it would be business as usual. For her, maybe. But not for him. There was pain in his chest at the thought of hurting her, and the frustration of not knowing why.
By the time he arrived back at his office, he could hear the student
s downstairs lining up. The lunch break was over.
Over his confused thoughts, he heard the sound of a ringing phone, then Esmerelda’s cheerful voice, “Good afternoon, New Horizons School. This is Miss
Esmerelda. How can I help you today?”
Seconds later, the buzzer on his desk made him focus.
Esmerelda’s voice came over the desk intercom. “It’s Mr. Hugh Highfield, from the board of corporations that keeps us floating. He’s calling to check up on Daisy. Want to take it?”
he said. “Thanks.”
Hugh Highfield had a strong low voice tha
t commanded attention. Though Ben had never met him in person, it was clear from the strength of his voice that he was a man who was a leader, a man who got things done.
“Wilson!” exclaimed the rumbling voice. “I’m just checking in to see how our young Daisy is settling in at New Horizons. What’s your opinion so far?”
Ben grimaced, thinking of her stricken face only a short time ago. But the rest of the time, he would have only one answer, so he decided to go with it.
“She’s an amazing young woman, Mr. Highfield. Creative and dedicated. I can’t even begin to explain the great energy she’s brought to the school
.” And to me
, his brain added, though he kept those thoughts to himself.
“Good, good,” barked Hugh Highfield, “I’m delighted to hear that. I know her strengths and talents are spectacular, but it IS the holiday season, and that can be tough on her, as I’m sure you know.”
Know? What was there to know? He had seen firsthand how she had shut down in the meeting about the pageant. Was it about Christmas? He needed to know. He wanted to know.
His voice was even and calm, though his feelings inside were far different. His stomach churned like a gristmill, he was gripping the phone as if it was likely to fly across the room if he didn’t hold on.
“Maybe you can help me here, Mr. Highfield. What is it about the holiday season? I have to admit I know nothing of Daisy’s past, and she’s pretty closemouthed about it. Though I have noticed about Christmas. Not that I’m prying..”
“No, of course not. I know you are a dedicated professional, Wilson. I can’t say I’m surprised she hasn’t shared this. After all, she was in Africa for the past several years, ever since it happened. Ch
ristmas was tough enough there, but this is the first time she’ll be facing it here in this country, with all the American traditions and trappings. Bound to be some snags. Not that I can blame her.”
Ben’s pulse quickened. Could anything make the man get to the point? “What happened, Mr. Highfield?”
Christmas Eve, several years back. Daisy’s father was a minister in their California church, and her mom the Music Director. Daisy was almost finished college. They were heading to the church for the Christmas Pageant when the accident occurred. A loaded 18 wheeler plowed right into them. It was an awful tragedy, and all over the news. It was actually how I got to know Daisy Donovan. I’m in shipping myself. My corporation has fleets of trucks nationwide, and we live in fear of such accidents. It wasn’t one of my trucks, but I felt the pain of it, and I followed the news, because it struck a nerve.”
“Was she injured? She seems fine today,” said Ben.
“Miraculously, other than being banged around, she escaped unharmed. At least physically. But her parents were both instantly killed, as was the driver of the truck. Very sad affair. Emotionally, she took it really hard.”
“That’s awful”. Ben’s heart was filled with compassion and concern. No wonder the idea of a Christm
as pageant had sent her over the edge.
“But if you say she’s doing well, perhaps she’s finally healing from that pain.” Hugh Highfield said, his voice sounding thoughtful.
“Well, maybe not,” admitted Ben quietly. “We’ve only just begun talking about Christmas here. It’s clear it’s not her favorite topic. Though some people are just not religious, and have a different point of view.”
“Oh no,” broke in the older man. “This young woman was evidently Christmas personified, totally filled with the spirit in the past, from what I hear. She’s a giving, loving young woman, and I hope one day things get into perspective.”
Ben’s mouth tightened, and he felt incredibly sad. “Well, I’ll hope for that too, Mr. Highfield. I appreciated knowing the history. In a very short time, she’s become a vital part of New Horizons. As have you,” he added. “Your support and contributions mean a lot to a lot of students here.”
“Makes me happy to hear that, young man. It was one of my daughters who made me see how important it was to support good causes that help young people, like New Horizons, and like the missionary organizations that sponsored Daisy in her teaching in Africa.”
“It sounds like she loved Africa, loved the school.”
“She was amazing. But it was time to come home, and when I heard
she was coming stateside, and didn’t have a plan of what to do next, I thought of you. There’s no way she would go back to California. Didn’t want the memories. She’s a very special young woman, and it eases my mind that this is working out. You let me know if I can help in any way, both in regards to Daisy, or for your school in general. And one day, I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to see you in action.”
“That would be terrific, Mr. Highfield. An honor. And thanks for your concern.”
Ben sat staring at the wall for several minutes after the phone call. A Christmas tragedy. What could he do to help her? One way or another, they could and would do the pageant without her help. He could protect her from responsibility for the show, but not from exposure. You couldn’t avoid it, in a place this small. Even if he cancelled the pageant, he sure couldn’t cancel Christmas!
Lunch was over, the kids had retu
rned to their classrooms. And echoing through the building, the voices of the primary class could be heard singing. “Silent Night, Holy Night..” He imagined her reaction, each happy note sung, hitting like a dagger, stirring up old brutal memories, sights, sounds, and loss. He felt sick.