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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by kerry blair on 23 May 2007 - 11:59am. |

Chapter 4

“Ink-pitcher!” cried the pen
“Writing stick!” retorted the inkstand.
And each of them felt satisfied that he had given a good answer.
(The Pen and the Inkstand, 1838)

“I need a favor, Libby.” Max Wheeler laid his age-spotted hand next to the pot of jasmine on her desk. It was lunch hour on Thursday afternoon, and the sound of children playing carried through the open windows, making Libby wish she were outside with them as usual. “It’s a big favor.

Libby looked up and noted that the twinkle in his eye belied his words of caution. “For you Max, anything.”

“Good. I want you to go into Captain Rogers’s classroom this afternoon to—”

“No.” She looked resolutely down at the catalogue that lay open before her. “I’m busy. We need new encyclopedias.” She circled a set—perhaps the only ones still being bound in this age of CDs and wide Internet access. Her company was on the cutting edge of cyber-technology, but Libby valued words on a page she could touch and turn with her fingers.

Max began again. “Captain Rogers has got to be one of the world’s worst teachers.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Libby said without inflection. “Fire him.”

“There’s nobody to replace him with and you know it.”

She knew, too, that Max liked the man. It was the only real lapse of good judgment she’d ever noted in him.

“He’s a nice enough guy,” Max continued as if reading her thoughts. “The kids like him. He’ll be okay once he knows what he’s doing. He just needs a little nudge in the right direction.”

“Ask Shenla to nudge him. I’ll take her class.”

Max shook his shaggy head. “It’s the second day of school, Lib. Shenla needs to hit her stride with her own kids.”

Libby turned another page and circled an atlas. “’Hit her stride?’ Shenla taught those children’s parents. She probably taught their grandparents!”

“Precisely,” Max said, trying another tack. “She’d overwhelm poor Captain Rogers with her experience.”

“Max,” Libby said firmly, “no.”

The old man shrugged his shoulders in defeat and turned toward the door. “Fine. Keep hiding behind your stacks of books. If pride is more important to you than—”

“Pride!” Libby exclaimed. “Surely you don’t think—” Words were lost in her indignation. “I am not hiding from Captain Rogers!”

Am I? She looked down at the catalogue but didn’t see it. Instead she saw herself hurrying across the playground in the mornings instead of playing her usual game of tetherball with the girls, and then saw herself eating lunch alone in the library instead of in the workroom with the rest of the faculty. Why?

Because I’m busy, of course, she told herself. She certainly wasn’t afraid to face David Rogers. She’d been called worse than a snow queen by a competitor—in the headlines of The Wall Street Journal, no less. She’d been called worse by the detectives she’d hounded to solve her parents’ murder. Even her ex-fiancé had called her worse—often, and in public. Why, then, had two little offhand words from a stranger cut so deeply? Only because she’d let them. And she’d let them because she feared they were true. What if she never could trust another man after Karl?

Above all else, Libby hated her insecurities to show. And they must show now or Max wouldn’t be here. He didn’t ask her to trust Captain Rogers, after all. He didn’t ask her to date him. He only asked her to help him with his class.

“I’ll help Captain Rogers with his class,” she said.

“That’s my girl! Could you go now? I think he’s having a little trouble teaching math.”

Libby saw from the open door to his classroom that Captain Rogers didn’t have any trouble that a little simplification and a fully-equipped riot squad couldn’t solve. He stood at the blackboard with his back to the class, apparently outlining the theory of relativity. While he scribbled equations and talked (to himself), the class hollered back and forth, wrote notes, and tossed spit wads.

Libby cleared her throat. Then she rapped on the door frame. Finally she raised two fingers to her lips and whistled like a riot cop. Twenty surprised faces turned toward her. The noise and notes and spit wads disappeared.

“Good afternoon,” she said as she walked into the now-quiet room. She gathered a stack of books from the shelf and carried them to the front as if her sudden appearance were part of the daily routine. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

David lowered the hand that held the chalk. “Uh, no,” he said. “They were finished with math a long time ago.”

She couldn’t help but notice that the embarrassment on his face was mixed with relief. She set the books atop his bare desk. Almost bare desk. Somebody had brought him a half-dozen crab apples from the tree at the edge of the school yard. Or, more likely, somebody had brought them to throw at his classmates and David had intercepted them one by one.

She turned to the class. “Mr. Wheeler suggested that since you’re sixth- graders now, it’s time you learn library science. We’ll begin with spelling.”

“Is that what ‘library science’ is, Miss James?” a boy called out.

“We raise our hands in class, Calvin,” Libby said. “And, yes, spelling is the root of library science. How can you look up a book if you can’t spell the words in the title?” She rewarded the few bobbing heads with a warm smile and the rest of the children nodded too. “Take out your workbooks please.”

A hand shot up. “We haven’t got any paper or pencils, Miss James.”

David soon realized that not knowing he had a cupboard full of supplies was only the first of his failings. He watched Libby issue materials with a proficiency that would put a naval commissary to shame, then took mental notes as she taught spelling. His confidence began to grow. Teaching wasn’t as hard as he’d thought. In fact, Libby made it look easy. By the time the lesson ended, he had mostly forgotten his failings, but when she mentioned history he gulped. With luck, none of the kids had listened to this morning’s lesson.

He wasn’t lucky. Libby wasn’t the only traitor in residence. Amen School was full of them.

“Captain Rogers said that history is ‘vastly overrated,’” a girl—David didn’t know who, but would when he started using Libby’s new seating chart—volunteered. “What did he mean, Miss James?”

“I meant—” David began.

“That it’s all in the way you approach it?” Libby asked.

David hesitated, unable to look away from her pretty, faintly accusing face.
“Okay,” he said at last.

“You’re studying American history this year,” Libby told the class as she turned away from their teacher. “It can be fun.” She considered, then opened the history book. “Perhaps you could study transportation—the way people have moved from place to place over the years.” She showed a picture of the Santa Maria. “You could learn about sailing ships first and later Conestoga wagons and steam engines and—yes, Calvin?”

The boy’s eyes were bright. “Can we learn about space shuttles?”

“Yes,” Libby said. “Finally you could learn about space shuttles.” She glanced at Captain Rogers. “And since you have your own expert here, you can study space in science, too. There’s a long section on astronomy in your books.”

“There is?” David asked.

“Yes. And you can check science fiction out from the library to read when you study English.”

David was as pleased as the kids. Issac Asimov beat Emily Dickinson by a moon shot. After he’d told them yesterday that her sonnets could be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” the lesson had gone quickly downhill. But now there was hope on the horizon. And if things ever got really out of hand again, there was always “library science” to fall back on.

When the final bell rang more than an hour later, David looked up at the clock in surprise. The morning had seemed to last six and a half days, but the afternoon had evaporated. He expected Libby to leave with more alacrity than the kids, and was surprised and pleased when she lingered in front of the cupboards. He walked over to thank her.

“Max sent me.”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that her earlier sociability had gone home with the children. He watched her pull out a stapler, scissors, and a long roll of black paper. “I appreciate your help,” he said. “I’m not much of a teacher.”

“Then why are you here?”

He stepped back. “I, uh…NASA sent me.”

“Why you?”

After Monday’s fiasco, she probably would believe he’d been sent to charm her, even if he told her the truth, which of course he wouldn’t. “I’ve been grounded since my space walk,” he said, reciting the CIA script. “It was either Teach for America or man a desk for NASA. I chose the lesser of two evils.” He smiled ruefully. “Or I thought I had.”

He was ready with more of the almost-true explanation, but Libby didn’t ask for it. Instead, she stuck the paper under her arm without further comment and carried it across the room to the bare bulletin board. He watched her unroll and cut the paper and tried not to stare at her legs when she kicked off her sandals and climbed atop a desk to staple the paper into place. Despite the incredible view, his conscience got the best of him. “Why don’t you let me to that?”

She climbed down silently, handed him the stapler, and returned to the cupboard. A moment or two later, feeling his eyes on her back, she turned. “You can cover a bulletin board, can’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Sure.” It wasn’t too difficult. The bulges were hardly noticeable when he finished.

In the meantime, Libby had produced a veritable milky way of yellow and white stars. “It’s a progress chart,” she said as she climbed back up on the desk to staple stars over the worst of the wrinkles in the paper.

“A what?”

She turned and leaned against the board. She was infinitely patient with dense children, he’d observed. She was undoubtedly kind to dumb animals. But thick-headed “astro-nots” were clearly in another category. “Surely you went to elementary school. You must remember something about sixth grade.”

“I remember a few things,” he shot back. “I remember that we stood at attention at the blackboard to do math and that we did thirty push-ups for every problem we got wrong.” He didn’t know why he was telling her this, but couldn’t seem to stop the stream of words. “And I remember every latrine I scrubbed for forgetting to end a phrase with ‘yes, sir,’ and every lap I ran in the snow for lousy penmanship. I went to military school,” he concluded, as if it might explain both his outburst and incompetence.

“I went to an upscale boarding school,” she replied.

David couldn’t define the look that came over Libby’s face with their shared confessions. He could only catch his breath at the beauty of it.

She lifted her shapely shoulders. “I think my school was a lot like yours except our uniforms were chic and we did declinations of Latin verbs for rule violation.”

“I’d rather clean latrines.”

Libby’s lips parted in what could only be a smile; then, as if remembering herself, she turned back to staple up another astral cutout. “Ad astra per aspera,” she said. “That’s Latin for ‘To the stars by hard means.’ It was our headmistress’s favorite expression.”

It was also, David thought, a fitting motto for his life; he’d have to remember it. As he handed Libby stars he wished he knew what to say to return them to that flash of near-intimacy. But the moment had passed, if indeed it had ever existed.

He listened as Libby explained the use of the progress chart as she worked on it. Then she instructed him on class discipline and suggested a lesson plan for the next several weeks.

The bulletin board at last complete, Libby began to climb down. David reached out automatically to help her and, when she drew back, felt as if he’d been slapped. “Excuse me,” he said. The tightness in his throat felt like rejection but it came out as sarcasm. “I’ve been reading your book of fairy tales. I must have forgotten for a moment that we swineherds aren’t supposed to soil the lily-white fingers of you snow queens.” He crossed his arms and took a step back. “Do you mind if I breathe in your presence?”

Libby pushed the desk she’d been standing on in line with the others, squarely between them, and right into his leg. “I don’t care what you do, Captain Rogers,” she said. “But I wish you’d go back to outer space to do it.”
Even while nursing the pain in his shin, David admired the way Libby’s silky hair brushed her shoulders as she spun on her heels. “Why are you so anxious to get rid of me?” he asked as she reached the door. “Are you afraid you’ll melt when I do touch you?”

The gust of air she created by slamming the door behind her blew the carefully stacked spelling papers to the floor, but didn’t dispel the scent of vanilla and wildflowers she’d left behind. It was as unmistakable to his senses as the clear, perfect penmanship she’d left on his chalkboard.

As he moved to pick up the papers, David caught a glimpse through the window of Libby stalking back toward her library. He paused to watch the woman he’d been sent to spy on and berated himself for letting his mouth again take over for his brain. He was supposed to be gaining her trust, not her loathing. What was his problem? Could it be the woman herself? Who was this woman that could beguile children, create order from chaos, and disconcert him more than he liked to admit?

“A traitor,” he told himself. “That’s what she is, Rogers, and you’d better not forget it.”

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I have to say I love your

I have to say I love your sense of humor and you have really captured the way these two characters might interact if they were real. The tension is almost tangible, as well as the underlying fears and reservations. Masterfully done. Bravo! Makes me want to read the remaining chapters.

Steven O'Dell

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