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You forged my signature? You're only eight years old!"
Nick Tulane shifted his butt on a child's chair five sizes too small for his six-foot-three frame and stared down at the top of his son's head. Talk about déjà vu. How many times had he been the kid sitting there beside his dad, head bent low, waiting for the bad news to be delivered?
The other kids in Matt's class had left fifteen minutes earlier, filing out of the room with their backpacks and bags in tow, all of them chattering, yelling. Laughing. But Matt wasn't laughing. And that, more than anything, cemented the truth in Nick's mind. His son had actually
"I didn't mean toI just did. The teacher didn't say anything."
"So you thought you were going to get away with it?"
The knot in Nick's stomach tightened. Matt's voice trembled, but there was something more there. And whatever it was, whatever reason Matt had for doing such a thing, it was big. Why else would the counselor have called both of Nick's businesses in order to track him down and set up a mandatory meeting on the last day of school? "What was in the note? Did you play a prank on the teacher?"
Following in your footsteps already, eh, Nick?
In his head, his father's voice mocked him. Said scenes like this were the first of many paybacks he'd receive for all the problems he'd caused his parents when he was growing up. "What did the note say?"
A big, fat tear rolled down Matt's cheek and fell onto his hand. Matt wiped it on his cupcake- and juice-stained shorts. "Just stuff."
"Yeah, I got that. But why didn't you give it to me?"
"Because I didn't want you to know."
"Know what?What did" He reined in his anger and forced himself to soften his tone. "What did your teacher say when she didn't hear from me?" Nick was not his father's son. He flat out refused to yell and shout at Matt, when the kid was already terrified. What's done is done, as Nick's grandfather always used to say.
Nick was twelve the first time he'd altered his grade on a school paper, having wised up by then to the fact that it would buy him some time and delay punishment. But for Matt to be doing this stuff at eight ? Not good.
"It wasn't her. We had a substitute. A lot of 'em, 'cause Mrs. Reeder got sick and had to leave. Remember?"
Vaguely. Nick waited for his son to continue, his heart pumping so loud he could hear the blood roaring in his ears. Damn. He should've been paying more attention. But the boy had seemed to be handling school okay. Did he need to go through Matt's backpack every night? "How'd you do it?"
"I copied your name from one of your work papers. I said you were too busy to come in, but that you'd come in later."
"And the substitute bought that?" How naive were these teachersshe couldn't tell the difference in handwriting? Granted, his signature wasn't much more than a capital T and a scrawl, but still Nick struggled to remain even-tempered. "You haven't told me why." He rubbed a hand over his mouth and chin, the rough stubble reminding him he'd forgotten to shave this morning because he'd been in such a hurry to get Matt to school and himself to work. "What's so bad that you didn't want me to know about it?"
Had his father felt this way? Was that why Alan Tulane had always ripped the air blue when Nick had been in trouble? Because here and now Nick felt like a total loser of a parent. How many men had an eight-year-old con man for a son?
"Just stuff. You were supposed to sign my homework and test papers. I thought I'd do better. Honest, Dad. I didn't want you to worry or"
Matt sniffled loudly. "I didn't want you to be mad or, you know, disappointed."
Nick's anger deflated in an instant. Of all the things Matt could have said, he'd just hit his father where it hurt most. Disappointing a parent was something Nick identified with all too well. "You can come to me about anything. I thought you knew that."
A shrug was his answer. A loud and clear no.
"Well, you should know that," he said, nudging Matt with his elbow. "We stick together, right? Just us bachelors."
Matt gulped and wiped his wet cheeks with a sticky hand. "I tried really hard. I thought I'd do better. I'm sorry, Dad."
The words, Matt's tone, were painfully sincere. "You should be sorry. What you did was wrong. But let's take this one step at a time, okay? From what I gather, they don't know you forged my signature on those papers. All they know is that I didn't show up to talk to them, right? Since they don't know what you did, I think maybe we won't tell them."
"We'll handle that between us," he promised. "But"
The classroom door swung open. "Mr. Tulane, thank you for coming."
Nick pushed himself to his feet and shook hands with the woman who must be the school counselor. Mr. Keener, the principal, came next. Nick remained standing while the two seated themselves, then reluctantly returned to his uncomfortable chair.
"I'm Mrs. Chambers, and I understand you already know Mr. Keener?"
Nick nodded. "Nice to see you again, Mr. Keener. I've been helping Uncle C. out at the Coyote, and we got a great shipment of steaks in last night. You'll have to stop by."
The balding man perked up at the mention of his favorite meal. "I'll do that," he said, patting his protruding stomach. The counselor glanced at her watch pointedly and Keener cleared his throat. "Well, uh, Nick, I'm sure you need to get back to work so how 'bout we get down to why we asked you here? Mrs. Chambers will go over the situation for us, since we're without a regular classroom teacher for Matt."
Nick glanced down at Matt. "Shouldn't we talk privately?"
The woman shifted in her seat, her gaze not quite meeting his. "There are times when we feel it best if the student is involved in the decision-making process, and this is one of those occasions. Mr. Tulane, we're sorry for calling you in on such short notice but when it came to our attention that the letter Mrs. Reeder had sent home some time ago wasn't followed up on and the postponed meeting hadn't been rescheduled, well It is the last day of school. All I can do is apologize on the school's behalf for our mistake. I hope you'll support the suggestions we're about to make. Matt has had a bit of a rough year, but he'll continue on to the fourth grade in the fall."
Matt's head snapped up, his expression so relieved it brought a lump to Nick's throat. His son couldn't have flunked the school year without Nick knowing. Could he? Just how many papers and notes had Matt kept to himself?
"But in order for Matt to stay current," Mrs. Chambers added after a slight pause, "we'd like him to join us for summer school."
Nick hushed Matt with a look his son instantly obeyed. Yet another indication of the trouble that Matt already knew he was in.
"While your son's grades have always fluctuated, in Mrs. Reeder's absence Matt has truly struggled. Thus the note requesting a meeting with you, and the request for you to sign Matt's homework papers. It was a way to keep you informed of his progress."
"I see." He hadn't signed any papers, not a single one. Meaning Matt had? Nick fidgeted, his toes tingling from cutoff circulation.
"We're to blame, too, Mr. Tulane. We do hope you understand this is an unusual situation and not the norm for our school. We want all our children to grow and prosper here at Beauty Elementary, and as I said, we take partial blame for failing to reschedule the meeting."
Nick wanted to tell her to skip the B.S., but was afraid to open his mouth. He reminded himself that he had worked hard to not behave like his father, who would have jumped to his feet and exploded in a fury long before now.
"Again, I want to stress the importance of your support, Mr. Tulane. We realize it may be an inconvenience, but we strongly recommend it for Matt. Even though" she paused here "we have no way of actively enforcing his participation. Summer school is voluntary, and parental cooperation is key."
"Why am I getting the feeling this is about more than a few papers?"
Mr. Keener cleared his throat and stood. "Matt? Why don't you come with me? We'll go see how many of the teachers are left sorting out their rooms and get something to drink."
Matt obediently rose and headed for the door, glancing over his shoulder at his dad. The expression on his face was like a punch in the gut to Nick. "What's going on?" he demanded the moment the door closed. "Why does Matt need summer school?"
The counselor inhaled then sighed. "First off, we recommend summer school to all of our students as a way of retaining what they've been taught during the school year. For the students who've done poorly in class or for those who didn't perform well on the standardized tests, we find it's crucial to keeping up. Before I get into the details, the school asks that the parents not disclose test scores to the child because of emotional problems that can arise in relation to self-esteem. We don't want Matt comparing himself to his peers. Every child is different and we realize that."
"Understood. How low were they?"
"Matt will not be held back," she repeated as though reading from a school administrators' handbook. "With No Child Left Behind, we acknowledge there are social aspects to consider, as well as Matt's emotional well-being, and summer school is a wonderful opportunity for him to catch up before he enters fourth grade and takes the required tests again."
"Mrs. Chambers, exactly how bad were Matt's scores?"
She avoided making direct eye contact. "On top of his poor scores in the classroom, Matt failed both portions of the standardized test." Sliding a page from her folder closer to him, she pointed to a percentage and a graph. "Here are the average scores. The country's, the state's, the school's and Matt's."
Damn. He'd had a dull headache before entering the school, and now between the fluorescent lights and the coun-selor's words, the ache turned into a full-blown pounding. He rubbed his eyes and tried to focus on the numbers, wishing he could don his sunglasses and pretend he was anywhere but there. "I see."
"Let me assure you, Mr. Tulane, we're going to do everything we can to help Matt."
The classroom door opened and Mr. Keener assessed the situation with a glance. The counselor gave him a discreet nod and closed her file folder, and the principal and Matt stepped inside. Matt walked over and slumped into his seat, the water bottle in his hand unopened.
Mr. Keener drew their attention. Nick noted that the older man focused on Matt, his expression kindly. "Don't be too upset about this, Matt. It's a good opportunity, not a bad thing. And we'll have fun here over the summer, too."
"What about Matt's friends?" Nick asked, hoping to find a positive. "Maybe some of them are going to be here? Did any of his classmates " His words trailed to a halt when a sweeping glance at the two school officials made him realize Matt was the only kid in his class who had done so badly he'd pretty much failed.
"We never know who'll take advantage of the summer-school program," Mrs. Chambers said carefully, her unblinking look laced with meaning. "Matt's friends could attend, but as yet I don't believe any of them have been registered."
Matt shook his head firmly back and forth. "They're not coming. Nobody wants to come if they don't have to."
Nick cleared his throat and scooted back from the table to stretch out his legs, unable to breathe any longer with his knees against his chest. "Who teaches summer school?"
There were questions he needed to ask. Things he needed to understand. Matt really was following in his footsteps, although much sooner than Nick might have expected.
"Marcy Woodard," Mr. Keener informed him. "She's taught here for several years now, and she's a wonderful teacher."
"Matt might also benefit from a tutor," the counselor added.
"The teacher can't teach him? Isn't that the point of Matt attending these classes?" Whoa, sounding like the old man there, Nick.
The woman squirmed. "The number of teachers involved in the program depends on the number of students who sign up to attend. Right now, Ms. Woodard will be teaching all the students from first to third grade. As one of the oldest children in the class, Matt could very well find himself left largely to his own devices."
"Then why bother making him go at all, if the teacher isn't going to be able to focus on what he needs to learn?" What kind of lame joke was that? Make the kid go through summer school for nothing?
"Are you suggesting an alternative?" The counselor slid an awkward glance in Mr. Keener's direction.
Nick took a calming breath and looked down to see Matt rubbing the toe of one battered and wheel-less Heelys shoe against the other in agitation. The back of his neck was blood-red and he was having a hard time controlling his tears.
Nick's elbows dug into his thighs. "If I take on the expense of hiring a tutor, why would Matt need to attend summer school? Why not just hire a teacher myself, who would focus entirely on Matt and get him on track?"
The counselor seemed surprised that he'd made the suggestion, as if she wasn't used to parents cooperating. That might have been true with some of them, but Nick didn't want Matt going through what he'd experienced growing up.
"That would be wonderful."
"Then Matt wouldn't have to attend summer school?"
Hope radiated from Matt's red-rimmed eyes. "Please, Dad?"
All three turned to stare at Principal Keener. "One-on-one attention is always best."
Mrs. Chambers cleared her throat, the little lines forming around her mouth as she did so, giving her a lemon-pucker expression. "That does indeed sound like a wonderful idea, Mr. Tulane. However, as good as the plan is, your difficulty will be finding a qualified person willing to take on a summer-long position. Hiring a college student as a summer tutor is one thing, but hiring a certified teacher is quite another. And the cost may be an issue.