Read an Excerpt
Back to School
Kim Matheny's alarm screamed in her ears. Although she knew it was time to get up, the thirty-five year-old kindergarten teacher lay motionless, head still swimming from the recent turn of events. It had been just seven days since she received the devastating news.
She had cancer.
She'd spent the previous week away from her classroom in a whirlwind of doctor visits, Internet research, and life-ordeath decisions. Today was Monday, and she was due back at school. Although she loved her students dearly, she could hardly bring herself to get out of bed, let alone face their questions about why she'd been gone, what was cancer, was she going to die.
Kim forced herself to sit up, knowing she had to keep moving to ward off the looming depression over her diagnosis. She never thought this could happen to her, reminded herself that no one ever does, and wondered how the kids would handle her illness.
Maybe another teacher would be better for them. No, I'd miss them too much. But what if teaching is more than I can handle right now? I need their cheery faces and sweet hugs. She plopped back down, thoughts racing and panic rising. What if they've already gotten used to the substitute and don't care if I come back? Kids forget quickly. Maybe I don't matter as much as I think -
“Stop it!” She scolded herself aloud. “Get a grip.” She slammed the snooze button again and let her arm just drop onto the nightstand. Her hand landed on a colorful note she had received the day before.
She picked it up and unfolded it again. The drawing was of a rainbow, a bright yellow sun, and two stick figures. The larger one was labeled “Ms. Mateny” and the smaller one “Me.” One figure's arm reached out toward the other's, and the two lines were joined at the bottom with one large, round scribble representing the holding of hands. Then, in purple crayon, “You briten my day, Ms. Mateny. I miss you. Come back soon.” It was signed “Luv, Macy.” Tears filled Kim's eyes. My kids need me. She got out of bed to get ready for school.
On the drive to Southwood Elementary, Kim thought of numerous ways to greet her class. Her usual song, “It's a beautiful day, it's a beautiful day, the birds are singing, let's shout hooray,” didn't seem fitting. The sun was shining and the birds were singing, but she just didn't think she could form those words on her lips today.
The thirty-minute drive and her walk to the classroom seemed to drift by in a fog. Kim usually was in high gear before class, adjusting the weather chart and setting out the first activity to make sure everything was ready when the students arrived. Today she sat at her desk, perfectly still except for the distracted tapping of her pencil on a stack of papers.
“Hi, Kim.” The sympathetic tone belonged to Sarah Richardson, who taught the first-grade class across the hall. “The children will be here shortly. If you need anything today, please come and get me.”
Kim looked at her friend nervously. “I don't know if I can do this.”
Sarah nodded assurance. “You'll make it. And like I said, I'm here if you need me.”
The kind support nearly shattered Kim's resolve not to cry, but she swallowed hard and blinked to clear her eyes.
One by one the children began arriving. Samuel, always eager for school, came running in first. “Ms. Matheny, what are we doing today?” It didn't seem he'd even noticed her week-long absence.
Kim was disappointed but tried not to let it show. “We have a lot planned for today. I'm so glad you're excited about school,” she said with all the enthusiasm she could muster. Her one buoy - the special place she thought she had in her students' hearts - was sinking fast. Had the children even missed her at all?
Nathan arrived next, clutching his mother's pant leg as he used to do. Kim had made such progress with him, but now he treated her like a stranger again. “He was like this all week last week,” Nathan's mother said. “Oh, Nathan.” Kim gently rubbed his back, trying to ease her own anxiety as much as his. Had she lost all the ground she had gained since the beginning of the school year? She just didn't have the heart to start over. “I'm so glad you're here. I sure need my little helper today.” Her voice quavered a little, and she stopped, afraid she'd be completely engulfed by discouragement.
Then, suddenly, Nathan released his mother's leg and turned for his teacher to pick him up. As Kim hugged him tightly, he whispered, “I'm so glad your back.”
Next came Sadie. She didn't say a word, but her dimples flashed as she embraced her teacher shyly before scurrying to her desk.
The rest of the class had arrived, but where was Macy? She usually arrived about twenty minutes early to help Kim by setting out scissors or crayons or whatever she asked her to do. Macy hadn't missed a day of school all year. She loved being there and always had a smile to share with a friend. Kim suddenly realized just how much she'd missed Macy's good cheer during the most difficult week of her life. She needed Macy to be there today.
Just as Kim was calling the class to attention, Macy walked into the classroom, slowly, with her head down. Not even a hint of the smile Kim so desperately needed. Her spirits sank to a new low. Was Macy not even happy to have her back? Near tears, Kim forced herself to try to sound cheery.
“Well, hello Macy!”
Macy jerked to attention, looking up for the first time since she'd entered the room.
“Ms. Matheny! It's you!” Macy squealed with delight, running to squeeze her teacher's leg as tightly as she could. “Of course, it's me,” Kim giggled, bending to return the hug and thank Macy for her wonderful note.
“I didn't think you were coming back.” Macy's eyes were as round and bright as the big yellow sun she had drawn on her picture.
“Yes, Macy, I'm back. I need you little munchkins. Did you miss me?” Kim asked hopefully.
Macy made a face and answered almost indignantly. “Yes! Who else would teach us to count, and write, and color?”
“Who'd teach us those silly songs?” another student joined in earnestly.
“Who would tell us who gets to be the line leader or the door holder? That other teacher didn't know anything about that,” Samuel added.
“I'm sure your substitute teacher was very good,” Kim protested - but not too strongly. She was enjoying this outpouring of affection.
“Not near as good as you,” Sadie countered.
“Yeah,” Macy said adamantly. “And no one can give as good hugs as you!”
At this the entire class ran to the front of the classroom, nearly tackling their beloved teacher as they jostled to get one of her warm hugs and to give one in return.
“Well!” Sarah interrupted from the doorway, smiling approvingly at her friend. “I guess you have everything under control.” Kim laughed. “I don't know about that. But I know this is exactly where I needed to be today. I think we'll be just fine.”
“I know you will,” Sarah responded confidently.