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Cassie Greaves felt the winter nip in the Conard County air as she left her small rental house to head for school. The rising sun to the east cast a buttery glow over the world, and the trees that had fully turned a few weeks ago were now shedding their brilliant cloaks, leaving behind gray, reaching fingers. She scuffed her feet through the dry leaves and almost laughed from the joy of it.
For much of her teaching career, all seven years of it, she had taught in much warmer climes, places where there might be only two seasons, or at most three. Part of what had drawn her here was winter, the idea of being cold, of needing to bundle up, and cozy evenings with a cup of something hot as she graded papers or read a book.
Having grown up in the Northeast, she had found a growing desire to need extra blankets at night, to awake some morning and hear the world hushed under a fresh snowfall.
As romantic as her image was, however, she also knew there would be parts she wouldn't exactly enjoy, but this morning she didn't want to think about them.
She wanted to think about that invigorating nip, the possibility of rediscovering her Nordic skis and the school she was coming to enjoy so much. It was smaller than she was used to, only eight hundred students in the entire high school. And even with budget cutbacks, her classes were smaller. It was easier to get to know her students, and she was beginning to recognize most of the faces that walked the hallways.
Hallways. Another thing she liked. At her last few schools, there had been no hallways, only covered walkways, which meant moving from an air-conditioned classroom out into the heat, only to walk into another air-conditioned classroom. At times that setup had its charms, but she actually liked having interior hallways again.
She smiled and hummed to herself as she walked the four blocks to the high school. There she taught math for all four grades, which gave her days quite a bit of variety.
It had also taught her some lessons. A lot of her students had no interest in advancing to college. They were planning to take over their parents' business or ranch and she had discovered a need to rewrite math problems in ways that seemed useful to them. Unlike some other places she had taught, many students here weren't content to just do the work because it was required.
Plus, in perfect honesty, the students' backgrounds encouraged her to find meaningful ways of phrasing problems because there was so much homogeneity in the things that concerned them. Her elementary algebra class didn't look blankly at her when she asked them to calculate the storage space needed for a certain number of bales of hay.
They went home, measured the balesround or oblong, dependingand gave her answers based on a practical exercise. Now how cool was that?
Discovering the volume of a grain silo, working with board feet of lumber, sketching out plans for a shed, figuring out how many acres of pasture for a herd of a certain sizeall those things enlivened them. Consequently she was discovering a new love for her subject herself.
Drawing in a deep breath of the chilly air, she decided this place was growing on her even more than she had hoped.
When she arrived on the campus, Lincoln Blair was standing outside. He was the football coach and science teacher, an absolute stud of a man who had so far remained reserved, even unapproachable, although everyone else seemed to like him a lot.
In her mind she had dubbed him "Studley Do-right" because he was appealing enough to make her constantly aware of him, sort of like an itch in her libido. He had dark hair, astonishingly bright blue eyes and there was something about him that always made her think he must have descended from a long line of Celtic warriors. Square-jawed, weathered a bit from sun and wind, with narrow hips he unconsciously canted in a way that made it impossible for a woman not to notice them.
She gathered from things the other teachers had said that he owned a ranch that had been in his family for generations, and he worked it as time allowed, which probably explained that weathered look. Regardless, while most of the teachers had certainly been welcoming enough, his air of reserve truly set him apart.
Not that she should probably blame him. She'd had enough experience with men who wanted nothing but a fling with her, and had concluded there must be something essentially wrong with her. On the other hand, she reminded herself that getting involved with a colleague was seldom wise, and in a small town like this, it might even be a wider problem if people noticed and started talking.
Nor was it as if he were the first man who had ever ignored her. Noticing him amounted to a recipe for grief, judging by her past experience.
He nodded as she approached and opened the door for her with a quiet good-morning, but didn't follow her in. She guessed he had bus duty, the job of standing outside to make sure that no one used the space and time between getting off the bus and through the doors to make trouble.
She tried to shake away thoughts of Lincoln Blair from her mind as she passed other teachers with cheery greetings and made her way to her desk. Unlike other schools where she had taught, she had her own classroom, which also provided her with an opportunity to personalize things. It felt nice to have a space where she could hang up posters or set out cool objects for the students to explore a bit. As much as possible she tried to apply math to real life because it was part of real life, an important part. The applications were just a bit different and more focused here.
She prepared her desk quickly, then stepped into the hall to monitor arriving students. This school still had homerooms, a place where students went to have their attendance recorded and hear morning announcements, something she hadn't seen since her own school days long ago. Then fifteen minutes later they moved on to their first classes.
In her last few schools, homeroom had been combined with the first class of the day. It might have cut down on movement, but inevitably it cut into the instructional hour one way or another.
Since it was Friday, her students were a little more restless and less focused than usual, their minds on the many things they had planned for the weekend. Or perhaps they were just thinking of escape into absolutely gorgeous weather.
Either way, she felt some fatigue by the time she was able to close her classroom for lunch. She didn't have cafeteria or study hall duty that day, so the teachers' lounge beckoned.
Bag lunch in hand, she entered the corridor flow as some students headed for the cafeteria and others to study hall.
The wing emptied swiftly and before she reached the end of the corridor she was alone. Or thought she was. As she turned a corner and passed the men's bathroom, she heard a shout that made her pause.
"Stop it! Just leave me alone!"
Without even hesitating, afraid that waiting for a male teacher to arrive could allow something bad to happen, she elbowed the door open.
The five students inside didn't even hear the door. The sight instantly disturbed her. She knew every school had its underside, but what she was seeing now horrified her.
One of her best math students, James Carney, was huddled in a corner on the floor, his arms protectively over his face. He was small for his years, and string-bean thin, and she'd already noticed he didn't seem to have many friends, if any.
Four boys stood around him, taunting him with names like nerd, jerk, girlie, sissy part of her was waiting to hear "fag," but that epithet didn't appear while she stood there taking in the scene.
She didn't need a mental map to know what was going on. Before she could react, two of the boys spat on James and she could tell that wasn't the first time.
Before the scene could get any uglier, she clapped her hands as loudly as she could and shouted, "Stop this now!"
Four startled faces turned her way. It took a little longer for James to lower his arms from his head.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" she demanded. "You shouldn't treat anyone like this, not anyone. Ever. But this is a violation of school policy. You know what the penalty is. James, are you all right?"
The youth jumped to his feet and hurried for the door. "I'm fine," he muttered as he rushed past her. "You're making it worse."
"Go to the nurse," she called after him before turning to face the four others. As the full impact of what she had just seen began to hit, she could feel herself roiling with anger. For long seconds she simply stared at the four young men who had been taunting James. Keep it cool, she reminded herself. It was important to stay calm and reasonable.
"Bullying," she said quietly, "is despicable. It shows you to be small men, not big ones. It isn't tolerated by school policy and you know it. You're coming to the principal with me."
"Make us," snarled one of them, then they all brushed past her, bumping her shoulder as they went, leaving her both livid and helpless. She couldn't run out into the hall after them, nor could she physically stop them.
But there was something she could do. She picked up her bagged lunch, tossed it in the trashshe didn't want to eat it after it had fallen to the bathroom floorand headed for the principal's office herself. None of this was going to be tolerated.
My God, James had looked as if he expected to be beaten or as if he had been. She just wished she had recognized the other four boys by name. Apparently they were in Teasdale's math classes. Gloria Teasdale was semire-tired, teaching only three classes a day. An elderly woman who wore too much perfume, she was sometimes the object of derogatory remarks from her students, but Cassie ignored the comments. Kids would talk about teachers outside the classroom, and she could see no point in stepping down on it. She was no martinet and she was equally certain some of her students had derogatory things to say about her. The nature of the beast, she thought with grim amusement.
But bullying was a whole different matter, damaging to the bullied student emotionally, if not physically, and most definitely against the school's conduct policies.
She reached the office and asked Marian, the front desk receptionist and secretary, to call the nurse's office and find out if James was okay. Then she joined the principal in his small office. He always ate lunch at his desk, eschewing both the teachers' lounge and the cafeteria.
Sometimes she thought of him as barricaded away from all the possible disturbances in a high school. At other times she thought he just felt like a fish out of water, not sure of his welcome even in the faculty lounge. Or maybe he just thought people would be more comfortable if he wasn't around. She didn't have a good read on him yet.
His round face smiled as he greeted her. He was about fifty pounds overweight, and his lunch consisted of a few slices of lean chicken over a bed of fresh vegetables. He had confided that he was dieting without much success. She looked at that lunch and felt a pang of sympathy.
"Still starving?" she asked him.
"Unfortunately. The doc says I've lost two pounds, though, so I guess it's working. Some days I'm not sure it's worth it."
"I can imagine."
He leaned back, ignoring the dry salad and chicken in front of him, a meal that cried out for a little salad dressing or mayonnaise to help it go down. "Is something wrong? You look disturbed." He waved her to the seat in front of his desk.
She sat, trying to gather her thoughts, trying to maintain a calm she was far from feeling. "I am upset," she admitted. "I saw an instance of bullying in the boys' room. I stopped it, but when I tried to bring the bullies to you, they told me I couldn't make them and they brushed past me. Les, you know bullying is a violation of the conduct code."
"How bad was it?"
"They were spitting on him and calling him names. He was cowering on the floor in a corner as if he expected to be hit or kicked."
He frowned. "That's bad. That's very bad. All of it. Who were they after?"
He shook his head. "I can't say I'm surprised. Some people just seem to draw that kind of attention."
"All it takes is being a little different."
"And James is certainly that. Smarter than most, small. Did you know he skipped a grade last year? I don't think that's helped him any but his parents and a committee of teachers felt we couldn't hold him back. Maybe we should have."
"We shouldn't have to," she argued, getting a little hot. "That boy should be free to move ahead if he's capable without four other boys attacking him for it."
Les nodded slowly. "Can you identify the bullies?"
"By face, not by name. They must be in Mrs. Teasdale's math classes."
"If they're still in math at all." He sighed. "How would you prefer to handle it?"
"The rules call for suspension," she reminded him. When he didn't answer immediately, she started to feel both annoyed and nervous. Surely he wasn't going to propose they simply ignore this?
Marian stuck her head in the door. "James Carney never went to the nurse." Then she popped out again.
"So he must be all right," Les remarked.
"That doesn't make this all go away!"
Les lifted his brows and held up a hand. "I didn't say that. I'm just relieved the Carney boy is okay."
"Physically okay," Cassie said almost sarcastically. "I'm sure I don't need to educate you on the other effects of bullying."
"Of course not." He sounded almost sharp. "I'm as well-informed as you on the subject. That's why it's against our code of conduct."
She tried to dial back her irritation. "I'm sorry. It just upset me, and then when they defied me that way, I got even more concerned. If they're not going to listen to a teacher, how are we going to stop this? And what are we going to do about it?"
Les leaned forward, shoving his lunch to one side. He rested his forearms on his desk. "I don't think suspensions would be prudent, not yet."
"What?" She was horrified and still sickened by what she had seen. "We can't just ignore this. And we can't ignore the rules if we expect them to have any force."
"Just hold on a minute and calm down a bit. I understand you're upset and I understand why. You have every reason to be upset. But this isn't a big-city school. I don't favor zero tolerance for a very good reason. Kids will be kids ."