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ON A COOL MONDAY morning in early April 1925, Ida Bidson, aged fourteen, carefully guided her family's battered Model T Ford along a narrow, twisting dirt road in Elk Valley, Colorado.
"Brake and clutch!" she shouted.
Ida, only four-feet-eleven and unable to reach the floor of the car, knelt on the torn seat and gripped the steering wheel tightly. Her seven-year-old brother, Felix, hunched on the floor before her and used his hands to push the brake and clutch pedals down.
As Ida adjusted the throttle lever, the battered car, hiccuping like a damp firecracker, swung into a sharp turn. "Less brake!" Ida called.
"Where we at?" Felix called up as he leaned onto the right pedal.
"It's 'Where are we?'" his older sister corrected.
"You're not my teacher! Just tell me!"
"We're close. Less brake!"
The car bumped along, causing the old tin syrup can filled with their lunch to bounce on the seat beside Ida. Behind them, dust twirled out like an unraveling rope, momentarily hiding the high ring of snowcapped mountains that surrounded the valley.
As the car churned up a hill-with enough backfiring to suggest a small war had erupted-Ida caught sight of Tom Kohl and his younger sister, Mary, riding bareback on their mule, Ruckus. Best friends, Ida and Tom were forever talking about all kinds of things: their plans, their friends, their families, what was going on in the valley.
Seeing him, Ida grinned, reached over the door-the car had no windows-and squeezed the horn bulb attached to the outside of the car. Honnk! Honnk!
At the loud gooselike sound, Ruckus gave a little buck. Though startled, Tom skillfully reined the mule to the side of the road, then turned around and pushed his floppy flaxen hair out of his eyes. Seeing Ida's slow-moving car, he smiled and yelled, "Get yourself a mule!"
"Join the twentieth century!" she shouted back.
"Who's there?" Felix called from the floor.
"Tom and Mary. Now pay attention. We're almost there. Brake easy!"
The car finally rounded the last bend, bringing Elk Valley's schoolhouse into view. The building stood in the middle of its own small north-south valley, through which the dirt road ran. To the east low hills gave way to higher ground, woods, and mountains. West it was much the same. Squat and square, the school building had a pitched roof and a small bell steeple at the south end. The painted but peeling white clapboard walls had three windows on each side. Beyond the school stood two privies, one for boys and one for girls. To the south was a small shallow pond. In front of the school stood a flagpole not far from a water pump as well as a lopsided teeter-totter.
"Clutch to neutral and brake!" Ida shouted as she aimed the car toward its regular parking place, only to realize that another car-one she didn't recognize-was already there.
"Hold on!" Ida screamed. With all her strength, she turned the wheel hard about, then yelled, "Brake!" as she grabbed the hand lever and pulled back.
Barely avoiding a crash, the old Ford came to a lurching halt next to the other car. Its motor gave one more enormous backfire, sputtered, chuffed twice, then died with a shuddering sigh.
"We're here," Ida announced. Her heart was pounding.
"What happened?" Felix asked.
"Another car was parked in our spot. I almost hit it."
Ida tightened the brake, then untied the rope that held the side door shut. With a squeak it swung open. "Out you go!" she called.
Felix, crawling headfirst, slipped down to the ground.
"I hate this," he complained as he stretched his arms and legs.
"Beats walking five miles both ways," Ida said as she got out and looked toward the school. She brushed the dust from her braided brown hair and checked to see if her blue ribbons were still tied tightly. Then she smoothed down her gingham dress. Of all the dresses her mother had made for her, this was her favorite.
Herbert Bixler, Charley and Susie Spool, and Natasha Golobin were seated on the school's front porch. As Ida and Felix approached, they all looked up.
"Looky here!" Herbert shouted gleefully. "I'm back!"
"And he's already tried to tie my shoelaces together," Susie complained.
Herbert lifted one of his bare feet and wiggled his toes. "Guess I don't know much about how shoes work," he said.
Ida ignored him. "Whose car is that?" she asked.
Natasha, who was a year younger than Ida, replied, "Mr. Jordan's."
Mr. Jordan was the owner-operator of Wally's Mighty Fine Emporium, Elk Valley's feed and grocery store. He was also head of the school board.
"Guess he can park anywhere he wants," Ida acknowledged. "How come he's here?"
Herbert shrugged. "Dunno."
"Is Miss Fletcher here?" Felix asked.
"Inside," Charley assured them. Charley and Susie, who lived just over the hill, were always the first to get to school.
"What's Mr. Jordan's car doing here?" Tom called as he slid off Ruckus, then helped his sister down. "He come for inspection?" As always, Tom tied the mule to the rear bumper of the Bidsons' car with enough rope to allow for grazing.
"No one knows," Ida replied.
Just then the schoolhouse door opened and Miss Fletcher appeared. A slight, middle-aged woman with dark hair piled atop her head, she was dressed in a simple blue cotton dress.
"Children," she said, "come in quickly, please. There's grave news to share."
The children exchanged puzzled looks.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Herbert muttered as soon as Miss Fletcher went back in.
"Shhh!" Ida hissed at him. "Don't sass!"
Felix said, "She didn't even say her regular 'Good morning.'"
Natasha added, "Wasn't even smiling."
"Guess we better get ourselves in and see," Tom said, always the logical one.
Without another word, the children climbed up the porch stairs and filed inside.
The school had but one room. Built entirely of wood from the nearby Columbine lumber mill, the building was twenty years old. Most of the room was filled with ancient low benches and long student desks etched with countless initials. The desks were older than the school building. To the right of the front door was the boys' wardrobe. On the other side was the girls'. Miss Fletcher's desk stood on the left, close to a small wall-mounted blackboard, which at the moment was perfectly clean.
An aspen switch-for discipline-hung alongside the board. Next to that was the school's library, a small bookcase containing some fifteen tattered books plus a few old magazines.
A round, iron wood-burning stove stood to the right, opposite the teacher's desk. Kerosene lamps were fastened on each wall along with pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and a chart of the Palmer script alphabet. There were also pull-down maps of Colorado, the United States, and the rest of the world.
As Miss Fletcher stood by the door, the eight students put away their lunch pails and their coats, then took their regular seats at their desks.
Felix and Mary, who were first and second graders, sat up front. Ida and Tom, the only eighth graders, took their places in the back row. Ida, being short, fit easily. Tom, tall and skinny, had to stretch out to get his knees to fit. The other four children-fourth through seventh graders-were scattered about on the other benches.
Mr. Jordan was standing in a corner going through Miss Fletcher's school account book. He was a portly, red-faced man, wearing overalls and a blue shirt. He had left his straw hat on the teacher's desk, something the children would never be allowed to do.
Ida, using a trick she had mastered long ago, faced front but whispered to Tom without moving her lips. "Why do you think he's here?"
"Don't know," Tom replied in the same stealthy fashion. "My old man says he's as miserly as a sleeping marmot."
Ida dipped her head to hide her grin.
Miss Fletcher stood before her desk, hands clasped, an unconvincing smile on her face.
"Good morning, children," the teacher began in her soft voice. "I'm so very glad the whole school's in attendance. Even you, Herbert Bixler."
Herbert roused himself from his slouch. "Miss Fletcher, it's my dad. He's always needing me to work. Weren't for him, I'd be sitting here every day being a high-marks scholar."
"Well, yes, we shan't discuss that now," Miss Fletcher replied. Composing herself, she looked down, then up at the class.
"Children," she began, "as I'm sure most of you know, this is Mr. Jordan, head of our local school board. Please greet him politely."
"Good-morning-Mister-Jordan," the children chorused.
"This morning," Miss Fletcher went on, "I'm afraid I must share painful news with you."
The children sat up stiffly.
"Last Friday," she continued, "I received a telegram telling me that my mother, back east in Iowa, has become very ill."
"Oh no!" Felix said loudly.
"Naturally," Mr. Jordan cut in, "Miss Fletcher needs to be there. And since there's only a month and a half till term ends, the school board won't be looking for a replacement. As soon as she departs..." He turned to the teacher. "When's that going to be, Miss Fletcher?"
"I'll be taking the Wednesday train," she replied.
"After which," Mr. Jordan continued, "school will be closed. And it won't commence till the fall term, assuming, of course, we can hire us up a new teacher."
Ida and Tom exchanged looks of shock.
Mr. Jordan went on. "This means you can have one long summer vacation. I'm sure," he chortled, "that despite our sorrow at losing Miss Fletcher, that'll cheer you up."
Tom raised a hand.
"Yes, Tom?" Miss Fletcher said.
"I'm awful sorry for your trouble, Miss Fletcher. I truly am. But does that mean Ida and I won't be taking our exit exams?"
Miss Fletcher started to speak but held back. Instead she looked to Mr. Jordan for the answer.
"Exit exams? Well...," he said after a moment's thought, "we could hardly get us a new teacher on such short notice. So, yes, I guess your exams will have to wait till next year."
Ida lifted her hand.
"Yes, Ida?" Miss Fletcher said.
"Mr. Jordan," Ida said, "if Tom and I don't pass our exams this term, we can't go on to the high school in Steamboat Springs come fall."
Miss Fletcher turned to Mr. Jordan. "I'm afraid that what Ida is saying is correct," she said. "They can't move on without those tests."
"Now, Ida Bidson," Mr. Jordan answered, "as an adult, it's my bounden duty to inform you-as I'm certain your parents do every day-that life teaches us many a hard lesson beyond school. No doubt this...exam business will be inconvenient.
"But I'd suggest you think a little less of yourself and a little more on Miss Fletcher and her ailing mother. Besides, I'm not so sure a girl needs a high school education. Any more questions?" Mr. Jordan asked, looking around the room.
Humiliated, Ida shrank down.
No one dared say anything else.
After shaking hands with Miss Fletcher, Mr. Jordan left.
The children gazed at Miss Fletcher.
"Miss Fletcher...," Ida said, on the verge of tears.
"I...I am grieved for you and your mother. But you know how much I want to be a teacher. I have to graduate this year. This is my one chance. What am I supposed to do?"
Miss Fletcher sighed. "Ida," she said, "I want you to know I begged Mr. Jordan not to close down the school. As for your exam and graduation-and Tom's-I can't rightly say what will happen. I...I will be gone. I am so sorry."
Silence filled the room.
"In the meanwhile," Miss Fletcher said softly, "we had best skip our morning song and get on with today's lessons." Quickly, she gave out the assignments.
The other children pulled out books and papers and began to work. Ida, sitting in numb silence, stared before her. All she was aware of was an enormous pain in her chest.
Copyright © 2001 by Avi
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A shorter version of this novel was published in newspapers throughout the country as part of the Breakfast Serials program.