Once a gifted ballet dancer, Julia Costell understands the joy of body and soul lost in a perfect moment. But after buckling under the demands of a professional dance career, she’s landed with a thud in an unglamorous job as a guidance counselor at a performing arts school. Living back home with her parents and feeling lost, Julia is afraid she’ll never soar again—until the day young Dell Jordan is sent to her office.
In Dell’s writing, Julia recognizes not only her own despair, but also luminous sparks of hope. But as Julia fights to forge a brighter future for one disadvantaged student, she is drawn into startling undercurrents of conflict and denial within the academy. Now, as she is tested in ways she never imagined, Julia begins to discover that even though her life has seemed off course, she’s been on the right path all along...
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Not much of a topic for an essay. There's nothing to me that anyone would want to read about.
The books I read in English class last semester.
Not much of a topic, either.
How those books are like my life.
None of those books are like my life. How could they be? Grandma Rose always said that two folks might go along the same path, but how they walk it depends a lot on the shoes they're in. There's an old Indian saying she had hanging on her kitchen wall. I can't remember it exactly, but it means that if we all had the same shoes, we'd understand each other better. But we don't.
I don't like to wear shoes, so I'm a little like Huckleberry Finn. Of course, I have to wear shoes most of the time, now that I live in Kansas City with Karen and James. Good shoes, and nice clothes, and my hair combed back in a pretty silver clip most of the time, so it doesn't hang dark and stringy over my face-that's how I have to look here. That's how all the students look at Harrington Academy. I don't mind wearing
the same shoes as everybody else. It's easy. It makes you fit in, and no-
body questions where you've been or what you've done. When you have the right shoes, everyone takes you in without a second glance. I'm not used to that. It feels strange, like I'm moving around in someone else's body.
In my mind, I'm barefoot like Huckleberry Finn, but I don't tell any-
body that. Not my music teachers, not Karen and James, not the kids at school, not my caseworker, not that reporter from Kansas City Artweek who interviewed me about our spring concert with the symphonic. They'd
think I was ungrateful. Grandma Rose always said that an ungrateful heart makes an unhappy life. I want to be happy.
Of course I'm thankful for these new shoes. Who wouldn't be?
But deep in my heart, a part of me will always be barefoot, running through the shallows of Mulberry Creek, with my eyes closed and my arms stretched out like I could fly.
That girl doesn't wear the right shoes, but she's lighter than air. The sun pushes hard through the trees, and she's soaked in it until it's deep down inside her. She stops and stands with her feet in the water. The glow reflects all around and the sycamore leaves whisper, then hush. She holds her breath, afraid to move. She can feel God in everything. He touches her with His fingertip, and her heart is drenched in light.
"Pick me up and take me away," she says in her mind, and she waits. But it doesn't happen. The answer is always no. She wishes the river would rise and sweep her off, carry her to someplace where it's eas-
ier to be.
But the river doesn't listen. . . .
I set down the handwritten essay and looked across the desk at the thirteen-year-old girl on the other side. She seemed small sitting there, caramel-colored fingers fiddling nervously between her knees, body huddled against the office chair like she was trying to disappear into it. Her long, straight dark hair fell around her face like a shield, making her look like a Native American girl in some turn-of-the-century photo, afraid the camera would steal her soul.
"Everything OK, Dell?" Leaning back in my chair, I tried to appear empathic, nonthreatening.
She flicked the mistrusting glance they all use for social workers, counselors, court advocates, teachers-anyone with the power to interfere in their lives, to ferret out the adult truths they hide behind their childhood faces.
"Uh-huh." She shrugged noncommittally.
"Do you know why you're here?"
"Yes." No further comment.
I chuckled, and she glanced up, surprised. "Not much of a talker, huh?" The joke lightened her up for an instant before the shields rose again. My mind flashed back to an adolescent counseling course last year in grad school-ask only open-ended questions. So far, I hadn't had many occasions to actually counsel anyone at Harrington Arts Academy. Mostly my job consisted of arranging class schedules, writing grant applications and press releases, maintaining attendance sheets, calling substitute teachers, giving parent tours, and resolving spats among kids. If any real counseling was needed, families with kids at Harrington could afford private-practice psychologists.
Which was why Dell Jordan seemed like such an enigma, sitting there in my office. Foster kids from backwater towns like Hindsville, Missouri, didn't get into schools like Harrington-not these days, anyway. Harrington may have once been conceived as a magnet school for talented kids from all sectors of society, but where competition is stiff and prestige is high, those who can afford the private lessons and the expensive instruments and the high-profile letters of recommendation win out. In the seven weeks I'd been middle school counselor, I hadn't seen many needy-but-talented kids walking the halls. Harrington students came in bright packages with designer labels. They glittered with the glow of self-confidence, wore easy smiles that said, Look at me; I'm someone special. I'm a star.
But not Dell Jordan. I'd caught only a few glimpses of her these past weeks. She was a slim shadow on the fringes, adept at getting lost in the crowd-not a hard thing to accomplish in a large student population. "Can you tell me why you're here?"
"Because I'm stupid." It was a flat statement. No sarcasm or teenage attitude.
"What makes you say that?"
Picking at a fingernail, she twisted her full lips to one side, then finally answered. "Because it's true. I can't pass English because I'm stupid. That's why I had to write that essay. For extra credit, or else I'd flunk."
"Well, Mrs. Morris's English class is tough." That much was true. Mrs. Morris was old, grim-faced, a stickler for the rules, even when the rules needed to be bent. "I didn't do so well in there, myself."
Blinking, she jerked her head up, and I could see the wheels turning. How could the blond-headed grown-up lady in the pantsuit have ever been in Mrs. Morris's English class? No doubt at twenty-seven, sitting behind the counselor's desk, I looked ancient to her, which meant that Mrs. Morris was right up there with the Crypt Keeper.
Dell sank back miserably. "I hate English."
"Yeah, I did, too," I admitted, focusing on the papers as I jotted some notes in her file.
Shifting in her chair, she leaned closer to see what I was writing. "Am I gonna get kicked out?"
"Of course not." I didn't look up, but continued writing. Kids usually found it easier to talk to the top of a head. "Did you want to get kicked out?"
"Huh-uh." The answer came without hesitation, the first definitive thing she'd said, other than, Because I'm stupid. "I want to stay. I like music. I love music."
Glancing up, I caught a glitter of enthusiasm in her dark eyes. She scooted forward in the chair and the thick brown-black hair fell away from her face, which was suddenly bright and animated. This was not the same kid who hated English. "I see you're good at it." I motioned to the notes in the file. "What do you play?"
"Oh, lots of stuff." She was remarkably talkative now that we were entering territory outside Mrs. Morris's English class. "Piano, guitar, the flute some, and I want to learn violin, but, gosh, that's hard. I do vocal, too."
"Wow. That's quite a laundry list." Between that and the notes in her file, I could see why a foster kid from Hindsville had been accepted into the seventh-grade program at Harrington in her first year of application. She had an incredible talent in music. Unfortunately, her first-semester report card showed that she was behind in every other subject.
"Did you do music here?" Her preemptive question surprised me. Normally, kids in my office were primarily interested in my ability to solve their problems with class schedules, or summer grant applications, or attendance paperwork.
Resting an elbow on my desk, I twirled the pencil in my fingers like a tiny baton, until I caught myself doing it; then I set the pencil down. Fidgeting. Unattractive nervous habit. Showed lack of confidence. "I did. Vocal, theater, and dance. Dance was really my thing."
She frowned, and I saw the question on her face-the one they all wanted to ask: If you were such a good dancer, how did you end up sitting behind the counselor's desk? Loser.
Kids didn't understand that fairy tales sometimes end unhappily. In a place like Harrington, where the atmosphere was so thick with high expectations that you could choke on it, nothing but one hundred percent success seemed like a possibility.
Dell, however, looked like she already knew that life isn't fair, and you do the best you can with the result. Her eyes met mine, dark and liquid, and I had a sense that she understood my story without my ever telling it. I turned away, caught off guard by the power of that sympathetic glance.
Silence fell on us, and I found myself studying the old beadboard wainscot and the plaster walls with the fan-shaped sponge pattern that made it look like giant butterflies had been decoupaged to the school walls. I'd spent hours staring at their lifeless wings as a student, but I'd never been inside the counselor's office. Anything that needed to be taken up with the administration, my parents handled for me. Mostly, I worked hard to be perfect, so that my mom would stay away from the school.
"I wasn't gonna turn it in, you know." Dell spoke up, and I focused on her again, aware of my sudden lapse. "The essay," she explained. "I wasn't gonna turn it in. Mrs. Morris wasn't supposed to see it. I was gon . . . going to write another one that didn't say . . ." Cheeks twitching, she arrested the comment, pulled her hands inside her sweatshirt sleeves, then finished with, ". . . that stuff."
"What stuff?" What stuff, indeed? What stuff this kid had inside her, I couldn't imagine. She was a well so deep that the bottom was hidden in a quiet, inky darkness. No telling what was down there. The girl in the river was down there, wishing God would pluck her off the face of the Earth.
Pinching her lip between her thumb and forefinger, she muttered behind her hand, "That stuff about shoes and Karen and James and all." Her lashes darted upward with alarm, and her hand fell away from her mouth. "Karen and James didn't see that paper, did they? Mrs. Morris didn't send it to them?"
Her earnest expression of panic raised the barometer of concern in my mind. I'd done my final college internship in social work. When kids are genuinely frightened of their parents' responses to things, it's a red flag. "No. Mrs. Morris brought it to me. Are you afraid of what your foster parents would think of it?"
Scuffing her red tennis shoes back and forth under the chair, she studied the floor. "No. But I don't want them to see it."
"Are you afraid it would hurt their feelings?" Looking at the file, I noted that there were several pages of information behind the admissions form-a letter from the foster mother, a report from a social worker in Hindsville, transcripts from her former school. Information haphazardly added by the previous counselor at Harrington, who had retired unexpectedly after the fall semester, creating the job opening I had filled. On the corner of Dell's admissions form, a tiny yellow dot indicated that there was additional information in a confidential folder. I wished I'd taken time to look it over, rather than letting Mrs. Morris bring her directly into my office.
Dell nodded. "Yes."
"And what would happen if you hurt their feelings?"
"I don't know."
"Are you afraid to find out?" She responded with a questioning glance, and I added, "Are you afraid to find out what would happen if you hurt your foster parents' feelings? Do you worry about it?"
Lacing her fingers in her lap, she tightened her grip until her knuckles turned white. "I just don't want them to see that stuff I wrote, OK? Nobody was supposed to read it. Mrs. Morris shouldn't of brought it to you. She hates me and she wants to get me kicked out."
"On the contrary, Mrs. Morris brought the essay to me because she was concerned about you." Though knowing Mrs. Morris, I figured Dell was probably correct. Mrs. Morris liked only the right kind of kids, the bound-for-the-philharmonic kids from good families. I couldn't, of course, admit that to a student. "She was worried about some of the things you wrote."
Squirming in her chair, Dell cast her gaze toward the door like an animal in a trap. "That was private stuff. It don't mean"-pausing, she gave a frustrated jerk of her chin and corrected-"doesn't mean anything."
"Sometimes the things we write for ourselves mean the most of all." I handed the essay across the desk to her. "When we don't think anybody's going to read it, we can say what we really mean. We don't have to be a certain way to make other people happy."
Taking the paper with a sigh of relief, she folded it into the smallest possible cube and tucked it into her pocket. Clearly, it was headed for the nearest trash can.
"There's nothing wrong with writing down what you feel, Dell," I said. "It's a good idea to get those things out on paper."
"Yeah, unless you do it in Mrs. Morris's class." The observation made me chuckle, and her lips twitched upward.
"True enough. Sometimes it helps to talk about those issues with someone, though." Her eyes met mine, and I again had the feeling I'd only skimmed the surface of a lake. There were things she didn't share with anybody, and probably not even with herself. She had a sense of desperation, an obvious need to keep everything tamped down. "I'd like to know about the girl in the river. If you decide to write more of her story, I'd like to read it. . . . We could talk about her-the girl in the river, I mean-maybe understand what she's feeling a little better. But it's your choice. Nobody's going to force you to do anything, all right?"
"'Kay," she answered, blinking at me, first surprised, then doubtful. "Are you gonna call James and Karen?"
"No." I folded my hands on the desk. "Did you want me to?"
Her expression said that I was nuts. "Huh-uh." She started to get up, then sat down again, crossed and uncrossed her thin arms. "Are you gonna call anybody?"