“Mister Whit’ker. Mister Whit’ker.” This was followed by an insistent tug on his sleeve.
Cole’s name whistled through the gap where Bobby Jenson’s two front teeth should be. He turned from where he’d been outlining the alphabet on the board and crouched to Bobby’s level, meeting his sincere blue irises. They were wide and his expression was insistent. His cheeks were red and a smudge of dirt hovered over one eyebrow. Cole had sent the class out for recess with his assistant not even five minutes ago. “Is everything all right, Bobby? Where’s Mr. Fred?”
Bobby’s lower lip wobbled. “Savanah pushed me.” Tears welled in his eyes. “I just wanted to go down the slide.” They spilled over, leaving streaks along his cheeks.
Sometimes, mostly when students like Savanah swept through his class like the Tasmanian devil, Cole wondered why he’d thought becoming a kindergarten teacher was the way to go. Little Savanah Emerson was proving in her first week at Ridgedale Elementary to be quite the bully. Bobby was the third student to come to him in tears. In a week. Was Savanah looking to set some kind of record?
“Did you tell Mr. Fred?” he asked Bobby, reaching out blindly for his desk drawer where he kept the candy stashed.
Bobby shook his head and sand flew from his hair, spraying Cole’s pants and hitting his face. He sniffled, wiping under his nose with the back of his hand.
Cole changed course, grabbing the ever present hand sanitizer from the edge of his desk. “How about we get you cleaned up, and you can do whatever you want for the rest of recess, hmm?”
Like the magic words they were, the tears vanished in reaction and Bobby bounced on his toes. “Whatever I want?” His lisp—thanks to his many missing teeth—grew more pronounced in his excitement.
Please don’t make me regret this. Cole held the Germ X out, squirting a tiny dollop on Bobby’s hand when he extended it. “Whatever you want.” He paused. “Within reason.” Always a caveat to be added when children were involved, he’d learned.
“I can color? With all the crayons to myself?” Bobby appeared ecstatic at the prospect. It was amazing how fast kids recovered.
“Sure, buddy.” Cole stood, holding a hand out for Bobby to take if he wanted. “Let’s get you a tissue, huh? Are you hurt at all?”
“M’fine,” said Bobby, already trying to steer Cole toward the art station in the corner. Cole resisted the tugging, heading for the cabinets in which he stored everything that could possibly be needed to contain germs. Once he was sure Bobby wasn’t going to spread snot all over the art supplies, he let him loose to do as he pleased.
He needed to have a talk with Savanah—clearly the first two had done no good. He was going to have to call a parent this time. He propped the door between his and Mrs. Berkley’s room open so she could keep an eye on Bobby, and then went to find Savanah before she could do damage to anyone else.
She was on the swings alone, the seats on either side of her empty. The other kids had started to avoid her after the first day, when she’d snapped Lily Hopkins favorite My Little Pony pencil in half. Cole had been horrified—and a little impressed by her strength, though he’d never admit it aloud.
He came to a stop just out of leg range. He didn’t want to add a kick to the stomach to his day. “Savanah, can I talk to you?”
He gave her this, she was a bold child. Her dark brown gaze locked on him and the, “No,” that left her mouth was nothing short of prim. Her long braids flew out behind her as she arced into the air. Her feet were perfectly pointed like a ballerina in her flats as she flew.
Cole had a feeling his day was about to get a lot more frustrating. “Savanah, it’s not an option. I need you to stop swinging and come have a chat with me.”
She ignored him, blithely continuing to rock back and forth. She was going too fast, and moving too high, for Cole to stop the swing himself. He wanted to speak to her, not knock her onto the ground. “All right then.”
He turned and scanned the playground for Fred. He was holding one end of a jump rope, head cocked in a way that said he’d been watching Cole. Cole whistled, loud and sharp, to get everyone’s attention. He raised his voice to be heard clearly. “Mr. Fred’s going to take everyone inside, and you’ll have free time to play at whatever stations you want. If you’re well behaved and keep an inside volume, everyone will get candy at the end of the day.” He’d learned to not be above bribery in his ten years as a teacher. It worked as he’d planned, and they filed into the classroom with barely any complaints. Fred shot him a questioning look, and Cole waved him on. He didn’t have the time to explain things now.
With the playground empty of all but Savanah and he, Cole took a seat in the grass to wait her out. Five year olds had a lot of energy, but they didn’t have an unending supply. Eventually she’d have to stop. While he waited, he perused Pinterest for dinner options for that night. He had Patrick, his boyfriend, coming over. Cole wanted to impress him with his (limited) culinary ability. He liked a butternut squash and spinach tortellini dish and contemplated the possibility of successfully making zucchini meatballs. Or maybe avocado egg rolls…. From the corner of his eye, Savanah stubbornly swung on.
The only time Cole moved was to yell to Fred to let him know he would have the honor of teaching today’s lesson on lower case letters.
Eventually, Savanah’s muscles overcame her stubbornness, and the swing slowly came to a rocking halt. They eyed each other. Sweat was trickling down the sides of her pixie face. The hair around the edges was curling, frizzing out. Cole could empathize. It was so hot out, his button up was probably soaked through in places.
“Are we ready to talk?” he asked.
She didn’t move from the seat. She also didn’t answer him. Her small hands were curled around the chain of the swing.
Cole glanced to the heavens and wondered why him. “Okay. I’ll talk then.” He didn’t stand. Towering over her would get him nothing, instead he went for eye contact. “We don’t push people. Not for any reason. If you have a problem you can’t solve with words—nice ones—then you come find me or Mr. Fred. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, how big or small. We never lay a hand on someone else. You wouldn’t want them pushing you, would you? It wouldn’t make you feel good. Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to you, yeah?”
Her blank stare was all he received. Savanah had a hell of a poker face for a kid her age.
Cole sighed. “Come on. I’m done lecturing you.” He stood, dusting his khakis off and hoping the back wasn’t grass stained.
Savanah slid from the swing, her legs trembling under her weight for a moment. She straightened, and then walked toward him, coming to stop by his side. Her dark gaze took him in, assessing. He waited patiently, after all, what was a few minutes more?
“You’re not my daddy,” she said. The first words she’d spoken to him all day.
“I’m not.” He was starting to have a very low opinion of whoever was. “I’d like to meet him, though.” He had some strong words to share with the man.
Her long black lashes fluttered as she blinked. She had such a solemn countenance. “You won’t. He’s always workin’. He doesn’t have the time.”
Suspecting he already knew the answer, Cole asked, “And your mom?”
Little shoulders, clad in the standard maroon school uniform, shrugged. “She left.”
“She left” could mean a lot of things. Cole didn’t focus on that. He was starting to get a blurry image of what might be going on here. He’d like to say it wasn’t common, but he’d been around long enough to have seen the story play out in a thousand different ways. “Would you want to talk to someone about stuff?”
Her nose wrinkled. “You?”
She didn’t need to sound so skeptical. Cole was a great listener, thanks very much. “No. Not me. Someone who talks to people professionally.” The school had a counselor, and Savanah might really benefit from seeing her. Cole wasn’t equipped to deal with these kinds of problems on his own.
“If I think about it, will I not be in trouble?” Out came the innocent “who me” expression.
“Yeah, no.” Cole held in his smile. It wouldn’t be appropriate. “You’re going to the front office to tell them why you thought pushing another student was a good idea.”