After dropping Sadie off, Dixie turned down Broad Street and passed the colorful storefronts of the quaint downtown shopping district. Pulling onto West King Street, she traveled past two blocks of tidy homes sleeping behind pretty lawns. Her truck turned into the driveway of the Lees’ lovely white Cape Cod, its shuttered windows giving the impression of sleeping eyes. All felt safe and secure, tucked under the blanket of night.
As she slipped into the snug kitchen, Pumpkin, her orange kitty, wrapped himself around her legs.
“Hey, buddy.” She bent to scratch the lines between his ears. His own ginger color matched the ginger coloring of the Lee family. Dixie smiled. Sadie always giggled that the Lees had a matching cat.
Tiptoeing into the foyer, she saw a light on in the den. Her dad sat in his favorite armchair reading, his slippered foot propped on the opposite knee. The sight of his tall frame, sitting where he always sat, gave her a comfortable feeling.
“Hello, darlin’.” He greeted Dixie with a smile. “Have fun?”
Leaning over to plant an affectionate kiss on her dad’s sandy head, she said, “It was a nice evening, Daddy. I had a problem with the truck on the way there, though.”
“Oh?” He laid his book across his lap and gave her his full attention. The look in his eyes said that this girl of his was his pride and joy.
She plopped herself down on the arm of his chair. His hand rested on her knee as she talked. “Yeah, the carburetor is acting up again. I got it going, but it seems to be happening more often. Maybe it’s time for me to look for something more reliable.”
“I’ll take a look at it tomorrow and see if we can get it in better working order. We may need to rebuild the carburetor, but that’s not a problem.”
“Thanks, Daddy. Well, I’m tired. I better get to bed before school tomorrow.” With a last kiss, she headed off to bed. Pumpkin followed her up the stairs, ready to snuggle down for the evening.
“Dixie.” Her mother called from the end of the hall. She was surprised to see the light on in her parents’ room and find her mother still up. A very punctual, detailed person, her mother was careful about a routine of early to bed and early to rise.
She stopped just outside the door and poked her head in. Her mother was propped up in her big brass bed, a cream and rose sunburst quilt pulled around her trim figure. Cool green eyes blinked at Dixie, delicate hands folded across the magazine resting in her lap.
“Dixie, dear, do you have everything you need for your first day tomorrow?”
Trying to keep the sharpness out her tone she replied, “Yes, I’m ready. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“Well, then, you should probably get some rest, it’s getting late and you have an early day tomorrow.”
“I’m on my way to bed now, Mother.”
“Goodnight, dear.” Her mother smiled and picked up her magazine.
Did her mother wait up just to make sure she was in bed on time? Certainly she could be trusted to begin her job student teaching as an adult. She and her mother had never been enemies, but neither had they been true friends. Dixie often struggled under her mother’s expectations of propriety and restraint. From a Vicksburg family of some reputation and means, Sharon Lee had an image to uphold. Dixie had always been aware of that fact. And while some might call Dixie rebellious, that wasn’t accurate. She loved her freedom and could be selfish, but she recognized the rules of society, and often used them to her advantage. She knew where she fit in the order of things. And while she may push the boundaries of her world, she didn’t cross them. Someone else her age may have found being the daughter of a respected woman and a Baptist minister in a small town stifling, but not Dixie. Even though she enjoyed her carefree, youthful ways, she fell well inside the deep south Delta values of morality.
Of course, this made her wonder why her mother always seemed to be on her back about something. She tried not to let the high expectations and standards of her mother irritate her. Her dad, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy her unique personality. He encouraged independence and initiative.
Dixie thought about these things as she got ready for bed. Pulling back the crisp cotton sheets, she and Pumpkin snuggled down together. Her eyes sought the moon beyond her lace hung window. Tomorrow she would return to her old elementary school, Manning Academy, to begin student teaching. At the end of the quarter she would be ready to graduate Delta State University. Instead of feeling nervous, a confident readiness bubbled up in her. She and her ginger kitty drifted off to sleep wrapped in the pink walls of her room and a growing sense of expectation.
The next morning, Dixie, with her red shock tamed and slim figure dressed in the emerald colors of her old school, bounded down the stairs. Her father sat at the oak table in the clean, white kitchen, reading the morning paper and savoring what was probably his third cup of coffee. Looking up from his paper he smiled. “Mornin’, Dixie girl. You look rarin’ to go.”
“I am, Daddy, ready to show ’em what I’ve got.” Her eyes sparkled at the idea of a new challenge.
“That’s my girl.”
Her mother turned from the porcelain sink where she was cutting fruit and said, “Richard, don’t encourage her. Dixie, dear, you’re there to learn. A bit of humility will serve you well.”
Dixie grabbed a yogurt out of the fridge and poured a cup of coffee. Flopping down in a chair next to her dad, Dixie rolled her eyes, mostly to herself. “Yes, Mother, I realize I’m there to learn. But honestly I have been learning for three years now. I’m ready to do.”
“Well, just be sure you listen before you go charging in. I’m sure you’ll get a chance to teach on your own soon enough.” Turning back to the fruit she asked, “Can I fix you an egg, dear?”
“No thanks, Mother, I don’t have time. Just going to have some coffee and a yogurt.”
Knowing that some things weren’t worth pressing, her mother shrugged and went back to her chore.
After a few gulps of coffee and her strawberry yogurt, Dixie jumped up. “Well, I’m off folks,” she announced. With a quick kiss on each parent’s cheek, she flew out the door, screen door slamming behind her.
Her father chuckled, an amused smile on his face. “That girl,” her mother exclaimed in fond exasperation. Their looks met and they burst out laughing.
The couple’s older son, Daniel, was married and settled. It was just Dixie at home now, and, as much as they hated to admit it, they dreaded the day silence, in the form of her absence, would descend upon the house.
It was just a five minute drive to the school, one of the pleasures of a small town commute. Dixie tried to enter the office with dignity and poise but her bright freckled face and shocking hair made that a difficult thing to accomplish.
The secretary sat behind a metal desk, reading glasses pushed up on her forehead. The nameplate on her desk read Martha Herbertson. Dixie was surprised she didn’t recognize her. It seemed things had already changed in the few years she had been away. “May I help you?”
“Yes, I’m Dixie Lee, I’m student teaching with Ms. Bushnell.”
“Oh yes, she’s expecting you. Do you know where the music room is?”
Dixie nodded that she did. Some of her favorite days were spent in that room. At the time, Mr. Anderson had been the music teacher. Originally, Dixie had wanted to be a country singer, and even though it was still her dream the larger pond of college had tempered her ambition. Her practical side saw the value of a backup plan. It seemed logical to teach music.
The secretary broke in on her thoughts. “Here is your name badge. You need to wear it whenever you’re on campus. You can go down to the music room and get settled.” Her smile was warm as Dixie took the name tag. “And welcome to Manning Academy.”
That was one of the many reasons Dixie had loved her time at Manning. The private preparatory school’s warm faculty and staff often made the place feel like family.
Walking down the long hall memories that had been tucked away for some time wafted up on the wings of smells, sights, and sounds. Even though she had met with Principal Hall before the school year began, she hadn’t been this far into the school building. Toward the end of the hall, on the right, the door of the music room stood ajar. Inside Ms. Bushnell was bent over her desk shuffling through papers, her shoulder length brown hair half hiding her face.
Dixie stepped just inside, cleared her throat, and burst out with what, even to her ears, was an overly enthusiastic, “Good morning!”
Liz Bushnell looked up, a warm smile spreading across her face, blue eyes crinkling delightfully. About thirty, not quite tall, and casually dressed, she conveyed an air of friendliness.
“Good morning to you too. I’m Liz Bushnell, and I imagine you’re Dixie Lee.” She crossed the room as she said this and stuck out her hand in greeting. “Come on in and we’ll get acquainted before the kids get here. My first period is at 8:30, so we have about an hour. I understand you were a student at Manning. Has it changed much since then?”
Dixie swept the room with a nostalgic glance, noting the whiteboard at the front of the room, colorful posters along the sides, musical instruments on the right hand side wall, a keyboard set up toward the front, and the teacher’s desk in the left front corner. “Not much. It feels just the same. Your desk has moved to the side but that’s about all.”
The next hour was spent going over lesson plans, sheet music, and class structure. They talked about the breakdown of Dixie’s responsibility. This first week would be spent primarily in observation, getting to know the kids, and becoming familiar with classroom procedure. The week after that she would start grading and helping kids who needed extra attention. By the end of the quarter she would be teaching solo. Liz was thorough in her instructions, but not tediously so. Before the morning was over Dixie decided that she liked her.
Soon the sound of feet in the hall, combined with little voices, floated through the door. About twenty third-graders filled the room with color and motion. The boys and girls were dressed all in khakis and shirts of yellow or green. With great commotion, they sat themselves down in the rows of plastic chairs facing the front of the room.
A little boy with straw-colored hair caught her eye. He had on a green shirt that was too big for him, and was struggling to maneuver into the back row. Braces on his legs and forearm crutches made the task difficult. He bumped a classmate and caught another one’s chair. The child who got bumped scooted as far away as he could.
Dixie felt self-conscious. Should she help him? She didn’t want to draw more attention to his problem, but she felt badly for him. In the second it took for her to think those thoughts Ms. Bushnell was moving to his side, adjusting his chair and speaking reassurances to him.
Walking back to the front, Ms. Bushnell raised her voice. “Alright class, I have someone new to introduce to you today. Ms. Lee will be joining us this quarter as a student teacher. That means she’ll be getting experience teaching before she graduates college. She’ll learn from us, and we’ll learn from her. I want you to welcome her and respect her. She’ll be spending a lot of time with us.”
Dixie smiled back at all the curious little faces turned her way.
Ms. Bushnell got right to work after that. She went over a previous lesson with them and asked them to review what they had learned. It was the second week of school. Dixie hadn’t begun earlier because she had to attend a student teacher orientation at college, as well as meet with her student teaching supervisor.
As Liz spoke, Dixie stole glances at the little boy in the back row. His big blue eyes were full of expression. They were fixed on Ms. Bushnell, soaking in every word. When it came time to follow her instructions to clap out a rhythm he was lost. His crutches got in the way and his arms jerked most non-rhythmically.
Dixie’s heart squeezed as she watched him. She had never been around children who were different before. Come to think of it, when she was going through the Academy, she didn’t ever recall any children with ... a problem. As she processed these thoughts, more questions arose. She hardly heard what Ms. Bushnell was saying.
Before she knew it, a bell was ringing, feet were shuffling, and the class was over. Several of the children waved at her, a few stopped to say, “Hey, Ms. Lee.”
As the children lined up at the door to leave, the little boy she had been watching took his place at the back of the line. Whether instinctively or instructed, she could only guess.
“Well what did you think?” Liz asked her, following her gaze.
“It was great. Seems like a great group of kids.”
“But?” Liz coaxed.
“Well, what’s wrong with that little boy with the crutches?”
Liz’s eyes twinkled, even as her brow furrowed. “Nothing’s wrong with him. He does have cerebral palsy though. His name is Gabriel. He’s new this year. His parents moved him from the public school hoping he’ll get a little more one-on-one attention.”
Dixie thought for a moment. “I don’t know what cerebral palsy is.” Her natural curiosity was piqued.
“It’s a condition that affects the brain; not a disease. It has affected his motor control and muscle tone.” Liz paused a moment, and then said, “I think you’ll find it worth your while if you take the time to get to know Gabriel.”
Dixie wasn’t so sure. But, she was willing to be a little uncomfortable. She determined to look up cerebral palsy at home that night to learn more about Gabriel’s condition. Tucking those thoughts away for the time being, they got ready for the next class.