This was no ordinary day. In fact, it was an unusually horrible day for Pearl Jean Winters. When Pearl’s mom dropped her off at school, little did Pearl know this would be the very last day she would ever attend Northrich Hills High School.
Once again, Pearl was struggling to read the math problems in front of her. This was the final exam before summer break, and Pearl knew she had more problems than time to finish.
A tiny ant made its way onto Pearl’s paper. She kept her hand still in hopes the ant would take the journey up her pencil. Instead, the ant crept past her hand and was out of sight within seconds. Turning her head slowly to the right, Pearl saw the ant move off her desk and downward towards the ground. Pearl quickly returned her focus to the exam paper in front of her, discouraged by the limitations her vision had brought her in the last several months.
If Pearl looked straight down at her paper, she could see only the middle problems. The outer left and outer right numbers were lost in a gray cloud like an approaching storm. She knew her classmates were all around her; however, when she looked up, all she saw was the back of AJ Jackson’s head in front of her; everything else was faded. It was as if Pearl was looking through the end of a large straw, the kind you get with a Big Gulp Slurpee from 7-11.
The bell rang, and Pearl got up from her chair and carefully walked to Mr. Wyatt’s desk to put her test on top of the pile of completed exams. Pearl’s paper was barely halfway finished. She gathered her notebooks from her locker and went out front to wait for her mom. Mr. Wyatt’s voice startled Pearl as he caught up to her. Out of breath, he said, “Pearl, are you waiting for your mom to pick you up today?”
“Yes,” Pearl said nervously.
“Good. I need to talk to her. I hope she has a few minutes,” Mr. Wyatt replied as he sat himself down next to Pearl on the front steps. Luckily for Pearl, small talk was not necessary because her mom pulled up right as Mr. Wyatt was about to speak further.
Pearl’s mom Susan is a pleasant lady of natural beauty. She has freckled skin, red hair, and youthful dimples that light up her petite frame when she smiles. Susan often smiles from a place deeper than most. Her experiences have taught her the comfort of being content, and she strives to do her best, regardless of her changing circumstances. And she has had a lot of changing circumstances in the past couple of years.
Her husband Gerald died two years ago in a boating accident while vacationing over the Memorial Day holiday at Sun Valley Lake. Pearl, her mom, and dad were taking turns water skiing. Pearl had just pulled herself back into the boat, and it was her dad’s turn. Gerald jumped into the water, got his skis in position, and was waving to Susan to rev up the boat. Susan turned around and placed one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the throttle. At that moment, another boat raced over the ski line. Not seeing Gerald, the other boat collided with him. Gerald died instantly. Pearl saw the entire thing, and she stood frozen in disbelief and fear, as she saw her mom jump into the water, screaming for help. Pearl watched while strangers surrounded her mom with words and splashing water until her dad was placed motionless on the medic boat. Pearl did not see him again until the funeral. She often wonders why it was not her turn instead of his. Why Dad? Why did it have to be anyone?
Over one hundred people attended the funeral, and the Winters’ home was inundated for months afterward with casseroles and snacks made by concerned friends and relatives. Before the final leftovers were either eaten or thrown away, Susan’s mom Cheryl moved in to help raise Pearl while Susan went back to work full time. Pearl thought it was more of an intrusion rather than a help for her grandmother to move into their home.
Pearl was thirteen when her father died, and she felt she did not need a babysitter anymore. Two years later, her grandmother had made a comfortable spot for herself in their home like a piece of furniture sticking out in the middle of the room that you get used to going around after awhile.
“Ms. Winters, hi. My name is Jim Wyatt, Pearl’s math teacher. Do you have a minute to talk? I want to show you something,” Mr. Wyatt said as he crouched low enough so Pearl’s mom could see him through the passenger window.
“Sure,” Susan said cordially. “Let me park the car, and I will meet you back here.” As Susan approached Mr. Wyatt and her daughter, Pearl could see concern brimming in her mom’s already tired eyes. Pearl stood up next to Mr. Wyatt.
“Hi, Pearl,” Susan said as she gave her daughter a tight hug. “Are you okay?” she whispered in her ear.
“Yes, Mom, I am fine,” Pearl replied softly. Pearl was imagining Mr. Wyatt was going to talk to her mom about how her grades have dropped dramatically in the last six weeks. Pearl had gone from an A+ student to a C+ student. In all the years Pearl had been in school, the lowest grade she had gotten on a report card was a B+ in music the semester she was taught to play the flute. Pearl hated playing the flute and rarely practiced; consequently, when it was time to perform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in front of her class, it turned out to be more like “Ode to Misery.”
“Let’s take a short walk to my classroom if you don’t mind. I have something there I want to show you, Ms. Winters,” Mr. Wyatt said as he shook Susan’s hand. Pearl led the way a few steps ahead of Mr. Wyatt and her mom. The hallways looked so different than what they did just a few minutes prior. Their emptiness made them look much smaller. The lack of uniform clothing and loud voices made Pearl think of how her house felt after everyone left her dad’s funeral reception. It was so quiet, yet her ears still vibrated with sounds of bits of conversation she had overheard as she numbly made her way around the room.
“Here we are, the door to the right,” said Mr. Wyatt motioning to a classroom door decorated with equations and a sign that read, “Know the Facts: You + Drugs does NOT equal cool.”
Mr. Wyatt quickly pulled up a single desk chair for Susan and positioned himself across from her behind his desk on his swivel chair. Pearl instinctively headed straight to her assigned seat, third from the left on the front row. Pearl started tracing a flower with her finger on the top of her desk. She thought it odd that her desk was already cold like she had been absent from it for weeks. Little did Pearl know, her desk would never feel her touch again after the talk with Mr. Wyatt.
“Well, Ms. Winters, I appreciate you taking the time to come in without notice. It is unusual that I bring a parent in from the parking lot; however, I felt you needed to see this with your own eyes.” Mr. Wyatt slowly passed a piece of paper across his desk for Susan to view.
Mr. Wyatt continued, “This is Pearl’s final exam paper from my class. I have at least a dozen other papers of Pearl’s with the same completion pattern.” With this said, Mr. Wyatt pulled out a dark blue folder that contained numerous homework and pop quizzes of Pearl’s from the proceeding weeks.
Mr. Wyatt settled back in his swivel chair, eyes locked on Susan’s face, awaiting her response. Susan was looking inquisitively at Pearl’s final exam and the papers from the blue folder. She eventually placed four of the papers in a line on top of Mr. Wyatt’s desk to compare them. In silence, Susan turned her eyes toward her daughter and back to the papers. Confusion and doubt furrowed Susan’s brow. Although she tried to speak, nothing but a long sigh emerged.
Finally, Susan said in a defensive tone, “What am I to make of this, Mr. Wyatt? I see the pattern. It appears Pearl is primarily answering the middle sections of her paperwork. Are you implying she is trying to be funny, get attention, or that this is some cry for help that there is something wrong at home? I can assure you she is a very bright girl, and she is extremely well-loved. Yes, Pearl has certainly had changes during the last several years, but we are all doing the best we can.”
“No, no, no, Ms. Winters. I mean, yes, Pearl is extremely bright. Pearl is a delightful person, and any teacher would be glad to have her as a student,” Mr. Wyatt said as he flipped open his grade book. “Did you know that Pearl’s grade average this six weeks has gone from a 96 to a 77? Well, when I noticed her grades dropping, I began asking Pearl more and more questions during our classroom time. Pearl was always right-on with her answers; she rarely even missed one. Yet, on her paperwork, many questions were left blank. After comparing several of Pearl’s papers, I noticed the blank questions were usually on the perimeter of the page. I guess what I am getting at is...have you noticed any changes in Pearl’s vision over the last six weeks, Ms. Winters?”
“Vision? No, not at all. I mean I have noticed Pearl stumbling around here and there, but nothing more than I would presume an exhausted ninth grader is cramming for final exams and itching for summer break would be. Pearl puts a lot of pressure on herself to do well, and she tires herself out studying so hard. If she had been struggling with her vision, she would have told me,” Susan said to Mr. Wyatt while turning her body toward Pearl.
“Pearl,” her mom asked, “Are you having trouble with your vision?”
Pearl didn’t look at her mom, and she continued to absentmindedly trace the flower on her desk. Pearl’s ears started turning red with embarrassment from being put on the spot.
“Pearl?” her mom asked again with a stronger tone, “Answer me, are you?”
Pearl looked up and hooked eyes with Mr. Wyatt and then with her mom. Her mom looked irritated. Pearl felt helpless like a child caught red-handed with her hand in the cookie jar.
“Yes, Mom, something is different with my eyes. I didn’t want to tell you because I thought it would go away, and I did not want to give you something else to worry about,” Pearl spoke as she fisted her hands on top of her desk. “You are always worrying. Worrying about paying the bills, being both a mom and a dad to me, everything. I thought I could get this better on my own, but it just isn’t getting better. It isn’t getting better!” Without thought, Pearl pounded her fists against her desk. Hot tears trickled from her eyes and landed in small puddles before her. Pearl ran her palms angrily through the puddles and then clasped her hands over her face. She cried with frustration and fear.
Pearl’s mom looked briefly at Mr. Wyatt and then quickly got up from her chair and rushed to her daughter’s side. Susan dropped to her knees and put her arms around Pearl. “Honey, I don’t know what is going on with your eyes, but we will figure it out together. I will make an appointment as soon as possible. I will find the best doctor in Dallas for you. It will be okay. I promise. I promise.”
Mr. Wyatt came around from his desk and picked up Pearl’s notebooks and backpack from off the ground. As Pearl and her mom stood up, he put his arm around Pearl. Pearl had never felt a particularly close connection to Mr. Wyatt; nonetheless, at that moment she was thankful he was there. He smelt of the cafeteria burritos that were served for lunch that day and of breath mints. Mr. Wyatt was a welcomed distraction from the seriousness of what she and her mom would be discussing in the days to come. He escorted them out of his classroom and onto the front steps of the school. He wished Pearl a safe summer, and then his figure disappeared behind the closing doors of the Northrich Hills High School like a memory contained within the pages of a dusty album.
Pearl and her mom remained mostly silent on the car ride home. Susan spoke briefly about calling Pearl’s pediatrician for a referral to the best ophthalmologist. Pearl quietly mumbled that she just wanted to rest when she got home and that she was not in the mood for any questions from Grandma.
When she got home, Pearl slung her backpack and notebooks onto the kitchen table, proceeded directly to her room, and closed the door behind her.
“What’s wrong with her?” Grandma shouted from the other side of the couch where she was watching Oprah on television. Grandma loved television shows, especially Oprah. She thought Oprah could prevent, fix, or enhance just about anything in a woman’s life, so she sat in front of the tube every day at 4:00 p.m. anticipating the start of the program like a kid waiting for the ice cream truck on a hot summer’s day. To Grandma, Oprah was a coffee break and bible class all rolled up in one.
Susan knew with Oprah on that she could respond just in any way, and it would not deter Grandma from shushing her up once the commercial break was over. So, Susan simply replied, “Bad day all around. We’ll talk about it at dinner.”
“Uh-huh, that’s fine,” Grandma replied as Oprah appeared back on the screen. “That’s just fine,” she said with a half wave of her hand.
While Susan changed clothes and prepared dinner, Pearl cried herself to sleep on her bed. Susan had prepared one of Pearl’s favorite meals, meatloaf patties with mashed potatoes. Susan lightly knocked on Pearl’s door. When Pearl did not answer, she gently turned the doorknob and peeked inside her room. She saw Pearl fully dressed, still wearing her tennis shoes and asleep on top of her bedding. She quietly took Pearl’s shoes off and helped her settle underneath her pink quilt. She kissed her sweet girl on the forehead and gingerly brushed her hand across the pink quilt. Pearl’s great-grandmother on Gerald’s side made this quilt when Pearl was just a few weeks old. It had been stored away in Pearl’s closet for many, many years until Gerald’s death. Without explanation, Pearl took it down from the top closet shelf one day and spread it on her bed.
Susan thought Pearl looked so very young and fragile underneath the old pink quilt. She wished she could protect her daughter from more suffering, but she knew sometimes things happen for reasons that are unknown and may never be completely known even with time. But Susan believed with all her heart that Pearl possessed the courage to gain wisdom instead of bitterness for whatever was to come.