Authors: Dave St.John
Tags: #public schools, #romance, #teaching
A Terrible Beauty
© 2009 D.W.St.John
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the hard work of this author.
For Donna Nichols, Annabel Fish, Angus Niven, the San
Joaquin gang, and all the caring, competent teachers, secretaries,
bus drivers, and custodians I have had the privilege to know.
With special thanks to Robert J. Press, Chuck
Andersen, Pam Wilds, Bill Levy, and Asia.
To TEACH IS TO LEARN TWICE.
Looking up at the old schoolhouse, really seeing it
for the first time in nearly ten years, Solange Gonsalvas wished
she were anywhere else. Skin colored Jamaican rum, midnight hair
horsetail strait, face open and intelligent, she turned large hazel
eyes upward, reading the words above the door aloud in a voice dark
as the purr of a leopard— ELK RIVER NORMAL SCHOOL — 1911.
A dangerous wreck of a building, it should have been
torn down fifty years ago. She wished to God it had. Three nights
now she had lain sleepless dreading this moment. Now here she was.
A deep breath, a clenching of jaw, and she headed up the stairs and
She found his room easily, took hold of the cold
brass knob, peered in through wavy glass. Seeing O’Connel for the
first time in two years, she let her hand fall away.
Leaning back against his desk, hard forearms folded
across his chest, O’Connel looked less like a teacher now than he
His hair was longer than she remembered. He needed a
shave. Gold wire rims perched absurdly far down his nose. But as he
spoke to the class before him, she could see he hadn’t changed, not
really, not in any way that counted. With distaste she pictured him
cowering before her. She couldn’t imagine him afraid and didn’t
want to see it. Watching him, she smiled sadly. No, he hadn’t
changed. It might have been easier if he had.
The bell clanged, loud in the silent hall, making her
jump. Doors banged open, and screaming seventh, 8
graders flooded out. Expecting his door to open like
the rest, she stood aside. It stayed shut. Solange sidled up to the
glass to find his students poised like thirty sprinters on the
block, and O’Connel, relaxed, finishing up. It took a certain kind
teacher to keep a class from stampeding to the door at the bell, a
certain kind of person.
He would be one.
He waved an arm in her direction, and they raced for
The last gone, she took a long breath, hardening
herself for what she would see, and went in.
O’Connel glanced up, pressing back his glasses with a
single finger. Unperturbed, he looked at his watch, reaching wide
in a long, lazy stretch, and smiled his usual easy, crooked
“Good morning, Ms. Gonsalvas. You’re late.”
• • •
She didn’t get it. He’d known she was coming and
didn’t seem to mind. It didn’t make sense. She’d only known herself
since late Friday.
Forcing herself closer, she took a deep breath, head
erect, leather case held protectively before her. “Mr. O’Connel,
I’m here to observe your classroom.” She gave him what she hoped
was a withering look. “You seem to know that.” Tossing a pen
carelessly onto the desk, he laced fingers behind his head, leaned
back in his chair, springs squealing. “So I heard. It isn’t every
day a man gets a visit from an angel.” She felt herself redden. She
didn’t want him calling her that.
Not him—especially not him.
The Angel of Death—that’s what they called her. At
thirty, assistant superintendent of the second largest district in
Oregon, firing bad teachers was her job. She’d done it and done it
well, but it had cost her. Teachers she’d taught with every day for
five years froze up at the sight of her now. Never having made
friends easily, now she made none at all.
Moving easily, he swept up a tattered leather
briefcase and held the door. “Time to go, my next class is
upstairs.” She watched him closely as she passed. If he were
frightened, he didn’t show it. In the hall, he smiled over his
shoulder, entertained by her struggle to keep up.
“Different from the district office, huh?” Bitterly,
she smiled, wrenching her bag between two boys taller than she by a
head. O’Connel wasn’t intimidated in the least. The bastard was
enjoying seeing her fight her way through the throng in suit and
• • •
The third floor classroom was freezing. The floor
gave ominously under her heel.
“Don’t worry, it’s pretty spongy in spots, but
nobody’s fallen through yet.” He opened the cock on the radiator,
setting off a cacophony of hissing and rattling from a monstrosity
“It’s good you brought your jacket, you’ll need it
for a while yet.” The third floor was quiet now. She went to stand
at one of the tall windows. Her eye was drawn to the timbered
horizon where mist hung in the folds of the hills—much too nice a
view to be framed by a fly-specked window like this one. She craned
her neck to look out at the half-circle sheet-metal slide sloping
down the outside wall to the ground. Rust seeped through the latest
coat of paint at the joints, trailing to the center to run in a
bloody stream downward. Stomach tight, she pulled back. It was a
long way down.
“You a fan of our fire escape?” he said.
“I’ve never seen it from way up here, that’s all. You
don’t use this thing anymore, do you?”
“For drills, no. I slid down ten years ago on a dare.
I wouldn’t do it again. It’s pretty shaky, bolts held by six layers
of paint and force of habit. The kids use the stairs now.” A small
country school gobbled up by a big city district, it was only a
matter of time before it would be torn down and Elk River’s kids
bussed to larger schools. The five years she’d taught here had been
the hardest of her life. The plumbing ran pumpkin soup when it ran
at all. Radiators moaned and squealed like rooting hogs. Plaster
dust sifted from twelve foot ceilings. When it rained, teachers
covered whatever they wanted to keep dry with tarps.
Impatiently she turned away from the window to glance
at her watch. “Where are they?” He went on writing on the board.
“Nutrition break, new thing.
Board member’s kid wasn’t eating breakfast, so they
started giving them ten minutes between second and third to buy
doughnuts and sodas. Started the year you went downtown.” He came
to the front of the lab table to fold his arms. “So, how’s the
place look to you now?” She looked around the room. “Old, run down,
small.” She shrugged. “The same.” He smiled. “Can’t wait to get
this over with, can you?” Was she so easy to read? “Why do you say
that?” He shrugged. “That’s the way I’d feel about it. If I had an
office waiting for me downtown, I wouldn’t be able to wait to get
the hell out of here.” He was going to say something more; she
could feel it. Solange had heard teachers beg. It was always the
worst of them. The volleyball coach who took his girls out drinking
had been one. She looked appraisingly at O’Connel once more.
Definitely not the type to beg. What then? “Look, we
both know why you’re here.” He disentangled one burly arm to
delicately press on his glasses with a forefinger. “I could give
you a song and dance. Don’t think I couldn’t. I toed the line for
twenty years. I could sure as hell wear a halo for a week or two.
If I did that, what would you get? Nothing.” Absently she reached
up to check the top button of her blouse.
This was a new one. “So, just what are you
“I’m offering you a week with me being my usual
lovable self.” This was getting really strange. “Why would you help
“Why does anyone do anything? To get something.”
Revulsion passed over her in a wave. Now she understood. It wasn’t
happening. “No deal. Dr. Merrill didn’t authorize me to offer you
anything. I can only go by the contract.”
“No, no, no, you don’t get it, do you. It’s not
money.” He held up two powerful hands as if sculpting the air
between them. “In twenty years I’ve never been observed for more
than a quarter of an hour, maybe once in five years.” He spoke
barely above a whisper, voice taut. “I’ve done what I’ve done in a
vacuum. Parents are too busy, most the kids don’t care, the
principal only shows up if she gets a complaint. What I do, I do
for myself—but once, just once, I’d like someone to know what it is
I’ve been doing for twenty years, to see it from my point of
Someone who knows what it is they’re looking at.
Someone like you.” Out in the hall, students tromped up the
That couldn’t be right. She must have misunderstood.
“That’s it? That’s what you want—to be observed?” Several juniors
came in wearing pajamas, long underwear, flannel nightgowns,
carrying teddy bears, stuffed animals and pillows as they continued
O’Connel gave her a look that said they would pick it
up later and went to take roll. Now she really didn’t get it. Still
confused, she sat at a desk in the back, opened her laptop. The
sooner she got started, the sooner it would be over. And she wanted
it to be over.
He could only want one thing—his job. And that he
couldn’t have. Still, like an itch in the back of her mind, his
proposal nagged her. There was something there, something that
• • •
Late last Friday, the superintendent had caught her
just as she was headed out the door, ruining her weekend with the
news. A kindly, incompetent old man, Dr. Merrill couldn’t adjust to
the clawing and biting that went on in a large school district.
Five heart attacks in five years and he didn’t look good. She was
afraid the job was killing him. Seven years ago he hired her as a
rookie, encouraged her to go for an administrative credential and
five years later backed her for assistant superintendent.
Owing him more than she could ever repay, she did
what she could to shield him from those harrying his flanks. He
promised her this year was his last, and if she could help him get
through it, he could almost guarantee she would be the one to
And that—that was everything.
From his shirt pocket Hugh took a little black
notebook in which he scribbled notes, and she stifled a smile.
Whenever he spoke to anyone, out came the book. The problem was,
once safely down in his notebook, that was usually the end of it.
Pretty soon it was a joke, he and his little pad.
In the five years she’d worked with him she’d learned
he cared about more than his salary. He cared about the kids, and
with her that counted for a lot. The book, well, if it was a little
strange, it was kind of cute, too.
Looking tired, Hugh rubbed his eyes with the heels of
calloused hands. “Monday starts the second term and O’Connel’s
flunked a quarter of his students again, two board members’ kids in
the bunch.” Solange’s heart fluttered. She’d heard about O’Connel’s
troubles, but had hoped it wouldn’t go this far. It was funny, but
when Hugh had called her back, she’d thought of him.
“Mrs. Noble’s been on the warpath for a week now, got
the board madder than hornets. I just had another call before you
That damned Welshman— Since the accident he just
won’t play the game.” Concerned, she leaned forward in her chair.
“You sound tired, Hugh. Should you have come in today?”
Impatiently, he waved away her concerns. “Oh, don’t baby me, I’m
all right, but Christ, I’ve got enough on my mind right now without
all this nonsense.” He pushed himself off the desk, lowering
himself carefully into a chair. Patiently, she waited, wanting to
reach out, but not daring to embarrass him.
He paused to catch his breath, exhausted from the
effort. "You used to work together out at Elk River, you did know
his wife and child were killed a couple years ago?” She wiped a
hair out of her face, nodding with what she hoped was nonchalance.
She’d seen Patti several times and remembered with a touch of envy
how well they’d looked together. “I heard about it.” He shook his
head, blue veins pulsing at sunken temples. “When he came back he
wasn’t the same.” He took out a pipe, and began packing it with
cognac-scented leaf from a small glass humidor on his desk.
“You’ll see what I mean. Won’t work with CIM
implementation committees, refuses to teach the class the way it
should be taught.
Won’t change, won’t try anything new. Only appears at
faculty meetings when the urge strikes him. Doesn’t shave or cut
his hair, looks a bum half the time.” He shrugged, sucking air
through the still cold pipe. “Kicked about a dozen kids out of his
classes the first week, won’t allow them back. We can’t have
teachers telling us who they’ll have in their classrooms, can we?”
Hands palsied so that she wanted to steady them in her own, he tore
a match out of a book, shaking his head sadly. "After midterms we
had twenty parents screaming for transfers before their kids
flunked. A scheduling nightmare’s what it was. You should have
heard Lovejoy scream over that one.” Striking the match, he held it
over the packed bowl, sending clouds of blue smoke wafting about
him. She loved the smell of his pipe and his gentle manner of
speech. Such a nice old man. She was fiercely protective of her few
friends; he and his wife were two.