Joe Benson lumbered down the path, his soaked tap-dance shoes sloshing in the mud and soggy tundra as a powerful, cold wind threw sheets of rain at him. His dark hair blew in the gusts. His bold eyes squinted against the blow. The little one-room schoolhouse on Umnak Island rose from a patch of brown grass overlooking the sea. Paint peeled from the exterior walls of the tired old structure. The roof sagged.
Joe looked toward the mail boat and stopped. He turned and started back to his little cottage to get his bags and clear out. But for some reason he stopped and stared at his shoes, mud oozing over them. He glanced over his shoulder at the door.
Inside, he approached the desk cautiously. The beads in Sylvia's red hair shook as she lifted her chin and pushed her red-rimmed glasses up on her nose. She unzipped an expensive-looking suitcase and pulled the top back. Stress lines spider-webbed across her forehead. "I hope I didn't get you depressed yesterday," she said. "I just wanted you to understand reality. You can't teach with song and dance. Lectures and drilling are the conventional methods of raising standardized test scores. We all know that kids aren’t learning half as much, but federal dollars are tied to those scores and the public believes in them. I'm only looking out for your security."
"Are you ready?" she said.
"I don't know."
Sylvia emptied a drawer into a suitcase and gave Joe a stern look. "Harley Shoke is adamant that these kids learn the prescribed curriculum. That's reality."
Joe nodded slowly, water dripping from his rain slicker, a puddle forming around his shoes.
"Keep the smiles off their faces," Sylvia said. "Otherwise, you'll lose control." She slammed the drawer back into the desk. "You control them or they'll walk all over you. They act up, you make an example out of someone. Humiliation goes a long way."
Joe sighed. “I don’t like that.”
Sylvia narrowed her eyes. "Then you won't last. And forget about teaching the Bible in your history and science classes. It's a good thing Harley didn't hear you say that. When I showed up here, I was almost as idealistic and naive as you are, but six months took care of that."
She zipped up her suitcase and dropped it onto the floor. "I came here with—" She pressed her lips tightly together.
"What went wrong?"
Sylvia shook her head. "You'll see. One must survive, mustn't they? One must eat." She stuffed some papers into a side pocket of the suitcase. "Just forget about making a difference." She turned away and her shoulders shook.
Joe stepped toward her, patting her gently on the back. She turned, and Joe opened his arms to give her a hug, but she snatched her suitcase and hurried for the door.
"I can carry your—"
"No," she said.
Joe frowned and looked out the window toward the mail boat down at the wharf.
He stepped onto the dock and approached the captain, who was tying on a new buoy. "When are you casting off?"
The captain dropped the buoy between the dock and the lurching boat. He glanced at his watch. "Forty minutes."
"I'm coming," Joe said. “I’ll be back."
Down on the beach, seagulls screeched and fed on a dead salmon. The smell of rotting flesh offended his nostrils. Waves broke on the sand. Water swirled and foamed over his tap shoes, numbing his feet. He walked for fifteen minutes, then back to the village. Fortunately, he hadn't unpacked yet.
Walking by the schoolhouse, he heard music vibrating through the walls—lively music, festive music. He started down the trail, but stopped. He listened to the music and the laughter. They would fire him if he brought fresh life and blood into their school. Yes, but the mail boat wouldn't return for six months. They'd be stuck with him for that long. He pushed the schoolhouse door slightly open. A boom-box sat on his desk and the kids were dancing. They screamed and yelled and laughed. Joe opened the door and said, "Turn up the music. I may not be your teacher for long, but we're going to have some fun as long as it lasts."
The students cheered. Joe began to tap to the beat.
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