The newspaper article brought twenty year old memories flooding back, vivid as yesterday.
Karen remembered calling the Outstanding Student Award Committee to order. Outside, gray scudding clouds had been streaking in from the west accompanied by distant rumbles of thunder.
“It’s time to choose between the final two candidates” she said. “As you know, Grady Ashton’s father sponsors the four year scholarship to any college or university in Texas through the Ashton Foundation. Don’t let that influence your decision one way or the other.”
Coach Conrad cleared his throat and raised a ham-sized fist. “Let’s vote and get out of here before that storm hits. We talked enough about this last week.”
Karen inhaled, letting her breath out slowly. “First, I want all cell phones and recording devices turned off.” After the mumbling and shuffling ended between the five teachers she said, “The rules require four affirmative votes for the winning candidate. The chair will not vote unless the vote is three-two and only then if voting for the majority candidate. If a winner is not selected on the first ballot, we will present arguments and vote again. If that vote fails to produce a winner, their names will be put in a hat and the winner determined by lot. Any questions?”
“Let me say this,” Coach Conrad said. “Graciela Zerda is a fine young lady and I truly like her. But, the truth is, Grady Ashton better be the one we select. His dad employs over 400 workers in our community and…”
“He may have donated that stadium out there,” Lillian Carstens said, “but he’s not the one we’re voting on.”
“Yeah, right” the Coach said. “But four of us on this committee work for his company during the summer months, and Grady is his only child. It would please him mightily for Grady to be chosen.”
Helen Venable spoke up. “Coach, Grady’s dad being the wealthiest man in the county and wanting to jump in front of every camera that comes around causes Grady lots of problems. He’s done exceptionally well in spite of it. Grady will go to college whether or not he receives this award. Grace --- Graciela deserves fair consideration.”
“As I said” Coach Conrad grunted, rubbing his knuckles, “I like Zerda but you got to know who butters your bread.”
“I didn’t think we would have any discussion before we voted,” Karen said, “but let’s get it on the table if anyone has anything else to say.”
Ben Nguyen raised his hand. “I taught Grace in the fourth grade when I started teaching. She lived an hour bus ride away in the Pleasant Valley area on Keechi Creek. Grace never told me but their house had dirt floors and an outhouse. They didn’t get running water or electricity until she was in the tenth grade. Her father was crippled in an accident and their family lives on his social security disability. When I asked the students what they wanted to be some day she wrote, ‘I want to graduate from high school and make my family proud. After college, I will be a captain of a Navy ship.’”
“That girl has never seen the Gulf of Mexico much less an ocean,” Coach Conrad said. “And she wants to sail on it?”
“Her ancestors sailed with Columbus” Nguyen said. “Sailing is in her blood. That is why she studies so hard – Grace has a goal. For years she has silently endured the mindless crap of her classmates about her limited wardrobe. One outfit she wears and one she washes every morning. If we don’t select her, I’m not sure how she will get to college, but I wouldn’t bet …”
“Sweet story,” Coach Conrad said. “Let’s vote. Just remember who butters your bread.”
Karen saw everyone nodding affirmatively. She passed each one a slip of paper. Write either Grady or Grace and hand it back to me.”
After collecting the ballots, Karen swallowed hard and said, “The winner is Gra…”
K-Boom! A blinding white lightning bolt struck the towering red oak outside the classroom splitting the tree in half. Fluorescent lights flickered off and a section of the tree toppled against the school’s roof with a shuddering thud.
Coach Conrad immediately took charge, sending the teachers scurrying to calm the students.
Karen blinked, returning to the present, and raised the newspaper to read again, “Capt. Graciela Ashton, Commander of the naval cruiser…”
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