They said he was a troubled child. That he was just too difficult and had been since the day he set foot in school. Annie could not believe the looks on the teacher’s faces as they talked about him. Their expressions echoed their contempt. She gathered he could be quite a handful, but could not help but think there was more to him than others saw—or perhaps were willing to.
Jerome did not seem content with being just another student. His mere presence demanded attention and found ways to act out if that attention wasn’t granted. There was probably not one rule he had not discovered some way to break—or so it seemed. His third grade year, the worse of all, fueled great speculation as to what his fourth grade year would bring.
Talk of Jerome’s exploits provided for great teacher’s lounge conversation in the small, rural elementary school. The teachers showed such passion in laying out the details of their own personal experiences with him. Was it a contest? Were they trying to top one another? Annie decided it would simply be a matter of time before they would form a pool and take bets.
Annie entered the teachers’ lounge and headed across the room to find a seat.
Abby Johnson spotted Annie and swept toward her, followed closely by Betty and Norma. “Annie, you poor thing. I hear you are the lucky one who gets Jerome this year. Is that right? Should be quite a year, don’t you think? Oh that Jerome. He just gets worse every year.”
“Breathe Abby, breathe,” Annie thought to herself as Abby flittered on. Norma punctuated each of Abby’s sentences with an affirming “Uh-huh.” Betty’s continual nod of agreement looked like a bobble-head figure. That ridiculous image made Annie want to laugh. She raised her hand to cover the tiny smirk forming on her lips.
Abby’s onslaught continued. “I just can’t wait until we can be rid of him once and for all. We just don’t need that kind of difficulty. Don’t you agree? Well good luck dear.” Abby and company moved back toward their seats.
“No, I don’t agree,” Annie succinctly stated.
If only someone might have dropped the proverbial pin at that moment. Abby, Norma and Betty stopped and remained motionless, stunned by the unthinkable.
Abby turned, came and stood uncomfortably close to Annie. “Excuse me.”
“I don’t agree,” Annie replied.
Abby’s eyes narrowed. “And why is it, you do not agree?”
Annie looked around the room for a hint of support. “I feel that everyone deserves a chance.” She unfolded her arms and placed her hands on her hips, then stood up straight. “And I feel I should not make judgments until after I have had some time with a student.”
“Well, you have not actually had Jerome in your class yet, now have you?” Abby retorted. “ I expect by the end of the day, you will most certainly agree.”
Annie headed to class, more than willing to be surrounded by twenty fourth-graders. The bell rang, and Annie started taking role. “Has anyone seen Jerome?”
“He’s sometimes late,” Elizabeth offered.
A few minutes after Annie started teaching, Jerome ran into the class and to his seat. He was breathing hard, his hair was a mess, and dirt smudges spotted his face calico like. Annie noticed a fresh hole in his blue jeans, slightly covering a freshly scraped knee.
“Yeah.” Jerome was still trying to catch his breath.
Annie collected her thoughts. “What happened to your knee?”
“I had to slide into home.”
Annie paused for a moment. “Well Jerome, were you safe?”
Jerome looked back in disbelief, then smiled and sat straight up in his chair. His eyes sparkled. “Yeah!”
During lunch, most of the teachers gathered in the teacher’s lounge to talk about the year’s first day thus far. Some teachers stayed in their classrooms and ate at their desks. Annie had a lunch date. She and Jerome ate outside at a picnic table by the edge of the playground. They had the school’s special soy-burgers underneath a big oak tree; and talked about baseball, family and things.
At the end of the day, Abby’s tribunal convened and cornered Annie before she left.
“He came in late again, didn’t he?” Abby inquired. “And did you see how filthy he was and that hole in his pants? How on earth did that happen?”
Annie reflected on the day and smiled. “He had to slide into home.”