Clara maneuvered her walker across the rickety porch of the old schoolhouse and peeked inside the open door hanging by one hinge. Dust particles swirled in the beams of sunlight filtering through the cloudy windows as the odor of decaying wood lingered in the air. She gazed around the room. Only a few desks remained.
The floorboards creaked under her weight as she shuffled to the far side of the room where two small desks sat facing in the same direction, one in front of the other. They stood resolute, appearing like a tribute to the children who had once occupied them.
She smiled and sighed at the sight of young children running through her memory. Far off and inaudible at first, they came closer until it was as if they were standing there in the very same room.
It was the first day back to school as a young girl Sarah stood defiantly, fists planted firmly on her waist, blocking the walkway to the schoolhouse. Her starched cotton dress appeared a few sizes too small as if its seams would rip at any moment from the pressure of her bulging midriff. Two perfect braids of hair, looking like ropes of white cotton, were woven tight to her head and hung down her back. Peering through cold blue eyes, she sneered. “What’s wrong with you? Why do you walk so funny?”
Clara flushed with embarrassment as she limped past the girl and shyly whispered. “I got sick.” Firmly grasping her crutches, she continued up the steep steps and into the noisy classroom where she spotted an empty chair just inside the door.
Theodore, a scrawny lad with hair the color of copper, and freckles covering his ornery looking face, whined with a southern drawl. “Ahh, you ain’t gonna sit there are ya? Can’t you sit somewhere else... like outside?”
Clara’s heart pounded as the waves of giggling and discourteous laughter crashed in her ears.
Miss B sat at the front of the room with a grave expression. Her stoic presence and high collared black dress seemed more fitting for a funeral than a classroom. With a ruler in hand, she stood rigidly and repeatedly slapped the piece of wood loudly against the top of her desk as she cleared her throat.
“Children, children. This is our new student Clara. Her family has just moved to the area. I expect you to treat her like you would want to be treated.” She huffed and then pointed her long bony finger toward the far side of the room to an empty desk near a window. “Clara, you can sit there, in front of Joseph.”
Joseph glanced up at Clara as she started across the room, then quickly averted his eyes and looked out the window.
Clara dutifully took her seat.
A few days later, after another long round of snorts and giggles from the class had subsided, Joseph leaned forward and whispered in Clara’s ear.
“Don’t you mind them none. They’re just plain mean. That’s all. And that there Sarah, well, she’s just jealous of ya.”
Clara glanced back over her shoulder and crinkled her eyes. “Jealous? What do ya mean, jealous? What she to be jealous ‘bout?
“You purdy and she ain’t,” he said, in a matter-of-fact way.”
She cringed. “What do you mean? I ain’t pretty.”
“You are to me. And I think she’s ugly, and scary as a nightmare, if I do say so, always saying mean things and making people feel bad. But not you, you’re real nice.”
He looked at her through big brown eyes with a warm kindness she’d never seen before.
Clara blushed and quickly faced the front of the classroom, and pondered Joseph's words for the rest of the day.
The next day Joseph didn’t show up at school. And for the following weeks, his desk sat empty. Clara wanted to ask why he wasn't there but thought it best she didn’t dare ask Miss B anything. Then one-day Miss B stood in front of the class and folded her hands. She took a deep breath then told the class why Joseph wouldn’t be there anymore. He was in heaven.
With teary eyes, Clara ran her crooked fingers through the thick dust on the desktop, remembering the kind gentle boy who had once sat there. Nudged by a strange curiosity, she carefully lifted its lid and looked inside. Empty, except for the words carved into the splintering wood: I love Clara.