Helen froze when she heard her name. The door of the faculty room was open.
"Of course Helen will be there. It's in her honor." Gabby's gentle voice. Helen was drawn to listen further, but tip- toed away from the area. No need to be reminded of her oddball status at Spring Hill School.
Skillful at avoiding parties, she was locked into this one. After forty years of teaching, Helen Spencer was set to retire. Piper promised to be there, and she hoped he chose to fly, his driving skills declining with age. He still took credit for getting Headmaster Martin, his old prep school buddy, to hire her. Her world expanded when referring to Piper. Although out of the house when Helen was eight, he remained a source of joy when she picked through the litter of her childhood.
The litter of bottles cracked on the floor, or hidden where she packed away her toys. Her father was able to work, not given to hangovers. His trust fund cushioned the need to excel at the bank. Her mother could sleep through the mornings, letting Helen get herself ready for school. The day Piper packed his bags for college left Helen sobbing in her room. Although part of her was happy for him, the child in her gave into her sorrow, her feelings not yet stunted by life.
It was shortly after Piper's departure when Helen started to open and close drawers, line up her toys, and lock and unlock her bedroom door. Her mother was too wasted to notice, and Helen too ashamed to speak of it. Mrs. Maxwell, her third grade teacher, spoke to her after school one day. Helen remembered the afternoon, when it was her turn to clap the chalk from the erasers, a job she could do endlessly. Mrs. Maxwell brought erasers of her own and clapped along with her in the recess yard.
"Helen," she said quietly, "I notice you like to keep your desk neat."
Raised with little praise, Helen feared trouble, feared her mother's rage. " Is that bad?" she asked.
"Helen, please give this letter to your mother." Helen remembered it was one of the good spells, her mother spiffy and sober, playing the piano, inviting neighbors to bridge. From that letter grew a relationship with a doctor, who guided Helen through exercises to break her obsessive thoughts and actions. Mrs. Maxwell didn't become a villain in Mrs. Spencer's booze-fueled drama, and Helen found inspiration for her career. She chose to become a helping hand to some other child, while imparting knowledge, drawing out the riches of learning.
Before she was ready to face working, Helen armed herself with several advanced degrees and certificates. Her father, who found sobriety and a sparkling new wife, bought Helen a condo and supported her through graduate school.
Headmaster Martin didn't pepper her with questions during the initial interview, so perhaps Piper's influence was strong. She arrived at Spring Hill School prepared for the barrage of tricky tough questions she had faced in earlier interviews. One principal bombarded her with follow-up questions, which drove her to re-arrange the articles on his desk. She remembered his sneering smile when he said, " I think we're done here."
She was equipped to teach in the Upper and Lower School, but the adolescents frightened her. She settled into Spring Hill Lower School, alternating between second and third grade. From the moment she entered the classroom, her breathing slowed, her fear slackened, and she was able to concentrate on the little faces before her.
Miss Spencer didn't baby her young charges. She spoke to them directly with a patience this age group needed.
Reading was her favorite challenge, sounding out the letters with her students. Many of the little sophisticates had travelled the world and been tutored for years, so her work was lessened, but she found most children enjoyed being noticed and guided through the words before them.
When Headmaster Martin visited her classes, her focus was less gifted, but the children's natural interruptions and questions kept her from full-blown anxiety. She mentioned it to Piper during one of their chess matches, how visitation was hard for her. He may have worked his magic again, because Helen had fewer visits from her boss.
The new boss, Dr. Dan Richards was hired to replace Headmaster Martin. Helen felt frightened by the new Headmaster at first, but he proved to be a fair and even boss. Helen grew to trust him and he shared her serious nature.
Helen thanked God and her medication that she could control her OCD at school. Like a well-worn road, the crusty walls at Spring Hill threw few curves her way. Through decades of exposure to the school and her breathing and counting exercises, Miss Helen Spencer could function in the classroom with the zeal of an artist.
The children trusted and accepted her. Their sophisticated parents were often surprised when they met Miss Spencer, expecting someone hip and chic.
As Helen approached her retirement, and the dreaded public celebration, she was thankful for Gabby who arrived at Spring Hill soon after the new Headmaster. Gabby, more stylish and normal than Helen, nonetheless had a survivor's heart, having lost her husband when he was just thirty-three. Her perceptions were nearly clairvoyant, and she saw in Helen a friend.
Piper had met Helen's colleagues at Spring Hill functions, and Helen was careful to introduce him by his given name, Peter. Surviving their childhood home gave the Spencers an unbreakable bond. He arrived a few days before the celebration. Helen was so excited she set up their chess table, made reservations at Chez Pierre, and bought a bottle of scotch, aged twelve years , the way he liked it.
The day Piper arrived, Gabby insisted on driving Helen to the airport to pick him up. As they were leaving school in the June heat, several students called out to them. A little girl ran up to them..."Miss Spencer. Miss Spencer, I lost a tooth." Helen knelt down to look, the child's fist enclosed around it. Helen gently opened the little fist and regarded the tooth as a treasure.
"They will miss you, Helen, the little ones, " Gabby said with the slight lilting accent of her native Spanish.
She scheduled extra sessions with her doctor during the week before her party. He regressed her to an earlier stage, and kept his desk messy, his pen - holder laying on its side. He asked her to wear old clothing, to get her hands sticky with taffy and rub her clothing with the goo.
He amped up the implosion therapy that had worked in earlier years, and he worked with her through deep-breathing exercises, her hand touching her old tee shirt with the goo. He guided her to a formally set table where he placed a cupcake, a cleaning rag and a cup of coffee. After she was seated for three full minutes, her doctor smashed the cupcake on the table cloth, and poured some coffee into the mess.
He then asked her to continue breathing, to ignore the mess, and look up at the speaker, which was a yellow circle on the wall behind him. He reminded her he was on the board at the school, and would be on the stage to the left of the podium.
The Upper School student council decorated the auditorium for Helen's good-bye celebration. Helen's friend Gabby was in charge. The board spared no expense: fresh flowers for each table, elegant china and silverware, and finely-wrapped bags of Godiva chocolate.
A popular clique of seniors stopped by and muttered something nasty about Helen, and Gabby who was crouched below a table scraping wax from the floor, shot up, walked over, and hissed "Shut up" in Spanish. Many of the students heard her and giggled. Gabby winced and hoped she didn't get fired.
Helen chose a black dress, heels, and a string of pearls. Piper turned to her and said, "You look lovely, Helen."
Shortly after the invocation, a striking young woman walked through the crowd and many of the students gasped and said, "That's Ariel!" Some of the faculty recognized her too. She was surrounded by buff men who escorted her to Dr. Richards. She leaned closely and whispered something to him. Few men would deny this newly - famous model anything. Ariel walked up the three steps to the microphone and spoke into it.
"My name is Amber Carson."
Chants of "Ariel" began to emerge from the crowd. Dr. Richards in his deepest growl said "Let her speak!" The students obeyed.
Ariel continued in a clear, confident voice. "I was a student at Spring Hill. and I came here to honor Miss Spencer, my second grade teacher. I was gawky, I stuttered, and I was often taunted by the other kids. I remember the day Miss Spencer sat with me on the old stone wall next to the playground. And changed my life."
Helen remembered the sessions she had with Amber. Miss Spencer was careful to spread school books on the desk between them to look like a normal tutoring session. Helen taught Amber breathing and counting exercises to do before she spoke. She promised Amber that she would only call on her when she raised her hand, when she was ready to speak. Helen also made Amber walk erectly with a book on her head to honor her natural height, to square her shoulders, to ground her steps, to fake confidence in herself.
Many in the audience stood and snapped photos of Ariel, cell phones bobbing all through the room. Ariel hesitated, and Helen was thrust back in time to young Amber, recognizing the frightened pained look of struggle.
Helen walked elegantly to the stage, whispered to Ariel, and they nodded to the audience, Helen grabbed the mic confidently, and Ariel took a seat with the board.
Miss Spencer felt no fear as she spoke into the mic, the fruits of her vocation thrusting her to take action to soothe a student, albeit a famous, successful student, the model Ariel. Helen was gracious and elegant in her words to all assembled and gave thanks to her mentor, the late Mrs. Maxwell, who through the dusty chalk gave her a glimmer of hope. Hope that let Helen carve through a mountain of mental anguish to touch the little souls of Spring Hill School.